27 Common Mistakes to Avoid When Traveling to China: Preparing for Your First trip

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Traveling to China for the first time can be an exciting but daunting experience. There are many things to take into account before actually going on your trip, such as cultural differences, getting around, and more.

Since I’ve lived in China, I’ve also included tips that may be helpful if you are planning a move to China.

woman standing in front of setting sun in china

Here are 27 common mistakes to avoid when traveling to China, so you can make the most of your trip!

27 Mistakes to Avoid When Traveling to China

1. Not unlocking your phone.

If you want to make the most of your trip to China, it is important to have an unlocked phone. This will allow you to take advantage of local SIM cards and save on roaming charges.

You can also use your phone to access Google Maps, which can be very useful when navigating around cities.

To know if your phone is unlocked, you can contact your service provider or check online. One of the best tools is AT&T’s Unlock a Phone Checker

If you are planning on using your carrier’s SIM card while traveling in China, you can always check what their international rates are per day and decide if that’s something you’d rather do instead.

hand holding a smartphone

2. Not getting a VPN.

A VPN, or Virtual Private Network, is a service that allows you to connect to the internet through a server located in a different country. This can be useful for bypassing censorship restrictions and accessing websites that are blocked in your country.

VPNs can also be used to protect your privacy online and keep your data secure.

When you are visiting China, you do not want to make the mistake of not getting a VPN. Many of the websites you are used to will most likely be blocked, and you will not be able to access them without a VPN.

Sites such as Google (maps), Youtube, Facebook, and Instagram are banned in China.

Two of my favorite VPNs are ExpressVPN and NordVPN.

icons of Chinese apps, including WeChat

3. Not downloading Wechat before you go.

Although social media is banned in China, many people will use Wechat.

Wechat is a messaging app that is very popular in China. It is very similar to WhatsApp, with the addition of features such as WeChat Pay, which allows you to pay for things using your phone.

You can purchase transportation tickets, order food, and use the QR code (after connecting it to your bank account) to pay for any shopping you do.

WeChat also has a built-in translation feature, which can be helpful when communicating with locals.

When traveling to China, WeChat will be such a lifesaver for you!

Read next: 25 Best Apps to Have While Teaching English in China

Special red lantern decorations for Spring festival

4. Traveling during national holidays.

National holidays are a time when many people in China travel. This can make travel plans during this time very difficult, as airports and train stations become very crowded. Even more, you’ll find that prices for travel and hotels increase as well.

If you are able to, plan your travel to China off-season so you can avoid the high price tags and a lot of people. Chinese New Year, or spring festival, is usually in February and their National Holiday (similar to the US’s July 4th) is in October.

However, if you cannot avoid the national holidays when traveling to China, be sure to book your transportation and accommodation well in advance.

You might also want to avoid the major cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and much more during these times. You can plan a trip to a small or more rural area before heading back to a major city when the holiday is over.

5. Only travel in China by flying.

Mainland China has a vast and varied landscape, with everything from mountains and forests to deserts and beaches. This means that there are many miles to cover when getting from one place to another.

By flying, you can see a lot of the country in a relatively short amount of time. However, this can be expensive, especially if you are on a budget.

Another quick and easy way to get around China is looking into taking trains, especially the high-speed ones. You might find the high-speed train tickets will cost much less than getting an airplane ticket and the time involved may even be similar, after considering wait times at the airport.

Buses are another option when traveling within China. This would be a great option if you aren’t traveling more than 2-3 hours one way.

Ready to book your train in China? Visit Trip.com to book!

6. Not preparing for culture shock when you arrive.

When traveling to a foreign country, it is important to be aware of the culture shock that may occur. This can be anything from feeling overwhelmed and out of place, to not understanding the language or local customs.

This is especially true when traveling to China; Chinese culture is very different. I grew up in the United States and I thought I would be as affected by culture shock being an Asian person. But that is just not true-western countries are very different!

You’ll first notice the number of people, and then realize all the different smells (not all of them good), and the food will be very surprising to you as it’s probably different than even the local Chinese food in your neighborhood.

One of the best ways to avoid culture shock is to do some research before you go. Read about the country, its history, and its people. This will help you understand the culture better and make your trip more enjoyable.

