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China Travel Tips

Prepare for a Safe Trip to China

A little planning and knowledge will go a long way toward making your trip to the People's Republic of China go smoothly. Learning more about China and obeying the laws and respecting the customs will make your stay as pleasant and incident-free as possible.


All American citizens visiting China for a month or more are encouraged to register with the U.S. Embassy in Beijing or the nearest U.S. consulate. Registration will assist posts in China in locating you in the event of an emergency at home or in replacing a lost or stolen passport.

Areas of Interest in China

Modern tourist facilities are available in major cities in China. China is full of natural and man-made wonders. Its great rivers include the Yellow and the Yangtze.

Hong Kong SAR is cosmopolitan and highly developed, and a popular destination.

Macau SAR has well developed tourism facilities. Gambling and tourism are some of the major factors in Macau’s economy.

There are also many mountain ranges including the Himalayas along the southern border of Tibet and the Kunlun Mountains stretching east and west along Tibet’s northern edge. Part of the Gobi desert is located in China’s Inner Mongolia.

China’s most popular man-made wonder is the Great Wall. The Great Wall was built in the 3rd century B.C. (completed in 204 B.C.). It extends for about 1500 miles from Gansu province to the Bohai Gulf. The wall averages 20 to 50 feet high and 15 to 25 feet thick. The actual length, including branches and windings, is more than 2000 miles.

Restricted Areas in China

Visitors to China should be aware that Chinese regulations strictly prohibit travel in “closed” areas without special permission. However, over 1,200 cities and areas in China are open to visitors without special travel permits, including most major scenic and historical sites. If you need to know if an area is open to travel without a permit, seek advice from the nearest Chinese embassy or consulate, or, if you are already in China, from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, the nearest U.S. consulate, or the local Chinese public security bureau.

China's Currency Regulations

Chinese currency is called yuan or, more commonly, renminbi (RMB).

Foreign currency (cash or traveler’s checks) may be exchanged for Chinese currency at licensed exchange facilities of the Bank of China and other authorized banks. 

Money exchange facilities are available at major airports, hotels, and department stores. Major brands of traveler’s checks are accepted at such exchange facilities and cash advances against a credit card can be arranged, a service charge is usually added. Consult with your bank before departing the United States to be sure that your brand of check or credit card will be accepted. Major credit cards (American Express, Mastercard and Visa) are accepted by most major hotels and in many well-known restaurants. ATMs compatible with US bankcards are also available throughout Hong Kong and to a limited extent in major Mainland cities such as Shanghai and Beijing.

Customs Regulations for China

Items such as watches, radios, cameras, and calculators imported duty free for personal use may not be transferred or sold to others. Gifts and articles carried on behalf of others must be declared to the customs inspector and are subject to duty.
Chinese customs regulations prohibit the import or export of the following items:

(a) arms, ammunition, and explosives;
(b) radio transmitter-receivers and principal parts;
(c) Chinese currency (renminbi);
(d) books, films, records, tapes, etc. which are “detrimental to China’s politics, economy, culture, and ethics” (e.g. pornographic or religious content)
(e) poisonous drugs and narcotics;
(f) infected animal or plant products; and
(g) infected foodstuffs.

Note: Videotapes may be confiscated by Chinese customs to determine that they do not violate prohibitions noted in item (d), above. Tapes are sometimes held for several months before being returned. (There is no guarantee that they will ever be returned.)

Export of the following items is also prohibited:

(a) valuable cultural relics and rare books relating to Chinese history, culture, and art;
(b) rare animals, rare plants and their seeds; and
(c) precious metals and diamonds and articles made from them.

Antiques and imitations approved for export are marked with a red wax seal.

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, improper glazing of some dinnerware for sale in China can cause lead contamination in food. Therefore, unless you have proof of its safety, dinnerware purchased in China should be used for decorative purposes only. Chinese commercial shipments of dinnerware to the United States are tested to conform to U.S. safety standards.

Movie cameras and videotaping equipment should be declared upon entry into China.

Chinese customs officials encourage the use of an ATA (Admission Temporaire/Temporary Admission) Carnet for the temporary admission of professional equipment, commercial samples, and/or goods for exhibitions and fair purposes. ATA Carnet Headquarters, located at the U.S. Council for International Business, 1212 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10036, issues and guarantees the ATA Carnet in the United States. For additional information, please call telephone (212) 354-4480, or send e-mail to atacarnet@uscib.org or visit http://www.uscib.org for details.

Information concerning regulations and procedures governing items that may be brought into China is available through the Chinese Embassy and Consulates in the United States. (See the Chinese Embassy and consulates addresses listed at the end of this pamphlet.)

Crime in China

China has a low crime rate; however crime has increased in the past few years, principally in the major cities. U.S. citizens and other foreigners have seldom been victims of violent crime.

