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China Travel Tips: Things To Know Before Visiting

China is an incredibly popular tourist destination that offers fascinating attractions such as the Great Wall of China in northern China, the Forbidden City in Beijing and the Terracotta Army in Xi’an. Following a period of travel restrictions, China has opened up and the tourism sector is projected to generate $3.2 trillion by 2028, almost doubling pre-pandemic revenues of $1.7 trillion in 2019. If you’re planning a visit to China, here are some useful travel tips to know before you go.

Translation Apps

How good are your Chinese language skills? If your ability to converse in Chinese is basic or non-existent, it’ll help to download a translation app. While English is gaining prevalence in China, it’s not widely spoken or understood. A translation app, which you can download for free on Google Play or the Apple App Store, is useful so you can communicate with people at shops, train stations and tourist attractions.

Important! Before you visit China, make sure you download the Chinese translation file on your app so you’re able to translate even when you don’t have an internet connection. As you’ll see later in this article, there can be several issues connecting to the internet, so you can save yourself a lot of hassle by ensuring your translation app works when you’re offline. Here’s an example using Google Translate.

Screenshot of Google Translate app with the notification, "Download languages so you can translate when you're offline".
Google Translate is one of many apps available for free download.
Screenshot of Google Translate app, showing that one can download the Chinese translation file so you can translate while offline.
You have the option to download language translation files.
Screenshot of Google Translate app, with a notification saying, "Download Chinese, Translate this language even when you're offline by downloading an offline translation file."
Downloading the Chinese language translation file will let you translate when you’re offline.

Sim Card & Internet Connection

If you’re traveling around China and you lose your internet connection, it can turn an amazing trip into a major hassle, particularly if you need to pay for things. It’s important, therefore, to have stable connectivity for the duration of your trip. China Unicom and China Mobile are two popular mobile providers where you can buy local SIM cards.

There are a few things to bear in mind when buying a SIM card in China:

  1. Bring your passport. You’ll need it to verify your identity and register the SIM card.
  2. Be prepared for long waiting times. It’s not always the case but the process can be slow, sometimes even taking up to an hour.
  3. If you can’t speak Chinese, keep your translation open.
  4. Always confirm the validity period of the SIM card.

The last point is especially important. You can purchase a SIM card from China Mobile at a price of 50 CNY ($7) for 15 GB. Thinking that 15 GB is a fairly large amount of data, one might assume the SIM card is valid at least for several days. As one solo traveler who bought this SIM card later found out, the validity period was only for 24 hours.

China Mobile SIM card
A China Mobile SIM card purchased in Beijing.

The result of this misunderstanding was a huge inconvenience. The tourist mentioned above ordered a taxi using their hotel Wi-Fi in order to save data and assumed the SIM card was still functional. However, when being taken to their destination in the taxi, the tourist noticed he had no internet connection. Upon arrival, without any spare cash and no connectivity, he was unable to pay for the taxi ride. Eventually the problem was resolved by the taxi driver ringing the tourist’s hotel and getting the front desk to pay on his behalf. Again, this could have been avoided by checking the SIM card’s validity period.

Before your trip you can either order a Chinese SIM card to be delivered to you, or upon arriving in China, it’s worth checking if there’s a China Unicom or China Mobile store at the airport. And while you’re traveling in China, if you do happen to lose connectivity, try to find a KFC restaurant. You’ll be able to connect to their free Wi-Fi without needing to go through a complicated registration process.


The majority of transactions in China are made through mobile payments, dominated by Alipay and WeChat Pay. To make a payment using either app, scan the QR code provided by the merchant and enter your payment pin. It’s advisable to download Alipay or WeChat Pay before you visit China for two reasons.

First, you’ll need to have your identity verified if you want full app functionality, and this can take several days. Second, you may encounter some problems transferring money from your bank accounts or cards onto Alipay or WeChat Pay. This is certainly something you don’t want to deal with when you’ve already arrived in China. It’s better to test this out in advance and find an alternative solution before your trip.

WeChat Pay / Weixin Pay notification saying "The bank card had been bound, please click the bank card list to check".
Some cards or bank accounts aren’t accepted on WeChat Pay.

