In the summer of 2018, we were lucky enough to spend some time exploring Northern China, the experience was as breathtaking as it was eyeopening. It remains one of the most enjoyable trips we have ever taken. However, the preparation and planning required to visit China was easily the most difficult we have ever been involved in. The guides we tried to follow online were either only semi complete, outdated or in some cases simply incorrect. The purpose of this guide is to help you cover all bases and make sure the experience of planning to go to China as stress free as possible.
Where are you going to visit?
The first step of course is to choose where to visit in China. A country as vast as China has endless possibilities, perhaps you want to explore any of the 12 world heritage sites around the Beijing area including the Temple of Heaven, the beautiful Forbidden City and the Summer Palace. Maybe you are more interested in the hyper-modern city of Shanghai with its pristine skyscrapers, busy Nanjing Rd shopping street and its tranquil Yu Garden. No matter why you want to visit China, it's essential to decide where you plan to be, China is such a big country that unless you plan to spend months there, or most of your time on trains and planes, you simply won't see even close to all of it. Our advice would be to spend several weeks, with a week or two dedicated to a single city. We spent several weeks in China, divided between the cities of Beijing and Harbin. Wherever you decide to go, make sure you do a weather check for the average temperatures in that area at the time of year you will be visiting. Caitlin and I were totally shocked when we arrived into Harbin (in the far north of the country) and were greeted by 40°C temperatures. Needless to say, I didn't wear the jeans I packed in the daytime once!
China issues single (01), double (02) and multiple-entry (M) tourist visas, so you will need to decide if you will be visiting neighbouring countries or islands and then returning to mainland China before you apply. The visa can be valid for 7 days (for transit visas) to up to 180 days (for tourist visas) depending on the flight information you have given them. Although Hong Kong is now considered part of China, you will still need a separate visa to visit and it will be considered another entry on your mainland visa upon reentering.
Book your flight early
Worrying though it may be, its a requirement of a Chinese visa that you already have a return flight booked. We found it was much cheaper to make a layover en route to China, although Caitlin flew direct, I stopped off in Paris and saved myself over £100. The bottom line here is that you simply must book your flight as far in advance as you possibly can for visa reasons (as well as cost!) that I will explain below. Give yourself at least several months to be safe. As always our go to flight comparison websites are Skyscanner and flygrn. In some instances, for example if you are unsure you will be accepted, book refundable flights.
In order for you to submit the visa application (below) you need to have accommodation already arranged, therefore it is best to get this done around the same time as your flights. When you are staying in China, the local police need to have details of where you are living, usually hotel chains will provide this information for you, however if you decide to stay in an Airbnb or with family/friends, you need to inform the local police department yourself within 24 hours of arriving at the destination. In many areas, away from expat hot-spots, this will be a particularly difficult and you will need a good translator app or a bilingual friend to help (assuming you can't speak Chinese!).
Begin the process of applying for your Chinese visa as soon as possible!
I can't stress the importance of this step enough. Unlike travelling within Europe, or from one Western country to another, visiting China requires undergoing a very stringent visa application process. This was easily the most stressful part of Caitlin and I's visit to China. Before you are even able to start the application process, you need to find the closest application center, which is NOT the same thing as the closest Chinese embassy. Your country may well have a Chinese embassy, but there is a good chance it might have only one, if any, visa application centers. The application website lists the locations here. Fortunately for us, our closest app center was in London, only an hour journey on the train away, but many people across the world may in fact have to fly to theirs, for example had Caitlin still been living in Halifax, Nova Scotia, she would have to have flown into Montreal's office. There is an option to complete the application by post, however you can expect significantly longer processing and waiting times, the biggest drawback to a postal application is that if there is a problem with your application, you won't know about it for weeks/months which can set you back so far you might miss your flight and
Now you know where your closest application center is, fill out all of the application form provided from the website above and bring EVERYTHING that has been asked of you, as well as anything else you feel might strengthen your application. While the agent you speak to at the center won't technically be able to tell you if it will strengthen your application or not, it always helps to have everything with you, in case you change your mind. Things you MUST remember to bring:
Get your vaccinations
Once your visa has been approved (hooray!) you are over the biggest and most stressful hurdle. Your next step should be to book in to get your vaccinations. As of February 2019 the NHS (National Health Service in the UK) recommends the following for travel to China:
Once you have a place to stay, flights to China, your visa has been accepted and vaccinations up-to-date, its time to go out and buy yourself some Yuan (or Renminbi, two words for the same thing). If you are coming from a country in the west, its likely that the cost of living in China will be comparatively lower, which means you will likely be able to convert a little less than you might be used to. When Caitlin and I visited, we took out 4500 CNY with us to China, which was enough for three weeks, although we were money conscious and could have comfortably taken more. As always, buy the currency as soon after your visa has been accepted as possible, many currency stores, especially smaller ones, will likely not hold this amount of Yuan, so you may have to order it in. Don't force yourself to buy any at the airport or in China itself.
When we arrived into China, we noticed pretty quickly that most Chinese people don't use cash, instead preferring to pay with their phones, using WeChat (Chinese Whatsapp) as their preferred method of payment.
Decide how you are going to use the internet in China
Everybody knows that China uses a fairly strict online 'wall' to prevent certain sites, which are deemed to be against Chinese morals, from being accessed. If you are someone who can't bare to be away from Facebook, Google (Gmail, Maps, etc), youtube and so on, you will need to purchase yourself a VPN. We found the most reliable option was ExpressVPN (1 month is $13.00), which has a money back guarantee if for whatever reason it fails to work. The VPN worked perfectly for us so we could use Google Maps to navigate with ease. One thing to be wary of however is data charges that your cell/mobile service provider will charge you while in China. Look into package prices to get the best deal based on how long you will be there. At one point I was spending almost £5 per day on data before I curbed my usage to save money.
Download WeChat and a good translator app
If you have any intention whatsoever of keeping in contact with friends you make in China, unless they are using a VPN often, you will need to download WeChat. WeChat is the single most important social network in China and you will not meet a Chinese person who isn't using it very frequently. Imagine something like the networking of Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram and WhatsApp all rolled into one app for 1.3 billion people.
To help with language barriers, it might be a good idea to download the Google Translate app on your phone and then download the Chinese package (around 50mb). This will allow you to hold your phones camera up to the Chinese writing you wish to translate and see the English translation, a very nifty little tool to use. The app also has a conversation recorder function, which can also come in handy.
Key Tips before you arrive
This guide is only to be used for general information purposes, it is not medical, travel or legal advice. Please refer to visaforchina.org for detailed guidelines on how to fill out the visa application. Please also consult your doctor for medical advice pertaining to your trip to China including any vaccinations you might need.
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