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China Travel FAQ: Your Essential Guide for First-Timers

Traveling to China can be challenging, even for the most seasoned travelers. In this quick guide, I try to answer the most common questions for first-time travelers to China.

Not too long ago, I wrote a comprehensive Travel Guide to China, explaining how to organize your holiday. In this shorter guide, I will address some of the most common questions people have asked me. I hope you will find this helpful.

Where can I book hotels, trains and airplane tickets?

bullet train china

There is only really one option in English: You can find hotels and some flights on apps like Booking, but the prices are much higher, and you’ll find fewer options.

Train tickets are also available on the official China Railway website and app. You won’t have to pay any commission, but you must go to any train station to validate your account in person. So, unless you are already in China, I don’t recommend this option.

Train tickets are available only up to 15 days before the departure date. Some online agencies claim to be able to book them 30 days earlier, but that’s not true. Unlike in Europe, the tickets have a fixed price, and it doesn’t matter if you buy them 15 days or 1 day earlier. You can also cancel them for free up to 48 hours before departure.

Do I need to go to print my train ticket?

You don’t need a physical train ticket anymore. All you need is your passport. Your ticket is associated with the passport you used to buy it, and you will scan your passport before boarding the train.

Which Apps do I need in China?

Understanding which app to use in China is probably the most challenging part of arranging the trip. Basically, every single app used in the rest of the world is either banned or censored. So you won’t be able to use it without a VPN.

The most important Apps that you will need to use while in China are:

  • WeChat: it’s the real-time messaging app that people use to chat. It can also be used to pay for pretty much everything. You can link your credit card to the WeChat Pay function, but I’ve heard a lot of people complaining that most of the time, it doesn’t work. It has a built-in function to translate chat messages into your phone’s default language. You really can’t survive in China without WeChat. One important thing: in order to activate your WeChat account, you will need to ask someone with an already active account to scan your new WeChat QR code.
  • Alipay: it’s used to make online payments, and unlike WeChat Pay, it works with most foreign debt and credit cards. You can also use Alipay to pay for your subway or bus ride and to rent one of the regular or electric bikes you’ll see in most cities. Alipay can also be used to translate text and messages.
  • Didi: it’s one of the several apps used in China for calling a taxi. Didi is the app I recommend because it’s in English.
  • I mentioned Trip already. It’s simply the best app in English to book everything for your trips in China. The only thing you won’t be able to book is public buses. At the moment, only people with a Chinese ID card are allowed to book them online. Foreigners will have to go to the bus station in person.
  • this is a good alternative to Google Maps since it’s updated and can be used offline. The main issue is that you won’t find info about public transportation. If you have an iPhone, you can use Apple Maps.

Is English commonly used?

No, English is not commonly spoken, especially outside bigger cities like Shanghai. You’ll need a translator to communicate, and you can use the mini-app inside Alipay.

Can I use cash in China?

Yes, you can. But cash has virtually disappeared since everyone uses WeChat or Alipay. Most of the time, if you show the 100RMB bill (the bill with the highest value in China), people will try to say that they don’t have any change. So it’s just impractical to use cash, although technically possible.

You can withdraw cash from most ATMs, and I recommend the Bank of China.

Where can I buy a Chinese SIM card?

If your phone supports e-Sims, you can use Holafly. The advantage of this option is that it already includes a VPN. If your phone doesn’t support e-Sims, then you’ll have to buy one in one of the stores in the city where you land. Remember to bring your passport and be armed with patience. There are only 3 phone carriers in China: China Unicom, China Telecom and China Mobile. There is really little difference between them.

Which VPN actually works in China?

china internet

As I said, without a VPN, you will lose access to pretty much every app you install on your phone. That’s why it’s fundamental to use a VPN while traveling to China. The issue is that it is quite hard to understand which one works because most of them are blocked by the government, and the list keeps changing on a monthly basis.

I can tell you for sure that the most famous VPNs like ExpressVPN and NordVPN DON’T work.

Please remember to download and install the VPN before leaving for China because the Google Play store and the VPN websites are blocked as well. Finally, I recommend getting TWO VPNs because it can happen that one that works just fine is suddenly blocked. So it is better to have a backup. This being said, these are my recommendations:

  • Astrill: it’s the most commonly used VPN by expats living in China simply because it always works. The downside is that it is very expensive, especially if you only purchase for one month. You can download it here.
  • Mullvad: is a VPN that focuses on privacy thanks to its no-logs policy. It’s also much cheaper and has been working great so far. You can download it here.
  • Shadowsocks: this is the name of an encryption protocol developed in China to bypass the Great Firewall, and it’s more advanced than a regular VPN. It takes a bit of knowledge to learn how to configure it, so I only recommend it to tech-savvy people, but it’s quite cheap for what it offers. I use these servers.

When is the best time to travel to China?

Yubeng Yunnan travel guide

This is really a broad question, given the size of the country. All I can tell you is when is the worst time to travel there. Avoid the Chinese New Year, the Labor Holiday (first week of May), and the National Holiday (first week of October) at all costs.

Then, as a general rule of thumb, Winters are cold, and you’ll feel it especially south of the Yangtze River because there is no heating system. Northern China is much colder, but all indoor places are heated.

Summers are generally hot and very humid, and it can rain quite a lot. Some places, like central Yunnan, have nice temperatures most of the time. Tibet has relatively nice weather most of the year. Here you can find my travel guide.

Do I need a Travel Agency?

For most people and destinations, the simple answer is no. There are a few exceptions, such as remote places like Dulongjiang, where it’s simply not possible to get there without a driver and a local guide to help you find the tattooed women.

Are scams common?

If you compare China to the rest of Asia, scams and pickpocketing are not that common, certainly thanks to the unlimited number of cameras. Just follow the most common rules, and you should be fine.

Can I fly a drone in China?

dawa rice terraces

Yes, you can, but since January 1, 2024, all drones have to be registered with Civil Aviation. Even if the official website is bilingual, you can only register on the Chinese version. You’ll also need a Chinese number to authenticate your login credentials. The other main limitation is the maximum altitude of 120 meters.

Finally, every city has its own rules. For example, all drones are banned in Beijing. Meanwhile, you can fly in Shanghai, but you have to register every single flight with the police using a mini app on Alipay. Most of the other cities are actually okay, and the limitations are not that strict. Here, you can find more info about Worldwide drone regulations.

If you have more questions, please feel free to ask in the comment section.

Here you can find my Zhangjiajie Travel Guide. And here is my guide to Furong, a beautiful Ancient Town nestled around a waterfall.

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