Visiting a country for the first time can always be a little stressful. Visiting a country for the first time that doesn’t speak the same language as you can be even more stressful. Add in things like strict laws, a powerful military, over a billion people and no access to the internet as we know it – a first time visit to China can be stressful even for the most experienced travellers!
When we were planning our visit to China, we did a lot of research into the issues that many travellers faced in the country. Things like visa issues, almost non-existent English spoken, no access to emails and coping with the sheer number of people were some of the struggles that people had faced.
We prepared and planned more for our visit to China than we did for any of our other trips in Asia (even India, which we visited for eight weeks). In our minds, China was a country that we just did not want to face any problems in as we knew communicating those issues would be extremely difficult.
It may have been a little more stressful than usual in the lead up to our visit – making sure we’d dotted all our i’s and crossed our t’s – but we were SO thankful for putting in all that effort because our first visit to China was completely stress-free and went off without a hitch. We didn’t face a single issue whilst we were there at all – an outcome that was due to the amount of planning and anticipation of problems before arriving in the country.
We’ve put together a list of our top 10 tips for a stress-free, first time visit to China that we hope helps you in your trip planning and visit to this incredible country!
Tip #1: Plan your itinerary before you visit
Most long-term travellers don’t make very detailed plans for their travels – usually just a rough outline of where they want to visit and when. Whilst you can do this in China, if it’s your first visit you’ll save a lot of time and money and stress by planning out your itinerary before you visit.
Start your planning by writing a list of the places that YOU want to visit – we all have different tastes and interests so what one person did on their trip may not be what you wish to do. Work out what you want to see in each place, and roughly how much time you need.
Work out the most logical start and exit point – if you’re flying, this might be based on the cheapest city to fly both in and out of. For us, Shanghai was the cheapest flight and made a logical starting point, and Guangzhou was the cheapest city to fly home from.
Once you have your entry and exit points worked out, plan out the rest of your stops. Is there an obvious route to follow, or will you need to backtrack at all? Is it possible to fly between the cities or are there train services between them? We found the China Lonely Planet guide helpful for this, as well as the China DIY Travel website. We assumed we could take the train to certain cities, but it turned out on research that there was no route on that day. You may need to change around destinations, or cut days or add days before you get your route right.
Once you’ve worked out your route and have made a list of all the flights/trains/buses to take, book these before arriving – it’ll save you a lot of stress and time once you arrive.
Tip #2: Get the right visa for your trip
Obtaining a Chinese visa can be notoriously difficult. We’ve applied for a few visas in our time, and the process for a visa for China was more extensive than any other!
When applying for your visa, you’ll be asked to provide copies of all your flights and room reservations. Say what?Book flights and accommodation before your visa is even approved?!
Yes, that’s correct. When applying for our visas this concerned me as I was yet to finalise our itinerary and we only had a small window of time to get our visas. I had friends suggest to book ‘any hotel’ via a website (like booking.com) that had free cancellation, so it appeared that we had a ‘plan’. I didn’t feel comfortable doing this, so I decided to book our actual accommodations, flights and trains before applying. This will save you time and money as mentioned in Tip #1.
You don’t have any reason to worry about not being approved if you do everything right. Ensure you pick the right visa type for you (for most, it will be an L Type: Tourist visa), specify the number of entries, and that you enter China before the validity period is up.
I found the China Visa Application Service Centre website incredibly helpful in researching China visas. They also have a number of centres around the world where you can have a visa processed – handy if you’re already on the road.
Tip #3: Reserve your flights and train travel outside of the country
This is not essential, but making your travel reservations outside of the country will lead to a much more stress-free visit once you actually arrive in China.
Unless you have a basic understanding of Mandarin, making your train reservations in person can be a nightmare. Train stations in China are some of the most crowded places, so that alone can be stressful. Secondly – even if you have the exact train number written down with the date and time that you want – if there’s any additional questions from the ticket seller or statements (e.g. “the train is booked out” or “that class is full”) you could very well struggle to understand this and this could lead to a potential disaster and/or stress at the very least!
At the moment its not possible for someone who isn’t a citizen of China to make reservations outside of the country – unless you use an agent. We HIGHLY recommend China DIY Travel. Not only is their website linked to the government run timetable and is incredibly useful for trip planning, they purchase all your tickets for you and more. Read more about them in our Transport in China article.
Tip #4: Stay in hostels
It’s no secret that the language barrier in China is a big fear of many travellers. It was definitely our biggest one! That’s why we opted to stay in hostels whilst in China. We figured that if we were going to find any English-speaking locals (as well as other travellers) it would be in hostels!
We used Hostelworld to find our accommodation. Most listings were really clear in what they provided and whether they had English speaking staff.
Hostels were not just great for being able to communicate and ask questions, but they were always well located and offered great value for money – we really enjoyed the time we spent in them!
