Hey there, and welcome to The Ultimate China Survival Guide!
I’m so excited that you’re planning an adventure to China, and I can’t wait to help you every step of the way. Whether you’re visiting China for a few days, a few weeks, or a few months, this guide is full of information that will help you plan your trip.
Since this guide is completely free (for now), if you’d like to support me I would really appreciate it if you would use the links in this guide to buy products and services you need for your trip. Whether it’s a language app or a VPN, every amount counts and will help me keep this site running.
So, what are we going to go over? Great question! Here’s a quick outline of everything we’re going to cover in this Ultimate Guide:
- Where to go in China
- The Language Barrier
- Getting Around
- What to Eat
- Internet Censorship and VPNs
- A Guide to Beijing
- Mystery Section of Fun!
This online guide is an abbreviated version of my downloadable PDF. For all of the information you see here, plus the “Mystery Section of Fun”, THREE customizable itineraries, and directions to a secret section of the Great Wall, be sure to download your own Ultimate China Guide!
1. Where To Go in China
China is big… really big. About the size of the USA, it can be a bit overwhelming to plan a trip. Where do I go? What do I see? How to I get from A to B? Why are the Avatar Mountains near LITERALLY NOTHING??
I feel your pain.
We’ve all heard of Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong, but where else is there to go? China is a huge country with different cultures, languages, foods, and customs. From bustling cities to lush countrysides, I’ve created a list of recommendations to suit any kind of traveler.
Shanghai vs. Beijing
Personally, I think it’s absolutely no contest. Shanghai is not a great city for tourists.* If you really want to spend some time in Shanghai, I think two full days is enough to see the main sites. Then take a quick trip to Hangzhou or one of the many famous water cities.
Beijing, on the other hand, has endless things to see and do. I recommend at least 4-5 days in Beijing if you can, and even longer if you have the time! I’ve been living in Beijing for the last year and a half and I still have so many things I want to see and do.
The history, culture, sites, hutongs, Great Wall… it’s all here!
*After studying abroad in Beijing, and living here for 1.5 years, there’s a chance I might be slightly biased. But I 100% stand by my intense love of Beijing (and mild disdain for Shanghai).
What about Xi’an?
If you have to choose between Xi’an and Shanghai, I would pick Xi’an hands down. Who doesn’t want to see the famous Terracotta Warriors, explore Xi’an’s Huiminjie Muslim Market, and ride a bike around the ancient city wall with a view of the whole city? Also, let’s not forget Huashan and the infamous plank walk!
China Off the Beaten Path
If you’re planning a trip to China I STRONGLY suggest you get off China’s beaten path and pick a province to explore. Visit Beijing and Xi’an, and then fly to your favorite province.
If you’re traveling to China for two or three weeks, I recommend heading to Sichuan or Yunnan for a week. However, if you’ve only got a few days, head to Guilin and Yangshuo in Guangxi province.
2. How to Book Your Hotel or Hostel in China
China’s a little bit different than Southeast Asia. Rocking up to a random hotel and negotiating a price probably won’t work well here- especially since most hotel owners don’t speak English and the prices are actually cheaper if you book online.
If you’re staying at a hotel or hostel in China, it’s probably important to you that the front desk staff speaks some English so they can help you navigate your city. Not all hotels do, especially budget Chinese hotels, so I’ll walk you through where and how to look!
Budget Accommodation in China
Surprisingly, China has incredible hostels. I’ve found the best ones on Hostelworld, but if you’re traveling off the beaten path, there might not be many options. Personally, I recommend using the search website Hostelz which checks both Hostelworld, Hostelbookers, and Booking.com for the cheapest price.
Many hostels in China have cute rooms, restaurants, and fun activities like dumpling making parties. Some of the hostels I’ve stayed at have been even nicer than a hotel! Definitely read the reviews before you book, though, because that will give you a very accurate idea of what you’re in for.
Mid-Range Accommodation in China
Just keep in mind, both Agoda and Booking.com list hotels that are not able to host international visitors, so be sure to check the description before you book. What?!! Basically, all this means is that they don’t have the necessary permits to register foreigners with the local police station, which is mandatory under Chinese law.
