This past summer, I was lucky enough to visit China and Japan in a two-week long trip.This was actually my second trip there as I had the chance of visiting Shanghai last year and so I was prepared for the sweltering heat, great food, and an awesome time. Here are some tricks and tips I picked up along the way.
Apply for your visa early
China requires most non-citizen to acquire a visa before entering. This process does take some time so be prepared and apply for your visa well before traveling to China. They offer a 10-year visa for U.S. passport holders now, which is nice since you don’t have to apply for a Chinese visa for another 10 years. When applying for a Chinese visa, they do require the passport of the country you were born in. So even if you hold a U.S. passport but you were not born in America, you will need to bring documentation that indicates which country you were born in. Usually a passport will do.
Download the subway map for the city you will visit
You can download the map of the subway station onto your phone and this will help you figure out which train you need to take. The China’s subway system is great and easy to navigate through–even if you do not read or speak Chinese. Each subway station has signs and arrows and the subway cars even have signs that light up to show you what stations you have passed and what stations you will be arriving at.
Know what you can use
Remember that many Western websites, such as Google and Facebook, will not work in China. Even if you can access a Western website, it will be extremely slow and it will basically be useless. Instead of Google Maps, try using Apple Maps and instead of Google, down the Baidu app. Do your research and download the apps beforehand to save yourself the headache. Another helpful tip is to research how to get from the airport to your hotel so you save yourself the hassle. You can take the subway to your hotel but you may need to transfer lines so a map of the subway system will be very handy. Another thing to note that is if you plan on taking the subway, be prepared for a lot of walking and moving up and down staircases while you’re transferring lines. It may not be ideal to take the subway if you have a lot of luggage or small children with you.
Invest in a pair of good walking shoes
When I saw you walk everywhere in China, you walk everywhere in China. Even if you decide to travel by subway, there is still a lot of walking involved–especially if you are planning to visit places like Forbidden City. Also, if you are planning to visit Shanghai, you should know that there are no places to sit. I’m serious, even in shopping centers, seating is extremely limited unless you are inside a restaurant. Shanghai subways also rarely have available seats so be prepared to stand and have aching feet by the end of the day.
Bring your student ID
If you have a valid student ID, bring it with you. You may be able to get some discounts on entry tickets. Not all places will accept a foreign student ID, but most places I visited did. I think only one place in Beijing rejected me. Be sure to carry your passport with you as they will need to check it when you present your student ID.
Bring medicine from home
I’ve been to China twice and I have gotten sick in China twice. It is always a good idea to bring medication from home when you’re traveling abroad. You can always pick up medicine from China (which works really well) but it may not always be convenient or available right away so it’s a good idea to keep some handy. American pharmacies are usually located inside grocery stores but China’s pharmacies are free-standing stores so keep an eye out for it! Medicine for bug bites is also a good thing to have on hand for just in cases.
Bring an umbrella
Or buy one there. Either way, it doesn’t matter if it’s raining or sunny, you will thank me. I used to roll my eyes at the grandmas who would pop open an umbrella to avoid the sun but I tried it once after waiting an hour under the intense sun in Shanghai one morning, and it was a godsend.
The umbrella will help a little with the heat and act as a protective barrier against the sun. And if it does rain while you’re in China, you’re set to go. You can also purchase umbrellas with UV-protection in China. It’s really a win-win either way.
Look for a cell phone store to purchase pre-paid SIM cards
Instead of splurging on expensive roaming charges, look for a cell phone store or counter that sells pre-paid SIM cards. When we arrived at the Peking airport in Beijing, there was only one store that sold SIM cards. Unfortunately, it was an expensive subscription service that required the user to call in and cancel. We decided to opt out on it and we found a cell phone store near our hotel. Do some research before you book a hotel and make sure that there is a cell phone store near you that preferably doesn’t over charges you for a SIM card. We paid around 300 RMB (roughly $15) for 1 GB of data in Beijing and that was too expensive.
Be careful of the water you are drinking
Tap water in China is not safe to drink. Make sure you only drink out of bottled water or other purchased drinks like soda or Milk Tea/Boba/Bubble Tea. Also, I have had a couple restaurants serve me tap water in a pitcher before so be aware of that. I have heard that a filter doesn’t work so be sure to just purchase bottled water (which is sold everywhere) instead of trying to filter your own water. It’s probably a better idea to buy water as you go instead of taking a refillable water bottle with you. There aren’t a lot of places you can refill your water bottle.
Bring your own toilet paper and some hand sanitizer
I didn’t have this issue in Shanghai (but I did hang out in more Westernized areas so that may be why) but it was a problem in Beijing. The public bathrooms did not carry toilet paper.
Let me repeat that, public bathrooms in Beijing do not carry toilet paper. I know, it’s my worst nightmare.
Now, you don’t have to carry around a roll of toilet paper. You can bring the small tissue packets with you that Kleenex sells. They are light, flat, and portable. For some reason, I had a stack of these in my closet so I just brought them with me to China. I’m pretty sure convenience stores in China should carry them so you can just purchase them when you land. Also, you want to bring your own hand sanitizer as it’s not always readily available in bathrooms.
As someone who was raised and grew up in the U.S., I didn’t know how to approach the concept of a traditional toilet. So when I tell you to go traditional, take the advice to heart. Beijing public bathrooms are not always supplied with toilet paper and definitely not toilet seat paper. Do you see where I am going with this?
Also, the grandmas will judge you if you wait for the Western toilet.
Stay safe and have lots of fun exploring a new country.
Like most big cities, you will always need to watch out for your safety. But besides the basics of big city safety tips (like don’t follow a man into a dark alley), beware of scams and fake buses. There is the infamous tea scam which involves a friendly local/traveler who invites you to tea after spending some time with you and befriending you in the process. The tea will turn out to be ridiculously expensive.
Also, make sure that the bus/vehicle you are getting into is legitimate. There have been some “black buses” that have been basically painted to look like the real thing, but they are fake buses that will only take you God knows where. The real buses should have a place for you to swipe your subway card. Do your research before boarding onto a vehicle.
This is also probably a common sense thing, but avoid people who offer to give you a ride for a really cheap price. There have been instances where the driver will take you to a different place and demand more money from you.
But don’t let this deter you from exploring China. China has a lot of beautiful things to offer. Just keep your wits about you and your mind open and an umbrella on hand and you will have a great time.