Whether you’re crossing the Great Wall of China in Beijing, exploring skyscrapers in Shanghai, or cooing over giant pandas in Chengdu, a holiday to China is sure to be filled with unforgettable memories. Currently the fourth most visited country in the world, China’s growing popularity means it’s on track to steal the top spot from France by 2030.
The chance to experience new people and places is probably what attracted to you China in the first place, and excitement and exploration are at the heart of any great trip. That said, there are still a few things you may prefer to know before take off. Here are five details to keep in mind before you travel to China.
You’ll need to provide fingerprints before you go
Once you’ve booked your flights and confirmed your hotel reservation, you’ll need to sort yourself out a visa. It’s recommended starting the process between one and three months before you’re due to travel, and you can download an application form online. However, in addition to all the documents you’ll need to submit for verification, such as your passport and flight and accommodation confirmations, you’ll also have to provide fingerprints to get a China tourist visa.
This is a relatively new part of the application process, having only been introduced by the Chinese Embassy and Consulates in November 2018. To submit your fingerprints, you’ll have to make an appointment with, and travel to, one of the UK’s three Chinese Visa Application Service Centres which are found in London, Manchester, and Edinburgh. However, this is only a requirement for applicants between the ages of 14 and 70, so if you happen to be travelling with any children or elderly grandparents, they’ll be exempt from this part of the application.
It’s best to not leave a tip
Though tipping is the norm here in Britain, leaving a gratuity could confuse or even offend service staff in China. Tipping simply isn’t a part of Chinese history and culture, so workers may give your money back or wait for you to retrieve it. Worse still, they might believe you think they need charity, or aren’t valued by their employer. In some areas, tipping could even have you arrested, and it’s illegal to leave one in certain establishments, such as airports.
While steering clear of tipping is the rule of thumb, there are some exceptions. The prevalence of Western tourists means that it’s more common for staff to receive 10-15% gratuity in luxury hotels and restaurants, although a service charge may be added to your bill. Tipping is also generally accepted in Hong Kong, which has experienced significant Western influence since gaining independence from mainland China in the late nineties. Wherever you are, though, you should always leave a tip if you’re taking part in an organised tour, or being transported by a private driver. Just make sure you’re discreet about it, and sincerely thank them for a job well done.
Plenty of your usual websites will be blocked
Be prepared to go without many of your most frequently visited websites while you’re in China. Blocked websites and apps include Gmail, Facebook, YouTube, Spotify, WhatsApp, and news media such as BBC News and Reuters. This restriction is commonly known as the Great Firewall of China which, according to The Guardian, is “the largest and most sophisticated online censorship operation in the world”. This allows the government to have some control over the flow of information within the country, and also promote homegrown Chinese businesses.
However, if you can’t face being separated from your favourite websites during your travels, there is a way you can still access them. All you need is a virtual private network (VPN), which provides you with an anonymous online identity. This means you can take control over your supposed location so, even if you’re in China, it will look like you’re somewhere else in the world. The data you send and receive is also encrypted, preventing the Chinese government from being able to view the content you’re engaging with. It’s far easier to install a VPN while you’re still in the UK, as most of the websites and apps associated with the software have been banned in China. Choose and set one up before your flight.
There’s a ‘proper’ way to use chopsticks
With a world-famous food culture, dining is sure to be a huge part of your trip, so prepare to sample some of the most delicious dishes on the planet. However, once you’ve got to grips with using chopsticks, you also need to learn how not to use the utensils.
Unbeknown to you, there are some actions with connotations that won’t go down well with the Chinese. For instance, you shouldn’t stick your chopsticks vertically into your food, as this is associated with death, due to the visual similarities with the burning incense used to honour the deceased. Nor should you lay your chopsticks down in a cross, the symbol of denial. It’s also considered uncouth to directly point your chopsticks at anyone at the table, to spear and lift slippery food, or to dig through the dish for your favourite ingredients. And if you’re taking your time to savour the local delicacies, don’t put your chopsticks on top of your plate—the waiter will take it away!
Prepare to use a squat toilet
Your hotel room will probably be equipped with familiar looking facilities, however, while you’re out and about in China, it’s highly likely you’ll come across a squat toilet. Rather than sitting, you squat over it at floor level.
Unfortunately, not all public restrooms will provide toilet paper and soap either, so remember to have a packet of tissues and a tube of hand sanitiser on you at all times. The plumbing generally isn’t equipped to handle paper either, which is why there’ll be a basket in the stall for you to throw your used tissues in. This new method might take some getting used to, but evidence suggests that toilet squatting has several health benefits over sitting, so you could end up feeling all the better for it.