Asian woman reviewing a map

7. Not getting a travel guide.

Speaking of travel guides, don’t forget to get one! A good travel guide can be extremely helpful when you travel plan, especially if you are visiting China for the first time.

The Lonely Planet China travel guide is a great option, as it covers all of the major cities and tourist attractions such as the Great Wall of China or the Forbidden City. It also has helpful tips on how to get around, what to eat, and more.

This is especially helpful for what to eat as sometimes the food will look questionable and you can’t read the characters to truly know what it is!

8. Not learning some basic Mandarin

China is a huge country with many different dialects from minority groups or ethnic peoples, but Mandarin is the most widely spoken language.

The language barrier can be a huge deterrent to traveling to China. However, learning even a few key phrases in Mandarin will go a long way when you are traveling in China.

Some useful Chinese phrases to learn include:

  • Hello – Ni Hao (nee-how)
  • Thank you – Xie Xie (shia-shia)
  • How much? – Duo Shao? (duah-shao)
  • How much does this cost? – Duo Shao Qian? (duah-shao-chien)
  • No – Bu Yao (boo-yao)
  • Yes – Shi de (Shur-the)
  • I want 1. – Wo yao yi ge. (woah-yao-ee-guh)

9. Forgetting your passport and important travel documents.

When traveling to China, it is important to remember to bring your passport with you. This is because you will need it to stay in a hotel. Hotels in China are required to ask for your passport when you are a guest in their establishment.

This is due to new regulations put in place by the Chinese government in 2016. In addition to your passport, you should also bring a copy of your travel itinerary, as well as your visa (if you are coming from a country that requires one).

If you are visiting on a tourist visa, make sure that you do not get a job on that visa. This is illegal and can get you kicked out of the country.

If you have plans to live in China, your place of employment should have been in touch with you to set up the application process for a work visa. When you arrive in China, you will then need to apply for a permanent residence visa.

Read next: What are the Requirements to Teach in China International schools?

10. Leaving your hotel room without these essentials.

It’s important to carry a few essentials with you before you leave your hotel room as these are not easily found when you’re out and about.

Here is a list of things you shouldn’t forget:

  • Toilet paper: Public bathrooms are generally free to use, but you won’t find any toilet paper. So make sure to bring your own just in case you need to use the bathroom while you’re touring. In addition to using them for the bathroom, you’ll also want to keep a stash in your bag for when you’re sweating on a hot day or need to dab at your face.
  • Hand Sanitizer: Public restrooms don’t have soap, so hand sanitizer is key. Also, your hands will start to feel grimy from holding onto poles in buses and metros. You’ll also see that Chinese people are not quite as hygienic as you’re used to, so hand sanitizer will come in handy!
  • Peptol Bismol or Tums: If you have a sensitive stomach, be sure to bring along some Pepto Bismol or Tums. The food in China can sometimes be greasy and spicy, so it’s good to have these on hand just in case you need them.
  • Masks: No this isn’t for pandemic reasons, but for pollution. If you are sensitive to pollution or smog, a mask may be helpful for when you are out and about.
  • Water: As tap water is not drinkable, and asking for water from a restaurant will most likely get you a hot pot of water, you’ll want to bring your own water if you want a cold drink. The touristy areas are used to having cold water bottles for sale in their fridges, but that may not always be the case.
  • Cash: Although you can pay digitally with Wechat, your debit card, or credit card, you’ll still want to have some paper money on hand especially when you are haggling or paying for a small snack. Along with this, you’ll want to double-check to make sure that the money you are exchanging isn’t fake.
cherries on sticks covered in carmelized sugar

11. Expecting similar prices for foreign goods

Although China can be a cost-effective country to visit, prices for foreign goods are just a tad more expensive usually when compared to its Chinese equivalent.

For example, cheese will cost you way more than yogurt will. Pizza Hut, although kind of familiar (there are some weird flavors), will be way more expensive than a sit-down Chinese restaurant in the neighborhood.

You might miss some of the things you’re familiar with, but try out some of the local Chinese food and see what you might find to your liking. You may even save some dollars while you’re at it.

2 people walking in a Chinese outdoor market

12. Being afraid to haggle.

Haggling is a part of everyday life in China, so don’t be afraid to do it when you’re out shopping. It is expected that you will haggle when buying anything from clothes to souvenirs.

