Will I need a visa?
Yes! Most foreign nationals traveling to China must have an entry visa. These visas are not issued upon arrival. Americans are currently charged a flat rate of $140 per visa, regardless of duration. Tourist visas vary in length from 30 days to six months, and allow for one or multiple entries over the course of their validity. The number of entries and length of stay are up to you when you fill out the application. Applications can be completed in person if you live in a city with a Chinese consulate. If not, there are many visa service centers available on the Web that will process your application through the mail. Fees may vary, so shop around and check the Better Business Bureau if you have any questions regarding legitimacy.
What's the best way to get around?
Domestic airline services connecting cities in China have increased greatly in the past decade, and even smaller out-of-the-way cities have small airports. If you have more time, train travel is also an option. The country is crisscrossed by one of the world's most extensive railway systems, and train travel is one way to get a feel for the vastness of China. Often it is also cheaper than flying, and is very dependable. China is also converting several lines between major metropolises into high-speed (or bullet) train routes. Bus routes between cities are also well established, and in rural areas are often the only way to travel between small towns. Car rental is becoming more popular, but drivers must first obtain a Chinese driver's license, which is a time-consuming and convoluted process.
Should I take a package tour?
If you are traveling to China to see only the major tourist attractions, or are very concerned about the language differences, a package tour is the answer. However, if your travel plans allow for improvisation or you want to stray a bit off the beaten path, skip the tours. Part of the adventure of traveling is exploring the unknown, and with most packages you will be with other tourists and have little say in where you stay or eat, or how long you have to view a specific site. Also, once in China you can find any number of small tours that last from an afternoon to a few days and will help tailor your trip so it is uniquely your own.
How big is the language barrier?
For the uninitiated, Chinese can be very intimidating. The language is tonal, has no alphabet, and regional dialects vary widely. Learning a few phrases in Mandarin Chinese before you go helps tremendously. Nonetheless, interest in learning English is a national phenomenon in China, and schoolchildren are all taught English from the first grade. Tourist destinations and other places catering to foreigners will usually have at least one designated English speaker. You may even be assisted by random locals who want to practice their language skills.
Are any subjects off-limits?
As anywhere, be respectful. The Chinese are gregarious and curious, and you may be surprised at what they think about the rest of the world. There is no one subject that is strictly forbidden or generally considered offensive, but you may want to speak cautiously when discussing touchy subjects like religious tolerance or Tibet.
Will my bankcard work at Chinese ATMs?
Banks in China are ubiquitous, and most ATMs accept cards with the Cirrus or Plus logos. Those with Visa or MasterCard logos are also widely accepted. This is true even in rural areas, especially if they are accustomed to foreign travelers passing through. That said, in more remote places the Bank of China is more reliable than smaller local banks. ATMs usually have an option for directions in English. If you encounter a machine with no English or that won't accept your card, chances are the bank around the corner will be more helpful.
Can I use my credit cards?
Resorts and major hotels tend to accept credit cards, but for daily purchases like food and drink or souvenir shopping, it is best to use cash. Credit-card use is growing in China, but is by no means widespread.
Can I drink the water?
No. Tap water in China can contain any number of chemicals and/or parasites that can quickly ruin your vacation. In major cities some hotels have begun to install water-filtration systems, but even these are questionable. Although it can be cumbersome to carry with you, bottled water is sold cheaply everywhere and remains the most reliable option. The boiled water or hot tea that is served in restaurants is also considered safe.
Are the toilets as bad as I've heard?
They can be. Bathrooms in hotels generally should be clean and well maintained, and many have Western-style toilets instead of the typical Asian "squat" toilet. Restaurant, train-station, and other public restrooms range from clean to abysmal, so be prepared. In rural areas you can often expect the worst. When going out for the day, it is always a good idea to take some toilet paper and perhaps baby wipes or hand sanitizer. Public toilets on the street charge a small admission fee, so keep some small change with you.
Should I bring any medications?
The Centers for Disease Control recommend updating your usual vaccinations and visiting a doctor or clinic that specializes in travel medicine four to six weeks before traveling to China. Of course, if you have a daily medication regime, plan accordingly. An anti-diarrhea medication may be a life-saver, especially on long bus rides or train journeys. Also, if you suffer from motion sickness you may want to bring the proper medicine from home.
Can I trust Chinese hospitals?
For minor injuries, bumps or bruises, and general maladies like colds or flu, Chinese hospitals are perfectly reliable. Major cities usually have both Western and traditional Chinese-style hospitals, but rural areas generally have fewer medical options. Travel insurance providing medical evacuation services is highly recommended in case of serious injury or illness, and is both inexpensive and readily available.
Should I be concerned about crime?
Violent crime against foreigners is almost unheard of in China. However, petty theft can be a worry when traveling on long-distance buses and trains or when staying at small guesthouses. Always keep your money, passport, and anything else you consider vital on your person when traveling, and be vigilant in crowded places.
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