I visited China in early September 2023. Here are some practical notes about the experience.


You need a visa. There’s a long online application form to fill out. A professional passport photo is required.

After you’ve filled out the application form, you need to make an appointment with a Chinese consulate, where they will fingerprint you and review your application and its supporting materials (such as hotel reservations and flight bookings).

I received my visa in less than a week after going to the consulate, though I might have gotten lucky—my Chinese teacher told me that he had a student who waited months to receive his. They ended up giving me a multi-entry visa that is valid for three years, which is more than I asked for.


Credit cards are accepted virtually nowhere apart from hotels. If you want to reliably be able to pay for things, you must use WeChat Pay or AliPay. In my experience, WeChat Pay is slightly more popular, but most places accept both.

You can set up WeChat Pay and AliPay before arriving. This requires a credit card and passport. During the setup process, you might see popups which tell you that you must have a Chinese bank account to continue. Ignore them. Your account won’t get activated until your identity is verified, but in my experience this has never taken more than an hour or so.

To avoid the terrible exchange rate offered by my credit card company, I configured WeChat Pay and AliPay using a card from Wise instead of my regular credit card. This had the added benefit of making it easy to monitor payments and prevent fraudulent charges.

Making a payment with WeChat Pay or AliPay requires an internet connection, so ensure that your phone has a data plan.

In some cases, using WeChat Pay or AliPay also requires the ability to receive text messages to validate your phone number. I never encountered this when making normal payments in stores or taxis, but I frequently encountered it when trying to use restaurants' menu apps, which are typically integrated into WeChat or AliPay. Since my Chinese SIM card supported data only, I was prevented from using these apps, which annoyed both me and the servers at the restaurants I went to.

My sense is that most merchants will accept cash if you ask, but since cash is rarely used, they might not be able to provide you with change. ATMs exist, though are somewhat less common than what I’ve seen in the U.S. and Canada.

Internet restrictions

Many Western sites are blocked. I found the Google block, which includes Gmail, the most annoying to deal with. The Gmail block in turn blocked me from accessing any website which sends validation emails to my Gmail account as part of the sign in process, such as my airline’s website. To mitigate this, I configured my Gmail account to forward all messages to an alternative email account I have with Microsoft, so I wouldn’t be totally screwed if my VPN stopped working.

Also included in the Google block is Google Translate1, Google Maps2, Google Photo’s OCR functionality (which is essential if you want to be able to copy Chinese characters that you can’t read), Google Drive, and even GCP. Social logins with Google—the thing where you can click “Sign in with Google” on random sites that are unaffiliated with Google—are also blocked.

If you want to get by without a VPN, you can mostly substitute Microsoft and Apple apps for Google ones, and configure your Gmail account to forward new emails to a non-blocked email service, though you’ll still be blocked from accessing any site which you need to use Google to login to.


Despite the fact that I was clearly a foreigner and stayed mostly in big cities around international hotels, nearly everyone spoke to me in Chinese and seemed to assume that I would be able to understand what they were saying. Since I can in fact can speak some Chinese, I could manage, though those who know little or no Chinese will have a harder time.

When I needed to fall back to using English people generally understood me, but often preferred to reply by pointing to translations on their phones instead of speaking English.


Menus are usually available via WeChat or AliPay, accessible by scanning a QR code. Ordering is also done through the menu apps. Physical menus are usually available on request, but won’t be provided unless you ask for them.

By default, you will be given tea or hot water to drink. Cold water must be explicitly requested, and sometimes isn’t available even on request. (At one restaurant, I asked for 冰水, which literally means “ice water” but which I was taught is taken to mean “cold water”. The server was so confused by this request that she brought me a bowl of ice cubes.) Napkins are not always provided.


Squat toilets are common, though occasionally you might luck out and find a Western-style toilet. If you’ve never used a squat toilet before, learn how to use one before you arrive. International hotels have Western-style toilets. Bullet trains are hit-or-miss. (Of the two bullet trains I took, one had a squat toilet and one had a Western-style toilet.)

