China travel guide: what you need to do


Visas, vaccinations, SIM cards, internet, power, money, travel insurance, handy apps and more.

china bridge over lake

China planning and preparation


Where to get the best cash rates, phone rates, phone apps for maps and currency conversions, and the trick for keying your pin number in ATMs - download the China travel guide.

Visas and passports

Australian passport holders need a visa to enter China. You can apply for a tourist visa by mail or in person at application centres in Canberra, Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth.

You'll need:

  • A passport with at least six-months' validity and with blank visa pages, as well as a photocopy of the passport's data page and photo page.
  • A photocopy of any previous Chinese visas or passports.
  • A completed visa application form.
  • A 48mm x 33mm photo.
  • A travel itinerary with proof of a return ticket and hotel reservations, or a letter of invitation (for example, from a local government, enterprise or individual in China).
  • A money order or payment authorisation form (if applying by mail).
  • A pre-paid self-addressed return envelope (if applying by mail).

Tip: The embassy only accepts registered mail or express post via Australia Post. Be sure to write down your tracking number.

Visa rules and requirements may change. For up-to-date information check with the Chinese Embassy: au.china-embassy.org

Processing generally takes four working days for in-person applications and 10 working days for postal applications. A two-day 'rush service' is available for in-person applicants who pay a higher fee and submit their application before midday. You should apply at least a month (and no more than three months) in advance of travel.

Tip: China does not recognise dual nationality. If you are a Chinese-Australian dual national, travel on your Australian passport with a visa for China and present yourself as Australian at all times, otherwise you'll be considered by authorities as a Chinese national and you won't have access to Australian consular services if you need them.

72-hour visa-free transit

Australian passport holders can visit certain Chinese cities visa-free for up to 72 hours. You can apply for transit without visa (TWOV) in Beijing (at Beijing Capital International Airport), Shanghai (at Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport or Pudong International Airport), Guangzhou (at Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport), Chengdu (at Chengdu Shuangliu International Airport), Chongqing (at Chongqing Jiangbei International Airport), Shenyang (at Shenyang Taoxian International Airport) or Dalian (at Dalian Zhoushuizi International Airport).

You'll need to:

  • inform your airline at check-in so they can forward your request to Chinese customs before landing
  • fill in the necessary paperwork when you arrive in China, before passing through immigration.

See au.china-embassy.org for more information and check with your travel agent or airline before booking flights - you don't want to get stuck in an airport for 72 hours if you're ineligible to enter the country!

Travel to Tibet

Australian passport holders need a special permit to enter Tibet. Applications can only be made through travel agents in China, and you can only travel in Tibet as part of an organised tour.

Vaccinations

Your doctor may recommend vaccinations before you travel to China, depending on your health status and your travel plans. The Travel Doctor recommends you make sure your routine vaccinations are up to date, and that you consider shots for typhoid, hepatitis A and B, rabies, Japanese Encephalitis and tick-borne encephalitis, and consider a prophylactic for malaria if you're travelling to affected areas. See their China health planner for more information or speak to your doctor.

Tip: Some vaccinations need to be given four to six weeks before departure, so get in early.

More about health and safety in China.

Phone and internet

Global roaming and coverage

China has an extensive GSM network, so your Australian phone should get good coverage in most populated areas. If you use your phone more than occasionally (particularly for accessing the internet) be prepared for huge bills. Check global roaming rates with your telco:

Tip: Switch off data roaming on your phone before you leave Australia. Likewise, switch off your voicemail and ask friends and family to text you rather than calling (you'll be charged if you answer incoming calls).

Local SIM

A pre-paid Chinese SIM card is a much cheaper option than paying global roaming rates on your Australian SIM. China Mobile and China Unicom operate on the GSM network so they should be compatible with your Australian handset, provided it's unlocked. China Telecom operates on the CDMA network (used in the USA and Japan) so it won't be compatible.

Tip: China Mobile has the widest coverage and is ahead of the competition with its expanding 4G network .

You can buy SIM cards at Chinese airports, phone stores, or convenience stores. Ask the person selling you the SIM to help you set it up, as phone prompts are unlikely to be available in English. Technically you should show your passport as ID, but they might not ask for it. Avoid buying SIM cards on the street as you may have trouble setting them up on your own or they may even be expired or invalid.

Tip: All Chinese SIM cards are regional, which means if you travel to a different province you'll pay higher rates, so try to buy a SIM card in the province where you'll be spending the most time.

You can top up your credit using vouchers from convenience or phone stores, but the credit will need to be purchased in your SIM card's 'home' province. If you've moved on to a different part of the country, you'll need to top up online. The China Mobile and China Unicom websites won't accept foreign credit cards, so you'll need to use a global service such as worldremit.com.

Tip: If you run out of credit, you'll be blocked from receiving calls, and your text messages will be deleted unless they're saved on your phone.

Scam alert: Most Chinese telcos will SMS you advertisements, most of which are in Chinese and are easily deleted. You may also get the occasional one-ring call from an unknown number. Don't ring back - you'll be charged an extremely high call rate.

Travel SIM

If you'd prefer to be organised before you go or if you're travelling through a number of countries, a pre-paid travel SIM is an easy option, though the rates probably won't be as cheap as with a local SIM. Travel SIMs are available online and from some travel agents and post offices.

