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Prepare for your China adventure with this comprehensive guide that provides a great head-start on navigating the Middle Kingdom.

Most of the China guides you read online will rave about the glittering skyscrapers and fancy bullet trains of a rising colossus steeped in ancient history and culture.

Entrance to the Temple of Heaven in Beijing.

Entrance to the Temple of Heaven in Beijing.

Indeed, for tourists, China offers a wide range of breathtaking landscapes: subtropical jungles, vast deserts, Himalayan mountains and space-age mega-cities; each with diverse peoples and traditions.

For potential expats, China offers the most diverse range of job opportunities in Asia, although the glory days have passed: the job marketing is tightening, while living in modern China can be a grind. The sheer density of people is inescapable. There is rampant mismanagement, corruption scandals, food scandals and an emerging rift between the party and the people – under eternally gray skies.

On the other hand, there are still more opportunities in China than the west, and many positive things to experience:

  • Still lots of teaching jobs
  • More networking and professional opportunities than there are back home
  • Genuine, family-oriented locals
  • A very cheap cost of living (if you avoid expat pubs)
  • Safe and orderly, very little street violence
  • Plenty of leeway given to foreigners – do as you will, and no one will mind

Relevant: life-altering benefits enjoyed by expats in Asia also pertains to China.

China Travel Essentials

China is a vast country with wide-ranging climatic conditions. To generalize:

  • Winter: Dec-Feb. Incredibly cold in the north, cold in the middle (Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing etc) and cool in the south.
  • Spring: March-May. Unpredictable weather, usually warm with periods of cool.
  • Summer: June-Sept. Brutally hot, humid and smoggy.
  • Autumn: Oct-Nov. The most comfortable time of year, with mild temperatures and little rain.
Cooling off in the blistering Beijing heat. Pic: Jackie WS.

Cooling off in the blistering Beijing heat. Pic: Jackie WS.

Tourist seasons in China are determined by major Chinese holidays, when every tourist site in the country gets unbelievably packed. Try to avoid these periods for travel, if possible:

 

  • Labor Day: first week of May
  • National Day: first week of October
  • Summer: June-Sept. Brutally hot, humid and smoggy.
  • University holidays: June-Sept. and Jan-Feb.
  • Chinese New Year: late Jan. or early Feb.

 


Visas

Visas are required by everyone except nationals of Japan, Singapore, Brunei, San Marino, Mauritius, the Seychelles and the Bahamas.

You must apply for a visa at the nearest Chinese embassy with a passport-sized photo and supporting documents. In all cases, your passport should be valid for at least 12 more months and have at least two blank pages.

There are four types relevant for most cases. For a full listing plus downloadable application forms, check out the China Embassy website.

Type Details Requirements
Tourist Visa (L) Can be issued for 30 or 60 days, with single, double and multiple entry options. Round-trip flight confirmation is required.
Business Visa (F/M) F Visas are for those coming for non-commercial exchanges (science, tech, education, sport, etc). M visas are for those coming for commercial purposes. Both be issued for 30, 60 or 90 days. A formal invitation letter from your host is required bearing their signature, contact details and official stamp.
Student Visa (X1/ X2) X1 is issued to issued to those who intend to study in China for a period of more than 180 days; X2 is for those studying less than 180 days. For both types, the visa holder must apply for a Temporary Residence Permit within 30 days of their entry into China (which can be extended for as long as 5 years). An original and a copy of the admission notice from your Chinese school is required to procure an X visa; for your in-China residence permit, someone from your school’s Foreign Affairs Office will take you to the police station and help get you registered.
Work Visa (Z) Issued to those coming for paid employment. It is only valid for 30 days, during which time the visa holder must apply for a Temporary Residence Permit (which can be for a minimum of 90 days and a maximum of 5 years, although 1-year permits are the norm). The organization sponsoring your Z visa must be accredited to employ foreigners. They will send you a government-issued Employment Permit and a Visa Notification Letter, which must be submitted when you apply for the visa. The age limit is 18-60 for males and 18-55 for females; those coming to teach must have at least a Bachelor’s degree and two years of verifiable work experience.