Fancy Accommodation in China
Want to spend some money? China’s cities have wonderful international hotels in almost every city: the Sheraton, Shangrila, Westin, etc.
While I’m personally more of a fan of boutique hotels, you’ll be sure to find everything you need here. Besides, sometimes it’s really nice to be pampered and enjoy all the amenities from home.
Some cities also have really incredible non-chain places to stay. For example, Beijing’s architectural wonder The Opposite House.
Airbnb in China
If you’re looking for something a bit more independent, China’s cities actually have great Airbnb options! Airbnb has exploded in China, and I actually know two people who rent their properties out in Beijing, and even I tried it once!
If you’re not on Airbnb, click here for $30 off your first stay.
Other China Accommodation Stuff
Most hostels will only take cash or a Chinese debit card, so be sure to check if you’re looking to pay with credit. Hotels are a bit better about taking international cards, depending on the place. If you’re paying in cash, you’ll probably have to give a deposit of up to 200 RMB ($30). You’ll be given a receipt, so be sure to hang onto it (and your key!).
Fancy hotels will often check your room before you check out, and make sure everything is in order. I’ve never had an issue with being scammed out of your deposit by a hotel or hostel, so don’t worry too much about it.
3. Dealing With the Language Barrier in China
Dealing with the language barrier can be scary, especially in a place like China where not many people speak English. While I do speak Chinese, I can tell you that the majority of my friends barely speak any, and they live their lives in China every day for years with no major problems.
How do they do it?
Don’t worry, I wrote an entire post about How to Get Around China Without Speaking Chinese!
That said, learning a few words in Chinese is SUPER HELPFUL which is why I put together this helpful little Quick Guide to Mandarin Chinese with a pronunciation video!
Download All the Apps!
You don’t need wifi for Pleco because it’s a dictionary. This means that on the go when you’re lost or confused, you can type the word you need in English and you’ll see the translation in both Pinyin (romanized Chinese) and Chinese characters. If you don’t trust your pronunciation, or you’re not sure which translation is the most correct, just show your phone to whoever you’re talking to!
4. Getting Around in China
Getting from A to B is a major stress point for a lot of people when traveling to China. Today I’m going to go over how to get around in a Chinese city, and how to get around within the country!
Getting Around in a Chinese City
Chinese cities actually have incredible public transportation. Even small cities you’ve never heard of probably have at least one or two subway lines. Beijing has 15… plus an airport line and a few other add-ons.
All of the subway maps are in both Chinese and English, and you can buy your tickets from kiosks with English options. Even the stops are announced in English and there are maps on all the subway trains, with blinking lights showing the upcoming stops. It’s magical.
Many cities also have buses, which are a bit harder to figure out since the stops are all written in Chinese. However, once you’re on the bus, many have letterboards that flash the next stop in Pinyin and Chinese, so you should be able to see your stop written. If you’re going to take a bus, ask your hostel or hotel which bus to take and where to wait for it.
Taxis are very convenient in China, and you should always use the meter unless you’re negotiating something really, really far away. You can even grab a receipt when you leave, just in case you accidentally leave something in the cab. Most taxi drivers don’t speak English, so be sure to have the place you’re going written in Chinese characters. All hotels and hostels should have a business card with the address written on it that you can take with you. If you’re taking a taxi from your hotel, you can have the staff write where you want to go on a piece of paper for you, too.
Keep in mind, everyone in China uses apps to hail taxis now, so you may have a difficult time getting one. I would say you should download the apps, but let’s be honest, if you don’t read Chinese it’s a bit hard for you to figure out.
If you’re moving to China, be sure to download Didi Dache (Chinese Uber) and Kuaidi Dache (a taxi hailing app). Once you get the hang of it and can recognize a few characters, both are super simple. Your best bet is to use Pinyin to type in the nearest subway stop to your place, and then direct them from there.
Long Distance Travel in China
It’s actually pretty easy to get from A to B in China, and with trains, budget flights, and long-distance buses, you shouldn’t have much of an issue!
