Accessible Travel

China is not easy to navigate for travellers with limited mobility, but travel in a wheelchair is possible in the large cities by staying at top-end accommodation (with lots of preparation and pre-booking). High-speed trains are generally far more accessible than older rolling stock. Many urban metro systems are quite accessible as they are relatively modern systems, so a fair number of stations have lifts. Accessible toilets can be found in shopping malls in large cities and also at airports, but squat loos elsewhere can make travelling very difficult.

Download Lonely Planet's freeAccessible Travel guides from http://lptravel.to/AccessibleTravel.

Bargaining

Haggling is standard procedure in markets and shops (outside of department stores and malls) where prices are not clearly marked. There's no harm in coming in really low, but remain polite at all times. In touristy markets in Shanghai and Beijing, vendors can drop to as low as 25% of the original price. It's also a good idea to see what locals are paying at markets, so you know where you stand.

Dangers & Annoyances

China is relatively safe and non-violent. Most crime, such as pickpocketing, is preventable by taking precautions.

  • Crossing the road will probably be your number-one danger, so keep your wits about you.
  • The green man at traffic lights does not mean it's safe to cross. Instead it means it is slightly safer to cross, but you can still be run down by traffic allowed to turn on red lights.
  • Foreigners cannot stay at any hotel of their choosing, but need to stay at one that is authorised by the Public Security Bureau to accept foreign guests.

Crime

Travellers are more often the victims of petty economic crime, such as theft, than serious crime. Foreigners are natural targets for pickpockets and thieves – keep your wits about you and make it difficult for thieves to get at your belongings.

High-risk areas in China are train and bus stations, city and long-distance buses (especially sleeper buses), hard-seat train carriages and public toilets.

Women should be aware of the dangers when travelling solo. Even in Beijing, single women taking taxis have been taken to remote areas and robbed by taxi drivers.

Loss Reports

If something of yours is stolen, report it immediately to the nearest Foreign Affairs Branch of the Public Security Bureau (PSB; 公安局; Gōng’ānjú). Staff will ask you to fill in a loss report before investigating the case.

A loss report is crucial so you can claim compensation if you have travel insurance. Be prepared to spend many hours, perhaps even several days, organising it. Make a copy of your passport in case of loss or theft.

Scams

Watch out for any solicitations to go to teahouses or expensive cafes in cities such as Shanghai as you could be left with a huge bill.

Taxi scams at Beijing’s Capital Airport are legendary – always join the queue at the taxi rank and insist that the taxi driver uses his or her meter. Try to avoid pedicabs and motorised three-wheelers wherever possible – there are widespread complaints against pedicab drivers who originally agree on a price and then insist on an alternative figure once you arrive at the destination (language complications will work against you).

Watch out for itinerant monks asking for donations to their temple as a fair number are bogus. If you wish to donate to a temple, visit the temple and do so there.

Be alert at all times if you decide to change money or buy tickets (such as train tickets) on the black market, which we can’t recommend.

Always be alert when buying unpriced goods (which is a lot of the time): foreigners are frequently ripped off. Always examine your restaurant bill carefully for hidden extras and if paying by credit card, ensure there are no extra charges.

Transport

Traffic accidents are the major cause of death in China for people aged between 15 and 45, and the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates there are 700 traffic deaths per day in China (with 60% being vulnerable road users, such as pedestrians, cyclists and motorbike riders). The proliferation of fast e-bikes (electric bikes) added to the mortality rate (so much so that several cities, including Shenzhen, have either restricted their use or banned them).

Seat-belt use on long-distance buses has improved greatly over recent years, and on-board announcements and checks ensure passengers have their seat belts fastened. Taxi drivers continue, however, to insist you don't need to use seat belts – it can often be impossible to find seat belts in the rear seats of taxis. Sit in the front if there is space.

Your greatest danger in China will almost certainly be crossing the road, so develop 360-degree vision and a sixth sense. Electric cars and 'hoverboards' can approach quite silently. Crossing only when it is safe to do so could keep you perched at the side of the road in perpetuity, but don’t imitate the local tendency to cross without looking. Note that cars frequently turn on red lights in China, so the green ‘walk now’ figure does not always mean it is safe to cross.

Government Travel Advice

The following government websites offer travel advisories and information on current hotspots.

Australian Department of Foreign Affairs (www.smarttraveller.gov.au)

British Foreign Office (www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice)

Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs (https://travel.gc.ca/travelling/advisories)

US State Department (http://travel.state.gov)

Discount Cards

Seniors over the age of 65 are frequently eligible for discounts and those over 70 get free admission, so make sure you take your passport as proof of age when visiting sights.

An International Student Identity Card (ISIC; www.isic.org) can net students half-price discounts at many sights, but you may have to insist – and you may have as much luck with your home country's student card.

Electricity

There are three types of plugs used in China – three-pronged angled pins, two flat pins (the most common), or two narrow round pins. Electricity is 220 volts, 50 cycles AC.

Embassies & Consulates

Embassies are located in Beijing, with consulates scattered around the country. There are three main embassy areas in Beijing: Jianguomenwai, Sanlitun and Liangmaqiao. Embassies are open from 9am to noon and 1.30pm to 4pm Monday to Friday, but visa departments are often only open in the morning. For visas you need to phone to make an appointment.

Australian Embassy

Australian Consulates

Canadian Embassy

Canadian Consulates

French Embassy

French Consulates

German Embassy

German Consulates

Indian Embassy

Indian Consulate

Irish Embassy

Irish Consulates

Japanese Embassy

Japanese Consulates

Kazakh Embassy

Kazakh Consulate

Kyrgyz Embassy

Kyrgyz Consulate

Laotian Embassy

Laotian Consulates

Mongolian Embassy

Mongolian Consulates

Myanmar Embassy

Myanmar Consulate

Nepali Embassy

Nepali Consulates

Netherlands Embassy

Netherlands Consulates

New Zealand Embassy

New Zealand Consulates

North Korean Embassy

North Korean Consulate

Pakistani Embassy

Russian Embassy

South Korean Embassy

South Korean Consulates

Thai Embassy

Thai Consulates

UK Embassy

UK Consulates

US Embassy

US Consulates

Vietnamese Embassy

Vietnamese Consulates

Emergency & Important Numbers

Ambulance120
Fire119
Police110
Country code (China/Hong Kong/Macau) 86/852/853
International access code00
Directory assistance114

Entry & Exit Formalities

No particular difficulties exist for travellers entering China. Chinese immigration officers are scrupulous and highly bureaucratic, but not overly officious. The main requirements are a passport that’s valid for travel for six months after the expiry date of your visa, and a visa. Travellers arriving in China will receive a health declaration form and an arrivals form to complete.

