China can be quite overwhelming experience if you arrive here unprepared. I present some practical tips from my experience to make traveling in China easier. I believe this can be quite useful for a person traveling around in China without the knowledge of Chinese language. I highly recommend reading up travel wiki for China for practical info on how things work in China (Mainland).
As for the internet, although 4G network coverage in the mainland is excellent, some of the common services are blocked in mainland China. Services from Google, Facebook, Dropbox and some more major western internet companies are unavailable. I will briefly touch up these and provide alternatives.
Overall, China is an extremely interesting country to visit with endless places to go and experiences to experience. It is an extremely safe and welcoming country.
The advice here is particularly for Mainland China (PRC), where major internet services from Google, Facebook etc are unavailable. All usual services like google-maps, youtube, facebook etc work in Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan.
Get Sim Card from Airport
Sim cards with 4G internet service are readily available at all major airports in China. There are traditional shops and recently also a vending machine where you can scan your passport for verification and it issues a sim card. Usually, cost about 70 RMB (~10 USD) for 5 GB of data. Before leaving the airport it would be a good idea to buy a sim card with 4G data. Sim cards are also available in city location but might be harder to find.
Android Play Store in Unavailable
Yes, you heard it right, the Android play store is not available. This means you will not be able to install apps through it. I highly recommend you install all the required apps become arriving here. Also, payment options will not be available through Android pay.
If you are an Apple user, you need not worry as much. Apple store works.
Google maps services not only is unavailable in China but is outright wrong as of 2017. So if you plan to download offline google maps and use the GPS, in a word don’t! See this screen capture, for example, the maps and GPS coordinates are unaligned. This screen grab is from near Hong Kong – China border and you can clearly see how wrong it is. On the HK side it is correct and works correctly but on the Chinese side, it is not aligned. So, spare yourself the trouble and don’t use google maps in the mainland (even in offline mode).
I recommend maps.me. You will be able to download maps, mark places, search for places even without internet.
Google’s search is unavailable as of 2017. Most people in China use Baidu. However, I personally find Microsoft’s Bing is worth a shot in the mainland. Just go to bing.com. Although bing is not that great of a search engine but is usable enough for simple searches like tourist attractions, weather information, restaurant recommendation etc. Baidu is also alright for such searches.
Language and Language Issues
One quick thing you might want to know about Chinese is that it is tonal language (Mandarin has 4 tones). So the way you speak a word makes a lot of difference. Also, worth knowing is that there are a lot of Chinese dialects in use in China, for example, Mandarin, Cantonese, Hokkien, Wu etc. The most common one is Mandarin (Putonghua). In Hong Kong, and in Southern China’s Guangdong province, in particular, Cantonese (Guangdonghua) is in major use.
There are 2 major Chinese writing styles, viz. Chinese (Simplified) and Chinese (Traditional). The simplified writing style is in use in mainland China and Singapore. The traditional writing style is in use in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia. The Chinese characters are often romanized and this is called Pinyin. See here for more fuller practical info on the Chinese language for travelers.
If you plan to learn a bit of Chinese, ‘HelloChinese‘ is an app with sound recognition to help you learn faster. It is similar to Duolingo. Duolingo is preparing Chinese course for English speakers but is unavailable as of Sept 2017.
Understand that less than 1% of the China’s population can read and understand English. To put things in perspective, there are probably more English speakers in Hong Kong than the entire mainland of China. Outside of major cities viz. Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzen and Guangzhou, chances are slim you would find someone who would understand English.
Language is going to be a major issue if you do NOT read and understand Chinese. However, you can use google translate offline. You can download ‘Simplified Chinese’ language pack in the google translate app. Be sure to do this before your arrival in China. Also, remember to download Google’s Chinese keyboard (called Google Pinyin Keyboard) so that people can write in Chinese characters to make you understand what they are trying to convey.
I have also used the Google voice input for conversation. It makes it a lot convenient to talk to people, especially in shops and restaurants.With it, you can speak in English, the app talks back in Chinese. Then the Chinese person can reply in Mandarin (spoken). The app then talks back in English.
Other translation services you may use (if google translate offline didn’t work) are ‘Bing translate’ and ‘Baidu translate’. These will work also in online mode if you have 4G/Wifi.
Another convenient way is throughWeChat (China’s Whatsapp from Tencent). WeChat is called
Weixin in China. Just add the person on your WeChat account as a friend using the QR code. You can text that person in English. They can translate this text to Chinese by long press the text and click on translate. Then, they reply in Chinese. You can convert this to English by long press the text and then click ‘translate to English’.
Another failsafe way is to have a Chinese-English dictionary app installed. There are several dictionary apps available. It might be a good idea to have one installed.
Although Whatsapp works in mainland China, there are often service disruptions, owing to the internet censorship. So, if you plan to be in touch with your friends and family through it, you might want to be aware of this. Also, beware that Gmail and Facebook won’t be accessible. Microsoft’s Outlook and/or your work-email account should work, so plan according.
The alternative is to use WeChat (China’s Whatsapp from Tencent). Also, ask the people with whom you wish to be in touch with, to add you as friends on WeChat. Also, it is a good idea to top up a few dollars on WeChat Out. Wechat Out is for VOIP, you can make international calls through the internet. This is available through the WeChat app. Overall, highly recommended to have a WeChat account for China travelers. WeChat Download [Android] [iOS].
Don’t be too surprised if a vendor doesn’t take your cash and asks you to pay with QR code (Wechatpay or Alipay). China has leapfrogged a lot of other countries in payment, read this SCMP article to know more if interested. Although I have used WeChat pay in Hong Kong (with my HK bank account linked to it), I do not know how a traveler can signup for WeChat without a mainland bank account. If any reader knows the way, please do enlighten me.
Mastercard, Visa, Amex is not as common. But you can get by with it in upscale shopping malls in major cities. Definitely, do not expect Mastercard Visa to work in the smaller establishment. Beware, ATMs which take MasterCard and Visa are also less common, UnionPay is fairly common though. A better idea is to withdraw enough cash at the airport.
Other Misc Apps
- open rice [Android], [iOS] – Restaurant recommendation
- ofo bikes – Bicycle rental.
- Ehai (http://en.1hai.cn/) – Car rental.
- Booking.com or Airbnb – Hotel booking
- ctrip – Travel booking. Can also book train tickets in China.
Some Other Tips
- Carry extra battery pack.
- Write down addresses in Chinese characters. No one can read English characters.
- Agree on a price for a taxi before getting in to avoid getting ripped off.
- Although China is extremely safe, beware of scammers especially near major railway stations.
- You might want to have a VPN account already setup on your phone. But please be aware of that in 2017, use of VPNs was banned in China, see the news article here. This is at best semi-legal as of 2018. You have been warned!