Planning A Trip to China

An Essential Guide for Planning a Trip to China

Plus the Top China Tourist Attractions and Places to Visit

Planning a trip to China Beihai Park in Beijing
Beihai Park in Beijing

For me, China was one of those bucket list destinations and so when we started planning our trip around the world, I knew China had to be part of it. I had great fun planning a trip to China. However, when you first visit somewhere it can be a bit daunting and there is so much planning and research to do. So I’ve put together this article which I hope will help you plan a trip to China without quite so much of the hard work. I’ll discuss the best way to travel around China, by train, of course!! And show you the top China places to visit and the top tourist sites in China. It’s a vast country with some diverse landscapes, cities and sights and you’ll certainly want to return again and again. Hopefully, this guide will get you started.

Planning a Trip to China

INDEX

Essential Tips For Planning a Trip to China

Getting a Chinese Visa
    When UK passport holders don’t need a visa to enter China
    What does a Chinese visa cost?
    How long is a Chinese visa valid for?
    Using a visa agency

Travelling by train in China
    Buying Train Tickets
    Types of Train
    At the Station
    Beijing to Xian by Train
    Xian to Nanjing by Train
    Nanjing to Shanghai by Train

Money
    A guide to Chinese currency

Top China Tourist Attractions and Places to Visit

Beijing
Xian
Nanjing
Shanghai


Getting a Chinese Visa

Most visitors to China will need a visa. Of course, this is a UK travel blog so I’m going to focus on the position for UK travellers but you’ll still find the information wherever your passport is issued. Please do check via your government’s official advice pages for China though as that way you’ll get the most up to date information specific to your country of citizenship. For UK passport holders head over to the Foreign Office Travel Advice for China pages and make sure you know the current requirements.

Planning a trip to China? You will probably need a visa
Planning a trip to China? You will probably need a visa

When UK passport holders don’t need a visa to enter China

Most UK passport holders need a visa to enter mainland China but if your trip only includes Hong Kong or Macau then you do not need one. You can also enter China on a visa waiver basis if you are transiting through certain airports and your stay in China is for a limited number of hours. For example, if you are transiting through Shanghai you can apply online for a waiver which allows you up to 144 hours to explore Shanghai visa-free. Additionally, you can apply in person for a 73-hour transit visa at several other Chinese airports including Beijing, Guangzhou, Chengdu, Chongqing and Guilin. Basically, these allow you time for a quick look around while you wait for your onward flight. Of course, this only works if you fly in and out of China so if you travel overland, as we did, then you will need a visa.

If you need a visa then it is important that you apply for the correct type. For most people, this will be the “L” Tourist Visa but do check this carefully. If you are visiting relatives, engaging in any work or business activities or on a study tour for instance, then you will need an appropriate visa.

What does a Chinese visa cost?

The basic cost of a Chinese visa is £151 but unless you want to travel to the application twice, once to submit and once to collect, you will want to pay extra for it to be returned to you by post. What this means is that you’ll pay £175. If you need your application processed quickly you can pay and extra £10 for express service. Really, though, planning a trip to China isn’t something you should leave to the last minute so you shouldn’t need the express service.

How long is a Chinese visa valid for?

For UK passport holders, a Chinese visa is now usually issued for 2 years. This allows you to make multiple visits to China for up to 90 days at a time. It’s very handy if you want to visit Hong Kong or Macau as part of your trip to China as you no longer need to worry about single or multiple entries.

Planning a trip to China? You will probably need a visa
Planning a trip to China? You will probably need a visa

You cannot apply for a Chinese visa more than 90 days before entry. You will be given a date by which time you must have entered China or the visa will lapse. However, it is fine to enter China a day or so earlier or later than the date you put on your application form as long as it is before this ‘enter China before’ date. So it does allow a bit of flexibility.

How to apply for a Chinese Visa

Since November 2018, you must submit your visa application in person at the application centre so that you can have photos and fingerprints taken. There are application centres in London, Edinburgh, Belfast and Manchester. Unfortunately, you will have to get to one of them if you want to apply for a Chinese visa. Only children under 14 and those over 70 years of age are exempt from this.

