China travel guide: what you need to know


Best time to go, culture, language, health, safety, laws, watchouts, emergency contacts and more.

China overview


From the steamy south to the freezing north, find out when to get the best weather, and join (or avoid) the world's largest annual migration - download the China travel guide.

Travel-size tips

  • Australians can fly to China in as little as 10 hours.
  • Australian passport holders need a visa, although visa-free passes are available at some Chinese airports if transiting for less than 72 hours.
  • Travel to Tibet is restricted - you'll need to book a tour through a travel agency in China.
  • The weather in China can vary from sub-tropical summers in the south to icy cold winters in the north.
  • Chinese New Year is a great time to visit, but transport will be crowded and booked out well in advance.

Know before you go

  • Only Chinese driver's licence-holders can drive or hire cars.
  • Some cities experience extreme levels of air pollution. If you have respiratory problems, speak to your doctor before you go.
  • Your doctor may recommend vaccinations before you travel to China.
  • China has laws restricting free speech, and the government blocks access to many internet sites.

Best time to go

China is an enormous country with a climate that varies from steamy monsoonal summers near the southern borders with Vietnam and Myanmar to freezing cold winters near the northern borders with Russia and Mongolia, as well as icy weather to the west, where China meets with the Himalayas of Nepal, India and Pakistan.

Check the average temperature and rainfall in the area of China you're planning to visit.

  • Temperatures in Beijing rarely rise above freezing during winter, and can reach over 30°C in summer.
  • Winters are a little milder in Shanghai, summers are hot and humid.
  • Summers can be uncomfortable in the south of the country where daily downpours make for a sticky, sub-tropical heat and coastal areas experience the occasional typhoon.
  • Tibet and Inner Mongolia experience bitter winters and are best visited in the warmer months.
  • Harbin, in the far north, attracts hundreds of thousands of locals and visitors to its Ice and Snow Festival in January and February.
  • Chinese New Year (Spring Festival) in January or February (dates change) is a great time to see the country in party mode. Most Chinese people take up to two weeks off work and travel home to visit their families. With more than 700 million people squeezing onto the nation's trains, buses, planes and boats, it's been described as the world's largest annual human migration. You'll find many cities surprisingly empty during this time. It's best to pick a good place to see in the New Year and then stay put, as you'll face crowds and sold-out tickets on inter-city transport.
  • Transport comes under strain again during the Labour Day holiday on May 1, and during the mid-autumn festival in September - which is often combined with National Day on October 1 to make for a week-long break.
  • School holidays - particularly university holidays - drive up demand for train tickets as students travel home to their families. Chinese schools have two semesters, with breaks just before Spring Festival (January/February) and in mid-summer (July).
  • Other key dates include the Dragon Boat Festival across much of the country in June, the International Fashion Festival in Dalian in September, and the International Trade Fair in Guangzhou in April and October, when hotels are likely to be fully booked.

Culture

  • Family and community are at the centre of Chinese culture. The group is more important than the individual, and Chinese people show great respect for their elders.
  • 'Face' is a very important concept. Arguments and emotional scenes in public mean a 'loss of face' and are very embarrassing for all involved.
  • The Chinese are a little more conservative than most Australians when it comes to public displays of affection and styles of dress. Avoid wearing very revealing clothing, particularly in rural areas, and try not to shock the locals with anything more than a peck on your partner's cheek.
  • City dwellers won't look twice at foreigners, but if you travel off the beaten track you may attract a lot of attention. People may want to have their photo taken with you or they might encourage their children to practice English with you. Try to oblige if you have the time.
  • Don't be offended if you're quizzed about your age, marital status and even your income.
  • Queuing isn't compulsory and personal space is less respected than in Australia, so don't get upset if people push and shove their way ahead of you in crowded places.
  • At the dinner table, never play with your chopsticks, lick them, use them to stir food, or to point at a person. Cover your mouth with your hand when using a toothpick.
  • Try to eat everything on your plate, but don't worry about turning some things down. The Chinese are quite understanding if there are certain foods that you don't like to eat.
  • Cultural taboos include touching a person's head, showing a person the soles of your feet and pointing with your finger (use your hand if you have to point).
  • Numbers are very important in Chinese culture. Eight is the luckiest number and four is the unluckiest. Many buildings won't have a fourth floor and many hotels won't have any room numbers with four in them.
  • Tipping is not customary, but it is appreciated. In tourist areas and cities frequented by foreigners, tipping is more likely to be expected.

Official language: Chinese Mandarin

Dialects vary all over China but Mandarin is the official language.

English is taught in Chinese schools, so many younger people can speak at least a few words. Older people are unlikely to speak any English, particularly outside of the cities. You'll find a greater number of English-speakers in international cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, and of course in hotels and tourist areas.

Chinese characters are difficult to master, but most street signs include pinyin (Chinese words written in the English alphabet) or English translations.