Legal Matters for Travel to China

Remember: while in China, you are subject to Chinese laws and regulations. Laws in China sometimes differ significantly from those in the United States and do not afford the protections available to the individual under U.S. law. Please exercise caution and carefully obey local laws. Penalties for breaking the law can be more severe than in the United States for similar offenses. Persons violating the law, even unknowingly, may be expelled, arrested or imprisoned.

Chinese laws prohibit public demonstrations without a valid permit obtained from the Chinese Public Security Bureau in the city where the demonstration is planned.

Chinese authorities have seized documents, literature, and letters which they deem to be pornographic or political in nature or those which are intended for religious proselytizing. If you seek to enter China with religious materials in a quantity greater than what is considered needed for personal use, you could be detained and fined.

Religious proselytizing or passing out of religious materials is strictly forbidden. Americans suspected of engaging in such activities have been fined, arrested or deported.

Magazines with photographs considered commonplace in Western countries, including some advertisements, may be regarded as pornography. Books, films, records, tapes, etc., which are “detrimental to China’s politics, economy, culture, and ethics” will be seized by Chinese Customs to determine that they do not violate these prohibitions.

Foreign visitors and residents in China have sometimes been detained and heavily fined for having improper sexual relations with Chinese citizens. In most of these cases, the foreigners involved had invited Chinese citizens to their hotel rooms. Any U.S. citizen who is detained by Chinese authorities for questioning regarding this or any other violation of Chinese law or regulations should notify the U.S. Embassy or nearest U.S. consulate as soon as possible.

Criminal penalties for possession, use, or trafficking of illegal drugs in China are strict. Convicted offenders may receive severe jail sentences and fines.

Consular Access in China

Under the U.S. -P.R.C. Consular Convention of 1980, U.S. consular officers shall be notified if a U.S. citizen is arrested or detained no later than four days after the arrest or detention.

Under the Convention, U.S. consular officers must be informed upon request of the reasons for the arrest or detention and have a right to visit the citizen after a formal request is made by the consular officer. U.S. consular officers cannot serve as attorneys or give legal advice. They can, however, provide a list of local English speaking attorneys you may retain and help you find legal representation.

U.S. citizens have rights to consular access under the U.S. - PRC Consular Convention and should insist upon contact with the U.S. Embassy or one of the U.S. consulates general. If you are denied this right, continue to protest.

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Dual Nationality

China does not recognize dual nationality. If you are a citizen of both China and the U.S., you may experience difficulty entering and departing China on your U.S. passports. In some cases, U.S. passports have been seized by Chinese authorities. Dual nationals may be subject to Chinese laws which impose special obligations. Such persons are often required to use Chinese documentation to enter China.

The United States requires that all U.S. citizens enter and depart the United States on U.S. passports. Dual nationals who enter and depart China using a U.S. passport and a valid PRC visa retain the right of U.S. consular access and protection under the U.S.-PRC Consular Convention. The ability of the U.S. Embassy or consulates general to provide normal consular services would be extremely limited should a dual national enter China on a Chinese or other passport.

China does not recognize the U.S. citizenship of children born in China, when one of the parents is a PRC national. Such children are required to depart China on PRC travel documents. Children born in the United States to PRC national parents, who are neither lawful permanent residents nor U.S. citizens, are not recognized as U.S. citizens under Chinese nationality law. Although Chinese consulates have frequently issued visas to such individuals in error, they are treated solely as PRC nationals by Chinese authorities when in China.

Before traveling to China, dual nationals should contact the Office of Overseas Citizens Services at (202) 647-6769 or the U.S. Embassy in Beijing (see address at end of this booklet) for additional information.

Passport Confiscation and Business Disputes

If you are planning to conduct business in China, please be vigilant in investigating the companies you plan to work with to ensure they are reputable or to learn whether a prior history of disputes exists.

The confiscation of foreign passports of persons involved in business disputes has increased in China in recent years, frequently resulting in individuals being placed under house arrest or being unable to leave China until the dispute is satisfactorily resolved. As a valid Chinese visa is required in order to depart China, obtaining a replacement for a confiscated U.S. passport will not facilitate exiting the PRC and the Chinese government will block your departure.

Health Issues for Travel to China

Tourist travel in China can be extremely strenuous and may be especially debilitating to someone in poor health. Tours often involve walking long distances and up steep hills. All, especially those with a history of coronary/pulmonary problems, should have a complete medical checkup before making final travel plans. It is very important to schedule rest periods during your touring activities.
China discourages travel by persons who are ill, pregnant, or are of advanced age. Visa applicants over 60 are sometimes required to complete a health questionnaire. If medical problems exist, a letter from your physician in the United States explaining treatment and, if relevant, copies of your most recent electrocardiograms, would be helpful in case a medical emergency occurs in China.

China lacks handicapped-accessible facilities. Even travel to popular destinations such as the Great Wall and the Forbidden City can present problems to persons with disabilities. If you require such facilities, you may want to discuss this with your travel agent or host well in advance of your proposed travel.

