How to Prepare for Your First Trip to China

Ni Hao!

(If you don’t already know how to say ‘hello’ in Chinese, I’ve just helped you out.)

Preparing to travel to China is important. This unique, culturally-rich country is one worth visiting, but there are quite a few steps that need to be taken before you can visit. This isn’t a country you can go to on a whim. You’ll need to plan and prepare.

China is such a fascinating country. While it wasn’t on my radar, the opportunity for me to visit arose and, like the name of my blog, I jumped on it. I am so glad I did.

This guide will help you prepare for your departure.

Apply for a Visa

Citizens from most countries are required to get a Tourist Visa (L) in order to visit China. US Tourist Visas will be valid for 60 days and cost $140. There is a process to obtaining one (including airline tickets, accommodations & Chinese Consulates), but I’ve already sorted it out for you in my Blog Post: How to Apply for a Chinese Tourist Visa.

Purchase a VPN

There is government censorship in China. In order to use your phone, you’ll need to work around China’s restricted Internet access. Express VPN is an awesome app you can use on your phone and computer and they offer packages at super affordable prices. You’ll need this for social media, Google, etc. You’ll want to buy this a few days before you leave and make sure you have the apps downloaded before you arrive.

Read More: 6 Apps to Download Before Traveling to China

Think Smart About Your Wardrobe

This is going to depend on what season you’re traveling for. China experiences all four seasons, so think layering and bundling in the winter, breezy and light in the summer. Pack with intention. A few musts you should pack are:

  • Backpack
    • I am so happy fashionable backpacks exist! In China it’s recommended that you always carry your passport on you because security at ancient sites will check it, and police can stop and ask to see your visa at any time. Get a backpack with a secured inside zipper pouch you can store your personal documents.
  • Travel Wallet & Lanyard
    • It may not be super fashionable, but I love traveling with a little Vera Bradley wallet I have attached to a lanyard. It makes it so easy to pull out cash or my Metro card without having to reach into my backpack each time.
  • Good Walking Shoes
    • Ever heard of the Great Wall? 99.9% chance it’s on your itinerary when visiting China and you’ll want some good shoes for it. Also just for navigating the big cities, it’s nice to have sturdy, comfortable shoes.
  • Rain Jacket, Rain Boots, Umbrella (Shanghai)
    • It almost never rains in Beijing, however further south in Shanghai they experience rain quite a bit. You’ll want to have a light jacket you can stuff into a bag or throw on if necessary.

Buy a Guidebook

Don’t go to China and hope to wing it and spontaneously see all of the sites. Shanghai and Beijing are both huge cities with tons to do and see. If you don’t plan accordingly, you’ll miss out on stuff! For example, I mapped out one day in Shanghai, ending at the Jade Buddha Temple only to find out it closed at 4:30. I missed a really awesome site because I didn’t plan enough.

Also think about how you’ll get around. The Metros close early – 10:30/11:00p.m.! Will you plan to be home by then, taxi or DiDi?

I purchased the Lonely Planet Travel Guide to Beijing and it was fantastic! It included some translations, maps, instructions for getting to the Great Wall and food recommendations (so important). They have guide books for Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, China, pocket guide books, and mandarin phrase books.

Mentally Prepare for Stares and Photographs

Say Cheese!

While each year more and more foreigners are visiting China, it’s still relatively untraveled, and especially for Chinese tourists visiting their nation’s capital, they may not have ever seen a foreigner before. Especially if you have blonde hair, be prepared for people to ask to take a picture with you. You may also experience people photographing you without even asking. It can get tiresome & invasive, so trying to stay positive about it is important. You can always say no and walk away.

When I visited Tongli Water Town there were many Chinese school groups visiting, and every group of kids I passed said “Hello! Nice to Meet You!” They were so excited to practice their English, ask where I was from, and it wasn’t until I pulled out my phone that they asked for a photograph. One girl even gave my friend her fan.

I think the most uncomfortable times were when I was in a restaurant just trying to enjoy some lunch or dinner and tables of men would stare and talk. Even if you catch them staring they won’t stop.

Try to Ignore Stereotypes

Before you land in China, try to forget every stereotype you know and embrace what you’re about to experience with fresh eyes. I found there were a lot of misconceptions and negative stereotypes about China.

I was constantly surprised by how much of what I thought I knew was wrong. Shanghai and Beijing were some of the cleanest cities I’ve ever been to; the public transit was easy to navigate; people were kind and helpful; and the culture truly started to grow on me in the short time I was in the country.

Expect Culture Shock

And don’t beat yourself up over it! For me, China was my first time in Asia, and there are some big differences. It can be overwhelming at times – Beijing is a city of almost 22 Million People! There are different societal norms and customs you’re not used to (queues, bus schedules and bathrooms to name a few!) and you just kind of figure it out as you go.

It’s okay to take a break and decompress. You never want to overdo it when you’re traveling, especially if there’s such a big time difference and you are jet lagged.

Learn Some Mandarin

This is definitely the biggest obstacle in traveling China. Many places are not ‘westernized,’ meaning there are no English translations. It can be frustrating and even isolating at times to be such a minority, and it can be intimidating to try and order food at local places. You know it’s good but you can’t read the menu or ask for what you want! Learning some mandarin before you go will definitely help ease the culture shock.

Travel Tip: In Hong Kong it’s not Mandarin, but Cantonese that is spoken.

Plan for Pollution

It’s no secret that the pollution in China is a pretty big issue. Many people in China wear face masks to protect themselves against the particles in the air, and it’s a good idea to purchase some if you’re sensitive. Everyone should pack allergy medicine and tissues in preparation for the side effects of the low-quality air.

Actually, if you take a photograph after the sun has set with your flash on, you can probably see the dusk particles in the air.

Travel Tip: Pay attention to the levels outside. When the smog index hits 500 schools are cancelled and it’s not safe to travel outside!

Stay Safe

Crime is hardly an issue in China. Most people are kind and curious about westerners, and most likely you won’t have any issues. Always have a plan and find the US Embassy when you first arrive.

I never once felt unsafe, even when I was walking home at night. Of course, like with any place, stay observant and smart and you’ll be fine.

4 thoughts on “How to Prepare for Your First Trip to China

  1. Diana says:

    This is really interesting, thanks for sharing. I admit, China isn’t high on my priority list and I’ve definitely heard and believed all the stereotypes, so thanks for busting those and providing your perspective! I just might have to visit someday 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kate says:

      It was never high on my list either, but the opportunity came up for me to visit a friend who is teaching in Beijing, and I couldn’t pass it up! I am so happy I stepped outside of my comfort zone and went!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Jelson says:

    Awesome tips, thank you so much. Only point that I’d like to comment is regarding a VPN. NordVPN is just as good and much cheaper, so that’s what I’d go for. Keep it up!

    Liked by 1 person

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