Although China is considered a cashless society, it’s useful to keep some spare cash with you in case you run into any problems with mobile payments. Along with topping up your mobile wallets, there can also be issues with transferring money. If, for example, a member of hotel staff has paid for something on your behalf, you may encounter problems paying them back. In one example, a tourist tried to make a payment to a specific member of hotel staff but was unable to make a transfer from one personal account to another. Only when a business account was provided could the transfer go through. Once again, because of these issues, it’s useful to test Alipay and WeChat Pay thoroughly in advance of your trip.

Notification on WeChat Pay / Weixin Pay saying, "This mobile number is unable to receive money. Please ask the other user to enable "Transfer to me via mobile number" in "Money" > "Transfer to Bank Card/Mobile No." > "Mobile Number Transfer Settings"."
An error message on WeChat Pay when attempting to transfer money. The error persisted even after following the instructions.

And if you’re still not convinced, here’s another story. One tourist to China booked a taxi from Beijing Daxing International Airport using the ride hailing app, DiDi. Upon arriving at his hotel, payment didn’t go through. He had to ask the taxi driver to accompany him to the hotel reception and ask for hotel staff to pay the driver on his behalf. As the transaction didn’t go through the DiDi app, the taxi ride wasn’t confirmed as completed. This has left the app unusable, as months later, DiDi continues to say, “You have a trip in progress” and a new trip cannot be booked.

Chinese ride hailing app, DiDi. Notification saying "You have a trip in progress".
Payment to a DiDi taxi driver outside of the app has made the app unusable.

VPN in China

Various popular apps and services are banned in China, including WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, Google, YouTube and Gmail. To ensure you can communicate with friends and family back home, it’s worth downloading WeChat and asking others to do the same so there aren’t any issues when it comes to messaging each other.

For navigation, there are various alternatives to Google Maps such as Apple Maps, Bing Maps and Maps.me, which work in China. When looking at alternatives, check if you can download maps of the cities you’ll be visiting for offline use so you can still access them if you have any connection issues; similar to the recommendation above with translation apps. And if you have some degree of Chinese language understanding, try Baidu Maps or Amap.

If, however, you need to use services such as WhatsApp and Gmail, this is where a VPN comes in. A VPN, or Virtual Private Network, can be explained as a secure and private tunnel between your device and the internet. When you connect to a VPN, your internet traffic is routed through a server, which can be located in various regions around the world. It masks your real IP address with the VPN server’s address, making it look like you’re somewhere else. As a result, you could be in Shanghai but you’ll connect to the internet as if you’re in another country such as Singapore, making WhatsApp, YouTube and other banned services accessible.

From our experience ProtonVPN is a VPN service that we’ve been able to connect to while in China. There are, however, several things to bear in mind.

Screenshot of ProtonVPN app while connected in China.
Connected to ProtonVPN while in China.

The VPN landscape in China is changing constantly, so a server that works today may not work tomorrow. With ProtonVPN, you won’t be able to connect to every server, but if you try several servers, you’ll hopefully connect to one of them. Some VPN apps don’t work at all in China, and you’ll get a notification along the lines of, “this service is not available in China”. And while you’re actually in China, you may not be able to download VPN apps from Google Play and the Apple App Store, so it’s worth downloading a collection of VPN apps before your visit.

Avoid Tourist Scams

Tourist scams are a common occurrence in any country, and China is no different. When visiting a popular tourist attraction, you may come across some individuals nearby the entrance claiming to be tourist guides. Some of them say they’re selling tickets, and buying from them will help you avoid the long queues. If it isn’t already obvious, politely decline their offer. These tickets will usually be fake and/or overpriced. Always purchase tickets from official channels such as the official ticket booth or the attraction’s website.

Crossing the road

Crossing the road in China can be different to what you’re used to back home. To many drivers turning into a road, the pedestrian doesn’t always have the right of way, even when there’s a green light at a pedestrian crossing. Be aware that some vehicles will continue to drive past while you walk across a pedestrian crossing, so it becomes a responsibility of both drivers and pedestrians to be aware of their surroundings. If you need to cross a road, find a designated crossing and try to cross with a group. There’s safety in numbers.

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