Top Tips for your First Visit to China

Top Tips for your First Visit to China

China can be a pretty overwhelming country. Where else can claim nearly 4,000 years of civilisation, the world’s largest population and soon to be the world’s biggest economy? With so much in its favour, this beautiful country makes a fantastic place to travel to, but can also be pretty daunting for the first-timer. What should you expect on your first visit to China? Read on for my advice on what to look out for. Even if you’ve been there before, you might learn something from my travel advice for your next trip to China!

Top tips for your first visit to China 

Sort out your Visa early

Most visitors to China will need a Visa, and you can apply for one up to three months before your departure date. They recommend applying for a Chinese Visa one month before you go, however, my advice would be to apply as soon as possible just in case you make any errors and your application gets refused. Trust me – we made a few mistakes on ours and only had our Visa granted the week before we were due to leave!

Follow the instructions you are given exactly, and make sure you include absolutely everything they ask for, including a photocopy of your passport, full details of where you are staying for each night of your trip, and a spare passport photo too. 

The most up-to-date advice can be found on the Visa for China website, so I recommend heading there first.

Consider a group tour

As it was my first visit to China – a country so vast and often baffling – I was glad to be part of a small tour group. Our tour guides and drivers took the stress out of finding our accommodation and navigating through the crowds. They also always made sure we didn’t miss out on anything. I wouldn’t have wanted to travel any other way!

Would Be Traveller - The Great Wall of China Couple

Take our own toilet paper and hand sanitiser with you

It’s quite rare to find toilet paper or soap in public toilets in China, so prepare to take your own. Remember to pick up spares from your hotel room and keep them in your day bag so you’re never caught short. The great thing about this is you’ll always have a tissue handy for runny noses or drying your hands too! 

Be prepared to squat

Sorry I seem to be talking so much about toilets… there is more to China than this, I promise! But it’s true, Chinese toilets are not like home and both boys and girls will find themselves needing to hoist up their clothes and squat. If you don’t like the sound of that, most major tourist sites and restaurants have western style pedestal toilets. Some even come with toilet paper and soap, so time your toilet trips wisely!

Avoid big sites and travel on national holidays 

We were (un?)lucky enough to travel over the Chinese National Day Golden Week, along with approximately 1.4 billion locals (that might be a slight exaggeration, but it certainly seemed to be the case!) Every tourist attraction was packed full of domestic tourists, and the terracotta warriors museum was so busy that we almost crowd surfed through the visit. Our guide even congratulated us on getting out the other end unharmed!

If we had known, we might have travelled on a different week and had a much more relaxed time of things. You can keep an eye on international festivals and celebrations on timeanddate.com.

Would Be Traveller - Terracotta Warriors Workshop

Be warned the food is very different to your local takeaway

If you’re a fan of your local Chinese takeaway, prepare yourself for the fact the food in China is going to be quite different. They don’t serve prawn crackers with every meal, and the restaurants we went to had never even heard of sweet and sour king prawn balls. I know right!? That said, the majority of Chinese food in China is actually better than you can get at home. Just be careful if you’re a vegetarian – I really struggled to eat a decent meal as bacon seemed to find its way into the vegetable dishes too. 

Remember not to tip

Even if you have amazing service in a restaurant, don’t be tempted to leave a tip. We were even chased down the street after leaving a few extra Yuan at Pizza Hut (let me off – they cater for vegetarians!) The waitress said we had forgotten our money, and just would not accept the tip.  

Would Be Traveller - Chinese Tea

Get used to using chopsticks

Of course, chopsticks are the local form of cutlery and you’ll find them at all restaurants. If you’re not used to chopsticks, try to get a bit of practice in before you go. Most restaurants saw us coming and laid out forks, but that would be cheating, wouldn’t it?! I much prefer to do as the locals do, and even became a bit of a chopstick pro after my first visit to China!

Don’t forget the smaller cities 

I knew I was going to love the vibrant metropolis of Shanghai, but I was surprised to find I completely fell in love with a relatively unknown city, Suzhou, too. Despite being the size of London, Suzhou is considered a small city, and is just a couple of hours outside Shanghai. It is a little oriental Venice, complete with canals and beautifully ornate buildings. 

Would Be Traveller - Suzhou Canal

Learn a few words in Chinese 

There’s a no bigger compliment than someone taking the effort to learn how to communicate with them. That’s why the Chinese will be so touched if you learn how to say ‘hello’ (nǐ hǎo = nee how) and ‘thank you’ (xièxiè = sheh sheh). Though most people will speak English, or understand your crazy hand gestures, it’s much better to learn. I used Rosetta Stone before my trip to pick up the basics, and it came in very useful as you can read in my upcoming blog!

Get used to being a celebrity

This is something I have always struggled to get used to in Asia, and I found it particularly difficult on my first visit to China too. As a big group of westerners, we became a bit of a tourist attraction for the locals. People would stop and stare at us, and try to take candid pictures when we weren’t looking. It can be really off-putting, but they’re really harmless. It might be the first time they ever see someone that looks like you! 

Would Be Traveller - Chinese Boy

Prepare for travel on sleeper train 

As China is so huge, you might find yourself needing to travel on an overnight sleeper train to reach your destination. We did it twice – first between Beijing and Xian, and then Xian to Shanghai. On our first time, we were completely unprepared and left everything we needed in the bottom of our suitcase – it’s not so easy trying to find things when your case is crammed underneath your bunk bed in a tiny cabin! The second time, we got it spot on. Put all your essentials in a backpack that you can keep close: water, toothbrush, snacks and entertainment. We also took pyjamas, but most people wore things they were comfortable sleeping in like leggings and a t-shirt. 

