Just a few years ago, visiting China wasn’t really on my radar. I blame it on not knowing all that the country has to offer. But that has since changed. Fast-forward a couple years, and I’ve been twice. During the first trip my older two kids and I explored Beijing for six days, followed by a few days in Hong Kong. Within a year, I’d be back with one of my boys on a brief stopover in Xiamen for a day. Both visits were great, and I’m longing to go back again. China has so much to offer, and I hope to offer you a few China travel tips ahead of your own visit.
China: As Vast As The United States
When I first started considering a visit to China, I finally realized how varied the country is. My mental image was of bustling, sprawling cities plus a super long wall. Turns out China has a whole lot more than that.
From the Guilin’s karst landscape to Beijing’s deep history, Xian’s terracotta warriors to Shanghai’s metropolitan bustle, Chengdu’s giant pandas and mountains to Hangzhou’s peaceful beauty, the more I looked for places to visit in China, the more I began to see all that the country has to offer. Like the Untied States, the diversity within the country is extensive.
I’d not seen China in this light before. Now that I’ve been, I hope to return, many times. Getting a 10-year tourist visa is on the to-do list in the next year or so.
China Travel Tip #1: Understand Visa Requirements
Traveling to China isn’t as easy as buying a ticket, sticking your passport in your bag, and heading to the airport. Unlike the vast bulk of Europe and nearly all countries in the Americas, China has visa requirements for U.S. travelers. The good news is that obtaining a visa typically isn’t all that difficult. You just need to give yourself some lead time. Here are the basics you need to know:
- You’ll want a Tourist L visa for China, assuming you’re traveling for sightseeing purposes.
- Your passport must have at least 6 months of validity left.
- You’ll need to buy round-trip tickets to China plus hotel bookings, or an invitation letter from an individual or travel agency. Entry to China must occur within the six months following your visa application.
- You’ll need to complete the application form and obtain a 2″ by 2″ “passport” photo.
- Visit a Chinese Embassy or Consulate in person (or entrust it to a courier/travel service) and pay the $160 application fee.
- I’d suggest applying for a multiple-entry, 10-year visa if you can. The fee is no different.
The processing time for most Chinese visas is 4-5 working days. If you get a 10-year multi-entry visa and your passport expires, the visa is still valid as long as you bring your old passport (containing the visa) with you along with the new one.
Transit Without Visa
Here’s a little “secret” though: we’ve visited China twice, both times without a visa. China has continued to expand their “Transit Without Visa” (TWOV) system over the past years, allowing many foreign travelers to visit the country for a period of up to 6 days without a tourist visa. There are some specific requirements you must meet, however:
- Transit without visa is only possible if your visit to China is a “stopover”. You can’t fly a simple round-trip. You must be coming from Country A, entering China, and then moving on to country B. You can’t return immediately to your origin.
- The length of time you can visit on a TWOV depends on where you’re planning to visit.
- Not all places in China allow for TWOV.
When the kids and I visited Beijing, we did so on a 144-hour TWOV. We maximized the window, arriving late in the evening and departing midday six days later. Places where you can plan a 144-hour TWOV include:
- Beijing/Hubei/Tianjin region
- Shanghai/Jiangsu/Zhejiang region
- Guangdong Province
- Liaoning Province
- Sichuan Province
- The following cities: Chongqing, Kunming, Qingdao, Wuhan, Xiamen, and Xi’an
You cannot move among these. You can enter one area and are restricted to that area. Some are fairly large, however, including the Beijing region, Sichuan province (which contains Chengdu) and the Guangdong province.
When you arrive in China, you’ll need to fill out a TWOV form. You will also need to inform the airline that you’re intending to enter China using TWOV and they will make sure your itinerary qualifies. Here is a full rundown on China Transit Without Visa (focus on Beijing).
Now that the entry and visa discussion is out of the way, here are a few China travel tips:
Plan to Exchange or Withdraw Cash
Given the extent of development and modernization China has experienced, it never occurred to me that most places would not accept credit card. There were certainly places that did: tours we booked online, hotels, and a couple other locations in Beijing clearly accepted international credit cards. But we struck out almost completely at restaurants and small shops.
WeChatPay and Alipay have exploded in usage in China, and these are the primary way people pay for goods and services. Visa and Mastercard? Not so much. As a tourist, this means you’ll have to break out the ol’ paper cash instead. Make sure you have a plan to withdraw or exchange cash for your time in the country. I pulled out 1,000 yuan (~$150 USD), which lasted us most of the time in Beijing, remarkably. I was amazed how inexpensive meals and entry fees were.
Download a VPN
China has very strict censorship of foreign websites, so downloading a quality Virtual Private Network (VPN) ahead of time is a must. I’ve used ExpressVPN both times I’ve visited China, and it was worked well. Every once in a while I encountered a hiccup, but typically changing VPN servers will provide connectivity to the outside world again. My work VPN failed completely.
I’ve also used NordVPN, but the 1-week free trial of ExpressVPN has been sufficient. You must download the VPN before visiting China because the VPN sites are blocked. No surprise there.
Practice Some Mandarin Ahead of Your Visit
I’m a big proponent of learning some of the language before visiting a new country, even if it’s as minimal as knowing how to say hello, please, and thank you. Mandarin Chinese is not exactly easy for the English-speaker. I practiced 15 minutes a day for the month before our trip with Duolingo. This let me recognize about three dozen characters, but I was still pretty abysmal with simple spoken Chinese. The tonality of the language is killer.
Still, I recommend trying to learn a bit. At least know some numbers, the symbol for yuan ( 元 ), and a few other basics. I do recommend having your hotel name and/or directions transcribed into Chinese before you visit, so that you don’t have to explain things to a taxi driver. If you can use the metro, that is a better option, as you can navigate in English just fine.
Consider Traveling Off-Season
I’m a big fan of off-season travel. This can be hard with kids, if you’re tied to a school schedule. But I’m not against pulling them out at times to travel. I planned my trip with our older two kids in November. This turned out to be a bit chilly in the northern part of the country, with temperatures in the 40s and 50s Fahrenheit in Beijing. On the other hand, we encountered muggy, wet weather in the southern part of the country in May.
You also need to be aware of the air quality in many regions. We had little issue in Beijing, which had some moderate haze in the late fall. But if you’re sensitive to this, make sure you research when things are worst and avoid that period.
If I had to pick a best month to visit most places in China, it’d be October. Temperatures are mild, rain is minimal, and air quality is typically decent to good.
Pack or Purchase Toilet Paper
Ah, public restrooms in China. What an adventure. If you don’t know what a “squat toilet” is, you’re in for a fun surprise! I did my best to avoid these as much as possible during our visit, as they aren’t exactly loads of fun for Americans used to the traditional porcelain throne. This wasn’t on any list of China travel tips that I perused, and we were caught flat-footed.
While we didn’t have issues locating public restrooms during our visit to Beijing, those that provided toilet paper were few and far between. It became obvious during our first day out when my daughter needed to use the facilities and decided to forgo the experience after the first two bathrooms failed to have toilet paper.
A quick trip to a convenience store, and the problem was solved. We worked through most of the roll during the rest of our visit. Remember to BYOTP when you visit.
Final Thoughts on China Travel Tips
China should be on every traveler’s list. It’s such an amazing country to experience. Don’t be deterred by how different China is than the United States. Traveling to China isn’t hard, especially if you do your research ahead of time. Hopefully these China travel tips will help you plan a great first visit to this amazing country!