Chinese Domestic Flights
Looking to fly in China? Use Skyscanner. It checks all the Chinese budget airlines, so you’ll always get the best deal. For domestic flights in China, try to arrive over an hour early (1.5 hours to be safe). Chinese airlines almost always let you check a bag for free! But, they’re also almost always LATE, so don’t make any tight connections.
China is covered in high-speed and long distance train routes. Trains are my favorite way to get around since the stations are usually in the city, as opposed to airports, which are located about an hour away from downtown.
For example, a flight from Beijing to Xi’an is 2.5 hours. But when you factor in two hours of commuting to and from the airport, plus an hour for check in, you’re already at 5.5 hours. Then factor in at least another hour because your flight is probably late. A train from Beijing to Xi’an is 4.4 hours and the train stations are already in the city. You only need to arrive 30 minutes before your train (leave an hour if you need to pick up tickets), and you don’t have to worry about delays or luggage restrictions!
Here’s my helpful Guide to Train Travel in China.
Chinese Long-Distance Buses
Trying to get out of the city on a day trip? You’ll probably take a long-distance bus. All you need to do is just show up about 30 minutes before you want to leave (unless your hotel or hostel tells you otherwise).
When I lived in Ningbo I always opted to take a 3-hour bus to Shanghai rather than the 2-hour train. Why? Because I could just show up, buy a ticket and be on the next bus within 20 minutes. If I took the train I’d have to worry about tickets selling out, and I’d have to stand in a crazy-long line to buy them. It was always so much more of a hassle than the bus.
If you’re traveling in Yunnan or Northern Sichuan, you’ll also probably end up taking a long distance bus. In Yunnan, long-distance buses are pretty much the only way to get outside of Kunming, the capital. Don’t worry, though, your hotel should give you all the information you need!
5. What to Eat and Where
I meet people all the time who tell me that eating in China is hard, and they have no idea what to order. China serves some crazy food, and because Chinese food in China is much different than what you probably have at Panda Express back home, it can be a bit intimidating.
But don’t let your fears make you spend your entire trip eating at McDonald’s. China has incredible food, and it would be an absolute shame to miss out because you don’t know what to order.
How Do I Order Food in China?
If you have a picture menu, ordering is easy, especially if there’s an English description below! For street food, you can usually tell what it is… kind of. If the menu is only in Chinese characters, just have a look around the restaurant and find something that looks good. You can grab the waitress, point to the dish, and hopefully you’ll have something good to eat!
Is Chinese Food Safe?
My biggest suggestion is to eat outside of the super touristy areas. Food will be better quality and a lower price. They’ll also be more concerned about repeat customers, so you’ll be less likely to get food poisoning or something awful like that.
Next, be sure that the place you’re eating at is crowded with locals. NOT giant Chinese tours, but genuine locals. If they come back time and time again, obviously the food is good and safe.
Be sure to bring some Imodium with you just in case the food irritates your stomach. Also, if you head to Sichuan and Chongqing, the spice will probably get to you. Tell your hotel what’s up, and they can write your problems down for you (usually diarrhea and an upset stomach). Then you can take it to the pharmacy and they’ll give you Chinese medicine to take, which is better for your stomach than harsh Imodium.
What to Eat in China
I should probably get around to making an ultimate food guide one of these days, but for now, I’ll give you a list of my favorite foods! Want to know what they are? It would be ridiculous to describe them all here, so just google them!
Find it Everywhere:
- Kungpao Chicken (Gongpao Jiding) – Every province makes it differently.
- Hongshao Qiezi – Braised eggplant in a brown sauce
- Yushang Rousi – Pork in fish sauce
- Spinach and Peanuts
- Cucumbers and Garlic
Sichuan cuisine is known for being spicy and is my FAVORITE. While the best Sichuan food is found in Sichuan and Chongqing, you can find Sichuan restaurants all over China!
- Mapuo Dofu – spicy soft tofu
- Mala Liangfen – numb-spicy rice gelatin (better than it sounds)
- Huiguo Rou – pork and vegetables
- Boboji – cold spicy broth you can use to stick veggies and meat in
These Sichuan favorites can also be found everywhere, but only at their own individual restaurants:
- Malatang – pick veggies, tofu, noodles and more and have them cooked in a spicy broth.