Bring the right adapters 

The power sockets in China are a bit strange in that most can take both European and American style plugs. So if you already have these handy, bring them along! But if you’re not sure which plug adapter to take to China, you could buy a specific Chinese adapter like this one from Amazon

Try to ignore the spitting and smoking 

Again, it took me a while to get used to the cultural Chinese norms of smoking and spitting. Almost every 5 seconds I heard someone emptying their throats on the street next to me. And smoking is very common too – even in places like on trains and in restaurants. Remember it’s completely normal in China, and you’ll soon stop noticing it. 

Would Be Traveller - Xian City Wall

Have you been to China before? Help others out by leaving your travel advice for a first visit to China in the comments below! 

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Top Tips for your first visit to China

19 Comments

  1. 21st October 2017 / 11:52 pm

    Great tips! I’m hopefully going to be visiting China for the first time in March so I will definitely be referring back to your post here!

  2. 22nd October 2017 / 1:25 am

    These are fantastic tips! These are all great things that first time travelers should know! Especially all the toilet-related info- nobody wants to be surprised by that! Also…what is the deal with the spitting??

  3. 22nd October 2017 / 9:15 am

    Some good tips on the experience one might expect travelling in China. It’s a country I’d love to visit (I’ve been to Macau and Hong Kong this year, and also to Taiwan though I consider that a separate country even if the Chinese don’t). I’d love to visit China mainland!

  4. 22nd October 2017 / 9:21 am

    This guide is pretty spot on! I visited China for the first time in 2012 and yes, I was overwhelmed at just how many people wanted to have their photo taken with me. Everywhere! I also remember the spitting (eugh!) and took more overnight sleeper trains than I care to remember!

  5. 22nd October 2017 / 9:25 am

    I love this, I think you covered it all! My best friend is a Chinese lang major who had been trying for years to get me to learn how to use chopsticks, and I was like “naaah, I’ll learn when I get to China”. It was on a plane to Beijing that I remembered I never did. That first week out of two was a disaster, because the food was right in front me but it was so difficult actually making it to my mouth! Of course, I was too proud to ask for a fork. 🙂 I’m so good now, but the memories stuck 🙂

  6. Anisa
    22nd October 2017 / 11:09 am

    Spot on with your tips. Unfortunately the bathrooms really are a big issue in China, so agree it is important to be prepared. I didn’t do a sleeper train, I flew between cities, but I bet you do save a lot of money by doing the train.

  7. 22nd October 2017 / 1:15 pm

    These are super useful tips, especially because I would love to visit China in the next year or so!

  8. 22nd October 2017 / 6:33 pm

    This is a great post! I got stuck unexpectedly in Guangzhou once for 24 hours after a connecting flight was cancelled, and I would have fared much better with these tips! Saved for my second try at China 🙂

  9. 25th October 2017 / 7:40 pm

    Love this guide! Super detailed and helpful! Your pictures are beautiful too! ❤️ I definitely think for my first trip to China I’ll go with a group. And I will take all your advice for sure!

  10. 25th October 2017 / 7:53 pm

    It’s always interesting traveling on a national holiday ! 😂 I once went to Slovakia the day after Christmas (the 26th) which I didn’t realize is the Slovakian Christmas, and mostly everything was closed hahah. Still interesting to learn about their holiday traditions though! Thanks for the guide, (especially the part about tipping because as an American I’m always confused about tipping abroad)!!

  11. 25th October 2017 / 7:59 pm

    These are great tips! Many things I didn’t know. I can’t wait to go myself!

  12. 25th October 2017 / 8:04 pm

    I was supposed to move to China earlier this year, sadly enough my visa fell through and I had to change my plans! And although my change of plans worked out great, seeing this post made me realize why I wanted to move to China in the first place, and why I will make it my priority to visit as soon as I can. Seems like you had an amazing adventure!

  13. 25th October 2017 / 8:32 pm

    I can remember visiting Japan and thinking how weirdly wonderful it was! I love sleeper trains, did it in East Africa and it was so much fun. Glad you got to experience some of the nuances of China.

  14. Mateja
    25th October 2017 / 8:36 pm

    Great tips here! It’s on my bucket list. Hopefully I’ll get over the spitting thing 😆

  15. 25th October 2017 / 9:14 pm

    Ahha great tip on taking a tour, I was wondering given the language problem how does one navigate through China. Also good to know there are western style toilets at certain places!! Pinning it for future visit 🙂

  16. 25th October 2017 / 10:21 pm

    Wow these are great tips! I’ve never been to China but hope to one day so I’ll definitely be using this post in the future. I had no idea that tipping wasn’t customary!

  17. 26th October 2017 / 3:00 am

    I’ve never been to China so this is perfect for me. Interesting what you say about tipping… and no sweet and sour prawn balls? What? Seriously, really enjoyed this and it’s informative!

  18. 26th October 2017 / 5:29 am

    I totally would love to visit China someday, but definitely find it overwhelming which has made me hesitate. Thank you for these tips though, they are super helpful and I think I need to get over there soon!

  19. 26th October 2017 / 6:23 pm

    This is so amazing and definitely very useful for anyone who hasn’t been to China yet! Love everything about your “get ready to squat” section LOL!!!

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