10 Tips for Traveling in China

|   Last Updated on March 7, 2023

China is a country rich in history and traditions. And with a population of nearly 1.4 billion, the country can vary dramatically from region to region. There’s always another festival to celebrate and a new story to hear.

But before visiting China, it is important to learn about the customs as well as the dos and don’ts. Having lived here for five years, the suggestions in this article are based on my experiences.

Here are 10 tips to know before traveling to China: 

1. Learn Some Chinese Phrases

In larger cities with more developed tourist infrastructure, like Beijing and Shanghai, locals are more likely to understand English (though relatively few compared to other world cities). For travel elsewhere, it is smart to learn a few Chinese phrases.

Ni hao (pronounced nee-how) means “hello” and xie xie (pronounced shyeh-shyeh) means “thank you.” Bu keqi (pronounced bieh koh-chi) means “you’re welcome,” and duoshao qian (pronounced du-shao chee-enne) means “how much is it?” There are many language apps to help you practice and learn, such as Duolingo or Youdao, a translation dictionary. Youdao was the app I used to go between written and spoken translations.

Tourists aren’t expected to speak Chinese, but if you try, the locals will appreciate the effort. If you get stuck, there is always someone who can help. You can ask someone on the street for assistance and they will be happy to help in any way they can. 

2. Exchange Money Before Arriving

A Chinese 100 yuan. Photo by Erin Coyle

For convenience, check the rates at exchange bureaus in your home country for Chinese yuan before arriving. If there is a good deal, then you don’t have to worry about exchanging or withdrawing money on arrival. If not, there are ATMs across Chinese cities. Depending on your bank you may be subject to exchange fees when withdrawing.

Cash can be used when shopping at the street and night markets. Most vendors also accept credit and debit cards. It is also easy to use Apple and WeChat Pay (WeChat is a popular communication and media app in China). 

3. Do Not Tip

Tipping is not practiced in China. If you try to leave a tip, the money will be returned. I remember learning this rule before I moved to China, but I forgot when I arrived. The first restaurant I went to I left a tip on the table and the waitress ran after me to return the money. 

While talking about payment etiquette, when hailing a taxi make sure the meter is running before driving. Some taxis do not run the meter and this fare should be negotiated ahead of time. 

4. Use Your Chopsticks Properly

Put your chopstick skills to the test while eating some dumplings. Photo by Erin Coyle

Hold the chopsticks toward the bottom with your index and middle finger and make a scooping gesture with your hand while grabbing the food from the sides. When finished, place the chopsticks on top of the bowl or plate. Never place them directly in the bowl. When eating with locals, always let the elderly eat first.

That said, definitely try eating with chopsticks when you go to restaurants. Most places will have cutlery, but the more traditional experience is always entertaining. When I first tried using them the food would always slip out! It takes practice to get used to the utensils. 

5. Food

Food lines the display at a street vendor’s cart. Photo by Erin Coyle

There are countless delicious Chinese dishes and restaurants to try, but you have to try the street food. In most cities it is easy to find curbside vendors. In Beijing visit Wangfujing Street, in Wuhan visit Hubu Alley, and in Shanghai visit Xiangyang Street. Smaller cities will also have a block or two of street vendors. You will find everything from oysters to barbecued meat and vegetables. The dumplings are to die for.

Another must-try is hotpot, a large pot of spiced broth mixed with meat, fish, tofu, or vegetables. The food is cooked together in the pot with your choice of spice. 

The spiciness of the local cuisine varies. In northern areas like Shanghai, the food is on the sweeter side. In provinces such as Sichuan and Jiangxi the foods are very spicy; be prepared for the heat and always have something to drink in between bites. 

6. Rice

A plethora of mouth-watering dishes you can get in China. Photo by Erin Coyle

Rice is a main dish in China. Some restaurants wait to bring rice until the end of the meal, but you can ask for it with the rest of the food. The first time I ate with a colleague I ate all of my food before he asked for rice and expected us to eat more. There was no space left so I learned this lesson right away.

In most restaurants rice is served in a large slow cooker or large bowl and you can have multiple servings. You can mix the rice with other food in small bowls. The best thing to do is mix the sauce and rice, making the rice very flavorful. Keep track of how many scoops of rice you are adding to your bowl because it is easy to get carried away.

7. Drinks

A large basket containing vibrant green tea leaves. Photo by Erin Coyle

China is known for its tea so make sure to try some. There are many tea plantations if you want to learn about the tea-growing and production process. In smaller villages like Anyi tea is sold along the streets. Green tea is the most popular, but flower teas are also a favorite for their skin-cleansing benefits.

For those that drink alcohol, try Tsingtao, a Chinese beer. There is a brewery in Qingdao that is open for tours. Another drink to try is Baijo, a rice wine. Rice wine is similar to vodka but while drinking it gives a heartburn sensation. If out with locals, they will always order this for you. Before you drink, make sure to toast by saying ganbei

8. Use Local Transportation

China has an excellent public transport system. Use subways, local buses, and trains for an affordable way around. It is easy to take high-speed trains, but night trains tend to be cheaper. The night train beds are comfortable, with an option for a soft or hard bed. I have slept on the hard beds and they are surprisingly pleasant. The lights are usually turned off between 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. Train tickets can be bought up to 60 days in advance on trip.com.

If flying into Shanghai Pudong airport, try the Shanghai maglev train. It goes over 18 miles to Longyang Road Station in less than 8 minutes. When I tried this train, it was impressive watching the speed pick up as we went along. I was shocked at how quickly we arrived. It is easy to book the train ticket at the airport at the kiosk or the window. The train departs every 15 minutes. For more details, go to shanghai-airport.com.

9. Festivals

Zongzi displayed in a basket, waiting to be eaten. Photo by Erin Coyle

If traveling during a festival such as the Dragon Boat Festival (held in May or June, depending on the year and the Chinese calendar) make sure to try zongzi, a sticky rice mixed with red beans and pork.  

If traveling during other festivals such as National Day or Spring Festival, be warned that it gets very crowded and moving around cities during peak times takes patience. Trains will sell out quickly so make sure to book as early as possible; it is also advisable to book hotels well in advance.

10. Dress Code

Performers dressed in beautiful and elaborate outfits during a show. Photo by Erin Coyle

There is no dress code to follow when visiting China. Bring comfortable clothing and walking shoes. When visiting in the winter, bring warm clothes and be prepared to wear your coat all day–even inside restaurants.

In smaller villages women will wear traditional clothing. You can try on traditional clothing and take photos in some tourist areas for a small fee. When shopping, women can buy a traditional qipao (Chinese-style dress). They are usually made of silk with traditional embroidery and come in various colors, lengths, and styles. 


China has plenty to do and see. The locals are very friendly and will always help if asked. Take time to explore and learn about the culture because it varies from region to region. China is always crowded so be patient when traveling around. It is a country like no other and so different from anywhere else I have been to. Enjoy and take lots of pictures.

Last Updated on March 7, 2023