- Sichuan Hot Pot!
Muslim Food (Either Uighur or Huizu):
You can find Muslim restaurants all over China, and they’re amazing! But obviously, the best ones are in Xinjiang.
- Yangrou Chuanr – lamb kebab with cumin!
- Any and Every Noodle Dish
- Naan Bread
- Dapanji – chicken, veggies, and noodles on a giant platter
Other Regional Cuisines:
- Shanghai – Check out this post!
- Beijing – Dumplings, Peking Duck, Jianbing Pancake
- Xiamen – Seafood
- Xi’an – Noodles, Yangrou Paomo, Roujiamo
- Hong Kong – Dimsum (not mainland China, but I’m including it anyway)
Best Street Food:
- Jianbing Pancakes (Beijing)
- Shaokao BBQ – especially the lamb chuanr, but always get veggies too!)
- Chao Hefen – stir fried thick pad thai-esque noodles
- Sweet potatoes and chestnuts (in the winter)
What About Vegetarians in China?
In China, it’s super easy to be “vegetarian”. What does that mean? You can easily find meals that only contain vegetables. Just don’t ask what’s in the sauce, broth, or the pan before it was washed out.
Some of my all-time favorite Chinese foods are vegetarian, and I often find myself going days without eating meat by accident. Just don’t be too surprised if you find a tiny bit of ground beef in your tofu…
There are some vegetarian restaurants you’ll find in China, especially down south where more people are practicing Buddhists. Many temple restaurants are also strictly vegetarian too.
What About Western Food in China?
Many cities have great Western food, especially Beijing and Shanghai. If you want something a bit different after months in Asia, I actually recommend you check out some of their Western restaurants. Here are my favorites in Beijing!
- Great Leap Dongzhimen and Slow Boat – Fantastic burgers and homemade craft beer
- Taco Bar – Seriously, are we in Mexico right now?
- Moxi Moxi – Great Israeli falafel
- Tube Station and Crows Nest – Awesome American-style pizza
- Big Smoke and Homeplate – American-style BBQ
- Cafe Zarah and The Orchid – Amazing brunch (and wifi)
- Rager Pie – great coffee and incredible meat and sweet pies
Final tip: Ask your hotel where to eat. They probably have great recommendations!
6. Chinese Censorship and VPNs
Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google, Gmail, Instagram, Snapchat, Google Maps, Google Docs (basically anything with the word Google), and Netflix are all blocked in China. Some major news sites are also blocked, depending on the whims of the government. New York Times is usually blocked, and sometimes BBC is too.
I use a virtual private network! A VPN is a small program you can download on your computer that masks your IP address and shields your actual location. Basically, it makes your internet think you’re somewhere that you’re not. This tricks your internet into thinking you’re not in China, so you can access all your favorite sites.
7. What to Do and See in Beijing
With only a few days in Beijing, it can be hard to narrow things down. I’ve been living in Beijing for 1.5 years (and I studied abroad here too!), so as a traveler and resident, here are the biggest tips I give all my friends.
The Great Wall
DO NOT go to Badaling. It’s touristy AF. Instead get off the beaten path and go somewhere else instead.
Mutianyu is the easiest section to get to besides Badaling, and many of my friends have been and love it. It’s restored just like Badaling, but you can easily get there via a long-distance bus from Dongzhimen.
My favorite sections are Jinshanling and Gubeikou. Both of them are “wild” sections that aren’t fully restored. Gubeikou is really wild and Jinshanling has amazing views. I also love Huanghuacheng where the Great Wall is partially submerged into a lake. This is an easier section to hike than Jinshanling and Gubeikou, which is great if you have kids or you’re not very big on hiking. These sections are a bit harder to get to, so you’ll either need to hire a van, take a series of long-distance buses, or go on a small adventure tour.
Finally, you can visit a section of the Great Wall that’s not officially open to tourists. I accidentally visited one of these sections last fall while trying to get to Huanghuacheng. We paid a farmer $1 USD and he let us climb up his ladder onto the wall! Curious? Click the button below for directions and a map!
