China: An A-Z

30 Apr 2011

As China continues to expand rapidly as an economy, more business people will find themselves headed to this country of more than 1.3 billion. What they will also find is everything works differently from back home – from banking to telecommunications to public utilities. For an economy to grow from having a GDP of mere RMB362.4 billion (US$55.5 billion) in 1978 to one reported as US$6.1 trillion today, it took improvisation and setting up its own system. It is not another planet, though, and as long as you understand the basics, your travel there should be as simple as A to Z.

China Travel A-Z

Airports – Don’t be tempted by private taxi services even if they have a counter at the airport. What they charge is usually much higher than metered taxis. By taxi, it takes about 50 minutes from Pudong International Airport to People’s Square, Shanghai, and costs approximately RMB150 (US$23). Airports in Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou are all connected to downtown areas by train.

Buses – Although taxis are generally cheap in China, you may  want to make use of public transport for shorter distances or during peak hours when cabs are hard to come by. In cities like Shanghai, non-air-conditioned buses usually charge RMB1 (US$0.15) and RMB1.8 (US$0.30), and air-conditioned buses cost RMB2 (US$0.30). The fare is collected by the drop box at the entrance of the bus and no change is given, so get some coins or small notes ready. Alternatively you can purchase the stored-value transport smart card, available in major cities. In Shanghai, it is called Jiao Tong Ka (transportation card), which works on a debit system and can be bought at the service centre in any metro station. You will have to give a deposit of RMB20 (US$3), together with a minimum start-up amount of RMB80 for the card. The deposit is refunded when you return the card to ticket counters at metro stations. This card can also save you RMB1 each time you transfer between metro lines and buses within 90 minutes.

In Guangzhou, a Yangchengtong IC Card can also be bought in metro stations, usable on buses, ferries and subway lines, in parking meters, hospitals, phone booths, 7-11, selected supermarkets and even certain McDonald outlets. You can also recharge it at 7-11 outlets, Yangchengtong service centres, or recharging machines found at subway stations. A 5 percent discount on bus or metro is given when using the card for the 15th time, and a 40 percent discount on the 16th time. When you purchase a new card, you have to add at least RMB50 to the card in addition to a deposit of RMB30.

A quick way to find out about bus routes is TravelChinaGuide.com, where you can search for bus service information in 18 cities in China. Most of the stops are named after major roads or famous buildings, so it would be to your advantage to remember them. Buses in major cities have voice announcements of stops’ names in Mandarin and English.

Car Rental – Hertz and AVIS are available in China. You can simply log on to either of the websites (http://hertzchina.com and (www.avischina.com), and the steps are clearly stated in English. Hertz’s car leasing service is only available in Beijing and Shanghai. It provides vehicle maintenance and servicing, and a chauffeur, if you require one. You only have to book 48 hours in advance prior to pickup by a chauffeur.

AVIS’s services are available in 15 cities in China including Beijing, Chengdu, Dalian, Dongguan, Guangzhou, Hangzhou, Nanjing, Qingdao, Shanghai, Shenyang, Shenzhen, Suzhou, Tianjin, Wuhun and Wuxi.

Driver’s licence – Foreign driver’s licence and international driver’s licence are not accepted in China. On the first floor of Terminal 3 of Beijing Capital International Airport, the Department of Motor Vehicles has a service centre near the post office where foreign nationals with driver’s licences from back home can acquire a Chinese driver’s licence, including a temporary one for a stay of no more than three months. The procedure includes going to the nearby airport hospital for a required medical checkup. It’s RMB10 (US$1.53) for the licence and another RMB10 for the body check, and the process takes about 30 minutes. Bring along your passport, driver’s licence and a passport photo with white background. Tel +86 10 64530010

Emergency Phone Numbers – Police 110, fire 119, first-aid ambulance 120, reporting a traffic accident 122; these numbers are toll-free.

