Your First Trip to China
It still shocks and amazes me when I meet people that source product from China, sometimes for many years, yet they have never actually traveled to China or visited their suppliers. It’s really not as daunting as it seems; yes there is some paperwork involved and the flight can be long-ish, but as always, there is no substitute for being on the ground to meet suppliers and manage production. I always tell my team to listen to that little voice that tells you that you should get on a plane and go check-in with a supplier. With cheap round trip tickets available from many US cities, and reasonably priced, decent hotels available in most cities in China, these trips are cheap insurance for your production.
As always, the earlier you catch issues the cheaper it is to rectify them.
The first thing you will need is a Chinese visa (well, first you need a passport to put the visa into, but I’m assuming you have that already; if not go here). The process for getting a Chinese visa is fairly straightforward (However, like most things in China, it’s not simple). First you’ll need to get an invitation letter from a supplier in China; this is pretty common, most suppliers will have had experience making these, but since rules are getting more and more strict these days, it’s best to follow the advice here.
Recently China has been giving out 10 year multiple entry visas upon request, you’ll have to write “ten-year, multiple entry” on the application form. For a first time visa, you’ve got a 50-50 shot of getting something with a duration of more than 1 year.
You’ll need to have at least 6 months of validity in your passport to enter China, and since they are giving out 10 year visas (sometimes), it may be worth it to renew your passport and apply for a Chinese visa directly after, as the visa may be valid for as long as the passport.
Once you have your invitation letter, photos, and other items together (a good list is here), you either need to appear in person at the Chinese embassy or send an agent on your behalf. There are lots of visa agents, as a quick google search will reveal. I use “China Visa Service Center” regularly for myself and colleagues and customers that make the trip over to China, so I can vouch for their abilities.
Back in the day (ten years ago?), direct flights from the US to China were relatively rare; most involved a connection in Hong Kong, South Korea or Tokyo. Nowadays we can fly from LA or Newark directly, often at very reasonable prices. My last trip from San Diego cost less than $700 round trip. I recommend Kayak or Orbitz to compare flights, but pick your poison.
Transport and Rental Cars:
China is somewhat unique in that they do not recognize the validity driver’s licenses from any other country, nor international driving permits. So you either need a Chinese driver’s license (not easy to get, as I can attest; it took me three tries to finally get one!), or you’ll need alternate transportation options. You’ve got a few options for transport around China (by the way, I do not recommend driving yourself around, at least not for your first few trips).
If your supplier or suppliers are near to your accommodation, and near each other, one or more of the suppliers may provide you with pickup and drop-off service to and from your hotel. Resist the urge to have one supplier bring you to another supplier; it puts too much information into the hands of people with whom you are negotiating. Also, meetings and supplier visits tend to go long; morning meetings turn to 3 hour lunches just as well as the end of the day turns to long dinners and visits to karaoke bars. I find it helpful to set the expectation that I have night time conference calls (Which truthfully I often do) so that I have the option to cut the night short if necessary.
Just about every major town in China has a taxi operation that provides reasonably priced and reliable transportation. Drivers most often do not speak any english nor read anything other than Chinese characters. One method I use for navigation is to type out all of the addresses that I need during the day onto a sheet of paper that I can show to the driver (it also helps to add some common items like “I need to eat” or “bathroom”; I posted more in a related post here). If you have a mobile phone data plan, the easiest thing to is to pull up a map showing your destination; this is doubly helpful if you are going out of the city center and the driver is not familiar with how to navigate to that area. (by the way, I highly encourage you to sign up for a mobile phone data plan in China; I don’t know what I would do without the ability to snap a photo and get feedback from a customer or colleague while still at a factory). In a pinch, call your hotel, explain to the concierge where you need to go, and have the concierge explain your destination to the driver. To get back to the hotel, just show your room key, almost all Chinese hotels have their address printed on the room key.
China’s high-speed train network has grown by leaps and bounds, from 1 line in 2010 to hundreds of lines and many thousands of miles of track today. Buying tickets for the train remains a significant pain; long lines, unruly crowds, and agents rushing through customers. This year, ctrip.com expanded their train ticket buying service to include just about any ticket a person could buy, and they will express mail these tickets to any location in China with next day service (In Shanghai, they have same day courier delivery). If you decide to take the train, plan your route carefully and you can ditch the crowds and walk right onto you train. Also, even if you are not booking train tickets, the ctrip website (and ctrip phone apps) have the most consistently up-to-date train schedules. Bear in mind there are two train systems in China, denoted by the letter before the train number. G and D trains are the newer “high-speed” trains, while all others (K/T/Z/X) are the soviet-era diesels that chug slowly through just about every town and city in China. In either case the trains are generally clean and run on time, and for distances of less than 1000 miles, it’s often faster and more convenient than flying.
