A practical guide for first-time visitors to China

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  • Almost no one from the older generations (30+ y/o) will speak English; almost everyone sub-30 will speak at least some English. Menus, signs, etc. will probably be entirely in Chinese or occasionally very questionable English.

Great Firewall of China

  • Many websites/apps that Westerners take for granted are blocked. Facebook, Instagram, Gmail, etc. Even if a website is not blocked, you may still be unable to use it normally if elements of it are blocked (ex. Google CAPTCHAs). You might be able to use them during the first day but you’ll lose access once IP addresses update.
  • Only way to get around is to use a VPN; even with a VPN, foreign websites will be extremely slow. The most often recommended VPN for foreigners in China is ExpressVPN. However, ExpressVPN is run out of Hong Kong, with the parent company speculated to be based in Shenzhen, meaning it is likely monitored. This shouldn’t concern most users, but don’t look up anything that would be outside normal day-to-day usage. Alternatives to ExpressVPN are Astrill and NordVPN. Download your VPN before going to China if you intend to use one, because they will not be available on app stores once you’re there.
    • Use of a VPN is forbidden by Chinese law, and they’re getting progressively stricter with enforcement. There have been anecdotes online about police at airports and trains telling people to stop using them, so if you choose to get one, just use it at home (or at least not in public spaces, and not around Chinese people–– around 15% of the population are Party members).
  • Download Spotify playlists you want to listen to while there, and set Spotify to offline before entering China.
  • Google Translate and Google Maps won’t work – Baidu Translate and Baidu Maps are the Chinese equivalents, but come with security/privacy issues (see Wechat section below). Bing Translate and Bing Maps work, but Microsoft services in China are operated by a Chinese company, so there is likely minimal difference between the Baidu and Microsoft services in terms of privacy and data security. However, the Microsoft ones may be easier to navigate in English.


  • Wechat is the best way to communicate with both locals and family back home while in China, but it comes with a slew of security and privacy issues. In a nutshell: assume everything you say and share on the platform is being monitored and stored by the government, and don’t give photo library, microphone, or location permissions unless you truly “have nothing to hide.”
  • If you plan to use Wechat despite the security issues, my recommendation would be to make sure you have a backup of your phone prior to installing it. When you return from China, uninstall Wechat, restore your phone to factory settings, and then restore the backup from before installing Wechat.
  • Wechat is an amalgamation of Facebook, Whatsapp, Instagram, payment apps, and more all rolled into one–– it’s more an operating system than an app. In a lot of ways it’s better than Western apps (more features, convenient UI), but in others it’s worse (disorganized and bloated, security issues). It’s cool and if you end up using it you’ll probably like it.
  • It is worth noting that group chats on Wechat are more strictly censored and monitored than chats between individuals.

Political discussion

  • Westerners, and especially Americans, love to discuss and debate politics. It’s how we learn about the world and about each other. Chinese people rarely do this for internal Chinese politics, and if they do it will usually involve negative emotions. They will almost never discuss domestic politics with people they do not know intimately. If it is brought up, they will either just repeat the official Party line on an issue, or will try to show they are uncomfortable in their body language and try to change the subject or even just stay quiet and not say anything. With that said, they will often bring up politics in the context of the US-China relationship, and enjoy hearing outside perspectives about that.
  • Do not directly mention or allude to the Tiananmen Square Massacre, “Tank Man,” or even June the Fourth (the date it occurred). This is the most heavily censored topic in China. In case you’re curious: yes a lot of people are aware of it. The protests occurred in over a hundred cities in China, with up to 10% of the population attending in some places, including Beijing. You will likely never be more than a few meters away from someone who was there, and yet they never talk about it, not even with their own families. Do not bring it up.
  • Don’t mention or imply that Xi Jinping is a dictator for having eliminated term limits or for any other reason. People are aware and are uneasy about it.
  • Territorial issues are a matter of national identity. Don’t bring up Taiwan’s independence or South China Sea disputes if you see them marked as part of China on a map.
  • I have not been in China after the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement started, but even before then, mainland Chinese didn’t really hold people from Hong Kong in high esteem. CCP propaganda paints the demonstrators as violent thugs terrorizing the city. It is likely most people will hold this view. It should be fine to talk about this, but don’t press the issue if you notice they become irritated or uncomfortable.

Quick useful phrases

  • 我吃素 – Wǒ chīsù – I’m vegetarian
  • 请问 – Qǐngwèn – May I ask (good way to get someone’s attention before asking something in English; excessively formal a lot of times)
  • 谢谢 – Xièxiè – thank you
  • 多少钱 – Duōshǎo qián – “how much money?”
  • 太贵了 – Tài guìle – too expensive!
  • 1: yī
  • 2: èr
  • 3: sān
  • 4: sì
  • 5: wǔ
  • 6: liù
  • 7: qī
  • 8: bā
  • 9: jiǔ
  • 10: shí
  • 20-90 formed by saying the first number followed by 10 (ex. wǔ shí would be 50)
  • 100: bǎi

Author Nicholas Andonie