If you are planning a trip to China then you can easily apply for your own Chinese visa by using the official Chinese Visa Application website. Either use this link or access it via the foreign office link given above. Be careful that you are using the official website as there are lots of websites offering to get your Chinese visa which will charge you higher fees.

Using a visa agency

Of course, you may prefer to use an agency to make the whole process a bit easier. You’ll still have to travel to the application centre though. There is no way to avoid that. If you want to use an agency then I can highly recommend Real Russia.

Yes, I know it’s a Russian travel agency but they do all the visas for countries on the Trans-Siberian routes and they have an office in London. We used them to get our Russian, Belarus and Chinese visas and they are extremely helpful and very professional. Of course, you pay a little bit extra but they really do hold your hand through the whole process.

They saved us a second trip to London by noticing that Paul’s passport photo and the ones I supplied with the visa application were the same. What’s the issue with that you ask? Well for a Russian visa, the photo must be less than 6 months old and as Paul’s passport was over a year old it was a bit of a giveaway that the photos were that old too. Real Russia currently charge £193.80 to process a Chinese visa on a UK passport. Click here to visit the Real Russia China Visa page. (Please note: this is not a sponsored link and I get nothing if you use them. It’s just a genuine recommendation for an agency I’ve used myself.)

Travelling by Train in China

Planning a trip to China The train at Beijing Main Railway Station
The train at Beijing Main Railway Station

Buying Train Tickets

These days we’re all used to buying our train tickets easily online and it’s true that the Chinese do have online train ticket booking. However, it’s not an option for most of us because the website only in Chinese and you need a Chinese bank card to pay. If you’re able to read Chinese and happen to have a Chinese credit card then, by all means, go ahead. For the rest of us, there are other options.

Now, you can buy tickets at the station in person. If you’re on a flexible schedule then you may prefer this. However, be warned. There are a lot of people travelling by train in China and long-distance trains do get fully booked. Some of the more popular routes may get booked very quickly as soon as they become available.

Also, be wary of travelling during peak holiday periods. Firstly, make sure you know when these holidays fall in the year you are travelling. Then avoid them if you can! During peak holiday periods, trains sell out as soon as they come on sale. Trains and stations will be packed. You will have no chance of getting a ticket for same-day or next-day travel.

During normal travel periods, you should be able to get a ticket if you turn up at the station a few days ahead. If your schedule is really flexible and you don’t mind what class of seat you get then this may be absolutely fine for you. When we travel, we do tend to be on a schedule and so I prefer to book ahead.

Regional Chinese Train at Badaling Station for the Great Wall
Regional Chinese Train at Badaling Station for the Great Wall

So, how do you do that if you can’t use the official website? In fact, it’s quite easy but you need to use an agency. We used China DIY Travel and I highly recommend them. You’ll see them mentioned from time to time throughout the blog when I talk about Chinese trains. They give me no commission and I recommend them because they’re amazing and offer a really great value way for tourists to buy their Chinese train tickets in advance.

Not only will they buy your tickets for you and provide an email reservation code that you can use to pick up your tickets at any station in China. They will also supply you with photos of stations, instructions for collection and even a note in Chinese for you to hand over at the ticket desk if there is no English Speaking kiosk. They will ask you for a 2nd choice if they can’t get your 1st choice train and seat types but they got all our first choices. Even the deluxe soft sleeper compartments with private shower and toilet which are in high demand.

Types of Train

Chinese bullet train at Nanjing Station
Chinese bullet train at Nanjing Station

Which brings me to the different types of train that you’ll find on Chinese Railways. Basically, there are two types of trains in China. That is the bullet or high-speed train and the normal or traditional train. Within each type, there are various differences and you can tell this by the different letters in front of the train number. So, for instance, high-speed trains begin with C, D or G. For a complete breakdown of the differences head over to China DIY. I know that G trains are the fastest but really we chose based on timings on the schedule rather than letters.

You’ll most likely come across trains beginning with K, T or Z if you’re taking an overnight sleeper train. They do run during the day as well though so if you’re not in a hurry or you travel on a route with no faster alternative then they’ll get you there. You’ll pay less than for the high-speed trains too so if budget is an issue then choose one of these.

