China travel guide: visas, SIM cards, currency and more


How to get a visa, access the internet, pay with your phone and more.


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.

There are a range of different visas available. Visa rules and requirements may change at short notice. For the most up-to-date information, follow the application guidelines at au.china-embassy.org.

What you’ll need

  • A passport with at least six months' validity and with at least one blank visa page, as well as a photocopy of the passport's data page and photo page.
  • A photocopy of any previous Chinese visas or Chinese passports.
  • A completed visa application form.
  • A 48mm x 33mm photo (see photo guidelines).
  • 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).
  • An application fee (via payment authorisation form if applying by mail).
  • A pre-paid self-addressed return envelope (if applying by mail).

Applying by mail?

The application centres only accept registered mail or express post via Australia Post. Be sure to write down your tracking number (for your return envelope too).

How long will it take to get my Chinese visa?

Processing generally takes:

  • 4 working days for in-person applications
  • 10 working days for postal applications
  • 2 days for the 'rush service' - available for in-person applicants who pay a higher fee

You should apply for your visa six weeks in advance of travel.

Tip: Don’t apply more than three months in advance. Your visa could expire before you’ve had the chance to use it.

Chinese-Australian?

China doesn’t recognise dual nationality. If you’re 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.

Australian children of Chinese descent

Australian children under 16 whose parent or parents are or were Chinese nationals will need to provide a birth certificate when applying for a Chinese visa for the first time.

Transit through China visa-free

Australian passport holders can visit certain Chinese cities and regions visa-free for short transit periods, which is particularly handy if you’re considering a quick stopover on the way to Europe.

The transit without visa (TWOV) applies to 18 Chinese cities and is likely to be expanded to more in future.

72-hour transit without visa

This TWOV allows you to visit China for up to three days. Be aware that your movement will be restricted depending on which airport you fly in to:

  • If you fly into Guangzhou, Chengdu, Qingdao or Changsha you are allowed to travel in the whole province.
  • If you fly into Chongqing, Harbin, Guilin, Kunming, Wuhan or Xiamen you cannot leave the transit city.
  • If you fly into Xian Xianyang Airport you can travel in Xian and Xianyang.

144-hour transit without visa

Some Chinese cities allow a longer visa-free visit of up to six days. Again, travel may be restricted depending on which city you arrive in.

  • If you fly into Shanghai, Zhejiang or Jiangsu you can move freely around any of those three places.
  • If you fly into Beijing, Tianjin or Hebei you can move freely around those three places.
  • If you fly into Dalian or Shenyang you can travel in the whole of Liaoning Province.

To apply for transit without visa

You don’t need to apply in advance, but do let your airline know at check-in that you plan to transit in China.

Fill in the arrival/departure card (this will be given to you on the plane) indicating that you’ll be transiting without a visa.

Present this to immigration at the airport.

You’ll also need:

  • Proof of your onward flight to a third country (the TWOV doesn’t apply to return flights, only transits).
  • At least three months’ validity on your passport.
  • A valid visa (if applicable) for your final destination.

Important: Check the latest rules with the Chinese embassy, 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.

Travel to Hong Kong

If you’re planning to travel from mainland China to Hong Kong, then back to the mainland, be sure to apply for a two-entry visa.

Phone and internet

Can I use my Australian mobile phone in China?

Your Australian phone should get good coverage in most populated areas thanks to China’s extensive GSM network. But if you use your phone more than occasionally (particularly for accessing the internet) be prepared for huge bills.

Check global roaming rates before you go. Most Australian telcos offer special global roaming deals with capped daily rates. They’re not as cheap as getting a local SIM (see below) but they allow you to keep your Australian number and avoid nasty surprises on your bill.

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.

Which Chinese phone network is best?
  • Avoid China Telecom - it operates on the CDMA network (used in the USA and Japan) so it won't be compatible with your Australian handset.
  • China Mobile and China Unicom operate on the GSM network so they should be compatible with your Australian handset, provided it's unlocked.
  • China Mobile has the widest coverage, however it may not be compatible with some older phones (pre-2015).
  • China Unicom’s coverage is almost as good, and is reportedly compatible with most foreign phones.
Buying and setting up a Chinese SIM

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 may not be 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.
How to buy phone credit

You can top up your credit:

  • via the telco’s website (although they may not play well with some foreign credit cards),
  • using vouchers from convenience or phone stores,
  • via WeChat or Alipay (again, these reportedly don’t play well with foreign cards).

Tip: Make sure you have plenty of credit. Not only can it be difficult to top up, but if you run out you may be blocked from receiving calls and your text messages could be deleted if they aren’t saved on your phone. Credit is relatively cheap so you may as well stock up with more than you need.

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.

Global roaming rates in Taiwan and Hong Kong

Your mainland Chinese SIM will charge global roaming rates if you use it in Taiwan or Hong Kong.

In the past, Chinese SIMs were regional and would charge roaming rates even if you travelled between provinces, but since 2017 charges have been brought into line – at least for mainland China.

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.

Data

If staying connected is very important to you, look for a pre-paid SIM with a high data limit. If you need to connect your laptop, you can tether it to your phone or tablet (whichever device is using the SIM).

Internet censorship

Can I access Facebook and Gmail 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 (including Gmail), Wikipedia, Twitter and Facebook.

WeChat is the country’s main social media network, and since it does a lot more than just social media – news, money transfers, hailing taxis, restaurant bookings, takeaway orders and much more - it’s well worth downloading it to use while you’re there.

Just be aware that messages sent via WeChat (and other messaging platforms including text messages) may be monitored by the Chinese government. Don’t worry: you’d have to say something very inflammatory to attract their attention though.

VPNs

Many people use virtual proxy servers (VPNs) to circumnavigate the 'Great Firewall of China'. The Chinese government technically banned these in 2018, ordering internet service providers to block them, but plenty are still in use.

Most VPNs can’t be downloaded while in China so if you’re planning to use one, download it before you go. And do your research to make sure it will work once you’re there.

Are VPNs illegal in China?

Technically, yes. Plenty of westerners use them without falling foul of the law (the Chinese government is far more concerned about what its own citizens are doing), but if the thought of breaking the law makes you nervous, you’ll just have to live without your Gmail, Facebook and Twitter while in China.

Power plugs

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.

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.

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'.

Important: Tell your bank about your travel plans at least 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.

Mobile payment

China is quickly moving towards becoming a cashless and cardless society, with many people making using their phones to make payments these days.

In the major cities, 95% of merchants accept WeChat and Alipay, however many foreigners report having trouble connecting their non-Chinese credit cards to these apps.

If you do want to try using mobile payments, try these tips:

  • Wait until you’re in China to download the app.
  • Connect your Visa or MasterCard (not American Express or any kind of debit card).

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.

Looking for the best travel insurance?

See our travel insurance comparison.

Travel insurance reviews

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 offer maps, hotel search, restaurant recommendations and other travel tips.
  • Public transport apps such as Moovit, China Metro and China Trains provide live public transport timetables and information.
  • Currency conversion apps help you work out costs in Australian dollars.
  • Translation apps help with communication (remember Google Translate won’t work inside the Chinese firewall).
  • WeChat is China’s most popular social media app, but it’s useful for much more than just connecting with people. You can use it to book taxis, order takeway, reserve a restaurant table and much more.
  • Didi Chuxing is China’s main ride-hailing app; so popular that it recently ‘drove’ Uber out of the market.
  • Map apps – remember that you won’t be able to access Google Maps inside the Chinese firewall, so you’ll need an alternative such as maps.me or Baidu Map.

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


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