This can be a daunting task for some, but with a little practice, you’ll be a pro in no time. Just note that if you don’t look Chinese (aka Asian), you’ll most likely be quoted a crazy amount of money.

To haggle correctly, you first need to decide on the amount that you’re willing to pay otherwise, you’ll be swayed or won’t really know when to stop.

Then start your price at 25-50% less than what’s quoted to you. For example, if you are looking for a t-shirt and they say 50RMB, you’ll probably want to start around 10-15 RMB with a buying price of 20-25RMB in mind.

Always be ready to walk away and don’t feel sorry for the vendor. They do this all day.

Another important time to haggle is when you are looking to hire a mian bao che, (me-an bao chur) also known as a “bread box” van. These are gray, look like a hatchback, but usually have a square back. You’ll know it’s a mian bao che when you see several of them lined up with taxi drivers waiting for passengers.

You’ll want to negotiate prices before jumping into the van so that you don’t overpay.

Wanderful Advice: Only do this after you experience it with a Chinese friend or you have a good idea of how much it would cost if you took a taxi with a meter.

13. Not being aware of the scams

There are many scams that can occur when traveling in China and it is important to be aware of them before heading to the country. As foreign tourists, you’ll probably be targeted so be aware of your surroundings.

One of the most common scams is the tea scam. This scam usually occurs in tourist areas and involves a person asking you out to drink tea and practicing speaking English with them. It will end badly to where you pay for expensive tea and they get a cut of the sale.

If people offer to take pictures of you, write your name in Chinese calligraphy, or do a favor of some sort, they will most likely demand money for it afterward.

Just say, “bu yao” (boo-yao) meaning “no thanks” and walk away.

You’ll also want to be aware of pickpockets, especially as the crowds can get quite big in touristy areas. Keep your bag in front of you or wear your backpack in the front.

Another scam to be aware of is taxi drivers who will drive you without turning on the meter. If you see this happen, you’ll want to insist they turn it on or ask them to stop and get out to find another taxi.

You can say, “ting che” (ting-chur) which literally means “stop car.”

person holding chopsticks and ready to eat noodles

14. Not using chopsticks correctly.

When using chopsticks in China, there are certain etiquette rules that you will need to follow. The most important one is not to stick your chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice as this is considered to be an offering for the dead.

Another taboo is to use your chopsticks to move food from your plate to someone else’s or to your own. If you’re with a group of friends, it’s typically okay. But you’ll want to use the chopsticks or spoon provided to dish out the food.

15. Tipping the waiter.

In China, tipping is not customary and is actually considered to be quite rude. In most cases, the waiter will not even accept a tip.

In addition, you will foot the bill if you invite a Chinese friend out (and vice versa). There usually isn’t any splitting of the bill.

This might be different if you are in an expat community and work with Chinese people who understand that foreigners do split the bill all around and they are open to splitting it with you.

Overall, just offer to pay for the meal if you invite them out.

16. Toasting the wrong way when drinking.

When toasting in China, people will say say “gan bei” (gahn-bay), which means to propose a toast, and clink glasses together before drinking.

When the clinking of the glasses happens, you’ll want to try and clink your glass lower than everyone else. Think: the rim of your glass to the middle of theirs. It’s a sign of humility and respect.

Gan Bei will probably happen pretty often over the course of your meal so you don’t have to chug the whole cup down. Take small sips if you don’t want to go through several cups of alcohol because your cup will continue to be filled if it’s empty.

steamed buns sitting outside ready to be purchased

17. Trying every street food vendor.

Street food is a large part of the culture in China as you can find food on every street corner. But you want to make sure that it looks clean and well-cooked before you eat it so you don’t get food poisoning.

You’ll usually have the chance to watch them cook the food right in front of you. Usually, some of the meats will already be cooked and they are reheating them to cook your dish.

Some places, like the Beijing Night Market, will have delicacies that are already fried – these things include scorpions, centipedes, tarantulas, and more! Don’t eat those if you don’t want to.

True story: I did get a stick of 3 little baby scorpions and ate one of them. That definitely took mind-over-matter and 15 minutes!

Some of the best street food include chow mian (fried noodles), chow fan (fried rice), and jiaozi (fried dumplings).

