Welcome to Beijing, newby! You're about to embark on a great adventure in one of the most diverse and exciting cities in the world. Follow these tips and tricks to hit the ground running. See you soon!
Before you arrive
Renewing your passport from abroad can be a huge hassle. If your plan is to stay in Beijing for a couple of years and your passport is only valid for another six months, renew it before you go.
If it's possible, get yourself a multiple-entry visa. From Beijing there are so many great destinations within reach, you will want to travel the region.
Make sure you have all your official documents with you – or scan them. Photocopies or pictures taken with a phone won't do. This means diplomas and similar papers, all with their official stamps. Scan them in colour and check whether all documents are translated into English if they're in another language. You will need this if you want to enrol on a language course, for instance. Requirements can be very strict and with little to no wiggle room – in some cases only original documents will be accepted.
Paying in China either happens in a very modern way, via WeChat
, or old-fashioned style: in cash. Some currencies are very difficult to convert in Mainland China. If possible, convert your money to RMB, US dollars or Hong Kong dollars before you leave. There are plenty of ATMs in Beijing that accept foreign bankcards, but sometimes your own bank doesn't automatically allow you to take cash out overseas. Check this with your bank before you leave your home country.
A VPN (Virtual Private Network), is essential in China for accessing websites like Facebook, Google, Twitter and many foreign news agencies. It's difficult to download them once you're in the country so make sure you buy a subscription before you get here if you want to continue using the same websites that you're used to. Popular brands include Astrill and ExpressVPN, but shop around online for one that best meets your needs.
There are many international hospitals and clinics that provide good quality healthcare in Beijing, but they can be expensive. Make sure you have insurance that covers all kinds of medical care abroad. If the situation permits, call your insurance company before you agree to a medical treatment or hospital visit, just to make sure you're covered. Some companies will offer discounts for longer-term stints abroad.
With healthcare being a bit of an expensive faff once you get here, it's often easier to arrange your medical needs at home than abroad. Just in case, get a final dental and a medical check-up before you go.
Although most things are available in shops and pharmacies, it can still be quite hard (and expensive) to find over-the-counter ibuprofen, paracetamol, tampons and mosquito repellent with deet, which you will want in the Beijing summer. Also be aware that many facial creams in China contain whitening elements, as the fashion in China is for pale, not tanned, complexions.
Temperatures in Beijing can be extreme. The winters are cold, really cold. Especially in January and February temperatures can go as low as -20°C. But then, after a lovely and way too short spring, things get a bit stickier. From mid-June until mid-August you will be sweating with temperatures around 35°C. So don't forget your sunglasses.
The average Chinese person is smaller than, say, an average European. So if you're a tall person or you have large feet, you'll probably have a hard time finding clothes and shoes that fit. There are special stores for people with big feet, but do you really want to go there? We suggest you do your shopping before you leave.
Curly hair? You might want to get a last haircut before you leave. There are great hairdressers in Beijing, but you might have to look for a while for one that's used to your hair type: you don't want to get your look lost in translation.
Although there are plenty of masks available in Beijing, you can't buy all brands and types here. Figure out what kind you want and check where it's for sale before you leave. Check out our list of the five best air pollution masks
available in Beijing.
It may be difficult to access the streaming services you use at home. Some work fine with a VPN, but others don't. So, fill up your devices with the films, series and music that you can't go without.
It can be great fun to prepare for your adventure with some apps. If you don't speak Chinese, translation apps will come in handy: try Pleco, Google translate
(which now works without a VPN), and Waygo
. There are some useful apps on air pollution
in Beijing as well. Last but not least, WeChat is an absolute essential in China.
After you arrive
If you're not staying in a hotel, you should head down to a local police station to register. You'll have to show your passport and visa. You will also need all documents that relate to the property you're renting, so your contract, your landlord's ID and property ownership documents. Grit your teeth and get acquainted with some top-notch bureaucracy.