Customs Regulations

Chinese customs officers generally pay tourists little attention. ‘Green channels’ and ‘red channels’ at the airport are clearly marked. You are not allowed to import or export illegal drugs, or animals and plants (including seeds). Pirated DVDs and CDs are illegal exports from China – if found they will be confiscated. You can take Chinese medicine up to a value of ¥300 when you depart China.

Duty free you’re allowed to import:

  • 400 cigarettes (or the equivalent in tobacco products)
  • 1.5L of alcohol
  • 50g of gold or silver.

Also note:

  • Importation of fresh fruit and cold cuts is prohibited.
  • There are no restrictions on foreign currency, but you should declare any cash exceeding US$5000 or its equivalent in another currency.

Objects considered antiques require a certificate and a red seal to clear customs when leaving China. Anything made before 1949 is considered an antique, and if it was made before 1795 it cannot legally be taken out of the country. To get the proper certificate and red seal, your antiques must be inspected by the State Administration of Cultural Heritage in Beijing.

Passports

You are required to carry your passport (护照; hùzhào) with you at all times – police may carry out random checks, all hotels require it for check-in, and many sightseeing spots and museums require passports for entry. It is also mandatory to present your passport when buying train tickets.

The Chinese government requires that your passport be valid for at least six months after the expiry date of your visa. You’ll need at least one entire blank page in your passport for the visa.

Take an ID card with your photo in case you lose your passport, and make digital copies or photocopies of your passport: your embassy may need these before issuing a new one. You must report the loss to the local Public Security Bureau (PSB), which will issue you with a 'Statement of Loss of Passport'.

Long-stay visitors should register their passport with their nation's embassy.

Visas

While visas are needed for most visits to mainland China, visa-free transits of up to 144 hours are available in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangdong, Chengdu, Xi'an and other places.

Applying for Visas

For China

Apart from visa-free visits to Hong Kong and Macau, 24-hour visa-free exemptions and useful 144-hour and 72-hour visa-free transit stays (for visitors from 53 nations) to a number of cities and regions, including Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei, Shanghai, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Qingdao, Shandong, Guangdong province, Chengdu, Xi'an, Liaoning province, Guilin, Chongqing and Kunming, you will need a visa to visit China. Citizens from Japan, Singapore, Brunei, San Marino, Mauritius, the Seychelles, the Bahamas and a handful of other nations do not require a visa to visit China. There remain a few restricted areas in China that require an additional permit from the PSB. Permits are also required for travel to Tibet, a region that authorities can suddenly bar foreigners from entering.

Visa requirements and restrictions continuously change, so always check with your Chinese embassy or Visa Application Service Centre about the latest regulations.

Your passport must be valid for at least six months after the expiry date of your visa (nine months for a double-entry visa) and you’ll need at least one entire blank page in your passport for the visa. For children under the age of 18, a parent must sign the application form on their behalf.

Citizens from the US, UK, Canada and Israel can apply for long-term, multiple-entry Chinese visas with a validity of between two and 10 years. These usually entitle the bearer to stay in China for 60 days per entry, and to come and go without having to reapply for a new visa each time.

At the time of writing the visa application process had become more rigorous. In many countries the visa application service has been outsourced from the Chinese embassy to the Chinese Visa Application Service Centre (www.visaforchina.org), which levies an extra administration fee. You'll need to book an appointment and prepare your application online beforehand. Applicants will need to have their fingerprints scanned as part of the application process. Visa Application Service Centres are open Monday to Friday.

At the time of writing, applicants were required to provide the following:

  • a copy of flight confirmation showing onward/return travel.
  • for double-entry visas, flight confirmation showing all dates of entry and exit.
  • if staying at hotels in China, confirmation from each hotel (these can be booked on reservation platforms such as booking.com for the purposes of proof and later cancelled or amended).
  • if staying with friends or relatives, a copy of the information page of their passport, a copy of their China visa and a letter of invitation from them.
  • you may be required to show you have sufficient funds in your bank account for each day you plan to spend in China.

Check with your Chinese embassy or at www.visaforchina.org for the latest application requirements.

At the time of writing, prices for a standard single-entry 30-day visa were as follows:

  • £151 for UK citizens
  • US$140 for US citizens
  • C$142 for Canadian citizens
  • A$109 for Australian citizens
  • €126 for French, German, Italian, Dutch and Spanish citizens
  • US$40 for citizens of other nations.

Prices are higher for double-entry or multiple-entry visas, and significantly higher for visas valid for two, five or 10 years.

A standard, 30-day single-entry visa can be issued in four to five working days; express visas will be more expensive.

A standard 30-day visa is activated on the date you enter China, and must be used within three months of the date of issue. To stay longer you can extend your visa in China.

Hong Kong is a good place to pick up a China visa. Visas can be arranged by China Travel Service, the mainland-affiliated agency, as well as a good many hostels and guesthouses and most Hong Kong travel agents.

At the time of writing, holders of Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, US and most EU passports can get a single visa on the spot for around HK$150 at the Lo Wu border crossing, the last stop on the MTR’s East Rail. This visa is for a maximum stay of five days within the confines of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone (SEZ). However, the rules about who can get what change frequently, the queues for these visas can be interminable, and there have been reports of tourists being rejected on shaky grounds (such as certain passport stamps).

Taking that into consideration, it is highly recommended that you shell out the extra money and get a proper China visa before setting off, even if you’re headed just for Shenzhen. If you have at least a week to arrange your visa yourself, you can go to the China Visa Application Service Centre in Hong Kong. For further details see www.fmprc.gov.cn.