Beijing’s Historic Sites
My favorite Beijing sites are the Temple of Heaven and Summer Palace. To be honest, these places are much better than the Forbidden City. Personally, I recommend you go to Tiananmen Square, and if it’s a clear day, rather than going inside the Forbidden City (which borders Tiananmen), walk around the complex to Jingshan park. Hike the mini-mountain and you’ll get an incredible view of the entire Forbidden City complex.
Seriously, you can’t miss Beijing’s hutongs. Head out to Andingmen, Gulou, or Lama Temple and have a wander. I recommend skipping Nanluoguxiang (unless you want to see a lot of Chinese tourists and overpriced shops) and head to Wudaoying instead.
I also HIGHLY recommend going on a hutong tour. If you’re looking for a great walking food tour, I recommend UnTour (which also had tours in Shanghai). If you want a fun, lively, food tour with unlimited beer and tuktuks, go with Lost Plate (who also has tours in Xi’an and Chengdu).
Any Other Beijing Suggestions?
I love the 798 Art District, a factory neighborhood turned art quarter. There are free (and paid) exhibits, cool boutiques, and tons of street art. It’s a photographer’s dream.
Even though it’s touristy, I also really like Houhai. In the summer, wander around the lake and in the winter you can go ice skating! The Bell and Drum Towers are just nearby, as are the Gulou hutongs!
Where to Stay in Beijing
I highly recommend staying in the area of Beijing where I live: Gulou, Andingmen, and Lama Temple. They’re central, with great cheap restaurants, incredible hutong alleys, and it’s super easy to get anywhere in Beijing. If you’re here on business, you might want to be in Sanlitun or CBD on the east side. Just be sure you can get to your venue easily!
The Best Beijing Hostels- $
The absolute best hostel in Beijing is the Beijing Hutongren Hostel, which is located on the touristy Nanluoguxiang. The hostel is beautiful, clean, in a great area, and their private rooms are nicer than a lot of Chinese hotels.
The Best Beijing Hotel- $$
Heading to Beijing? STAY HERE. Seriously, The Orchid is the coolest hotel in the world and it’s in a perfect area very close to where I live. I go there for brunch all the time, and if my parents ever visit me (I’ve been here for four years, mom), I will force them to stay here.
Need something a tiny bit cheaper? Beijing 161 Lama Temple Courtyard Hotel is also a great second choice. Right near the Lama Temple, you can’t go wrong with the location and the place looks amazing!
The Best of the Best in Beijing- $$$
Everyone I know in Beijing raves about The Opposite House. My architect roommate is obsessed with this place, and from the photos, I can see why. Just look at the rooms and the pool!
8. But What About the Pollution??
China’s pollution is a huge concern to most travelers, and I can see why. While China’s pollution is awful, the West definitely plays up the pollution scare a bit because it makes good news.
Here are the facts: the pollution situation is very different depending on whether you’re traveling or living in China, so I’ll go over both.
Traveling in China’s Pollution
If you’re traveling in China for just a few short weeks, honestly, don’t worry about it. You’re not going to die, or even be seriously affected but the pollution.
Some nice hotels have air filters inside, which you can look for if you’re concerned. Otherwise, I recommend getting one 3M PM2.5 mask (I wear 3M 8210 which is the best for pollution) and wearing it on days the air quality index (AQI) is 200+. You can check this by downloading a pollution app to your phone. My favorites are Airpocalypse and AirVisual.
Living in China’s Pollution
Obviously, if you’re living in China for a year or two, you need to take more precautions. Buy a package of masks at home (don’t buy them in China because some are fake), and invest in an air purifier. You can have a Chinese friend help you order one on JD.com. I have a purifier for both my bedroom and office since that’s where I spend the majority of my time. If you do both these things, you should be completely fine!
If you’re moving to Beijing and you’re worried about the pollution, just know that the average yearly AQI is no worse in Beijing than it is in Shanghai, Nanjing, Hangzhou and other East Coast cities. Beijing’s bad pollution days are bad, but then the wind comes through and blows it all away. Whereas in the other East Coast cities, the pollution is consistently ‘blah’.