Toilet paper is rarely provided in public washrooms and you are expected to bring your own. I was told this by multiple people before arriving but couldn’t bring myself to fully believe it.

On the bright side, public washrooms are common and clearly marked.


Buses and subways

You can pay for buses and subways using AliPay. When it works, it’s easy to setup and use. I was able to get this working in some cities, but not in Beijing (apparently because I had a foreign AliPay account). As an alternative, you can buy tickets from self-service machines in subway stations, but these machines are only in Chinese and very complicated.

For navigation guidance on buses and subways, you need to use 百度地图 (Baidu Maps), which is available only in Chinese.


In the major cities that I visited, taxis were common and easy to hail. I encountered no obvious discrimination for being a foreigner, which would have been understandable, given the potential difficulties with language and payments. All of the taxi drivers I encountered, with the exception of one in Beijing, were scrupulously honest. Prices are extremely cheap compared to the U.S. and Canada: a 15 minute taxi ride might cost less than taking the subway in Toronto.

Don’t expect any drivers to speak English. If you don’t speak Chinese, make sure the address of your destination is written down somewhere in Chinese.

Ride-sharing apps

弟弟 (Didi) is the Uber of China. You can access it through AliPay, which is available in English. Unfortunately, I was never able to get it to work, apparently because my only payment method was a foreign credit card.

Bullet trains

I used, which is owned by a Chinese company, for booking bullet train tickets. This is apparently the English version of the website that Chinese people use to book bullet train tickets.

Domestic flights

I also used for booking domestic plane tickets. For some reason this was significantly cheaper than booking directly on the airline’s own website.

Tickets (for trains, museums, etc.)

Museum ticket booking is typically done through WeChat mini apps. Often these apps are in Chinese only, and annoying don’t let you copy text, making translation more difficult. Often, independently of translation issues, I was unable to book tickets using WeChat. Apparently this had something to do with me having a foreign WeChat account, but I never figured out exactly what the problem was.

There’s an English-language website which you can book certain tickets through, but they charge a heavy premium and cannot book same-day tickets. I assume this is because they need time to manually book the ticket on your behalf. WeChat is better if you can manage it.

IDs are often used as proof of purchase in lieu of tickets. This means that at the entrance to the museum, train station, or whatever, your ID will be scanned and you don’t need to display a ticket. If you don’t have a Chinese ID, you use your passport, and someone will usually need to manually enter its number. Sometimes there is a separate line for people whose IDs can’t be automatically scanned.

Cell phone service

I bought a Chinese SIM card before arriving, because my Canadian cell phone provider charges exorbitant roaming rates. Service was fast and reliable across multiple provinces.

The SIM card that I bought included only data, not calling or texting. In retrospect this was a mistake, for the reason I note above: some apps, especially restaurants' menu apps, require phone number validation before use.

Covid restrictions

Zero Covid is very much over and masking is, if anything, less common than what I’ve seen in the West. (And many of the people who mask in China do so to limit exposure to the sun or pollution, not to avoid Covid.) I did not visit a single place where masking rules were enforced.

No Covid test is required before entering, though when I went you were still required to fill out entry and exit health forms, which note any Covid-like symptoms you have. You can fill this out either on a website, which I couldn’t get to work, or through WeChat. Once you fill it out, you get a QR code that they scan when you go through border security.

Traffic safety

Scoters are common and seem to be exempt from red light laws. It’s not that one or two will run a red light every now and then. It’s that there is a constant stream of them riding at full speed through every red light. I’m still not sure whether this is rampant lawlessness or whether scoters can, for reasons that escape me, legally do this. Anyway, if you don’t want to get hit, be prepared to jump out of the way of them when crossing the street, whether or not the crosswalk light tells you you can go.

  1. You can save languages for offline use with the Google Translate mobile app, but this didn’t work well for me—there was always a long lag before a translation would appear, and the text to speech function was broken. ↩︎

  2. In most cases Google allows you to download maps for offline use, but has decided without explanation to disallow this for China. ↩︎