Be aware that political events can suddenly make visas more difficult to procure or renew.

When asked about your itinerary on the application form, list standard tourist destinations; if you are considering going to Tibet or western Xinjiang, just leave it off the form. The list you give is not binding. Those working in media or journalism may want to profess a different occupation; otherwise a visa may be refused or a shorter length of stay than requested may be given.

For Hong Kong

At the time of writing, most visitors to Hong Kong, including citizens of the EU, Australia, New Zealand, the USA and Canada, could enter and stay for 90 days without a visa. British passport holders get 180 days, while South Africans are allowed to stay 30 days visa-free. Anyone requiring a visa or wishing to stay longer than the visa-free period must apply before travelling to Hong Kong. See www.fmprc.gov.cn for your nearest Chinese consulate or embassy where the application must be made.

If you visit Hong Kong from China, you will need a double-entry, multiple-entry or new visa to re-enter China. Visas can be arranged by China Travel Service, the mainland-affiliated agency, as well as a good many hostels and guesthouses and most Hong Kong travel agents.

For Macau

Most travellers, including citizens of the EU, Australia, New Zealand, the USA, Canada and South Africa, can enter Macau without a visa for between 30 and 90 days. British passport holders get 180 days. Most other nationalities can get a 30-day visa on arrival, which will cost MOP$100/50/200 per adult/child under 12/family.

If you’re visiting Macau from China and plan to re-enter China, you will need to be on a multiple- or double-entry visa, or reapply for a visa. Nationals of Australia, Canada, the EU, the UK, New Zealand and most other countries (but not US citizens) can purchase their China visas at Zhuhai on the border, but it will ultimately save you time if you get one in advance as lines can be long. Express visas (MOP$1250 plus photos) are available in Macau or Hong Kong from China Travel Service, usually in two to five working days.

Visa Types

There are 12 categories of visas:

C

English Name

Flight attendant

Chinese Name

乘务; chéngwù

D

English Name

Resident

Chinese Name

定居; dìngjū

F

English Name

Business or student

Chinese Name

访问; fǎngwèn

G

English Name

Transit

Chinese Name

过境; guòjìng

J1

English Name

Journalist (more than six months)

Chinese Name

记者1; jìzhě 1

J2

English Name

Journalist (less than six months)

Chinese Name

记者2; jìzhě 2

L

English Name

Travel

Chinese Name

旅行; lǚxíng

M

English Name

Commercial and trade

Chinese Name

贸易; màoyì

Q1

English Name

Family visits (more than six months)

Chinese Name

亲属1; qīnshǔ 1

Q2

English Name

Family visits (less than six months)

Chinese Name

亲属2; qīnshǔ 2

R

English Name

Talents/needed skills

Chinese Name

人才; réncái

S1

English Name

Visits to foreign relatives/private (more than six months)

Chinese Name

私人1; sīrén 1

S2

English Name

Visits to foreign relatives/private (less than six months)

Chinese Name

私人2; sīrén 2

X1

English Name

Student (more than six months)

Chinese Name

学习1; xuéxí 1

X2

English Name

Student (less than six months)

Chinese Name

学习2; xuéxí 2

Z

English Name

Working

Chinese Name

工作; gōngzuò

Visa Extensions

For China

The Foreign Affairs Branch of the local Public Security Bureau (PSB) deals with visa extensions. We list PSB offices that can grant visa extensions, where an office authorised to administer such extensions exists.

First-time extensions of 30 days are usually easy to obtain on single-entry tourist visas, but must be done at least seven days before your visa expires – a further extension of a month may be possible, but you may only get another week. Travellers report generous extensions in provincial towns, but don’t bank on this. Popping across to Hong Kong to apply for a new tourist visa is another option. Note that if you enter Hong Kong (or Macau) on a single-entry visa and do not extend or obtain a new visa, you will not be able to re-enter the PRC.

Extensions to single-entry visas vary in price, depending on your nationality; most nationalities pay ¥160. At the time of writing, US travellers needed to pay ¥760 and UK citizens around ¥500. Expect to wait up to seven days for your visa extension to be processed.

The penalty for overstaying your visa in China is up to ¥500 per day, and you may even be banned from returning to China for up to 10 years if you overstay by more than 11 days. Some travellers have reported having trouble with officials who read the 'valid until' date on their visa incorrectly. For a one-month travel (L) visa, the 'valid until' date is the date by which you must enter the country (within three months of the date the visa was issued), not the date on which your visa expires.

For Hong Kong

For tourist-visa extensions, inquire at the Hong Kong Immigration Department. Extensions (HK$160) are not readily granted unless there are extenuating circumstances, such as illness.

For Macau

If your visa expires, you can obtain a single one-month extension from the Macau Immigration Department.

Residence Permits

Residence permits can be issued to English teachers, business people, students and other foreigners who are authorised to live in the PRC. Permits range from one to five years – depending on certain criteria the applicant must be able to meet – and allow unlimited exits and re-entries. International students who graduate from a Chinese university are now eligible to apply for a residence permit valid for two years. Since 2018 highly skilled foreigners (those working in high-tech and new technology, plus research and development, among other professions) can also apply for permanent residency.

To get a residence permit you first need to arrange a work permit (normally obtained by your employer), health certificate and temporary visa ('Z' type visa for most foreign employees).

You then must go to the Public Security Bureau with your passport, health certificate, work contract or permit, your employer’s business registration licence or representative office permit, your employment certificate (from the Shanghai Labour Bureau), the temporary residence permit of the local PSB where you are registered, passport photos, a letter of application from your employer and around ¥400 for a one-year permit. In all, the process usually takes two to three weeks. Expect to make several visits and always carry multiple copies of every document. In most cases your employer will take care of much of the process for you.

Visa-Free Transits

Citizens from 53 nations (including the US, Australia, Canada, France, Brazil and the UK) can stay in Beijing, Tianjin and parts of Hebei for 144 hours (six days) without a visa as long as they are in transit to other destinations outside China, have a third-country visa and an air ticket out of China. Similarly, citizens from the same nations can transit through these individual regions and/or cities: Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang; Liaoning province; Guangdong province; Chengdu, Xiamen, Kunming, Wuhan and Qingdao (and Shandong province). You are permitted to travel within each region, but not between regions, so you can travel within Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei but you cannot travel from that region to Shanghai.