Health and safety

  • The standard of health care in China varies from place to place. In rural areas, medical staff may be poorly trained and are unlikely to speak English, but most cities have private hospitals and clinics with at least some English-speaking staff. Expect to pay fees up-front, even in an emergency. Medical evacuations from China are extremely expensive, so make sure you're covered by travel insurance.
  • The tap water is China is not safe to drink. Stick to bottled or boiled water, ask for no ice in your drinks, and check the seal on water bottles (some stores sell boiled water in recycled bottles).
  • Traveller's diarrhoea, including giardia, is common in China. Wash your hands regularly, opt for fully cooked, fresh food and peel fruit before eating it.
  • Hepatitis A, spread via food and water, is common. Speak to a doctor about getting vaccinated before you go.
  • Dengue fever is quite common in the south of the country. There is no vaccination, so do your best to avoid mosquito bites.
  • Malaria is rare in most parts of China, but try to avoid mosquito bites and check with a doctor about prophylactics if you're travelling to areas bordering Myanmar, Laos or Vietnam, particularly during the wet season.
  • Hand, foot and mouth disease is common in China, particularly among children. To avoid it, wash your hands regularly.
  • The air quality in some Chinese cities is poor. If you have respiratory or other health problems, speak to your doctor. Pollution levels vary day-to-day, so check local reports (eg. aqicn.org/city/beijing/) and consider staying indoors or wearing a mask on bad days.
  • For the latest health and safety advice about China, including disease outbreaks, natural disasters and civil unrest, check smartraveller.gov.au

Do I need vaccinations to travel to China?

Laws and watchouts

Laws

  • Drugs are highly illegal and convictions can result in the death penalty. It is even illegal to have drugs still in your system, regardless of which country they were taken in.
  • You should carry ID with you at all times.
  • The legal drinking age is 18.
  • Gambling and prostitution are illegal in mainland China.
  • Most religions are tolerated by the secular government, but foreigners have been evicted for distributing religious material.
  • Protesting or speaking out against the government is not tolerated. Tourists are unlikely to be of much concern, but you could land yourself in trouble if you voice your opinions on China's human rights record, for example, or try to photograph political protests.
  • There are no laws against homosexuality in China.
  • All foreign visitors are required to register with the Public Security Bureau (PSB) within 24 hours of arrival. If you're staying at a hotel, they'll do this for you. Otherwise you should report to the local police station.
  • Travel to Tibet is restricted. Applications can only be made through travel agents in China, and you can only travel in Tibet as part of an organised tour.
  • The Chinese criminal justice system gives police the power to arrest and detain suspects without charge for weeks or even months, and to confiscate passports and impose travel bans on people suspected of crimes.
  • China may seem like a very strict place, but as the China Highlights travel guide points out, many laws exist but are rarely enforced. Still, it's always best to behave yourself.

Watchouts

  • Violent crime rates in China are low. Scams and petty theft do still happen though, so keep your wits about you.
  • Taxis should be licenced and metered. Don't try to negotiate a flat fare unless you're confident you know what you're doing.
  • Taxi drivers have been known to take travellers to an alternative hotel, telling them their preferred hotel is 'closed'. They've also been known to demand higher payment, for example by insisting the quoted price is 'per person'. If you have a problem with a taxi, note down the licence plate and driver ID number and make a complaint.
  • Always keep small change on you, many taxi drivers and shopkeepers won't have change for larger notes.
  • Always cover the keypad when using ATMs, and never let your credit card out of your site when paying at restaurants.
  • As a foreigner, you're likely to face 'foreigner prices' sometimes. Stand your ground if you feel you're being ripped off, but remember that haggling is a normal part of Chinese culture and you can probably afford to pay a little more than most locals.
  • Common scams in tourist areas include friendly locals inviting foreigners to traditional tea houses and then sticking them with an exorbitant bill, and 'art students' luring tourists to their studio only to pressure them into buying mass-produced paintings.
  • Read our article on tourist scams around the world, or search travel forums such as Tripadvisor for the latest warnings from travellers.

Making a complaint

If you fall victim to theft or any other serious crime, contact the police (numbers below).

If you need a police report for travel insurance purposes, contact the nearest Foreign Affairs Branch of the Public Security Bureau.

Consumer rights aren't upheld in China to the same degree as in Australia, but if you have a disagreement with a Chinese accommodation provider or tour company, follow the complaints procedure suggested by travelchinaguide.com or contact the China National Tourism Administration (en.cnta.gov.cn).

If your gripe is with an Australian or international tour operator, airline, or booking site, follow the usual procedures for making a complaint or seeking compensation.

Emergency contacts

Police: 110 (SMS: 12110)
Ambulance: 120
Fire: 119
Traffic accidents: 122
SOS in water: 12395

If you are calling from your Australian mobile, insert China's country code +86.

Operators may not speak English, so try to have an interpreter available. Alternatively, call your hotel, your insurance provider, the Australian embassy or an English-speaking hospital. Public ambulances may be slow and may not be staffed by trained paramedics, so consider catching a taxi to hospital if you can.

Hospitals and clinics

Private medical care is available in most Chinese cities. See china.org.cn for a list of English-speaking hospitals and clinics across China.

Australian Embassy - Beijing
china.embassy.gov.au
21 Dongzhimenwai Street, Chaoyang District
+86 10 5140 4111
Email: embassy.beijing@dfat.gov.au

Australian Consulate-General - Shanghai
shanghai.china.embassy.gov.au
Level 22, Citic Square, 1168 Nanjing West Road
+86 21 2215 5200
Email: consular.shanghai@dfat.gov.au

Australian Consulate-General - Guangzhou
guangzhou.china.embassy.gov.au
Level 11 & 12, Development Centre, No. 3 Linjiang Road, Zhujiang New City
+86 20 3814 0111

Australian Consulate-General - Chengdu
chengdu.china.embassy.gov.au
Level 27, Square One, 18 Dongyu Street, Jinjiang District
+86 28 6268 5200

To view/print these addresses in Chinese characters, go to china.embassy.gov.au/bjng/Contact

24-hour Australian Consular Emergency Centre: +61 2 6261 3305 (from overseas) or 1300 555 135 (from within Australia) or SMS +61 421 269 080

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


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