I actually prefer to live in a place where the pollution varies so that I can protect myself on the bad days, and soak in the fresh air on the many good days. When I lived in Ningbo, I didn’t have the time or energy to worry about it every day when the pollution was only slightly bad.
9. Getting a Chinese Visa
Visas are a complicated process, so for now, I’ll give you the tourist visa basics. If you’re planning on teaching abroad in China, I highly suggest you sign up for my Free Email Mini-Course, which goes over work visas in more detail.
72 Hour Visa Free Entry
Stopping by China on an extended layover? Congratulations, you can probably enter visa free! Select cities in China have Visa Free entry for those staying less than 72 hours. However, there is some fine-print when it comes to who can use this visa.
The 72-hour visa is only valid for one Chinese city. This means if you fly to Beijing, you can not travel down to Shanghai and fly out from there. You must be flying in and out of the same airport. You must also have a direct ticket out of China. This means no quick pitstops in other Chinese cities after your extended layover.
I had a friend who was stopping by Beijing for 2 days and wanted to get the 72-hour visa. However, she had a quick layover in Guangzhou before flying to South Korea. Unfortunately for her, she discovered at the airport that she isn’t allowed to do that, and had to buy a new ticket straight to Seoul!
Understanding Chinese Tourist Visas
If you want to see China in more than 72 hours, you’ll need a visa. Some countries like the US are now offering 10-year tourist visas, while other visas may last a year, six months, or less!
There are three types of Chinese tourist visas: multi-entry, double-entry, and single-entry. This lists the number of times you can enter and exit the country and have your visa still be valid.
In addition to entries, you also have a time limit for how long you’re allowed to be in the country. For example, if you have a 30-day multi-entry 10-year visa, you can stay in China for 30 days before you have to exit the country. However, next time you come back to China, you won’t have to apply for a visa. You can come and go, no questions asked, for 30-days at a time for the next 10 years!
How to Apply for a Chinese Visa
Visa prices vary between $45-90 USD, but for Americans, you’ll always have to pay $140… Sorry.
If you’re close to a Chinese consulate, you can apply in-person and come back a few days later to pick up your visa. Visas take about 3-4 days to be processed, but some places like Hong Kong allow you to pay extra for faster service. Be sure to check if your consulate can do this for you before you count on it.
If you’re applying for a Chinese visa outside of your home country, Hong Kong, or Seoul, be sure to check if you can get a visa at their consulate. I know someone who tried to get a Chinese visa in Malaysia and was denied because they couldn’t process non-Malaysians.
Visa Service Companies
If you’re nowhere near a consulate, you’ll have to use a visa service company. When I lived in Seattle, I would FedEx my passport and visa documents to a San Francisco agency, who would then go in-person and get my visa for me. This was usually slightly cheaper than flying all the way down to California. Keep in mind, you’ll need to pay a service fee and priority mail shipping for your passport both ways. Most service companies charge a fee of at least $100, plus the FedEx fees which are about $30 each way.
If you’re looking for a good visa service company to help you get your Chinese visa, I’m a huge fan of Travel Visa Pro. They even have a form fill service where they’ll fill out all of your visa forms for you for a small extra fee!
For all the details on what you need to apply for a Chinese visa, read here.
Is There Anything Cheaper?
Funny you asked. Actually, yes there is, and it’s called iVisa!
iVisa has a special partnership with China because they do visas in bulk. This partnership allows them to create e-visas, so you won’t have to mail your passport anywhere. Not only is this way less stressful, it also saves you a TON of money.
iVisa’s e-visas are only valid for 15 days, but their processing service fee is only $30! This means that if you don’t live by a consulate and can’t afford a quick trip to Hong Kong before your China trip, you’ll only need to pay $30 on top of your visa cost, rather than over $150.
Get Your Free Survival PDF!
Need more information? I’ve created a downloadable PDF with all this information AND MORE to help you prepare for your trip!
What’s in there? In this Downloadable Ultimate China Survival Guide you’ll find:
- This entire guide plus a Mystery Fun Section!
- 3 Customizable Itineraries ranging from one-week to one-month
- Directions to the Secret Great Wall!
- …. and more!