Chongqing, Harbin, Xi'an, Guilin and Changsha also exercise a 72-hour (three-day) visa-free policy, with the same conditions. Visitors on such three-day stays are not allowed to leave the transit city. Chongqing and Xi'an are expected to move to the 144-hour policy in the near future.

China also exercises a 24-hour visa-free transit policy for most nationalities whereby you do not need a visa for transits of less than 24 hours. It's applicable at most airports, except those in Shenzhen, Fuzhou, Yanji and Mudanjiang. You will need to have a ticket to a third country with a confirmed seat.

For visa-free transit:

  • You must inform your airline at check-in.
  • Upon arrival, look for the dedicated immigration counter.
  • Your transit time is calculated from just after midnight, so you may actually be permitted a little more than 72 or 144 hours.
  • If you are not staying at a hotel, you must register with a local police station within 24 hours of arriving.
  • Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan are eligible third countries.
  • Visitors on the 72-hour visa-free transit must leave the country from the same airport of entry. The exception is certain cities adopting the 144-hour visa-free transit scheme, where visitors may enter or leave from land or sea ports.

Check your eligibility as the rules change quickly and new cities are being added.

Hainan Island has a scheme that gives you 30 days visa-free travel if you book your trip through a registered travel agency on Hainan Island.

Etiquette

China is a pretty relaxed country regarding etiquette, but be aware of a few things:

  • Greetings and goodbyes Shake hands, but never kiss someone’s cheek. Say ‘Nihǎo’ for hello and ‘Zàijiàn’ (or increasingly just 'bye bye') for goodbye.
  • Asking for help To ask for directions start with ‘Qǐng wèn….’ (‘Can I ask…’); say ‘Duìbuqǐ’ ('Sorry') to apologise.
  • Religion Dress sensitively when visiting Buddhist (especially in Tibet) and Taoist temples, churches and mosques.
  • Eating and drinking Help fill your neighbour’s plate at the dinner table. Toast the host and others at the table. At the start of dinner, wait till toasting starts before drinking from your glass. Offer your cigarettes around if you smoke. Always offer to buy drinks in a bar, but never fight over the drink/food tab if someone else wants to pay (but do offer at least once).
  • Gestures Don’t use too many hand movements or excessive body language.

LGBT Travellers

Greater tolerance exists in big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai than in the more conservative countryside, but even in urban areas, gay and lesbian public displays of affection can raise an eyebrow. You will often see Chinese friends of the same sex holding hands or putting their arms around each other, but this usually has no sexual connotation. There are gay bars and clubs in the major cities, but it is far more common for people to socialise on apps. A same-sex couple staying in a hotel room with only one bed will rarely attract any resistance or comments (at least not to their faces).

There is certainly an increasingly confident scene in Shanghai, as indicated by the numerous gay bars and the annual, event-stuffed Shanghai Pride.

In 2016 China banned the depiction of gay people on television. In 2018 videos were circulated online showing two women being assaulted by security staff at 798 Art District for wearing rainbow badges in support of LGBTQ rights.

Surprisingly gay networking app Grindr isn't blocked in China, and neither are local apps Blued and Aloha. While Blued (mostly for hookups) and Aloha are aimed at men, there's Lespark (拉拉公园) and Rela (热拉) for women.

The following resources are useful for gay travellers to China:

Danlan (淡蓝; www.danlan.org) Chinese-only news and lifestyle.

Spartacus International Gay Guide (www.spartacusworld.com/en) Best-selling guide for gay travellers; also available as an iPhone App.

Utopia (www.utopia-asia.com/tipschin.htm) Tips on travelling in China and a complete listing of gay bars nationwide.

Insurance

Carefully consider a travel insurance policy to cover theft, loss, trip cancellation and medical eventualities. Travel agents can sort this out for you, though it is often cheaper to find good deals with an insurer online or with a broker.

Some policies specifically exclude ‘dangerous activities’ such as scuba diving, skiing and even trekking/hiking. Check that the policy covers ambulances and an emergency flight home.

Paying for your airline ticket with a credit card often provides limited travel accident insurance – ask your credit-card company what it’s prepared to cover.

You may prefer a policy that pays doctors or hospitals directly rather than reimbursing you for expenditures after the fact. If you have to claim later, ensure you keep all documentation.

Worldwide travel insurance is available at www.lonelyplanet.com/travel-insurance. You can buy, extend and claim online anytime – even if you’re already on the road.

Checking insurance quotes…

Internet Access

Wi-fi accessibility in hotels, cafes, restaurants and bars is generally good. The best option is to bring a smartphone, tablet or laptop, or purchase a local SIM card on arrival. Chain restaurants and cafes with free wi-fi sometimes still require a Chinese phone number to receive a login code and the prompt for that may just be in Chinese.

The Chinese authorities maintain strong controls on internet access. Around 10% of websites are blocked. The list is constantly changing, but includes sites and apps such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google-owned sites (YouTube, Google Maps, Gmail, Google Drive), WhatsApp, Snapchat, Dropbox and many international media outlets, so plan ahead.

Without a VPN (virtual private network) on your phone, tablet or laptop, expect to go cold turkey on social media (and even emails) for the duration of your trip. Bear in mind that many popular VPN services themselves become blocked, so ask around or check online before committing to a service. The government (which uses VPNs itself) had vowed to block all such services eventually, but at time of research was yet to do so.

The VPN you use may sometimes interfere with your wifi connection and make it harder to get online when using public wi-fi, in which case you will need to turn off the VPN in order to access wi-fi. A VPN must be installed on devices before departing for China. VPNs can function less well or stop working entirely during politically sensitive times on the annual calendar. It's a good idea to use two VPNs so you have a backup in case one is twitchy or not working.