Entertainment – To find out the most popular venues in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, you can grab a copy of City Weekend, an English-language lifestyle and entertainment magazine, from many bars and restaurants. You can also access their website, where the latest nightlife, arts, books and film, performances, community, and dining happenings in China are listed. For on-the-go information, they have Cityfu, a useful website tailored to the mobile phone interface where you can easily access what’s new, where to eat, and other information in Shanghai and Beijing.



Food and drinks – In southern China rice is the staple food while in the north noodles, buns and dumplings are main sources of carbohydrate. Pork is the most common type of meat throughout the country. Tea is often offered at most meals in China, and it is drunk straight. Common types of Chinese tea range from white, green, oolong (semi-oxidised) and black.

China is not an easy place for vegetarians, but http://vegetarian-china.info offers a detailed listing of the name, address and even contact number of well-known vegetarian restaurants in Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Hong Kong. You can also browse their list of common Chinese vegetarian dishes and their preparation methods and even learn some useful phrases that will help you communicate.

For information on halal food in China, visit www.islamichina.com/halal. It is also categorised according to district so you can easily search for a halal restaurant near you.

The tap water in China needs to be boiled before drinking, unless the apartment you are renting has installed a special purification system, according to Michelle Chong, director of public relations & communications of Swissôtel Grand Shanghai.

Gratuity – You may want to tip your bellboy when he brings your luggage up to your room, but in general tipping is not expected in China.

Housing – If you are staying in China for an extended period and need to rent an apartment, there are a few real estate companies with English-speaking staff that can help you. The biggest among them is Joanna Real Estate, which provides a 24-hour agent service in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Nanjing, Suzhou and Tianjin. www.jrecorporate.com

Information hotlines – China Mobile has an information platform on 12580, where you can select your language preference and be connected to one of their operators armed with a wide range of information from driving directions and dining tips to airline tickets. The service is free and available in multiple languages including English, Spanish, Japanese and French.

The Shanghai Visitor’s Bureau provides a free emergency translation service at 962288, in 10 languages including English, Japanese, German, French and Spanish. This service also provides information like basic facts, investment, transportation, healthcare, and even the nearest restaurant in your neighbourhood. This service is only available if you are in Shanghai.

Journals – China Daily is the number one local English newspaper in the country in terms of circulation. Although some dismiss it as pro-government, the contents of it have dramatically improved over the years and provide enough coverage of global affairs to keep you informed. Global Times, published daily in simplified Chinese and English, is produced under the auspices of the official Chinese Communist Party newspaper, the People’s Daily. Foreign English newspapers are available in hotels.

Kiosks – There are news kiosks on many streets of major Chinese cities, and they also sell drinks, snacks and even phone cards. Don’t expect the stall keeper to speak much, if any, English though.

Lunar New Year – Also called “Chun Jie”, or Spring Festival, this holiday falls somewhere at the end of January or beginning of February. Domestic travel in China will be chaotic during days before and a week after the first day of Lunar New Year as workers head back to native villages, towns and cities to spend the holiday with family.

Money issues – Outside of hotels, overseas credit cards can give you a lot of headaches in China. When you try to use them at department stores, you will often need to walk a long way to a designated cashier to settle the payment. Cash is always the most convenient and ATMs that accept foreign bank cards are everywhere. But make sure that you use cash points at major banks as phony machines designed to steal cardholders’ information have been reported in local press. If you travel to the country often, get a China UnionPay card, which is not only useful in China but is increasingly accepted outside China. Other than Chinese banks, many international banks have also been authorized to issue them, including Standard Chartered Bank, Bank of East Asia, Citibank, Development Bank of Singapore and Hana Bank. Visit http://en.unionpay.com

Opening a bank account is relatively easy in China. Remember to bring along your passport, visa and evidence of residence in China. Some banks set a minimum on your first deposite, and at Bank of China the start-up amount is RMB100 (US$15). Certain banks close from 12pm-2pm on weekdays.

When shopping in the market place, check your change carefully for counterfeit notes. According to The People’s Bank of China, there are a few ways to confirm that your 100-yuan is genuine. The upgraded 2005 version of the fifth series of renminbi has an adjusted observation angle for the latent image denomination. The denomination “100”, placed below the figure “100” on the upper right corner will be seen in the decorative design. This can be seen by looking parallel to the obverse while swaying the note slightly against the light. Another way to confirm a genuine note is the OVI denomination “100” on the lower left of the banknote. It will change from green to blue when the banknote is swayed horizontally.