Be prepared to be asked for your passport a lot in Beijing. Bring it if you want to take out a phone contract, go to the bank, doctor or register for a course. At some tourist attractions, such as the Forbidden City
and the National Museum
, you have to show your passport when you buy a ticket. You'll need it for all trains and long-distance busses, too. Technically, you're legally required to have your passport on you at all times.
Toilets can be really dirty, especially the ones around tourist attractions. In these places, toilet paper and soap are rarely found. Come prepared with your own.
No matter how much you plan to use it, only Chinese bank accounts can be linked to many apps and online accounts such as WeChat Wallet. And you will use that – a lot.
You've probably guessed by now that mobile phones are pretty important in China. You will not regret getting a Chinese SIM right away. The two biggest providers are China Mobile and China Unicom.
These are available at the glass booths in all metro stations. The deposit for the card is 20RMB.
The general mood in Beijing, and perhaps everywhere, is that property is too expensive. That said, there are great places for rent, but you need to prepare for a hunt. Don't be too enthusiastic in front of your broker, because you'll have to negotiate. Negotiate hard. About everything: price, furniture, things that need to be fixed and walls that need to be painted. Also, read this information on renting in Beijing
If you don't speak any Chinese, it can be a hassle to get home by taxi. Try to find a booklet with the most important places in Beijing and their addresses in Chinese. They exist and they're amazing. Hotels usually have cards with their address on it in both English and Chinese. The name of the nearest metro station might also help. Next step is to learn to explain your address in Chinese.
Learning Chinese is great fun and it will give you access to a whole new world. It does take a lot of effort and time, though. So focus on survival Chinese first. Inevitably, vocab on food, taxis and directions will come in handy.
You can't drink tap water in Beijing, but bottled water is cheap and available everywhere. Always ask for filtered or bottled water in restaurants. You could also invest in a water cooler at home – you can get the big bottles delivered to your house, which will save you a potential hernia.
On smoggy days an air purifier is the only way you can make your house a (somewhat) smog-free zone. There are various brands and types available for different rooms and budgets. Read our guide to the best purifiers to beat the pollution
In general, tipping is not that common in China. Some fancier restaurants and hotel bars might include a service charge in the bill.
Although foreigners are no rarity in Beijing anymore, occasionally people might still stare at you, especially kids and tourists from other parts of China. Expect stares, pictures and people sneakingly filming you. Tourist attractions are the most likely places to enjoy your 15 minutes of fame. We say: enjoy it while it lasts.
Offering and accepting money or business cards with two hands, not gifting clocks or knives, the list of idiosyncratic Chinese etiquette is pretty endless. Be prepared to follow the locals' lead.
Chinese workers don't have many days off outside of the official holidays. So, public holidays go hand in hand with fully booked transport and massive crowds at tourist destinations. This is especially the case with Chinese New Year, which is apparently the largest annual human migration in the world. This can actually be a great time to visit Beijing, as you the city becomes unusually calm. Check out this year's main public holidays
. Chinese companies will often require employees to work a day during the weekend before or after the holiday to make up for lost time.
With more than 20 million inhabitants, Beijing is one of the busiest cities in the world. There will always be people, wherever you go, at whatever time of day (or night). Get used to crowds. Or just buy a really good set of headphones. And do like you would do in any big city: avoid rush hour on public transport, visit tourist attractions on weekdays and don't ever go shopping on a Saturday afternoon.
Beijing itself is a melting pot with inhabitants from all over the country. But nothing beats seeing the places for yourself. Whether you like mountains, deserts, tropical beaches, ancients cultural heritage or modern cities, China has it all. Make the most of your time here and explore.
Just when you think you've figured it all out, you will see something so baffling you'll wonder whether you will ever understand China. Take a deep breath and dive in. After all, it are these quirks and surprises that make living here such an adventure. Welcome!
With all of these tips, requirements will vary depending on which country you're coming from and how long you're staying for (although good luck tearing yourself away), so make sure to check the specifics with your local embassies.