18. Finishing off your plate.

If you are visiting a Chinese host or friend and they have cooked for you, then you’ll want to do this when you are full and don’t want any more food on your plate. It is customary not to finish everything on your plate.

By leaving food on your plate, you are complimenting the cook. It’s also a sign to let them know that you’re finished, otherwise, more food will keep piling up on your plate!

If they offer you something that you are not familiar with and would rather not eat, take it on your plate anyway as it would be rude to say no. You don’t have to eat it (but they’ll notice) and just leave it on your plate. I would highly recommend at least trying a small bite if you can!

You’ll also want to say things like “hen hao chi” (hen-how-chur) meaning “it’s very tasty” or “wo bao le” (woah-bao-luh) meaning “I’m full.”

True story: During our first year, my roommate bought some cow intestines for her students to do a science project in class. One of the school’s helpers saw that she had set that aside to be thrown away, but she took it anyway. We were later invited to the helper’s house and she served it to us (after the kids have been playing with it!). We ate it. This was definitely quite the experience!

night time view of crowds in China

19. Not standing close enough when in line.

First things first, lines don’t really exist in China. You might be more prone to see a group of people standing really close together trying to get into the small door together.

If you can’t tell, I’m talking about getting on the buses.

When getting in line, don’t try to be polite or you’ll never get your goal whether it’s getting on the bus or buying tickets.

Personal bubbles don’t exist. It’ll sound weird, but you’ll want to stand close enough to the person in front of you so that someone else is not able to sneak in and cut the line in front of you. This happens a lot.

I’m not saying be outright rude and elbow your way through (although I’ve done this), but be assertive so you can hop on the bus and not have to wait for the next one.

20. Not being prepared to get stared at and asked to get your picture taken.

If you don’t look Asian, you’ll most likely get tons of stares. This is not anything terrible really, but mainly because the Chinese are fascinated by the way you look.

They’ll most likely come up to you and ask to take a picture with you and even possibly ask to touch your hair. You will probably feel like a celebrity, but it might get tiring after a while.

If you don’t want any of this attention, just say, “bu yao” (boo-yao) meaning “no thanks” and walk away.

person taking off their shoes

21. Leaving your shoes on when visiting a Chinese friend.

Leaving your shoes on when visiting a friend’s home in China is considered to be rude. It is customary to remove your shoes when entering someone’s home.

This is done to keep the home clean and free from dirt, especially since the streets in China are not the cleanest (don’t step in the puddles). You will usually be given a pair of slippers to wear while you are inside.

True story: On my first day in China, I was walking around the neighborhood plaza and a mom walked right in front of me with her toddler, squatted, and had her baby pee. Right where people would walk.

22. Assuming everyone is yelling.

Chinese people like to yell. A lot. Even if they’re standing in front of each other, supposedly having a conversation.

And this could lead foreigners to believe that everyone is angry with one another.

The truth is, it’s just the way Chinese people communicate and it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re angry.

In addition to this, when you become acquaintances with someone, they might be a little forward with you. Don’t take offense if you get a compliment you don’t like or a question you necessarily don’t want to answer.

I’ve gotten comments from “have you lost weight?” to “wow you’re eating so healthy!” It’s all a part of the culture.

Chinese people offering incense in a temple

23. Not saving face.

On the other hand, “saving face” is extremely important. It is the idea of preserving someone’s dignity and reputation in the eyes of others.

It is considered to be very rude and insulting to do or say anything that would make someone lose face. Examples of this include being extremely critical, having a difficult conversation without tact, or being too direct.

In order to save face, Chinese people will often avoid conflict, not speak their minds, and always be polite.

When saving face, you’ll also want to avoid sensitive topics. Some of these topics will include talking politics, the Communist party, Tibet, and Christianity (which is actually illegal).

woman holding a red envelope

24. Giving monetary gifts in a red envelope.

Red envelopes, called hong bao in Mandarin, are a traditional gift in China during special occasions such as Chinese New Year and weddings. The color red is believed to bring good luck, and the envelopes are typically decorated with auspicious symbols.

Red envelopes are usually given as gifts of money, and the amount of money inside is often seen as an indication of how much the giver cares for the recipient.