Media

  • Newspapers The standard English-language newspaper is the China Daily (www.chinadaily.com.cn). China’s largest-circulation Chinese-language daily is the People’s Daily (人民日报; Rénmín Rìbào), which has an English-language edition at http://en.people.cn. Imported English-language newspapers can be bought from five-star-hotel bookshops.
  • Internet Radio & TV Listen to the BBC World Service (www.bbc.co.uk/worldserviceradio) or Voice of America (www.voa.gov), but you will need to have a VPN installed for access as both websites are blocked in China. Chinese Central TV (CCTV) has two English-language channels: CCTV9 and CCTV NEWS. Your hotel may have ESPN, Star Sports, CNN or BBC News 24.

Money

ATMs are plentiful in big cities and towns. Credit cards less widely used; always carry cash.

ATMs

Bank of China 24-hour ATMs are plentiful, and you can use Visa, MasterCard, Cirrus, Maestro Plus and American Express to withdraw cash. All ATMs accepting international cards have dual-language ability. The network is largely found in sizeable towns and cities. ATMs at the Industrial & Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) may work with international cards, but not in every destination. We list ATMs that take international cards for each destination, unless they do not exist, in which case you will be advised to take enough cash to that destination.

The exchange rate on ATM withdrawals is similar to that for credit cards, but there is a maximum daily withdrawal amount. Note that banks can charge a withdrawal fee for using the ATM network of another bank, so check with your bank before travelling.

Keep your ATM receipts so you can exchange your yuán when you leave China.

To have money wired from abroad, visit Western Union or Moneygram (www.moneygram.com).

Cash

The Chinese currency is the rénmínbì (RMB), or ‘people’s money’. The basic unit of RMB is the yuán (元; ¥), which is divided into 10 jiǎo (角), which is again divided into 10 fēn (分). Colloquially the yuán is referred to as kuài, and jiǎo as máo (毛). The fēn has so little value these days that it is rarely used.

The Bank of China issues RMB bills in denominations of ¥1, ¥2, ¥5, ¥10, ¥20, ¥50 and ¥100. Coins come in denominations of ¥1, 5 jiǎo, 1 jiǎo and 5 fēn. Paper versions of the coins remain in circulation.

Hong Kong’s currency is the Hong Kong dollar (HK$), which is divided into 100 cents. Bills are issued in denominations of HK$10, HK$20, HK$50, HK$100, HK$500 and HK$1000. Copper coins are worth 50c, 20c and 10c, while the $5, $2 and $1 coins are silver and the $10 coin is nickel and bronze. The Hong Kong dollar is pegged to the US dollar at a rate of US$1 to HK$7.80, though it is allowed to fluctuate a little.

Macau’s currency is the pataca (MOP$), which is divided into 100 avos. Bills are issued in denominations of MOP$10, MOP$20, MOP$50, MOP$100, MOP$500 and MOP$1000. There are copper coins worth 10, 20 and 50 avos and silver-coloured MOP$1, MOP$2, MOP$5 and MOP$10 coins. The pataca is pegged to the Hong Kong dollar at a rate of MOP$103.20 to HK$100. In effect the two currencies are interchangeable and Hong Kong dollars, including coins, are accepted in Macau. Chinese rénmínbì is also accepted in many places in Macau at one-to-one. You can’t spend patacas anywhere else, however, so use them before you leave Macau. Prices quoted are in yuán unless otherwise stated.

Credit Cards

In large tourist towns, credit cards are relatively straightforward to use, but don’t expect to be able to use them everywhere and it's always a good idea to carry enough cash. The exception is in Hong Kong, where international credit cards are accepted almost everywhere (though some shops may try to add a surcharge to offset the commission charged by credit-card companies, which can range from 2.5% to 7%). Check to see if your credit-card company charges a foreign transaction fee (usually between 1% and 3%) for purchases in China.

Where they are accepted, credit cards often deliver a slightly better exchange rate than banks. Money can also be withdrawn at certain ATMs in large cities on credit cards such as Visa, MasterCard and Amex.

Mobile Payment Apps

Their use is complicated for foreign visitors, but local Chinese use WeChat (微信; wēixìn; WeChat Pay) and Alipay (支付宝; zhīfùbǎo) apps to pay for virtually everything from taxi rides and market vendors, to hotels and even donating to beggars in the street. Cash is, for the moment, still widely accepted, but China is increasingly a cashless society. Neither WeChat nor Alipay was useful for visitors at the time of writing as it was necessary to link a Chinese bank account to your digital wallet before funds could be received from any source. Check the latest before you head to China as things could change. It is still fine to use cash (or credit cards, where they are accepted) in most instances, though you may find taxi drivers no longer carry much change, so try to carry small notes when hailing a cab.

For a visitor the only accessible system that allows foreign cards is Apple Pay, which is accepted where you see the Apple Pay or QuickPass logos. Payments are made by holding your compatible device against the payment machine and verifying with your fingerprint.

Exchange Rates

AustraliaA$1¥4.81
CanadaC$1¥5.36
Euro zone€1¥7.82
Hong KongHK$1¥0.90
Japan¥100¥6.61
New ZealandNZ$1¥4.47
UKUK£1¥8.84
USUS$1¥7.11

For current exchange rates, see www.xe.com.

First Time

  • Credit cards Credit and debit cards, particularly Visa and MasterCard, are increasingly accepted in tourist towns and big cities. Ask if bars and restaurants take cards before ordering and always carry enough cash.
  • ATMs 24-hour ATMs are available at Bank of China and ICBC branches.
  • Changing money You can change money at hotels, large branches of Bank of China, some department stores and international airports. Some towns don’t have any money-changing facilities, so make sure you take enough cash.
  • Mobile Payment Apps Chinese widely use the mobile payment apps WeChat Pay and Alipay, but their use is not straightforward for foreign travellers.

Moneychangers

It’s best to wait till you reach China to exchange money as the exchange rate will be better. Foreign currency and travellers cheques can be changed at border crossings, international airports, branches of the Bank of China, tourist hotels and some large department stores. Hours of operation for foreign-exchange counters are 8am to 7pm (later at hotels). Top-end hotels will generally change money for hotel guests only. The official rate is given almost everywhere and the exchange charge is standardised, so there is little need to shop around for the best deal.