Money

The Chinese currency is the rénmínbì (RMB), the basic unit is the yuán, which is also referred to as kuài. Bills are issued in denominations of ¥5, ¥10, ¥20, ¥50 and ¥100.

It is not necessary to procure RMB before entering China, as you can change foreign currency (US, Canadian or Australian dollars, British pounds or euros) into RMB at the airport.

ATMs (usually those operated by the Bank of China, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, China Construction Bank and Agricultural Bank of China) accept Cirrus, Visa and Plus cards to make cash withdrawals.

If you need more RMB in-country, head to one of the aforementioned banks with foreign currency and your passport. Currency exchanges in banks are typically available Monday to Friday between 9am-5pm.

 


Getting around China

China has an excellent public transport system suitable for both long-distance and city transport.

Long distance

Plane: all major cities are linked by air. You can buy tickets at most 5-star hotels and also online using a service like eLong or Train.

Train: China has invested billions to create one of the finrest rail networks in the world. It includes a line over the mountains into Tibet and a high-speed network that links Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing, with eastern links connecting with Chengdu and Kunming.

The toughest part of riding the rails is buying tickets. They can be purchased at all stations using automated machines (in Chinese only, a Chinese ID card is required) or from ticket staff, most of whom do not speak English. If you don’t speak Chinese, have someone write out your destination and preferred time to save yourself hassle. You can check train schedules here.

Tickets are all one-way and will show the time and date of your departure plus your carriage number and seat assignment.

Bus: buses are useful when heading to more remote areas. Booking is usually done at the station, but if you don’t speak Chinese, you’ll have a hard time.

City transport

Taxis: although all cities have excellent public bus networks, navigating them as a non-Chinese speaker is extremely difficult – unless you’re accompanied by a local, stick to taxis. These generally cost a fixed rate (between 6-12 RMB) for a few kilometers, after which the meter kicks in at 1-3 RMB per km. If the driver refuses to use the meter, insist or try another taxi.

At the end of your taxi ride, the driver will print out a receipt which shows your billed amount plus the taxi number. If you ever lose anything in a taxi, having that slip can ensure you get your things back.

City buses: although all cities have excellent public bus networks, navigating them as a non-Chinese speaker is extremely difficult – unless you’re accompanied by a local or know exactly where to get off, stick to taxis.

Subway: at present there are 11 cities in China with fast, efficient subway services: Anshan, Beijing, Changchun, Chongqing, Dalian, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Nanjing, Shanghai, Shenyang, Shenzhen, Tianjin and Wuhan. For detailed information about each, check out Subways.net.

 


Internet

All Internet traffic in China is regulated by the Great Firewall. Facebook, Twitter, and Google are all blocked (you can use a VPN to break through). As a result of this filtering, Internet speeds can be sloooooow.

China has a solid mobile phone network. If your phone is unlocked, you can buy a China Unicom 3G SIM card that can be extended with prepaid top-up cards.

Drugs

Hard and soft drugs are common. Meth addiction is a growing problem. Low-grade marijuana and powdered Xinjiang hash are widely available, imported dank available in the mega-cities. There is lots of low-grade cocaine as well, always heavily cut.

A national drug crackdown brought down a heap of B-list Chinese celebrities in 2014, while Africans have been getting busted in sweeps regularly.

In the night districts of the megacities, drugs are sold openly on the street. While expats once had free reign to indulge, random piss tests and home raids have started.

Dangers

The most dangerous places in China are nightclubs, where foreigners have been known to suffer severe beatings. Chinese in clubs tend to use a swarm-type attack (20 guys against one) and often use steel rods and broken beer bottles as weapons.

Outside of drinking areas, be on guard for pick-pockets (rare), shady merchants (common) and ubiquitous teahouse scams.

Souce: first hand experience of the China Tea House scam.

Source: first hand experience of the China Tea House scam.


