No one wants to get to a foreign country and experience travel hell or struggle to pay for things. We made some mistakes when we went to China so that you don’t have to.
If you are also going to Beijing, click here to see our top 3 tips for Beijing.
1. Install a VPN
Want to post the perfect Instagram pic? Want to contact home via Messenger? Well, in China, you often can’t. The Great Firewall of China blocks things like Google, so if you only have Chrome on your phone then you’ll be unable to search for anything. So, get a VPN. VPNs can show your location as outside of China and hide your data from the authorities. If you are going for China for under a month, we recommend using Express VPN’s free trial and cancelling before the free trial ends. It worked perfectly for us and was free! Make sure to install the VPN app on your phone and laptop before coming to China since you won’t be able to whilst inside the country.
2. Get a SIM Card
In many countries, getting a SIM card can be a good idea that allows you to get internet data on the go and allows you to call local numbers. In China, getting a SIM card has extra importance. You will soon realise that many free wifi hotspots require you to enter a valid Chinese phone number to receive a confirmation code. From the airport to KFC, you will find yourself without internet if you lack a local SIM.
3. Bring Cash and Set Up Mobile Payments
In China, paying by card is rare and even large establishments often refuse to take card. Even going to an ATM can be a hellish ordeal. In one instance, we personally went to 5 banks before finding an ATM that would accept international cards (Bank of China and ICBC ATMs usually worked). Chinese much prefer to pay for things by scanning QR codes via WeChat Pay. Set this up before visiting China if you can as some vendors ONLY accept payment via WeChat. Apple Pay and other mobile payment services are also popular in China. Obviously, you’ll want internet for this, so that’s another great reason to get a local SIM.
4. Book Rail Tickets In Advance (and what to do if you’re caught out)
On seemingly unpopular routes, on seemingly ordinary days, rail tickets will sometimes sell out. If there are tickets left, you may be stuck with standing, which may be fine during short journeys but is to be avoided for long ones. To avoid this situation, book in advance. We used Trip.com which worked well for most journeys, but they once informed us less than 24 hours in advance that they couldn’t book any tickets for us. So, the best thing to do is to book tickets at the station, if you’re already in the country. If you don’t speak Mandarin (like most of us), print the station names and train times in advance as they won’t understand your bastardised pronunciation of Chinese place names (even Mandarin-speaking Sarah struggled getting staff to understand her when she didn’t know the correct tones). And remember to check train times from other close stations too if the city has more than one railway station.
If you’re unsure about booking tickets in advance, remember this. You can actually get an 80% refund by going up to the counter with your physical train tickets. We did this one time less than 12 hours before scheduled departure when we decided to change trains.
If you have a train ticket, but aren’t pleased about your standing or seated ticket, have a word with the conductor. He may be able to upgrade you for a small fee, since people miss trains or cancel trips all the time meaning that there may be more sleepers or seats on the day. It’s by no mean guaranteed, but multiple of our friends were successful when they approached the conductor and had preferential treatment in this as compared with the locals.
5. Install Google Translate and Download Chinese.
If you can’t speak Chinese and aren’t going to Hong Kong, you’re going to have to use other ways to communicate. Instead of playing charades, use a translation app like Google Translate. If you listened to tip number one, you probably won’t need to download the Chinese language to your phone, but if you do plan to be data-less, offline translation can be a godsend. Go to Google Translate and you will see that you can download languages so that you can translate offline. If you want the Chinese people to be able to write back to you, you need to download a Chinese script in your phone keyboard settings. Do all the above, and you’ll be able to communicate with locals much more effectively. Remember, if you’re going to the station, you should have the place name in Chinese characters and likewise, have the Chinese version of any address that you show a taxi driver. Translating place names won’t work!
We hope that helps. Write any additional tips in the comments section and remember to check out our Beijing tips here.