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Navigating China as a Foreigner – Tips and Advice for Foreigners Visiting China

With its impressive mix of modern cities, ancient sites, diverse regions and cultures, China has become a hugely popular destination for foreign travelers. However, as an outsider visiting this gigantic country, navigating your way and overcoming barriers can seem daunting. From language difficulties to internet censorship, China presents some unique challenges.

By being aware of what to expect and coming prepared, your trip to China will be much smoother and more enjoyable. This comprehensive guide provides key tips for foreigners on the essential things you need to know when visiting China. Follow this advice on matters like getting a visa, booking travel, using a VPN, dealing with language barriers, adhering to customs and more. We cover all the key areas that will impact your time in China as a foreigner.

With proper preparation and an open mindset, you’ll be equipped to better appreciate the tremendous history, scenery, cuisine and culture China has to offer. Let this guide set you on the right path to an amazing experience traveling in this fascinating country.

Visa Requirements

To enter China, citizens of most countries need to obtain a visa in advance. Tourist visas allow a stay of up to 30 days. For longer trips, you may need to apply for other visa categories like business or student visas. Be sure to verify visa requirements and start the application process well in advance, as it can take weeks to get approved.

Booking Flights and Hotels 

When booking flights, pay attention to which airports actually serve the city you want to visit. Beijing has two major airports, Shanghai has two, and other cities like Guangzhou and Chengdu have multiple airports as well. 

For accommodations, foreigner-friendly hotels and hostels can be found in most major tourist destinations. However, it helps to book a few weeks ahead during peak season. Be aware that many hotels in China require showing your passport upon check-in.

Transportation and Getting Around

Public transportation like metros, buses and taxis make it easy to get around big cities like Beijing and Shanghai. For traveling between cities, high-speed rail and domestic flights are convenient options. Just remember to book train tickets in advance. 

When taking taxis, have your destination address written in Chinese to show the driver. Ride-hailing apps like Didi are also very popular.

Using a VPN

Many foreign websites and services are blocked in China, including Google, Facebook, YouTube and Google Play Store. A VPN (Virtual Private Network) allows you to bypass censorship and access everything normally. Make sure to install a reliable VPN on your devices before arriving in China. You can find good VPNs for China using online searches, even with Chinese keywords such as VPN推荐. ExpressVPN and NordVPN are good options.

Experiencing the Language Barrier

The Chinese language is extremely challenging for foreigners to grasp. While English is spoken in major tourist hubs and hotels, venturing beyond these areas will likely present language difficulties. Here are some tips for overcoming the language barrier:

Learn some basic Chinese phrases – Know key phrases for polite greetings, expressing gratitude, asking for help, ordering food, getting transportation, etc. This shows respect and good intentions when interacting with locals.

Have addresses written in Chinese – Ask your hotel to write down destinations in Chinese characters to show taxi or rideshare drivers. This also helps for confirming you’re at the right place.

Use translation apps – Apps like Google Translate allow you to speak into your phone and translate to/from Chinese. However, translation won’t always be fully accurate.

Carry a translation book or card – Having common phrases, questions, etc. translated into Chinese in print can back up digital translation apps. Point to phrases when verbal communication fails.

Use gestures and body language – When at a total loss for words, let hand signals, pointing, facial expressions and other gestures do the talking. Sometimes, this gets the message across better than speaking.

Travel with a Chinese-speaking guide/companion – For more complex interactions, book a private tour guide fluent in Chinese or make friends with a bilingual local when possible. This provides an invaluable help bridging communication gaps.

While the language barrier may initially seem intimidating, maintaining patience and an open mindset goes a long way. With a few key tools and techniques, you can get by and enjoy meaningful interactions with locals. Don’t let the challenge prevent you from venturing beyond the tourist routes.

Paying in China

Cash is less commonly used nowadays in China. For purchases, paying via WeChat Pay or Alipay mobile apps is most convenient. Have some small bills on hand for things like taxis though.

International credit and debit cards generally work in large shops and hotels, but are less commonly accepted at small local businesses. Inform your bank you’re traveling to prevent your card being blocked when used in China.

ATMs are widespread, although some foreign cards may not work in them. Withdraw larger amounts at a time as daily withdrawal limits can be low.

Respecting Local Laws and Customs

As an outsider, respecting local laws and customs is important. Be aware of cultural etiquette like not sticking chopsticks straight up in rice and not writing people’s names in red ink. 

Tourist visas forbid participating in religious or political activities with locals. Be respectful when visiting temples and other religious sites.

To fully enjoy your time in China, accept cultural differences you may encounter with an open mind. Travel with patience and flexibility.


While challenging at times for foreigners, immersing yourself in the culture and experiencing authentic Chinese life can be incredibly rewarding. Follow the above tips to stay safe while navigating your way through the complexities of visiting China. With some preparation and awareness, you’ll gain amazing memories to last a lifetime.

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