China is the world’s most populous country and one of the largest as well. Consequently it features a wide variety of cultures and geography, allowing for a wide range of vacation activities. Since the country is ruled by a single party system, many aspects of daily living that Westerners take for granted are simply not available in China. Despite its authoritarian nature, China is hospitable to visitors, but you should plan your trip well before coming to China so you don’t run into any surprises. For example, travel to certain areas in China, such as Tibet, are prohibited without gaining special permission first. Nevertheless, with a near infinite variety of sights and activities, China provides an excellent opportunity for international travelers to immerse themselves in a culture that stretches back millennia.
Getting in and out
In addition to a passport which will remain valid for at least six months, in order to gain entry into China, you need to apply for a visa that is specific to your travel intentions. The general tourist visa is known as an L visa. With it, you are allowed entry into China for the duration stated on the visa, for the maximum amount of up to a year.
Visas are single entry visas meaning that once you leave China, that visa is voided and you cannot re-enter China without applying for a new visa. This is particularly important if you plan to travel to Hong Kong or Macau. For purposes of visa travel, these are considered international entities. If you do want to travel to Hong Kong from mainland China and be able to get back into China, you will need a multiple entry visa. You can request this when you apply for your visa; however, double check your visa because Chinese embassies and consulates do not always follow through on requests for maximum time or multiple entry. The current fee for a tourist visa for Americans is $140.
In addition to your valid passport and visa, you will need to register your presence with local authorities. If you are staying in a hotel that caters to foreign travelers, you can request the appropriate paperwork to accomplish this through the hotel. They will often do the legwork of registering you with the local authorities for you. If you stay at a private residence, you will have to register your presence with the local authorities yourself within a 24 hour period if you are staying in a city and within up to 72 hours if you are staying outside of a major metropolitan area.
Some areas in China require special permits for you to travel there. Tibet is one of these locations. If you do gain a permit, you will have to pay a processing fee for this as well, which is approximately $35. If you are not sure whether you are permitted to travel to a certain region, it’s best to inquire from your local Chinese consulate prior to making your vacation plans.
China does have some prohibitions on what you can take with you. Many of these are common sense, such as firearms and explosive material, or animal products from endangered species such as rhinoceros horn. Other items might not be so obvious. For example, Chinese law prohibits items such as DVDs, presswork, photos, and computer devices that could be construed as harmful to Chinese politics and culture. Consequently, you can bring in up to three Bibles, but more than that, as might be the case for missionary work, would be prohibited.
Changing your visa status once you are in China is virtually impossible, so determine what your vacation plans will include well in advance and take the necessary steps.
Some notable cultural differences
There are a few practices in China which might be considered odd for foreigners, and some that might be misconstrued as impolite, even though they are not considered so among Chinese residents. For example, when you are eating meals, completely finishing off a meal can indicate to a host that you have not eaten enough and they will order more food in order to make sure you are satisfied. On the other hand, if you do not eat enough of your food, it indicates that you do not like the meal. Polite ways to indicate that you are finished are to offer a thumbs up to your host, compliment them on the meal, and pat your stomach exaggeratedly.
It is typical for elder hosts to offer toasts to their younger guests. To refuse would be considered rude. Another common practice in China is spitting in public. According to Chinese theories regarding health, it is considered unhealthy to swallow phlegm. Consequently people spit in public much more frequently, and without violating taboos, than you will find in the US.
Chinese conversations tend to be loud and boisterous at all times of the day. This is not an indication of anger, but a reflection of the gusto in which the Chinese engage with each other. In addition, the Chinese do not feel the same inviolability towards lines and cutting in line as we do in the West. Many places, such as public transportation hubs, will find people massed together in nothing resembling a line, and it is not uncommon to be shoved out of the way by people eager to board a subway or train. Your best approach to these situations is to wait patiently until the mass of people diminishes.
The sight of Westerners in China is not very common. If you do not look Chinese, do not be alarmed if people stare at you or call out laowai (this translates to “old foreigner”). This is not meant as an expression of aggression but rather an expression of curiosity.
Eating in China is not the same as the fork and knife affair common in the US. Chopsticks are the utensils of choice and frequently the only utensils available. Food is usually served communally rather than on individual plates. It’s also not uncommon for there not to be serving spoons or chopsticks so that each person picks out the food using their own chopsticks. Consequently, it is considered extremely rude to leave food on the communal plate that you have already touched with your personal chopsticks.
Another oddity you may note in your hotel is the lack of a fourth floor. The pronunciation of the number four sounds very similar to the Mandarin word for death and is consequently considered unlucky.