Australian, Canadian, US, UK, Hong Kong and Japanese currencies and the euro can be changed in China. In some backwaters it may be hard to change lesser-known currencies; US dollars are still the easiest to change.

Keep at least a few of your exchange receipts. You will need them if you want to exchange any remaining yuán you have at the end of your trip.

Tipping

  • Hotels Porters may expect a tip.
  • Restaurants Tipping is never expected at cheap, and many midrange, restaurants. In general there is no need to tip if a service charge has already been added, so check your bill for one.
  • Taxis Drivers do not expect tips.

Travellers Cheques

With the prevalence of ATMs across China, travellers cheques are not as useful as they once were and cannot be used everywhere, so always ensure you carry enough ready cash. You should have no problem cashing travellers cheques at tourist hotels, but they are of little use in budget hotels and restaurants. Most hotels will only cash the cheques of guests. If cashing them at banks, aim for larger ones such as the Bank of China or ICBC.

Stick to the major companies such as Amex and Visa. In big cities travellers cheques are accepted in almost any currency, but in smaller destinations it’s best to stick to currencies such as US dollars or UK pounds. Keep your exchange receipts so you can change your money back to its original currency when you leave.

Opening Hours

China officially has a five-day working week; Saturday and Sunday are holidays.

Banks 9am–5pm (or 6pm) Monday to Friday; may close for two hours in the afternoon. Many also open Saturday and maybe Sunday. Same for offices and government departments.

Post offices Generally open daily (9am–5pm).

Restaurants Around 10.30am–11pm; some shut at around 2pm and reopen at 5pm or 6pm.

Bars Open in the late afternoon, shutting around midnight or later.

Shops Daily 10am–10pm. Same for department stores and shopping malls.

Post

The international postal service is generally efficient, and airmail letters and postcards will probably take between five and 10 days to reach their destinations. Domestic post is swift – perhaps one or two days from Guangzhou to Beijing. Intracity post may be delivered the same day it’s sent.

China Post (www.chinapost.com.cn) operates an express mail service (EMS) that is fast, reliable and ensures that the package is sent by registered post. Not all branches of China Post have EMS.

Major tourist hotels have branch post offices where you can send letters, packets and parcels. Even at cheap hotels you can usually post letters from the front desk. Larger parcels may need to be sent from the town’s main post office. Some post offices may also have a train ticket office or desk where you can purchase train tickets without having to go to the train station; a ¥5 commission is usually levied.

In major cities, private carriers such as United Parcel Service, DHL, Federal Express and TNT Skypak have a pick-up service as well as drop-off centres; call their offices for details.

If you are sending items abroad, take them unpacked with you to the post office to be inspected; an appropriate box or envelope will be found for you. Most post offices offer materials for packaging (including padded envelopes, boxes and heavy brown paper), for which you’ll be charged. Don’t take your own packaging as it will probably be refused. You will also need to show your passport or other ID.

Public Holidays

The People’s Republic of China has a number of national holidays. Some of the following are nominal holidays that do not result in leave. It’s not a great idea to arrive in China or go travelling during the big holiday periods as hotel prices reach their maximum and transport can become very tricky. It is also possible to contact a hotel and ask when large conferences occur in the area.

New Year’s Day 1 January

Chinese New Year 12 February 2021, 1 February 2022, 22 January 2023; a week-long holiday for most.

International Women’s Day 8 March

Tomb Sweeping Festival First weekend in April; a popular three-day holiday period.

International Labour Day 1 May; for many it’s a three-day holiday.

Youth Day 4 May

International Children’s Day 1 June

Dragon Boat Festival 25 June 2020, 14 June 2021, 3 June 2022

Birthday of the Chinese Communist Party 1 July (not a public holiday)

Anniversary of the Founding of the People’s Liberation Army 1 August

Mid-Autumn Festival 1 October 2020, 21 September 2021, 10 September 2022

National Day 1 October; the big one – a week-long holiday.

Smoking

  • Smoking Can happen everywhere in China, even around children, in elevators and in supposedly non-smoking hotels. It is easier to try to avoid it rather than show annoyance. For example, take the high-speed trains, which strictly enforce smoking bans. Smokers can buy cigarettes everywhere, though visitors might find Chinese brands very pungent and strong.

Taxes & Refunds

When shopping, tax is already included in the displayed prices. Nearly all of the major cities offer a tax refund for foreign tourists on purchases made in the previous 90 days; the list of provinces keeps expanding. The 11% tax is refunded at the airport and all items must leave China with you. Goods have a minimum purchase of ¥500 from the one store.

Telephone

Nearly everybody in China has a mobile phone. Landlines and calling cards are rare. Some hotels will give you unlimited local or national calls. Regions and towns through China have their own area codes.

Country code (China/Hong Kong/Macau)86/852/853
International access code00
Directory assistance114

Mobile Phones

A mobile phone should be the first choice for calls, but ensure your mobile is unlocked for use in China if taking your own. SIM cards can be bought at the arrivals area at major airports.

More Information

Many international messaging apps, including WhatsApp and Viber, are inaccessible in China, though some people are able to access Skype (www.skype.com). Communication through Chinese app WeChat (微信; Wēixìn; www.wechat.com), which virtually all Chinese use, is standard practice between both friends and small businesses and is not considered unprofessional. (Note that although Chinese also use the word 'app', they spell it out as 'a-p-p'.)

Data SIM-card plans start at under ¥70 for 500MB of data and 200 minutes of China calls per month. You will be warned about cancelling this service before leaving the country to avoid a hefty bill should you return. For this reason, and the language barrier, it can be more convenient (if more expensive) to pick up a SIM card on arrival at an airport in the major cities. Though more expensive, 3G Solutions (www.3gsolutions.com.cn) offers a range of mobile data and voice packages with pre-booking online, and will have the SIM card delivered to your accommodation on the day you arrive in China.

If you want to get a SIM card independently, China Unicom offers the most reliable service with the greatest coverage. China Mobile or China Unicom outlets can sell you a standard prepaid SIM card, which cost from ¥60 to ¥100 and include ¥50 of credit. (You'll be given a choice of phone numbers. Choose one without the unlucky number 4, if you don't want to irk Chinese colleagues.)