Natural disasters - China is subject to natural disasters such as earthquakes, flooding and typhoons. As it is located in an active seismic zone, earthquakes can happen all year round, especially in the western and southwestern provinces. The tropical cyclone season is from May to November, and usually affects the southeastern coastal regions. Monitor weather reports or go to the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) website for updates. Another useful website is www.weather.com.cn/english, which shows the weather forecast, advice on whether it is safe to travel and even the clothing to bring.

Online services – Sherpa’s Food Delivery Service offers delivery of a diverse range of dishes from 284 restaurants to Shanghai, Beijing, Hangzhou and Suzhou. You can order by calling their hotline or through their website, where they have English menus with photos of the dishes. The call operators are also eloquent in English. This famous delivery service is also known for delivering your food within 45 minutes.


If you want to buy things online, use AliPay, which is a Chinese version of Pay Pal. All you need is to have an AliPay account, and a bank account in China and you will be able to easily make purchases online from global retailers, and local ones. However, AliPay only accepts payment in RMB. Also, if you are doing business in China, you may use this account to receive a customer’s remittance.

This payment service provides an alternative to the e-banking system in China, where you are required to go through a series of procedures.


Postage – For letter delivery, the postage is RMB0.8 (US$0.10) in Shanghai, and RMB1.20 (US$0.20) nationwide.

Express delivery is relatively cheap in China. Yuantong Express is a convenient and reasonably priced express delivery service. Your package will be collected and delivered before 6pm within the same day, for deliveries in the same city or area.


Quality goods and services – Consumers’ rights are a new concept in China, but some effort has been put into protecting them, including setting up of hotlines. China Consumers’ Association, in Beijing, receives calls at 6301 1234 while the hotline number 12315 works in various cities including Shanghai and Shenzhen.

Railway – Hotels can book train tickets for you with an additional service charge of RMB20 (US$3) to RMB100 (US$15) per ticket. The cheapest way to get your train tickets is directly at the train station. In bigger cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an and Guangzhou, designated windows for foreigners have English-speaking staff.

 At Beijing Railway Station, the ticketing office for foreigners is located on the first floor. At Beijing West Railway Station, you can get your tickets at the main hall. In Shanghai central station, go to Window 10 located on the ground floor of the main ticket office. At Shanghai’s new Hongqiao station, you can find it at the departures area on the second floor.

You can book tickets online from http://chinatripadvisor.com and http://china-train-ticket.com and pick them up at your hotel in China. You will not be able to purchase tickets until reservations open. Tickets for Z trains (direct overnight express) and D trains (bullet trains) usually open 10-21 days before departure. Tickets for all other trains are available 5-10 days before departure.

Street smart – Theft is the most common type of crime foreigners encounter. Pickpockets lurk at tourist attractions. Make sure you guard your valuables, as most of them target valuables kept in back pockets and backpacks.

Also be aware of the “Tea Tasting Scam” where locals will invite you to a tea tasting session at a nearby café. Then, an exorbitant bill is presented to the tourist. Refusal to pay will result in threats.

Taxis – In Shanghai, Dazhong Taxis has an English-speaking booking service. Their hotline is 96822, and each booking costs RMB4 (US$0.60) service charge. Dazhong taxis are light-blue in colour. If you take a taxi in the city, the base fare in Shanghai is RMB11 (US$1.15).

Most taxi drivers cannot speak English. Have your destination written down in Chinese by the hotel concierge before you board a taxi. It can be difficult flagging or even booking a cab during rush hours or on rainy days. Try flagging a cab from shopping centres or restaurants, where taxis will drop passengers off.

Remember to get the receipt after you pay the fare. The taxi’s number and company’s number are printed on it. They can be useful if you left your belongings behind, or want to lodge a complaint.