There are bus services from just about every town in China to just about every other town in China. However, I would steer the average business traveler away from the bus services in China, as they tend not to have the most well-maintained fleets of vehicles. On more than one occasion I’ve had to wait on the side of a highway for another bus to come along when the original bus broke down. Also, with high speed train travel becoming more and more popular, bus transportation is becoming far less necessary, and generally less convenient.
I would go so far as to say that, for those of use involved in “on the ground” activities of sourcing, quality control, supplier audits, and the like, having a mobile phone with internet access in China is an absolute must. There are two ways to get up and running with a mobile phone in China; either get a roaming package from your domestic provider or get a local SIM card. There are advantages to both and for many years in China I and many of my colleagues walked around with two mobile phones, one roaming on a US plan the other with a local SIM card.
US providers are becoming more sophisticated with their roaming offerings, but you can usually find a great deal of information on their websites (I go into more detail here). For trips of short duration (2 weeks or less), this would be my recommended option. The prices for internet and calls is definitely higher than you would receive with a local SIM, but it is a lot more convenient. Plus roaming services are generally faster than local SIM cards.
Using a local SIM card in China has the advantage of cheaper calls and internet access, but you will need to either buy a phone local or have an unlocked phone whereby you are able to change the SIM card. If you will spend a lot of time on the phone calling customers or colleagues abroad then this option will likely save you substantial cost. This would also be my recommendation for spending longer periods of time on the ground. There are three phone providers in China, all with about the same level of coverage. China Mobile and China Unicom are GSM providers, meaning they will sell you a SIM card that works in many of the common iPhone and Android phones on the market. China Telecom has great service but you have to use a China Telecom-specific phone to use their service.
Chinese chat app Weixin (or “wechat” in the west) is absolutely dominating the market for communication in China; you would be hard pressed find a Chinese person that does not have this app on their phone. As a result of the popularity of WeChat, the need to have a local Chinese number has been greatly reduced, provided you have roaming data access on your phone or will be in wifi coverage for the majority of the time on the ground. (I gave some hints about this in a related article). Wechat is super easy to use, and is available in just about every language. Wechat contacts are exchanged using QR codes. A good tutorial is here.
Between laptops, tablets, phones, and cameras, most of us travel with our fair share of electronics for even a quick trip overseas. Unlike most countries, China has the advantage of outlets nearly everywhere that accept plugs from around the world; one exception is the UK, only about half of the wall sockets in China will accept a UK plug.
One thing to note, especially for those coming from the USA: most electronics, that is computers, phones, etc do not need a voltage converter, you can just plug them right into a Chinese socket. For items that contain motors, lights, or heating elements, be sure to check the label on the product to determine whether you will need a voltage converter; if the label says something like “110V 2A” then you need an voltage converter, whereas if it says “100-240V 1-2A” then no converter is needed.
No discussion of China would be complete without a discussion of the challenges of internet connectivity. With very few exceptions, you will find that the internet in China is one of the slowest connections in the world. Connections to many overseas websites and internet services are either blocked outright or are slow to the point of non-functionality. Even sites you would think would be benign, like dropbox, are all but inaccessible in China. If you do have mission critical sites or overseas servers that you need to connect to, firstly you should use the greatfire analyzer to check the accessibility of these sites from within China.
Virtual Private Network (VPN)
A VPN encrypts the traffic from your computer to the destination server, making it harder for government authorities to scan the traffic. One issue recently is that while Chinese authorities can’t scan the traffic, the very fact that a VPN is in use can cause the connection to be reset, forcing you to sign out and back in again. I find it’s hit or miss; some days I can stay signed into my VPN for 8 hours, other’s I have to sign out and in hourly. Before leaving for China, you’d be well advised to set up a VPN connection on both your laptop and phone. You may have a VPN through your workplace already; if not, there are many commercial VPN services to which you can subscribe; a quick google search will turn up many results; Astril and HMA are two of the most popular, Vypr is really good as well.
Mobile Phone Providers
Another reason to set up roaming internet service with your mobile phone provider before you leave for China is that these connections tend to be faster and more reliable than the standard domestic high speed internet services.
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 xe.com 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 more than five hundred US Dollars.