Spending & making money in China

A broad look at expected costs:

Pricing comparison

Item Beijing Shanghai Nanjing
City center apartment 9,000 RMB (USD $1,500) 8,000 RMB ($1,300) 3,500 RMB ($550)
Pack of cigarettes 20 RMB ($3.20) 15 RMB ($2.40) 15 RMB
Taxi start rate 13 RMB ($2.10) 14 RMB ($2.25) 11 RMB ($1.77)
Monthly fitness club membership 280 RMB ($45) 300 RMB ($48) 200 RMB (32)
Local bottled beer (half liter) 5 RMB (0.80¢) 6 RMB (0.97¢) 4 RMB (0.64¢)
Local restaurant meal 27 RMB ($4.35) 30 RMB ($4.83) 15 RMB ($2.41)

Data by Planet Asia and Numbeo.com

 

Monthly Wages in the mega-cities

Megacity Expat wages

  • Finance: 80,000 RMB ($12,800 USD)
  • Management: 35,000 RMB ($5,650 USD)
  • HR: 25,000 RMB ($4.000 USD)
  • IT programming: 20,000 RMB ($3,220 USD)
  • ESL teacher: 15,000 RMB ($2,400 USD)
Chinese monthly wages

  • Minimum wage: 9-17 RMB/ hour
  • Shanghai waitress: 3,000 RMB ($483)
  • National average wage: 2,396 RMB ($390)
  • Public school teacher: 7,000 ($1,130)

Data compiled by Planet Asia in 2014 with help from gov.cn and Numbeo.com.

 


China Tourism

The Great Wall stretches 13,170 miles (21,196 kilometers) from east to west.

The Great Wall stretches 13,170 miles (21,196 kilometers) from east to west.

China tourism is simply too big a topic to include in this guide. For a detailed report, read Planet Asia’s 7 awesome tourist destinations in China.

In brief, China borders Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Mongolia, and North Korea. The diversity is stunning.

Tourist destinations offer a choice of Himalayan mountains, tropical forests, ancient ruins, space-age mega-cities, chilled out stoner zones and world-class trekking routes.

The language and culture barrier can make China travel challenging. Expect to get lost often, be given wrong directions frequently (Chinese prefer to save face than admit ignorance) and become a master at mime. Try to be firm and polite during your travels. Successful negotiations will bring confidence, which will help you get into the flow.


Expat life in China

1934 Hennessy ad depicting expat life on the Bund in Shanghai. Pic: source.

1934 Hennessy ad depicting expat life on the Bund in Shanghai. Pic: source.

The expat condition in China is too wide a topic to shoehorn into this introductory guide, thus we branched it off into several supporting articles.

In brief, there are over 600,000 expats with registered working visas in China, and almost 300,000 international students. The number of expat workers coming to China has been increased by 10% annually since the year 2000, but has dipped in the first quarter of 2015.

 


Number of expats in China by city

  • Shanghai: 210,000 expat residents
  • Guangzhou: 118,000 expat residents
  • Beijing: 107,000 expat residents
  • Nanjing: 17,000 expat residents
  • Suzhou: 15,000 expat residents
  • Shenzhen: 13,000 expat residents
  • Hangzhou: 10,000 expat residents


Conclusion

China gets a bad rap for its unruly crowds and the backwards behavior of its rural migrants. While in India the chaos is overwhelming, in China it’s manageable. If you keep your temper in check and make sure not to let anyone lose face, there are amazing things to discover:

Early morning tai chi on the street in Chengdu.

Early morning tai chi on the street in Chengdu.

  • Authentic people: many appear gruff at first, but the Chinese are wonderfully social. Once the ice is broken, they display genuine warmth and hospitality. They are extremely curious about foreigners (speak a few words to them in Chinese and watch their eyes light up) and are easy to engage.
  • Spectacular sightseeing: China boasts some of the most amazing natural scenery in the world, ranging from towering snow-capped peaks to raging rivers to pristine subtropical forests.
  • Diverse food: although many complain that typical dishes are overly salty and oily, those less finicky will enjoy a diverse array of hearty fare that really sticks to your ribs.
  • Rich culture: traces of China’s 5,000 year history can be found all over the country, in the form of ancient temples, time-honored traditions, music, festivals, etc. For those interested in history, languages, and culture, China offers innumerable learning opportunities.
  • Safety: one of the upsides of the Communist regime is that overt criminal activity is rare – Chinese streets are very safe, and solo travel (even for women) poses few safety risks.

Going in blind to a country as complex as China is definitely not a good idea. This introduction is designed to remedy that by giving you enough of an awareness of the big-picture parameters to enjoy your stay.

Have fun!