Passing a high-speed train on the way to Shanghai
Passing a high-speed train on the way to Shanghai

Train Classes

Whichever type of train you choose you’ll have the option of several different classes to travel in. On high-speed trains, you’ll see the traditional 1st and 2nd class seats. Those are fairly self-explanatory. Both are perfectly adequate. 1st class seats have two rows of two seats whereas 2nd class has one row of two seats and one row of three.

On bullet trains, you’ll also get the option to book a Business Class Seat and sometimes even a VIP seat. These look really luxurious. I can’t give you a first-hand account of what it’s like to travel in one though as we travelled in 1st class on the bullet train we took. We found that very comfortable with plenty of luggage space and lots of legroom.

On normal trains, you’ll get slightly different options. Here you’ll be offered a choice of different sleeper accommodation as well as seats. If you’re on a very tight budget then hard seats are the cheapest. As the name suggests though, they’re not very comfortable and hard seat compartments can get very crowded.

Soft seats sound better but they’re only really suitable for short journeys. For longer journey’s you really need to look at the sleeper options. Hard sleepers are a good budget choice. Although the name makes them sound really uncomfortable they’re not too bad. These compartments are long open-plan rows of bunk beds. You’ll get a bunk allocated so you do get some space to call your own. On the other hand, these carriages can be quite noisy and privacy is rather limited.

If you can afford it then soft sleeper is a great choice. In this category, you’ll be in a four-berth compartment with two sets of bunk beds. You get a lot more privacy although if you’re travelling alone or as a couple, you’ll have to share. The compartments are lockable so offer more security and you get a lot more space to spread out.

Getting a good night's sleep in a Deluxe Soft Sleeper Compartment
Getting a good night’s sleep in a Deluxe Soft Sleeper Compartment

On some trains, you also get Deluxe soft sleepers. We travelled in one of these on our trip from Beijing to Xian and again on our trip from Xian to Nanjing. They are great especially if you’re a couple. You get a 2 berth compartment with its own shower and toilet. Unfortunately, there aren’t many of them on the train and some trains don’t have them at all. You’ll pay for the privilege of course as they are quite expensive.

At the Station

Firstly, you need to know that the new high-speed trains often run on different lines to the older traditional trains. This means they may use completely different stations. In addition, many Chinese cities have multiple railway stations in completely different locations. So when you book train tickets to travel in China make sure that you know which station you are departing from and arriving at.

For example, there are multiple railway stations in Beijing. We arrived at Beijing Railway Station which is also called Beijing Main Railway Station. When we departed for Xian, we boarded our train at Beijing West Station. So read your tickets carefully and when you are planning which trains to book double-check as some routes use more than one station.

Platforms at Nanjing Station
Platforms at Nanjing Station

Because the high-speed line is newer any stations which were specially built for these trains will be modern. They’re not only new and shiny but much easier to find your way around than the older stations. They tend to be more spacious with larger waiting rooms and lots of high-tech overhead screens for information.

Older stations vary enormously from city to city. They’ll still be overhead displays but they may not always have English especially outside the main cities. You’ll likely find smaller waiting rooms and you’re less likely to find escalators and lifts.

Regardless of the type of station, you will wait in the lounge area until your train arrives in the station. This is how the Chinese system works. When you arrive at the station look for your train on the display. If there is no English shown don’t worry, you just need to look for your train number. All trains have one and it will be on your ticket. For example, our train from Beijing was Z19. When you find Z19 on the sign, look along that row and you’ll see another number. That will be your waiting lounge number. Just go there and show your ticket. you will be allowed in and you can wait for your train.

Just to confuse things. In some stations, they also have a Soft Sleeper Lounge. If you hold a soft sleeper ticket you can go to this lounge instead of the one shown on the sign. Usually, these are a bit more spacious and less crowded so if you are eligible then it is worth looking for it. Although it sounds complicated it’s actually not too bad when you’re in the station. If in doubt go to one of the lounges and show your ticket. They’ll point you in the right direction if you’re in the wrong place.

Beijing to Xian by Train

We travelled on the overnight sleeper train from Beijing to Xian as part of our journey across China. If you’d like to read about our experience then take a look at this blog post.

Across China by Train On the overnight sleeper from Beijing to Xian
Click on the image to read about our trip

Xian to Nanjing by Train

Another of our overnight sleeper train experiences. I won’t repeat all the details here but if you are interested then just click on the image link below. Then you can read about our trip to Nanjing including details of our time on the train. Also, don’t be tempted to stay on the train all the way to Shanghai. Nanjing is a fascinating place and well worth a stopover.

