Things You Should Know Before Traveling to China for the First Time

Travelled by Amanda Williams on 23 April 2011 | 10 Comments

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Amanda is a 20-something, small-town Ohio girl with a journalism degree under her belt and an unquenchable lust for travel.After studying abroad in New Zealand, Amanda has decided she’d love to move there one day so she can wear jandals, eat hokey pokey ice cream, and continue pretending she understands the rules of rugby. ...Find out more!

Things You Should Know Before Traveling to China for the First Time

There’s really no doubt about it – China can be a daunting, jarring, and even overwhelming experience for foreigners. Not only is there a language barrier to struggle with, but there’s also the huge population, teeming traffic, choking pollution and cultural differences that you’ll find in most larger Chinese cities.

But that shouldn’t stop you from visiting.

China is a vast and interesting country, and can be great to experience if you go into it with the right sort of knowledge.

Here are some things to know before you go to China:

Be informed about visas.

Forbidden City, Beijing

China requires most visitors to have visas in order to enter the country. Do your research on what you need to do to get your visa well before you’re planning to visit China. How much will it cost? How do you apply? How long will it take to process?

For Americans, for example, not only is there an application to fill out and a $130 fee to pay for a Tourist Visa, but you also have to drop off your passport and visa application to the Embassy or Consulate General that presides over the area where you live (no mail-in applications here). There is only 1 Embassy and 6 Consulate Generals in the U.S., so knowing this fact is important.

Consider when you’ll visit.

The Great Wall

China can be stifling in the summer. It gets hot. The smog gets overwhelming. And the sheer number of people traveling in China during the high season can be mind-blowing.

If you want to avoid all of this, consider visiting China in the off-season. I visited the country in late November in 2007, and was met with cool temperatures, less smog, and fewer hordes of tourists at big sites like the Great Wall and Forbidden City.

Expect a bit of culture shock.

The Chinese live different lives than Westerners do. Their cultural values and norms are different, and often are not completely understood by those from non-Eastern countries. So don’t be surprised if you experience some slight culture shock.

Some things to know:

  • The People’s Republic of China still operates under the rule of the Communist Party.
  • China is the most populated country in the world, with more than 1.3 billion people. In the big cities, you can expect teeming traffic, and polluted skies. Many people wear surgical masks to avoid breathing in the smog.
  • Expect squat toilets in many public places. It’s always a good idea to carry your own toilet paper with you.
  • In China, it is perfectly acceptable to spit in public. But don’t even THINK about blowing your nose in front of others.
  • The Chinese are very superstitious, especially when it comes to lucky and unlucky numbers. The numbers six, eight and nine are lucky – symbolizing happiness, wealth and longevity.

Be aware you may encounter censorship.

Tiananmen Square, Beijing

The Chinese government censors just about everything – the news, books, and even the Internet. Unless you know nifty ways to get past China’s firewalls (and yes, there ARE ways), don’t be surprised if you’re unable to access sites like Facebook and Twitter while in the country.

I remember being taken aback by the country’s censorship when I was there. For example, our young Chinese tour guide at Tiananmen Square could not tell us what happened there in 1986. Even though WE all knew that hundreds – maybe even thousands – were killed in what Western countries refer to as the “Tiananmen Square Massacre,” many Chinese people have no clue. Our guide said most people her age know “something happened” there decades ago, but censorship keeps them from knowing the details.

Tiananmen Square – as well as Taiwan and Tibet – are taboo subjects in China that you should try to avoid bringing up in conversation, especially with strangers.

Don’t take your knowledge of English for granted.

While English is slowly becoming more prevalent in China, don’t expect the average Chinese person to be able to hold a conversation with you. Many vendors and cab drivers only know enough English to get by, and speaking loudly and slowly at them will not make them understand; in fact, it will probably only make them angry.

When you go out in public, it is a good idea to have where you want to go and where you came from written out in Chinese. Having a business card from your hotel or hostel can be very helpful – and very smart if you find yourself lost.

Be prepared to be bombarded by vendors.

A couple of things to know about vendors in China: First, they are everywhere. And second, they are not shy.

Don’t be surprised at how aggressive these vendors can be. While walking down any city street, it is not uncommon to have someone selling something at your elbow at all times. They will thrust everything from pirated DVDs to knock-off watches at you, promising to make it “Cheaper for you! You say price!” They know just enough English to accost you, but not enough to actually understand your protests or pleadings that they leave you alone.

Learn this phrase: Bu-yao (pronounced “boo-yauw”). It means, literally, “no want.”

Learn how to haggle.


Bargaining is expected in China, even from foreign tourists. Here are a few tips if you’re haggling for the first time in China:

Firstly, don’t look interested in something if you’re not. The Chinese don’t generally understand the concept of “browsing” in a store.

Secondly, vendors are not stupid. They can tell you are a tourist from a mile away, and will try to overcharge you. Don’t agree to the first price they quote to you. If they tell you something is 100 Yuan, try offering them half of that – or even a third of that – and then work from there.

If they don’t speak much English, try typing the numbers into your phone or a calculator to help facilitate understanding.

Know that YOU may turn into the tourist attraction.

The majority of the Chinese people you will meet in places like Shanghai and Beijing are not natives to those cities. Most are tourists from outlying cities and villages, and many may have never seen skyscrapers or Westerners before.

Don’t be surprised if you get a fair amount of stares, or even photo requests. When I was traveling in China, it was not uncommon for Asian tourists to ask people in my group who were very pale, blond-haired, and/or very tall to pose for photos with them.

It’s okay to feel overwhelmed.

China can be overwhelming. I know this, and most people who have traveled there before know this. It’s okay to feel this way.

Not everyone is going to love China. But this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t explore it.

The big tourist destinations like the Great Wall and the Forbidden City are popular for a reason, and are well worth a visit. But, if they’re not for you, don’t feel bad.

The worst thing you can do isn’t to visit China and not like it. The worst thing you can do is NOT visit China because you’re afraid you won’t like it.

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