Tip: China Mobile Hong Kong has pre-paid SIMs which will work in both China and Hong Kong. The rates will be higher than a Chinese mainland SIM, but their website and phone service is in English.

Remember: Your phone will need to be unlocked to accept a SIM from another network.

Beat global roaming bill shock - our guide to unlocking your phone and changing your global roaming settings.

Wi-Fi

You'll find free Wi-Fi in most hotels and many western-style cafes across China, and always at Starbucks. In rural areas internet access may be harder to come by. Some Wi-Fi hotspots might ask for a Chinese phone number in order to register and activate.

If staying connected is very important to you, consider renting a USB modem or a portable pocket-sized hotspot such as MiFi while you're in China.

The Chinese government blocks or limits access to a huge array of online content, including pornography and political information, and some major sites such as Google, Wikipedia, Twitter and Facebook. See this list of sites blocked by the 'Great Firewall of China'.

Many people use proxy servers to circumnavigate the bans, if only to tweet that they're in China!

Power plugs

Standard voltage: 220-240V

Frequency: 50Hz

China's frequency is the same as Australia's, and the voltage range is similar enough to Australia's 230V that you can use your appliances without fear of frying them.

Power sockets:

China's power plugs and sockets vary between the Australian type (I), the US/Japanese type (A) and the British type (G), so it's recommended you pack a universal adapter.

Money

Currency: Yuan Renminbi (RMB)

Tip: Chinese people rarely use the word 'yuan' when referring to money. Instead they say 'kuai', which is more like 'bucks'.

Check xe.com for the latest exchange rates.

Important: Tell your bank about your travel plans two weeks before you leave. Card activity in a foreign country could be mistaken for fraud and you could find your account frozen.

Credit cards

Credit cards are accepted at almost all hotels and are becoming more common in restaurants and shops. Check how much (if any) commission is being charged, and remember your bank will charge you a conversion fee for overseas purchases. Credit cards are a must, but so is cash, which you'll need for everyday purchases.

ATMs

ATMs are easy to find in Chinese towns and cities, but some won't accept foreign cards. Bank of China, Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC), and China Construction Bank are your best bets. Instructions will be in English and in Chinese. The withdrawal limit may be low on some machines, which can be frustrating when you're paying a withdrawal fee every time.

Tip: Chinese PINs are generally six digits long, but most ATMs should accept your four-digit PIN. If not, try inserting two zeros first. Don't try to enter your PIN a third time though - the machine will confiscate or lock your card if it's incorrect.

Money changers

Currency exchange is only legal at hotels, banks and exchange booths using the official rate set by the central government through the Bank of China. You'll find plenty of money changers at Chinese airports, and you'll get a better rate once you're on the ground than if you change money in Australia (although you may want to pack a small amount of yuan for peace of mind).

Scam alert: Say no to anyone who tries to offer you a different exchange rate to the official one set by the government. This is illegal, and you may even end up with counterfeit bills.

Travellers' cheques

Travellers' cheques are becoming a thing of the past and they're not a practical way of taking money to China. Only the Bank of China is authorised to cash travellers' cheques, and the process can take hours. Outside of the cities you're unlikely to find anywhere that can cash your cheque.

Travel money cards

If you're concerned about money security, consider a pre-paid travel money card or 'cash passport'. They can be pre-loaded with a foreign currency and used like a credit or debit card, and cancelled if lost. Read more about the pros and cons of travel money cards.

Tip: Carry at least two cards and more than one cash currency (Australian and Chinese). Split your money and cards between separate bags. That way if you lose one, you have a back-up.

For more advice on overseas spending see our travel money guide.

Travel insurance

Travel insurance is essential. Buy insurance at the same time as you book your trip, that way you'll be covered if you have to cancel for some reason before you go.

For more information read our buying guide and to choose the best cover, see CHOICE's travel insurance reviews and comparisons.

Check with your insurer about exclusions that may affect you, including some sports and pre-existing medical conditions.

Be aware that anything that happens to you while under the influence of drugs or alcohol is unlikely to be covered by insurance.

Tips:

  • Keep a print-out of your travel insurance details with you at all times while on your trip.
  • Share your insurance details with family or friends before you leave.

Handy links and apps

Consider adding these links and apps to your phone, tablet or laptop before you go.

Tip: Try to find apps that work offline so they won't chew up your data or stop working when you don't have an internet connection.

  • Travel apps such as Triposo offer maps, hotel search, restaurant recommendations and other travel tips.
  • City Guides offer self-guided tours of Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong.
  • China Metro provides timetables and information for metro systems in 15 different Chinese cities.
  • China Trains (Apple / Android) provides country-wide train timetables and a ticket booking service.
  • Currency conversion apps help you work out costs in Australian dollars.
  • Translation apps help with communication. Pleco comes with voice recognition and handwriting recognition - eg. draw a Chinese character with your finger to find out what it means!

Tip: To save a map onto your mobile device for offline use, select the area on Google Maps then select 'Save offline map' from the menu and follow the directions on the screen. Your GPS positioning will still work on the saved map, even when you don't have access to the internet. Alternatively, download the Google Maps app, go to 'Offline maps' in the menu and select a city.

Got a travel tip about China? Or spotted something in our guide that needs updating? Add a comment below.


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