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February 9, 2016

China Basics

by mikediliberto
Over the years I’ve taken countless people to China, and every time I do so, I end up sending out some variation of a “things you need to know before you come to China” email.  The post below represents the highlights from each of these messages; as always, your mileage may vary!


Chinese currency is the “Chinese Yuan” or “Renminbi”. Exchange rates vary but generally are between 6.3-6.6 Renminbi to the US Dollar; I usually check actual rates on before I go.  The best rates are generally given by ATM machines.

As with mobile phones, the best plan is usually to call your bank and tell them that you are traveling to China; they should be able to tell you which Chinese bank ATM gives the best rates and lowest fees.

Note that other than hotels, Amex, Visa, and MasterCard are rarely, if ever, accepted by merchants in China; for incidental items or souvenirs you will want to withdraw sufficient cash to cover your expected purchases. Most likely your hotel has an ATM on site.

Save receipts for any money you withdraw or convert, as you will need these to change back any amounts equal to more than five hundred US Dollar (as an aside, you really should not be taking out that much cash at any given time; with ATM machines everywhere you’ll rarely need more than 1000 RMB at a time unless you’re on a shopping trip)

Phone Service: 

If you are going to bring your mobile phone to China, you will get much better calling and data rates from your provider if you call first and set up a package of service.  For example, for $5.00 per month of usage, AT&T will cut your calling rates in China by 50%.  Most providers allow you to turn your international options on and off by logging in to your online account, but it may be simpler to give them a call and ask about the best options for China.  Links for international pages of major providers are below.


One very important note: If you do not have an international data plan, you should turn off your data roaming in your phone, as these charges can add up to hundreds of dollars per day.  Instructions for doing so in iPhone and Android are linked below:

Turn off data roaming in iPhone 
Turn off data roaming in Android

Wifi is just about everywhere, so you should not need much, if any data for your phone. For GPS usage in China, you’re best to download google maps for offline use for the areas where you will be traveling as regardless of your data plan, GPS uses a large amount of data.


China has facilities for healthcare available in major cities, along with pharmacies that carry most prescription medicines. However, If you have medicine that you take for a specific condition, I highly recommend that you bring enough to cover your trip plus at least one week of extra doses.  Similarly, if you take over-the-counter medicine for any purpose, bring sufficient amounts to cover your trip plus extra time. The air quality in China can change quickly; those with Asthma or similar respiratory conditions should bring both regular medicine as well as rescue inhalers. Note that US medical insurance policies are not accepted overseas unless you have added such coverage; be sure to check coverage before you go. Your company may offer coverage through business insurance; similarly some signa


The weather in Shanghai can be above 90 degrees in the summer and down in the 30s to 40s in the winter.  Winter is cold and rainy (like San Francisco in February); Summer is hot and humid (like Miami in August). Be sure to check the weather reports before you depart.  Summer in Hong Kong is, for the uninitiated, often the most hot, humid place on earth; bring extra clothes, and breathable ones at that.

Shanghai weather

Xiamen weather

Hong Kong Weather (also covers Guangdong/Shenzhen)


Do not drink tap water anywhere in China. It is ok to be exposed to it in the shower, but otherwise you should limit consumption to bottled water.  Hotels normally provide 1-2 bottles of water per day per person, you can always get more on demand and more often than not it’s free.


Food in China is, despite what you hear on the news, generally safe.  If you have dietary restrictions you are well advised to make those known prior to embarking on your travels. It’s not unheard of for supposedly vegetarian dishes to be seasoned with pork powder or similar (and odd) condiments. Vegetarians will get far more traction and understanding by explaining that they are buddhists.

Street food smells great, and tastes great too, but for those just starting out in China, be careful; food poisoning is not uncommon especially in some of the smaller food stalls in smaller cities.  If in doubt, pass!


Most taxi drivers do not speak nor read english.  Hotels will help by writing the name of your destination in Chinese characters.  Your hotel room key will have the address of the hotel in Chinese; just show this to the driver when you need to come back. In addition, I recommend that you make a printout of important addresses with both english and Chinese before you go; addresses of factories you will visit, hotels, international hospitals, etc. I’ve provided a few of the basics below:


It would be rare for a bathroom in China to come equipped with toilet paper or soap, with the exception of toilets in your hotel room. Otherwise you’ll likely be expected to BYO.  Some public restrooms have an attendant selling toilet paper but to be prepared you should have a small case with tissues and hand sanitizer that you can bring with you to the toilets in the market, business parks, or restaurants.
Watch out for the cleanliness of plates and glasses at restaurants, especially any place where dinner will cost less than 100RMB (~$15) per person.  Notably in the south of China, you will notice the ritual of people cleaning their tableware with the tea from the teapot on the table.


Outside of major cities, English is not widely spoken.  Two must haves: Print a paper with with phrases and words that you will need (addresses where you will be going, industry specific terms, etc) and bring a good dictionary on your phone or tablet that can be accessed offline.


By far and away the best electronic dictionary on the market is Pleco, available for iOS and Android. The free dictionaries are great, and you can add on additional features as needed.  The character recognition is great for times when only characters are present, most notably on contracts and menus.

A close second are the google translate mobile apps for iOS and Android, but note that there is only one dictionary for google, though nowadays you can download it (about 40 megs) for offline use.

Some handy phrases (print these out, if you find them useful):
I need the wifi password:

Take me back to this hotel:



I am Hungry

I am tired

Rice – 米饭
Noodles – 面
beef – 牛肉
egg – 鸡蛋
pork buns – 肉包
Breakfast – 早餐
Lunch – 午饭
Dinner – 晚饭
Coffee – 咖啡
Tea – 差

Take me to Shanghai Pudong Airport


High Speed train Station



How much (cost) – 多少(钱)

Slow down (driving) – 啊!开车慢一点!

Computer – 电脑

Broken – 坏了
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