15 Essential Things to Know Before You Visit China

girl standing in front of Chinese lanterns

I am notorious for doing the least amount of research I can get away with before I go on a trip. A booked flight, rental car, and AirBNB is all I need to feel comfortable about a trip. So you can imagine how laid back I was when we booked a Groupon tour and the planning was handled for us.

We read up on a few things before we got to China, but there is no better teacher than experience. When we got there, we were surprised by some differences and expected others, but were able to roll with it all. Today I am sharing 15 essential things to know before you visit China.


1. First things first, Chinese restrooms!

One of the very first things you will notice about China is that their restrooms are different from those here in the states. To start, they use squatting toilets, instead of sitting toilets. I promise it isn’t that bad though – by the end of the trip we were totally used to it.

girl using a Chinese toilet

Restrooms in China also rarely provide toilet paper and oftentimes they don’t have sinks. Make sure you bring toilet paper and hand sanitizer with you every day.

2. Cash is king!

There are a few places that accept credit cards, but for the most part you will need to pay with cash while in China. You can get money changed over before you go, at the airport, or at your hotel. Fair warning though… If you wait until you get to the hotel, they might not accept your bills. Several of mine got turned down because of tiny blemishes on them.

3. Lines aren’t a thing

It doesn’t take long to realize that Chinese cultural norms drastically differ from norms in the United States. One example of that is with lines – they basically don’t exist in China. Don’t be shocked at the mayhem that is checking out at places or going through security in the airport. Just make your way towards the front like everyone else does!

4. Don’t drink the water

Most of the tap water in China is not drinkable. Most restaurants have bottled water available for cheap! Grab one for your meal and one to carry around in your backpack. If you get water at your table, there is a good chance it will be hot – this is because many people bring their own tea bags.

5. The Smog is real

You won’t look like a tourist if you wear a face mask – in fact, you’ll fit right in. I highly recommend getting some before you leave and wearing them as much as you can, especially in the bigger cities. If you find yourself feeling congested at the end of the day, drink a lot of (bottled) water and blow your nose.

Great Wall of China in January

6. Prepare for Selfies

This one took me by surprise! As an American visiting China, several people will want to grab a photo with you. Don’t be weirded out by it – just smile, say thank you, and move on!

7. You’ll want to download a VPN

Accessing the internet in China isn’t as easy as just connecting to your hotel’s wifi. Many sites like Instagram, Facebook, Google, etc. are blocked in China. If you want to be able to access them while you are there, you are going to need to download a VPN before you go. We used ExpressVPN and thought it worked just fine.

The wifi in China is not great, but it works good enough to let people know you are safe and post a couple photos while you are there. If you have Sprint or T-Mobile you will be able to text and use low-speed data while you are there for free!

8. You need a visa to go!

Whatever you do, do not show up to China without a visa!! You need to apply and obtain your visa before you leave the United States. The visa process is tedious – you’ll need to fill out (a lot of) paperwork and mail or bring your passport to the nearest Chinese consulate. Once they approve you, your passport will have a visa that lasts for 10 years to visit China.

If you are going with a tour group, you may have the option to add on a visa service where they take care of it for you. For our tour, this only included a one-time visa as a group. We wanted to be able to go back, so we opted to get our visas on our own.

9. Mandarin is the primary language

In China very few people speak English (and hardly any signs are in English). If you don’t speak Mandarin, make sure you download Google translate before you go. You will need it for everything from talking to menus to street signs.

girl in front of Chinese sign

10. Make sure to bargain

Nearly every price in China is negotiable – in fact, at the markets, they expect you to bargain! No price is offensive, but try to reach an agreement quickly. The only places they do not bargain is at proper stores and restaurants. You’ll be able to quickly tell where you can and can’t bargain.

11. Know where you are staying

Like I mentioned before, there is very little English in China. This can be tough when it comes to navigation. Luckily, most hotels have a little card at the front desk that you can carry with you with the address on it. Typically it will say something like, “My Chinese hotel address is…” and one side will be in Mandarin and the other in English.

Make sure you grab one of these! When you flag down a taxi you can just show them the card and they will understand where to go.

12. There is no tipping in China

Going back to those cultural differences… in China, nobody tips and you aren’t expected to either!

13. Use chopsticks or go hungry!

Real talk… I had no idea how to eat with chopsticks before I went to China. One time I was trying at a ramen restaurant in St. Louis and an employee came over and brought me a fork. *facepalm* But there are no forks in China, so I learned… quick. Of course, as we were learning natives walked past, pointed, laughed, and took videos of me and Angela using them, but we did our best and didn’t go hungry. That’s all that matters, right?

Chinese duck dinner

14. Stay alert as a pedestrian

Traffic in China is no joke. There are a lot of cars on the road at all times. If you are walking places, make sure you stay alert. Follow the crosswalk signs, look for cars and scooters, and once you start walking, don’t stop.

15. Carry your passport with you!

It’s always a good idea when you are traveling abroad to keep your passport on you, but especially in China. There are many places, like the Forbidden City, that require a passport to purchase a ticket. Make sure you keep it with you!

Alright friends! Those are all the essentials before heading to China, but trust me you will experience and learn even more when you get there! If you are planning a trip to China, let me know in the comments! I’d love to hear all about it! 🙂

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Chinese flag

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