8 Mistakes to Avoid on Your First Trip to China


As I grew up in China but spent my most twenties and thirties in North America, I have frequently been asked about the differences between living in China and North America.

Before I relocated to North America, I paid close attention to the cultural differences and etiquette in Western countries, tried not to offend others by avoiding behaviors that are commonly practiced in China but shunned in North America.

Now that I have lived in North America for 11 years, and my friends have told me a lot about their travel experiences in China, so I believe it is a good idea to share my thoughts about my homeland if you plan to travel there for the first time.

To begin,  I start with the eight mistakes to avoid on your first trip to China.

Mistakes to Avoid on Your First Trip to China

Traveling during national holidays

Try to avoid visiting China during the three major Chinese holidays, Chinese New Year, National Day, and Labor Day at all costs.

The two weeks of Chinese New Year usually takes place in late January or February. The significance of the Chinese New Year in China is the same as that of  Christmas in the West. At this time of every year, millions of people travel back to their hometowns, making it one of the biggest human migrations in the world. Airplane, train, and bus tickets are sold out weeks before, and the prices are higher than usual. Most tourist attractions, shops, and restaurants are closed.

The same situation also applies when you visit during the National holiday (October 1st to October 7th) and Labor Day (May 1st to May 7th) periods, when millions of people travel around China with their family and friends.

Forgetting to bring your own napkins when dining out

Because I grew up in China, I am used to bringing my own napkins when dining at restaurants. It is a huge mistake to expect restaurants and public restrooms to have free tissues prepared for you.

In case you forget to bring your own napkins to a restaurant, you can always purchase them there.

Not checking for counterfeit bills

When you get $50 and $100 bills, you always need to check them to ensure that they are genuine. Counterfeit bills are prevalent in China, and most of them are $50 and $100 bills.

You will see cashiers checking your $50 and $100 bills when you hand them over. This takes time to get used to, but this is how we avoid unintentionally accepting counterfeit bills. I have even found counterfeit $20 bills, so it is always wise to pay close attention to the big bills that you receive.

Chinese bills

it is always recommended to double-check the big notes you receive

Expecting to pay your bill after a meal

You walk into a restaurant and order food. Now, you wait for your server to bring you your order so you can eat. Then you pay before you leave. However, most restaurants in China do not follow this tradition.

Typically, after you order your meal, you are expected to pay upfront before your food is served. After you finish eating, you can simply leave. I actually prefer this approach, as I do not have to call for servers’ attention and wait for them to deliver my check.

Mistakes to Avoid on Your First Trip to China

In most restaurants and street food vendors, you need to pay first before dining.

Believing it is good etiquette to leave a little bit of food on your plate

While growing up in China, we had been reminded repeatedly to not leave any food on our plates. It has been this way until now. Our parents’ generation has been through famines, as well as the Culture Revolution when they spent years working diligently in the fields. To us, food had been a scarce resource for a long time. Even if there were only a few grains of rice accidentally left on the table, we were asked to pick them up and eat them.

Mistakes to Avoid on Your First Trip to China

May I say it again we are not encouraged to leave food on our plate.

Assuming taking the plane saves lots of travel time

While it is true that a plane can transport you between faraway destinations in just a few hours, they are not guaranteed to save you traveling time. If you ever take a domestic flight in China, it is a stressful experience. This is mainly because flights never leave on time, and you will be lucky if the scheduled departure is postponed for only two hours.

Mistakes to Avoid on Your First Trip to China

Most airports in China do not have enough capacity for the amount of air traffic they dispatch and receive, so the planes often have to wait for their turn to depart. However. free meals are provided at the airport if delays exceed four hours. If you plan to travel by air, be prepared to wait for long at the airport and leave lots of leeway for your trip.

Overbooking your trip

It is tempting to see everything in a short period, but do not be surprised if you are only able to visit one or two places in a day. There is a strong possibility that you will be held up by traffic and crowds, not to mention the long distances between each place. So, plan your trip in advance and leave lots of time in between to relax and enjoy the moment.

Mistakes to Avoid on Your First Trip to China

Taking the subway in Beijing is a dreadful experience

Assuming credit cards are widely accepted

For a country that has become the talk of the global economy, it is surprising that most places still do not accept credit cards. Although technology has advanced over the past decade, many foreign credit card companies still have a difficult time gaining entry into the Chinese market, which is a major reason why most shops and restaurants do not accept credit card payments.

Shops, hotels, and international airports that cater to foreigners have started accepting credit cards, but you cannot use credit cards in most other places. Therefore, make sure that you bring enough cash so that you will not miss out on purchasing something you want.

Have you visited China before? Share your experience and tips below.

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Travel to China tips


Julie Cao

Julie is the creator of Always On The Way. She lived in Hawaii and now resides in London (Ontario, Canada). In 2017, she went on an overland trip from Bogota Colombia to Puerto Williams, the southernmost city in the world. She believes travel is not only about visiting tourist attractions but more about getting to know the culture, people, and the place.

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