One of the biggest holidays for the Chinese is their New Year celebration. The Chinese use a lunar calendar and the Chinese New Year usually occurs in February, but the exact date can vary from year to year. Furthermore, the Chinese New Year celebration does not simply last for one day but extends into a week. This is a time when families get together, and businesses shut down. Travel on trains, buses, and airlines can get extremely crowded, and you will often be unable to get tickets to your destination unless you have done so weeks in advance.
Different regions in China have holiday seasons unique to them. When planning your trip, take note of possible holidays because it may limit what services are available to you during that time. Some festivals are perfect for vacationers to experience. Notable ones include the Dragon Boat Festival, which occurs in May or June and features boat races, and the Lantern Festival, which can transform large cities with beautifully colored paper lamps shortly after Chinese New Year.
The main unit of currency in China is the yuan, which is also known as renminbi or RMB. These are all the same. While travel in China used to be extremely cheap it is not as much anymore, although it is still possible to have a relatively inexpensive vacation. A budget of about $90-100 a day will allow you to have decent midrange lodgings, good meals, with plenty left over for sightseeing. It is possible if you’re thrifty and avoid the tourist traps, to get by relatively comfortably on less than $50 a day, but this is in more of the vein of the backpacker who stays in hostels. These approximations do not take into account visa and travel permit fees, which you should add to your budget when applicable.
Keep in mind that things get more expensive in the larger cities than elsewhere. Also, it may be in your best interest to splurge on high speed train transportation if you go from city to city rather than by bus, a cheaper mode of travel. China is a huge country and spending large amounts of time in transit from one place to another can cut into your vacation time.
One issue that can come up is the passing of counterfeit money. If you change your money at licensed money changers in airports, you will probably be okay, but it’s completely appropriate to hold money up to a light in order to spot the watermark that indicates it is legitimate money. However, money changers that are near or in airports tend to offer more expensive conversion rates. ATMs are not immune to passing counterfeit money either. Your best bet is to convert cash at the Bank of China counters. Let them know that you are concerned about counterfeit money, and you should be safe.
If you use an ATM in China, do not be alarmed if it requires a 6 digit pin number when your pin is only four digits. Simply add two zeroes to your pin and this will work in most cases. Only some of the larger chain grocery stores and high end restaurants and hotels take credit cards. Most places will only take cash, so be sure and carry enough on you to get by and keep it in a safe place close to you to avoid being the victim of pickpockets.
Tipping is not practiced in China and can be considered rude. The Chinese take a tip as a way of basing your relationship on money rather than on friendship. More high end restaurants and hotels that cater to travelers are exceptions.
China has a diverse population where people speak many different dialects of Chinese. These dialects can be as different from each other as Italian is to French, even though locals consider them to be separate dialects rather than separate languages. Most people will speak Mandarin Chinese in addition to local dialects. Even though many students have to pass four years of English in order to graduate from school, the Chinese emphasize written English and fluency is not common. Learning a few phrases of Mandarin is vital to getting around in China. You should also carry a business card from the place where you are staying to help direct others for where you want to go in case you meet up with a language barrier. If you have a smartphone, you can also install apps that translate English into Mandarin Chinese characters to help facilitate communication.
The Internet and electronics
The Internet is widely used in China, but certain websites are barred. Do not expect to be able to use Facebook, Twitter, or other popular Western websites while you are there. Despite this limitation, many cities offer WiFi services, as do many hotels.
Electrical outlets in China are not compatible with electronic devices from the US. Both and voltage and the plugs are different. You can find adapters that will allow you to plug in your devices from local electronics stores as well as transformers which will allow your devices to meet the local voltage requirements. Another option is to purchase these before your trip.
The Chinese use a mix of traditional health care along with Western health care style services. You should make sure you have additional health care insurance coverage before you travel. Additionally, if you have to get an injection, make sure that you insist on the use of a new needle and make sure the package is opened in your presence. Chinese health care is often unregulated. For a safer bet in the case of emergency, you should consider traveling to Taiwan or Japan where the health care services are more well-regulated.
You should bring common over the counter medicines with you when you travel, although liquids of any kind are not allowed. Try to find medicines that are in tablet form to bypass this restriction.
The condition of water can vary from region to region. Since much of China is highly polluted, it is best to drink only bottled water that has been sealed. You should also avoid asking for ice because it is often frozen unfiltered tap water.
A trip to China can offer much in the way of variety. Plan your trip well in advance, including taking advantage of travel and touring packages and you will experience an entirely new world.
C.W. Garay is an alumnus from the University of North Texas, where he received both his BA in psychology and an MA in English, specializing in creative writing, fiction. When not traveling he resides in Denton, TX, rated as the number one small town in which to live in the US according to Business Insider’s 2013 survey. In addition to writing articles on traveling, he also writes fiction under a pseudonym. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.