When your prepaid credit runs out, top up by buying a credit-charging card (充值卡; chōngzhí kǎ) from outlets. Cards are also available from newspaper kiosks and shops displaying the China Mobile sign.

Buying a mobile phone in China is also an option as they are generally inexpensive. Make sure the phone uses W-CDMA, which works on China Unicom and most carriers around the world, and not TD-SCDMA, which works only on China Mobile and not international carriers.

Landlines

If making a domestic call, look out for very cheap public phones at newspaper stands (报刊亭; bàokāntíng) and hole-in-the-wall shops (小卖部; xiǎomàibù); you make your call and then pay the owner. Domestic and international long-distance phone calls can also be made from main telecommunications offices and ‘phone bars’ (话吧; huàbā). Cardless international calls are expensive and it’s far cheaper to use an internet phone (IP) card, though these can be hard to find.

Public telephone booths are rarely used now in China, but may serve as wi-fi hotspots (as in Shanghai).

Phone Cards

Beyond Skype or Viber (you may need to use a VPN to access Viber), using an internet phone (IP) card on your mobile or a landline phone is much cheaper than calling direct, but these days they can be very hard to find. To use one you simply dial a local number, punch in your account number followed by a PIN number, and finally the number you wish to call. English-language service is usually available.

Some IP cards can only be used locally, while others can be used nationwide, and some can't be used for international calls – make sure you buy the right card (and don't forget to check the expiry date).

Time

The 24-hour clock is commonly used in China. Despite China's breadth, there is one single time zone: UTC+8. (You can also find UTC+6 used in Tibet and Xinjiang, though it is not official.)

Toilets

Toilets in China can be a serious challenge for visitors, especially the common squat style (it may help to keep in mind that they're actually healthier for the body). On some trains and in some restaurants and hotels, you will find the option of Western-style seated toilets or squat style.

It is important to carry around tissues with you, as paper is often not supplied in public toilets. Public toilets are either very cheap or free.

Tourist Information

Poor and entirely inadequate tourist information has always been one of the banes of travelling around China. An enduring and highly perplexing resistance to staffing tourist information centres with enthusiastic and polite English-speaking staff means that such information points are often little better than useless. While you may be able to find literature and maps, you may also discover yourself being steered (for commercial reasons) onto a tour. In this regard China compares most unfavourably with countries such as South Korea or Japan.

Far better information generally exists online or at youth hostels; the latter are frequently staffed by proficient English speakers who show a genuine interest in promoting travel within their region. It may be worth contacting the China National Tourist Office (www.cnto.org) prior to travelling to China, but don't expect to see CNTO offices dotted helpfully around the country. It serves more as an overseas tourist portal. Once you are in China, you are at the mercy of a mishmash of often ad hoc tourist offices.

Travel with Children

Taking your kids to China can be challenging, eye-opening, fun and memorable. Sure you’ll need to plan a bit, and at times be a super-patient parent, but you could also find yourself and your family on the journey of a lifetime.

Best Regions for Kids

  • Shanghai

Kids' big-ticket theme-park choices plus adrenaline-pumping high-altitude observation decks, kid-tastic museums, delicious dumplings and much more.

  • Beijing

The Great Wall is a mandatory stop for older kids, zipping across Beijing’s frozen lakes in winter is sparkling fun for teens and tots, and guided tours will help bring Beijing's world-beating historic sites to life.

  • Hong Kong

The evening magic of the Star Ferry and the gravity-defying Peak Tram, Disneyland and dolphin watching, plus super parks and hiking trails for exercising little legs.

  • Chengdu

Watch your kids go all wide-eyed at panda bears, especially the playful infants frolicking adorably with their human minders.

  • Hainan Island

Surfing, swimming, China’s best beaches and mountains of healthy tropical fruit. Resort hotels in Sanya have excellent facilities for kids of all ages.

  • Xi'an

Young Indiana Joneses will relish all the archeological discoveries in China's ancient capital of Chang'an.

  • Yangshuo

Family activities abound in the dreamy karst-landscape of Yangshuo, from bamboo rafting and off-road cycling to cooking classes, hot-air ballooning and rock climbing for older kids.

  • Pingyao

Little ones will enjoy exploring the crooked alleyways, delving into courtyard museums and walking atop the perimeter walls of this time-warped Qing dynasty town.

  • Yunnan

The perfect province for an intrepid family adventure: biking between minority villages, visiting Dali and Lijiang, and checking out the rainforests of Xishuangbanna, all set to breathtaking scenery and China's cleanest air.

  • Qingdao

Miles of sandy bathing beaches, fairy-tale Bavarian architecture, and bags (literally) of Qingdao beer to soothe harassed parents.

  • Harbin

Kids can hit the slopes in summer at the world's biggest indoor ski centre. And when winter does come around, ice and snow sculptures turn Harbin into a dazzling winter wonderland.

China for Kids

Dining Out

In big cities such as Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong, you’ll find lots of choice with kids’ menus. In tourist towns and popular visitor destinations, it’s a similar story. Off the beaten path you’ll have to dine as locals do and work through Chinese-language menus.

Snacking on the hoof: order up steaming ròujiāmó (cooked meat sandwich, usually pork), lamb kebabs, Hong Kong–style egg waffles or watermelons. Look out for street-side sellers of popcorn, cooked up old-school with a bang in a traditional flame-heated popcorn machine.

McDonalds and KFC are everywhere in towns and cities; Burger King was a rarity but is increasingly common. Dicos (德克士; Dekeshi) is a decent Chinese alternative with tasty rice lunch sets.

Open Spaces

Despite its size there’s often a surprising lack of free and accessible open space in China and you often need to pay to access what you discover. Much land is turned over to agriculture and most national parks levy an admission fee, while city parks are often quite synthetic places, without lawns or grass.

Transport

Kids should love overnight train journeys, hiding away on the top bunk. Long-distance bus journeys may be more fraught – limit their liquid intake as buses stop only rarely for the call of nature. Think about hiring a car or a taxi for the day to get to sights outside town. Prepare for seat-belt-free rear seats in taxis.