Air pollution in the large cities is severe, particularly in winter, and respiratory ailments are common.

Be aware that HIV has become a significant concern in China. You should always ask doctors and dentists to use sterilized equipment and be prepared to pay for new syringe needles in hospitals or clinics.

Do not to drink tap water in China. Hotels almost always supply boiled water that is safe to drink. Buy bottled water and/or carbonated drinks. Make sure you carry water purification tablets to use when neither boiled water nor bottled drinks are available.

If you are planning to rent an apartment with gas appliances while in China, be aware that in some areas natural gas is not scented to warn occupants of gas leaks or concentrations. Also, heaters may not always be well vented, thereby allowing excess carbon monoxide to build up in living spaces.

There have been fatal accidents involving American citizens, so make sure all gas appliances are properly vented or install gas and carbon monoxide detectors in your residence. These devices are not widely available in China, and they should be purchased prior to arrival.

You can obtain information on vaccinations and other health precautions for travelers in the United States from local health departments, private doctors, travel clinics, and the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention at 1-877-FYI-TRIP (1-877-394-8747); fax 1-888-CDC-FAXX (1-888-232-3299), or via the CDC’s Internet site at http://www.cdc.gov.

Medical Facilities in China

You can select hospitals in major Chinese cities that have so-called VIP wards (gaogan bingfang). These wards feature reasonably up-to-date medical technology and physicians who are both knowledgeable and skilled. Most of these VIP wards also provide medical services to foreigners, feature English-speaking doctors and nurses, and may even accept credit cards for payment.

Even in the VIP/Foreigner wards of major hospitals, however, American patients have frequently encountered difficulty due to cultural and regulatory differences. Physicians and hospitals have sometimes refused to supply American patients with complete copies of their Chinese hospital medical records, including laboratory test results, scans, and x-rays. Physicians have also frequently discouraged Americans from obtaining second opinions from outside physicians. Hospitals have sometimes been reluctant to release patients for medical evacuation in cases where they would prefer to keep the patient for an extended stay.

Ambulances do not carry sophisticated medical equipment, and ambulance personnel generally have little or no medical training. Therefore, injured or seriously ill Americans should take taxis or other immediately available vehicles to the nearest major hospital rather than waiting for ambulances to arrive.

In rural areas, only rudimentary medical facilities are generally available. Medical personnel in rural areas are often poorly trained and are often reluctant to accept responsibility for treating foreigners, even in emergency situations.
Foreign-operated medical providers catering to expatriates and visitors are available, though their services are usually considerably more expensive than hospitals and clinics operated by local government health authorities.

SOS International, Ltd., operates clinics and provides medical evacuation and medical escort services in several Chinese cities. For medical emergencies anywhere in mainland China, Americans can call the SOS International, Ltd., 24-hour “Alarm Center” in Beijing at (86-10) 64629100 or in Shanghai at (86-21) 62950099 for advice and referrals to local facilities. SOS International Alarm Centers can also be contacted in Hong Kong at (852) 24289900 and in the United States at (1-800) 523-6586.

The Australian firm, GlobalDoctor, Ltd., has opened clinics staffed by English-speaking doctors within the VIP wards of government-run hospitals in Chengdu, Nanjing, and Beijing and plans to open additional facilities within several months in Xian and Shenzhen. GlobalDoctor can be reached by telephone from China at (61-8) 92263088 or on the Internet at www.eglobaldoctor.com.

Additional information on medical providers specializing in treating foreigners, including dental and orthodontic clinics, is available on the U.S. Embassies web page at www.usembassy-china.org.cn.

Medical Insurance

Americans are advised to travel to China with both health insurance and medical evacuation insurance (often included in so-called “travel” insurance and provided as part of a tour group package).
U.S. medical insurance is not always valid outside the United States. Even when insurance does cover services received in China, it will usually be necessary to pay first and then file for reimbursement with the insurance company upon returning to the United States.

Supplemental insurance with specific overseas coverage, including provision for medical evacuation, is strongly recommended and can be purchased in the United States prior to travel.

Some insurance policies also include coverage for psychiatric treatment and for disposition of remains in the event of death.

Recent medical evacuations by air ambulance from China to nearby areas have cost over US $50,000. Most standard U.S. medical insurance policies do not cover the cost of such medical evacuations.

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Travel Arrangements Within China

Package tours, while often more expensive than self arranged travel, will insulate you from the difficulties of booking travel by air, rail, bus or car in China. Transportation systems have not expanded as fast as the number of Chinese and international travelers has increased. Planes and trains are often overbooked.

Tickets or reservations for onward travel should be reconfirmed at each stop. Hotels, for a fee, will assist in making reservations and purchasing tickets.

Train travel can be difficult to reserve, even for the experienced traveler. Round trip rail tickets are not generally available without the services of a travel agency. Beware of counterfeit train tickets. Unethical entrepreneurs manufacture and sell such tickets at railway stations.

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