Telecommunications – One common pre-paid SIM card is China Mobile’s EasyOwn, or “ShenZhouxing” in Mandarin. You can purchase it at their service centres, newsstands or airports. The automated system will alert you when stored value is running low, and you can add money to it at service centres. But it is worth noting that, while the SIM card can be used throughout China, value top-up can only be done in the city where the card is purchased. So if a SIM card is bought in Shanghai, you cannot recharge it in Beijing, even if it is a service centre by the same company. You can sign up for their recharge service for US$16 per piece, where you can recharge your airtime online, by mail or phone. This service can also be used to recharge China Unicom SIM cards.

Another option is the standard pre-paid package that China Unicom offers, called Ruyi Tong with different rates and functions. China Unicom offers both GSM and CDMA networks, while China Mobile has only GSM.

Utilities – In China, three-pin, earthed plugs are commonly used. The electricity used is 220 volt AC, and the sockets generally accept plug types A, C and I. Most hotels provide universal plugs, but it is always good to bring an adapter plug. If you forget to pack an adaptor, there are airports with universal sockets. In Shanghai Pudong International Airport, the universal sockets can be found in departure halls.

Other than in hotels, washrooms in public facilities all have squad toilets, which can take some getting used to. Toilet paper is not always supplied, even in some mid- to high-end restaurants. Remember to carry tissues with you.

Visa – Passport holders of Singapore, Brunei and Japan are allowed to enter China without visas for a maximum of 15 days. APEC Business Travel Card-holders are also exempted from applying for visas to China. The card is regarded as a multiple entry visa, and is valid for three years. Each stay should be no more than two months.

For tourists, a Chinese (L) visa allows them to stay in China for up to 30 days. Single and double entry tourist visas are available. If you are going to China for a visit, an investigation, a lecture, business, short-term advanced studies or internship for a period of not more than six months, you have to apply for a (F) visa. Single, double, six-month and one-year multiple-entry business visas are available.

To visit Tibet, visitors need to apply for an approval notice from the China Tibet Tourism Bureau (www.xzta.gov.cn, tel 86 891 6834315, fax 86 891 6820410, email [email protected]).

The Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macau have their own visa rules. Passport holders of many countries can visit these cities without a visa for up to 90 days. From Hong Kong, it is relatively easy to obtain a visa at the border checkpoint to enter the Special Economic Zone of Shenzhen, but the visa will not permit you to travel farther into China, which requires passing through yet another checkpoint.

China National Tourist Office www.cnto.org/chinavisa.asp

Immigration Department of Hong Kong www.immd.gov.hk

Macau Immigration Services www.fsm.gov.mo

Websiteswww.TravelChinaGuide.com and http://CNVol.com provide information on train types, travel times, cost and train schedules.

Ctrip (http://english.ctrip.com) and elong (www.elong.net), a partner of Expedia, are two websites you can buy airplane tickets from. Both have English websites and accept international credit cards. They offer flight reservation services both online and through their 24-hour call centre. Domestic tickets must be booked more than two hours before the departure time and for international tickets it is eight hours. Ctrip has a complimentary ticket delivery service provided in over 60 cities throughout China.

Xinhua – The official press agency of the People’s Republic of China; while it has been accused of having “blind spots” when it comes to controversial news about its own government, it produces reasonably high-standard reports on global affairs and offers alternative perspectives to those of mainstream Western media. It has a well-maintained website: www.chinaview.cn

Yuan – a unit of the official currency renminbi, it means “dollar” in Chinese. It is also known colloquially as a kuài. One yuan is divided into 10 jiao, colloquially mao. One jiao is divided into 10 fen (cents).

Zones – Since the establishment of the PRC, the whole country has adapted to Beijing time, even though geographically, the landmass spreads over five time zones. That means that when you wake up at 8am in Urumqi, it is often still pitch dark. And although Yunnan province shares a border with Vietnam, its official time is one hour ahead.

China has designated Special Economic Zones such as Shenzhen, and Special Administrative Regions such as Hong Kong and Macau, which have their own visa regulations. Please see “Visa” for more details.

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