Explore Chinese History in Nanjing

Chinese Money

Planning a trip to China? Familiarise yourself with the Chinese Currency
Planning a trip to China? Familiarise yourself with the Chinese Currency

The Renminbi is the official Chinese currency but you’ll generally hear it referred to as the Yuan. This confused me for a while. However, don’t worry, the Yuan is actually a unit of Renminbi. Think of it as similar to the distinction between Sterling and the Pound. So, you’ll see CNY which is the code for Chinese Yuan. If you see RMB this is the code for Renminbi. You may also see ¥ or CN¥.

Whichever you see they mean the same thing so what you need to concentrate on is the number. For instance, 10 RMB and 10 CNY are exactly the same value. We saw CNY a lot when travelling in China and so throughout the blog I’ve used that as the currency indicator.

Planning a trip to China? Chinese coins
Chinese coins

When we’re travelling I like to have a rough currency comparison so that I can quickly gauge how much something is. I use a currency calculator on my phone but I prefer something quicker and easier when we’re out and about. For the Chinese Yuan, I used 10 CNY equals £1. Now that’s a very rough comparison and of course, it varies from day to day depending on the exchange rate. But it’s a quick and easy conversion that I can do in my head. It gives me a rough idea if that souvenir is a huge bargain or a more expensive purchase for example.

Top China Tourist Attractions and Places to Visit

An important part of planning a trip to China is deciding where to go and what to see. There are so many things to do in China. Of course, it’s a huge country and I’ve not seen all of it so the following is based on places I’ve seen and enjoyed. I absolutely loved travelling in China and we had some fantastic experiences there. As I see more of it I’ll add to this list and you can be sure they’ll be more blogs posts on China coming up.

Beijing

Garden Courtyard at the Forbidden Palace in Beijing
Garden Courtyard at the Forbidden Palace in Beijing

China’s capital city Beijing is a good place to start and it’s packed full of fabulous tourist sights and attractions. We arrived in Beijing after 7 days on the train from Moscow and so we were well-rested and keen to start some sightseeing. Take a look at my blog post on 3 days in Beijing for some great ideas on sightseeing in this amazing city.

3 Days Sightseeing in Beijing
Click here to read my blog post on 3 Days Sightseeing in Beijing

Xian

The Bell Tower in Xian
The Bell Tower in Xian

Xian is rightly famous as the home of the Terracotta Warrior Army. This spectacular collection was discovered on a farm just outside the city and should be on every tourist’s trip list. However, there’s much more to Xian and you’ll want to allow time to explore this ancient city. In fact, it used to be the capital of China and it has some fabulous historic buildings.

Nanjing

Planning a trip to China? Visit Dr Sun Yat-Sen's Mausoleum in Nanjing
Planning a trip to China?
Visit Dr Sun Yat-Sen’s Mausoleum in Nanjing

Dr Sun Yat-Sen was a Chinese politician and philosopher who is revered as the founder of modern China. He helped the Chinese people bring the rule of the Qing Dynasty to an end and became the first leader of the Republic of China. If you visit Nanjing you can join many Chinese people and climb the steps to his Mausoleum.

Explore Chinese History in Nanjing

I knew very little about Nanjing before we decided to visit. It was simply a convenient stopover on the way to Shanghai. But what a fascinating place it turned out to be. Located in the province of Jiangsu, was once the capital of China. Here you can immerse yourself in some of the most significant events of Chinese history. Take a look at my guide to Nanjing and add it to your itinerary when planning your trip to China. Click on the image below.

Shanghai

Shanghai is a modern city sitting astride the Huangpu River in Eastern China. its skyline, particularly at night, is rightly famous and it’s a city that should definitely be on your list if you’re visiting China.

Sightseeing in Shanghai

If you’re planning a trip to China then you’ll find links to all my articles on China in the image gallery below.

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How to plan a trip to China. Use our planning guide to make planning easier. Do you need a visa? How do you get around? What are the best places to see? All these questions and more are answered in our useful plannin guide to China. #China #ChinaTravel
  
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