Tip #5: Print out all your reservations – in English and Chinese
Normally we like to be really green and we never print out any of our confirmations – using our apps instead – however printing out reservations in China was good for several reasons.
- Sometimes your phone/internet connection doesn’t always work and your email reservations/apps don’t load (especially if you don’t have a VPN).
- Printing out reservations in two languages (you can do this on Booking.com) means you can show a taxi driver the address if needed, and also present it upon check in if the staff member does not speak English.
We used our paper reservations when catching flights, picking up our train tickets, checking in and more!
Tip #6: Get a VPN
This is not essential for a visit to China, but is invaluable if you wish to stay connected whilst in the country, access your emails, social networks, Google and more!
It meant we didn’t get lost ONCE whilst in China and was such a relief to know that if we got stuck – we had good old Google at our fingertips!
If you wish to have a VPN, do this before you visit as most VPN sites are blocked in China.
Tip #7: Get a Sim Card
Whilst you can use a VPN without needing a sim card, you will be restricted to only using this where there is wifi. This will usually be in your accommodation only. Having a sim card means you have internet on the go – having a sim card AND a VPN means you have unrestricted internet on the go!
Buying a sim card can be tricky. The most logical place to buy one is the airport – unless your flight arrives late and no one is open, like ours was.
Your next bet is buying one from a street vendor. Whilst there will be certain things on the advertising material that makes sense (3G, 4GB etc) – trying to ask questions like “How long does it last?” “How to recharge?” can be difficult.
If you can, find a telecommunications store and purchase a sim card here instead. There’s usually someone around that speaks basic English – you’ll need your passport or a copy of it.
Hot Tip: If SHANGHAI is your first port of arrival, this is where to get a sim card!
Take the subway to the Lujiazui station (green line) in the Financial District. Exit the station, and on the second story of the attached shopping arcade, there is a Unicom store. The staff speak English and can sell you a Sim Card – 3GB of data for 30 days is 200 RMB.
Tip #8: Install language apps on your phone
Trying to speak Mandarin is not easy. Always try giving it a go, however it pays to have a number of apps on your phone as a backup.
Google Translate: We found Google Translate to be the best language app. It translates entire phrases that you key in, you can press the speaker button and have the app say the phrase out loud, and you can turn your phone sideways to the person you’re conversing with and they can read the Chinese characters. Of course this will only work if you have a VPN installed and are connected to the internet.
- Pleco: This was another translation app we used, and this one was great as it doesn’t need internet to work. However it only translates words rather than phrases. Still, this can be useful especially when using simple words to get your message across – like ‘two’ ‘ticket’ ‘Zhangjiajie’ when buying bus tickets for example.
The app also pronounces the words for you so you can say it correctly (I mean you probably won’t but it won’t be too far off!).
- Language Guide: As a backup, have a language book or guide (We had Lonely Planet’s China on us), or a little notepad where you can write new words as you learn them alongside the Chinese characters to show to people in conversations.
Tip #9: Be patient
With a population of 1.3 billion people, China is busy. Very busy. Peak hour in the subway stations is like nowhere else – the amount of people can be mind-boggling. Visiting popular tourist attractions can be stressful at times too – with the lines at the entrance, lines for the stairs, lines for a photo – people are everywhere.
Being patient and accepting that there are a lot of people wanting to do the same thing as you will help ease the stress. You’ll get to the destination/buy the ticket/take the photo eventually – it’s all about being patient.
Try to visit places early or later in the day, and on weekdays rather than weekends.
Tip #10: Be open-minded
This is without a doubt the best piece of advice we could give. China, for the most part is just like anywhere else in the world. Men carry their briefcases on the train on the way to work in the morning. An elderly couple bicker on a park bench. Mum’s chase their little ones down the street. Girls are taking selfies and boys are watching anime on their phones. Most of it is all very familiar.
Some things though may take you aback. Bare-bottomed babies go to the toilet in the streets. Everyone spits and smokes in all types of establishment. It’s incredibly loud – people shout and yell at each other from across the room. It’s absolute chaos with lots of shoving and pushing in most touristed areas. Big smiles and friendly service? That’s generally not a thing.
This can be confronting, frustrating and quite plainly – annoying. But, it is what it is – this is local life in China. Accept it for what it is, don’t take people’s behaviour personally and you will find yourself enjoying China so much more.
There you have it – our top 10 tips for a stress-free, first time visit to China. No one likes to stress when they travel – we certainly don’t. China is an incredible country with so much to see and experience, but unfortunately for some this can be overshadowed by the difficulties they face whilst travelling through the country.
We hope that won’t be your experience – and that by arming you with these tried and trusted tips, that you too can have a stress-free, first time visit to China!
Have you been to China? What difficulties did you face on your first visit, and what tips do you have for a first time visitor to the country? Please share them in the comments below!
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