Chengdu Panda
Chengdu Panda

Combined with the money, language barrier, visas, and the Great Firewall, traveling to China can be slightly daunting.

Yet it can be enjoyable and easy when you come prepared.

A vacation in China provides unmatched cultural experiences. You are able to walk over crumbling parts of the magnificent Great Wall, watch the beautiful pandas based in Chengdu, and even watch the archaeologists digging the Terracotta Warriors out.

We have prepared a list of the things you should be considering and arranging before you decide to make the trip to China.

Internet

China is your opportunity to take a break from all your social media platforms, and break away from technology. Access to Google will be limited and The Great Firewall of China is real. There is no access to Facebook or Instagram.

Yet if this seems like something you are not willing to part with, there are ways around this firewall. You will need to get a VPN app. You will need to install the app on your phone before you leave for China and this will provide you with access to Google, Instagram, and Facebook. It will also unblock Netflix abroad, and let you stay up to date with all your binge watch favorites.

We used Express VPN and once installed, all you need to do is log on, choose your preferred internet connection for another city like Tokyo, LA, or Hong Kong and you are all set.

If you do not have a VPN, you will not be able to access Google. In this case, you can use Bing.com to conduct your internet searches.

Don’t bother with trying to use Google Maps in China. It is far better to download the local maps in the cities that you are planning to visit. The stories about tourists that try and find points of interest or restaurants that don’t actually exist using Google maps are true. It is often very wrong, so rather don’t use it.

China travel memorabilias

Visas

When I first looked at the Chinese visas they appeared so overwhelming, and the forms looked huge. Yet once you start filling them in it is actually very easy.

In fact, today there are a number of companies that charge a fee to do a Chinese visa on your behalf. Yet if you are looking to save some money, it is possible to do it on your own online. To start off with find the Visa for China website for the capital city that you live in.

Make sure you complete each section of the form and complete a form for every person that is traveling with you. From here you need to schedule an appointment at a visa for China center in your local area.

Before you go for your appointment, make sure you have printed out your accommodation and flight details, and copies of all your passports. At this appointment, you will be asked to hand over your passports for processing.

You don’t have to worry if you have forgotten your print outs. The Visa centers have their own photocopiers where you are able to email your details to the guard on duty and they will print out your documents for you.

When you arrive at the Visa center you will be given a number and you will wait in a line until it is your turn. Once you reach the counter, hand over all your forms, the photocopies of your accommodation and flight details, and all the passports.

After a week you will be able to return to the Visa center, pay a fee and collect the Visa’s. It is really that easy and simple.

Money

Trying to use a credit card in China is pretty useless.

Most of the locals in Chinese pay for everything through their phones. Alipay and WeChat are the most common of the mobile-payment systems. On our trip, we were unable to access either of these systems. You would need a Chinese bank account in order for WeChat wallet to work. It is possible to ask someone that you know that has a bank account in China to send you what is known as a “red packet” which are money transfers. Yet this is not a great option for most people.

The other option is to carry cash with you. Before you leave, find out about the banks in China that will accept your bank cards, as not all of them do. When you find out which bank does accept your card make the most of it. If you want to save money on bank fees, avoid withdrawing multiple times.

WiFi

In many countries, there is an option to buy portable WiFi devices when you land at the airport in order to minimize how much data you are using while you travel from one city to the next. Yet in China, this is not a good option due to the Great Firewall.

The best option is to buy a Chinese Sim card and use the data on the card when you are away from your hotel. There are a number of companies that will deliver your Chinese Sim Card to the hotel that you are staying at once you arrive. We made use of a company that sent us an email with instructions in Mandarin and English. When we checked into our hotel, we showed the email to the receptionist and she handed over our package. This provided easy and simple internet access. All you need to do is change your sim cards and you are set to go.

These sim cards allow you to set a primary account holder as well as one other person as a partner to the plan. We do warn that you ignore the random text messages sent to you in Mandarin. If you do not understand what it is, avoid clicking on it.

Tongren train station in Guizhou
Tongren train station in Guizhou

Trains

If you are thinking you can just hop onto the bullet train, think again.

The fastest and best trains typically sell out a couple of days before, which leaves you with only one other choice which includes a multi-stop and much longer journey.

If you prefer to avoid these long journeys make sure you book ahead. There are two options to book, you can either visit the train station and find the English-language service window or book online. If you book online, they will send you an email with instructions in Mandarin and English with the tickets at the station you are traveling from.

Another handy tip would be to use an app which plans your subway travel while in China. This will show you the connections you should be taking to get to where you want to go to in English. Some of the stations, just like the 1 in this photo, have limited English. This is when these apps become your lifeline.

You will be required to put every bag that you are traveling with through X-ray machines at all the train stations. You will soon get used to this.

Water And Snacks

Do not drink any of the water in China ever. This means that you need to buy water to carry with you every day.

The markets often sell items such as fresh fruit so make sure you stock up every time you see one.

On our trip, we found that it was difficult to find snacks in Xian and Beijing. Make sure you have a big breakfast at your hotel before you leave for the day. You might find a few convenience stores like Our Hours which sell a few snacks. However, we found that the majority of these items had minimal nutritional value. If you do eat out at any of the restaurants make sure you eat until you are full.

China street food in Hunan
China street food in Hunan

Dining Out

Many of the restaurants will offer menus in English. If you have VPN installed, you can also use Google translate by hovering over the menu to find out what you would like to eat. Once you have made a decision all you need to do is show your waiter what you would like to order. The dumplings and noodles are always a great choice. Some recommendations include First Noodle Under the Sun located in Xian, or if you are in Beijing, Dandong Duck does a really tasty Peking Duck.

Our top recommendation is to check on Trip Advisor to get advice from past travelers to that area. This offers you the information you need on the best eating spots in the local area.

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