If you are in China long enough to be invited to a special occasion, the general amount to give is about 200RMB, but you can give more or less depending on your relationship with the Chinese person.

25. Not bringing a gift when you visit a Chinese host.

When visiting someone’s home in China, it is customary to bring a gift. This gift can be anything, but it is most commonly something edible like fruit or baked goods.

If you are living as an expat in China, you might even want to bring some small gifts from your home country when you return from visiting as well.

Here are a few gifts to NOT give, ever, to a Chinese host:

  • Clock: The Chinese word for “clock” gives the connotation of death and you don’t ever want to imply or prophesy death over someone.
  • Green Hats: A green hat signifies that a man’s wife is cheating on him, and if you give that away you may be suggesting something that you don’t mean.
  • Chrysanthemums and White Flowers: Chrysanthemums and white flowers are generally only used for funerals, so it’s best to avoid giving them as gifts.
  • Pears: As mentioned above, fruit is generally a good gift to bring when visiting someone, but you’ll want to avoid the pear because the Chinese word for “pear” sounds very similar to the word for “separate.”

Can you tell the Chinese are just a little superstitious?

26. Desserts may not be as sweet as you’re used to.

The Chinese typically don’t like things to be too sweet. This is because Western desserts are often much sweeter than the desserts that are popular in China.

As a foreigner, you may find that the Chinese desserts aren’t as sweet as you’re used to, and you may even have to add extra sugar to make them more palatable.

One dessert shop that I absolutely love is Kengee. They have these soft buns, similar to cream puffs, that are so delicious. There are also other pastries here that are very tasty. If you see a Kengee around, make sure to go in to check out their fares!

Chinese good luck wishes

27. 4 is an unlucky number and 8 is a lucky one.

In China, 4 is considered to be an unlucky number because it sounds similar to the word for “death.” This is why many buildings in China do not have the 4th floor or phone numbers may not have as many 4s.

On the other hand, 8 is considered to be a lucky number because it sounds similar to the word for “prosperity.” This is why the Beijing Olympics were held on 8/8/08.

You may also notice that a lot of Chinese people will try to include 8 in their phone numbers or license plate numbers.

Final Thoughts on Mistakes to Avoid When Traveling to China

So there you have it! These are 27 common travel mistakes to avoid when traveling to China either on your first China trip or as you live in this country.

Have you found other mistakes to avoid? Or resonate with one of these? Comment below!


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My Favorite Travel Tips + Resources

Here is a quick glance at all my go-to travel tips and resources that I use to plan every trip! For more information, check out my travel resources page.

  • Booking flights: I use Google Flights to check all routes and find the best flights. Then I compare them with Expedia (for reward points) and Skyscanner (for the lowest prices) before I book.
  • Accommodations: I love budget-friendly rentals or booking at a hotel where I can earn points. For hotels, I go through Booking.com or book directly with Marriott (for points + rewards). When I travel internationally, I’ll book through Hostelworld for very budget-friendly stays. For vacation rentals, I usually look through Airbnb, but you could also use Vrbo. Expedia also has some great bundles for hotels, flights, and car rentals altogether.
  • Transportation: For travel in the United States, I love renting through Expedia with Enterprise or Thrifty. They have been consistent and provide the best customer service. For international travel, I’ll book through Rome2Rio or Eurail for trains or bus fares.
  • Travel Credit Card: I book all my travel (flights, hotels, car rentals) through my favorite travel credit card. I also use this card for everything on my trip including dining, excursions, and souvenirs. Apart from earning 5x more points towards free travel, there are amazing benefits: no foreign transaction fees, trip cancellation/interruption insurance, trip delay reimbursement (so I can book worry-free), fraud protection, emergency assistance – it’s really a great deal! Check it out here!
  • Vaccines and Medications: Check the CDC website for updates on necessary vaccines to enter a country, including updates on Covid-19 and recommended places to visit. I recommend getting all the vaccines you need before you go!
  • Tours + Experiences: I absolutely love my tours! Everything from eerie walking ghost tours to food tours, I’ll usually book something every trip either through Viator or GetYourGuide. I also love LastMinute.com for very affordable tickets to theaters and other experiences in Europe.
  • What to Pack: I almost always travel by backpack. For products I like, check out my packing guide page for all the things I take with me on different trips.