With centuries-old temples, brand-new skyscrapers, and everything in between, China offers lots to see and do even on short trips. After my recent visit to Shanghai, these are my top 11 tips for traveling in China:
1. Get your visa well in advance. Pretty much everyone needs a visa to visit China. They have an agreement with a handful of countries whose citizens can make short visits without one, but residents of North America and most of Europe are not on the list. The application requirements are strict, and even one incorrect checkbox can result in denial. We used the Passport and Visa Company, a for-profit service that walks you through the process and works directly with the embassy to get your application approved. And since we were going to the trouble and expense of getting a Chinese visa, we went ahead and got a 10-year visa so we’re covered for future visits.
2. Exchange money before you arrive. Think you can use your ATM card to get cash in China? Think again. My international credit cards wouldn’t even work in most stores, although I had better luck in restaurants. Thank goodness for my expat friends, who paid for everything from lunch to subway tickets and allowed me to reimburse them after I was back in the States. Most businesses accept WeChat and Alipay mobile payment options, but those are only available to local residents with Chinese bank accounts.
3. Download a VPN. China keeps a tight clamp on the Internet within its borders, and you won’t be able to get to sites like Google, Facebook, and Instagram without a virtual private network (VPN) to work around the blocks. Essentially, this tricks the servers into thinking your phone or laptop is somewhere else, like Sweden or Australia, that doesn’t censor access.
Updated December 2018: The service I used in Shanghai, Nord VPN, no longer works in China after the July 2018 government VPN crackdown. However, when we visited Beijing in December 2018, I used VPN Unlimited on my iPhone and had consistent Internet access across all sites and apps. It didn’t work on my Macbook Pro, but I had good success with Hotspot Shield VPN there.
4. Find a nonsmoking hotel that includes breakfast. Smoking is still very popular in China, and it can be difficult to find a hotel with smoke-free rooms. Be sure to ask about that when you’re making your reservation, since your money may not be refunded if you cancel after you arrive. While you’re checking the amenities, look for a room that includes breakfast. This ensures you at least one meal a day where you don’t need to speak Mandarin to order.
5. Learn a few words of Mandarin. While you can often get by with English, locals in China (and every country, for that matter) appreciate it when you make an attempt at their language. Being able to say “hello” (nǐ hǎo) and “thank you” (xiè xiè) goes a long way. For more complicated conversations, such as checking into your hotel or giving a cab driver directions, you’ll be glad you’ve downloaded Google Translate to your phone. You can enable the Mandarin plugin to use without Internet access, which could be a lifesaver, and the app’s photo feature automatically translates signage and other printed text.
6. Use WeChat to communicate with locals. For chatting with people in China who do speak English, you’ll need the WeChat app. Texting is difficult and Facebook is blocked, so you’ll find this messenger app handy for making plans. In larger cities such as Shanghai, you can also follow magazines and other social sites to find fun things to do, like concerts and gallery openings.
7. Wear comfortable shoes. While you’re running around seeing the sights, you’ll rack up a lot of steps. There are fashionistas in China, but most people wear comfortable shoes everywhere. I averaged walking 10 miles a day during my visit.
8. Stick to bottled water. Tap water isn’t safe to drink in China, but bottled water is cheap and readily available. Boiled tea is also plentiful and safe to drink. Or bring your own reusable water bottle from home and use our favorite UV light pen for water sterilization.
9. Bring your own toilet paper. While you’re staying well hydrated on all that water, you’re also going to need to use the facilities. For the most part, you’re going to encounter squat toilets in public restrooms, and they won’t provide any toilet paper. Bring some from your hotel or carry these compressed travel cloths that I love, which are also useful as disposable washcloths, tissues, and paper towels when you travel. There usually isn’t soap in Chinese public restrooms, either, so bring a small bottle of liquid soap or hand sanitizer, too.
10. Prepare to have your own paparazzi. As I wrote after my day in Tianzifang, it is very common for Chinese people to be fascinated by Western tourists, so much so that they will take photos of you as if you’re a celebrity. I was told that Westerners, especially Americans, are considered exotic. There’s even a Chinese phrase for it: “物以稀为贵,” which translates to, “Objects that are rare are precious.” So don’t be surprised if you’re asked to pose for selfies, you exotic thing, you.
11. Find xiaolongbao! These Chinese soup dumplings are incredible and worth seeking out on your trip. They arrive at your table in bamboo steamer baskets, and the broth is wrapped inside the delicate dumpling skin. Scoop one up in a soup spoon, then use the tip of your chopsticks to poke a hole so some of the steam can escape. Carefully bite off a bit of the dumpling while you balance it on the spoon to capture the broth, which you won’t want to lose. They take some practice to eat, but they’re worth the effort!
Read more about my visit to Shanghai:
Springtime in Shanghai: Yu Garden and the Bund
China’s Zhujiajiao Ancient Water Town
Shanghai’s French Concession, Xujiahui, and Tianzifang
Bright Blooms at Shanghai Botanical Garden
Shanghai’s M50 Art District and the World’s Largest Starbucks
Shanghai Urban Planning Museum