Flights

Largely painless, but prepare for delays (and then howls of protest from young lungs).

Crossing the Road

China’s roads are chaotic, so exercise great care when crossing the road and keep a close eye on the very small ones.

VPNs

Your teenagers are going to need a VPN (virtual private network) on their smartphones to keep using Snapchat, Instagram or WhatsApp. Same applies to you. Download VPNs to smartphones and other devices before arriving in China.

Health

This will require a bit more planning than many destinations as China’s disparities – altitude and climate as well as economic – can throw in some unexpected surprises.

Consider investing in face masks for your young ones as air pollution, although improving, can be caustic in China.

Pack any medicines your kids may need as you may not be able to find them easily in China.

Toilets

Kids need to be prepared for, or assisted with, squat toilets.

Tickets

Ticket prices for children are according to height rather than age (1.4m is usually the cutoff height for kids).

Children's Highlights

Journeys

  • Star Ferry, Hong Kong Bundle the kids on the cross-harbour ferry for a dazzling, all-colour evening trip.
  • Hong Kong tram Head aloft to grab seats at the front of the upper deck for a full-frontal sightseeing tour of north Hong Kong island; tots under three go for free!
  • Xi’an City Walls After visiting the Terracotta Warriors, get the kids cycling around China’s longest intact city wall.

The Great Outdoors

  • The Great Wall Best accessed from Beijing, it's a teenage kid’s mandatory social-media pilgrimage and selfie spot.
  • Yangshuo Teenage kids will love cycling between the karst peaks and along the Yulong River.
  • Hainan Tots will love the beaches and splashing about in the warm waters.

Adventure

Keeping Costs Down

  • Trains

Request a child's ticket for kids between 1.2m and 1.5m tall. These are half the price of adult tickets for seats, and about 25% off for sleeper berths. Children under 1.2m travel for free but don't get their own seat or berth.

  • Tourist Sites

Kids can often get in for half price; or free if under 1.2 metres tall. It's always worth asking at the ticket office.

  • Dining

Choose Chinese restaurants over Western-style ones. Dishes are typically large and designed for sharing, and staples like plain cooked rice only cost a few yuan.

  • Hotels

It's always worth enquiring about a family room (家庭房; jiātíng fáng), or failing that a suite (套房; tàofáng) where extra beds (加床; jiā chuáng) are permitted. And don't forget to always haggle for a discount in local hotels.

  • Parks

Parks in larger cities are either free or very cheap to enter. Ideal for family picnics and outdoor activities like kite-flying, some also have swimming facilities and fairground rides.

Planning

  • Pack any medicines your kids may need as you may not be able to find them in China.
  • Download VPNs to smartphones (to access Snapchat, Instagram, WhatAapp and other blocked social-media and messaging apps) before arriving in China.
  • Although improving, air pollution can be caustic in China; consider investing in face masks for your young ones.

Feature: The Chinese & Children

The Chinese are a highly child-oriented group, with a focus on children that was only intensified by the (now defunct) one-child policy, which piled attention onto small shoulders nationwide. This attentiveness is especially extended to exotic foreign tots who may be a more commonplace sight in the big cities but can still elicit gasps in more far-flung regions of China. Blond hair, in particular, goes down a storm.

If you and your kids are ok with this attention (you may even be happy to cultivate it), rural areas are a gold mine of opportunities. Pitch up in a small village off the beaten trail with your tots and crowds may form, doors will open and friends be made. China’s tourist sights only allow you to see a minuscule fraction of the land, while if you seek out the remoter areas – where children are most welcomed – your experience of China may be even more memorable and perhaps unlike any other journey.

Do, however, be aware that Chinese – though their intentions will generally always be innocent and benign – love to take selfies with you and perhaps especially your kids. If you aren't happy with that, say so.

Your kids should be safe, too. Though child kidnapping is a vast problem in China, the threat is generally limited to Chinese children, but you must be aware of the issue.

Useful Resources

Lonely Planet Kids (lonelyplanetkids.com) Loads of activities and great family travel blog content.

Book: First Words Mandarin (shop.lonelyplanet.com) A beautifully illustrated introduction to Mandarin Chinese for ages five to eight.

Time Out Beijing Family (http://www.timeoutbeijing.com/family) Up-to-date family events listings for Beijing, plus dining round-ups, travel tips and more. Shanghai has the same.

Real-time Air Quality Index (http://aqicn.org) Accurate air quality ratings for multiple Chinese cities, updated hourly.

Volunteering

Large numbers of Westerners work in China with international development charities such as Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO). A placement in China offers an excellent opportunity to get first-hand experience of local life, while contributing to the community and learning Chinese at the same time.

  • Adventure China (www.adventurechina.com) Various volunteering programmes in summer camps and beyond.
  • International Volunteer HQ (www.volunteerhq.org) Volunteer projects based in and around Xi'an, focussing mainly on English teaching, special-needs care and summer outreach teaching projects.
  • World Teach (www.worldteach.org) Volunteer teachers (mostly for English, but also other subjects and skills).
  • VSO (www.vsointernational.org) Improving education and livelihood and fighting poverty.

Weights & Measures

  • Weights & Measures China officially uses the international metric system, but you will also encounter the ancient Chinese weights and measures system that features the liǎng (两; tael; 50g) and the jīn (斤; catty; 500g). There are 10 liǎng to the jīn.

Work

Foreigners have found work across China, from teachers of English to those running their own business, restaurant or cafe. It is essential to have the appropriate visa and paperwork to engage in work, and penalties for illegal employment can include detention and deportation.

The English language is a resource that remains in high demand. With recognised ELT qualifications, such as TEFL, and/or experience, teaching in larger cities can be both financially rewarding and provide an opportunity to learn Chinese and travel within China. Salaries at schools in cities such as Beijing start from around ¥14,000 to ¥18,000 per month for qualified teachers; an accommodation stipend is also sometimes provided. You could also try approaching organisations such as the British Council (www.britishcouncil.org), which runs teacher placement programmes in China.