Following several years of Covid-related disruption, business travel to China is back. While this is fantastic news, with so many years in between visits, many will find that the travel landscape has changed substantially. Robynne Tindall explains what business travellers need to know
It is no secret that China has fully embraced digitalisation, making life exceptionally convenient – if you can access the right digital tools. Some recent visitors have found that life can be difficult if you don’t have a Chinese ID card or a local bank account, but there are usually workarounds.
With that in mind, we’ve detailed some of the things people will need to consider before a trip to China.
First step: Download WeChat
WeChat is China’s be-all and end-all app, used for everything from messaging to ordering takeout to paying utility bills. It is the easiest way to keep in touch with and share information with contacts in China.
WeChat is available on international app stores and has an English interface. You can register for an account with an international phone number; however, you may need an existing WeChat user to verify your account (some people have found that this works best when someone with a mainland Chinese ID card verifies your account). The WeChat Help Center has more information about this process.
Understanding payment options
Payment has frequently been mentioned as a problem area in our discussions with businesspeople who have visited China since the pandemic. China is now largely a cashless society, which can make things tricky for visitors if they don’t have mobile payment methods set up.
Thankfully, as of the end of July 2023, both WeChat Pay and Alipay allow users to link an international bank card (read our guide on the set-up process here). This can then be used to pay for things via online platforms or by scanning a merchant’s QR code once you’re in the country.
However, anecdotally, some people have found that mobile payments with an international card only work in places that would accept an international credit card anyway, such as hotels, larger restaurants and international chain stores, or have reported issues setting up their cards on WeChat or Alipay in the first instance.
One way around this is to register for Bank of Shanghai’s TourCard service, a pre-paid top-up card that is accepted by smaller merchants on WeChat or Alipay. Set up is relatively simple – find a guide here.
The best thing to do is to always carry some cash with you, just to be on the safe side.
Trains and flights
Booking internal flights and train journeys should be one of the easier aspects of your travel to China. You can search and book both through travel giant Trip.com’s app or website, which have English interfaces and accept international payment methods.
You will need to enter your passport details when booking either trains or flights (which may come as a surprise for those used to flying domestic in the UK/US), and in the case of the train, your passport is actually your ticket – either scan it when passing through the security gates (in newer stations like Beijing South) or present it at the staffed security gate when boarding the train.
Regarding trains, it is worth familiarising yourself with the codes used for the different types of trains in China so you can find the best routes; G are the quickest and newest, for example. China Highlights has a detailed guide.
Hotels can also be booked through Trip.com (as well as the websites of international chains like IHG and Marriott).
One thing to note when booking accommodation is that although theoretically foreigners can stay anywhere as long as they register with the local police station within 24 hours, many smaller hotels and guesthouses don’t accept foreigners to avoid registration issues. Generally speaking, if a hotel is listed on Trip.com, it’s likely that they will accept foreign guests, but you can always contact Trip.com support to check.
As with trains and flights, you will always need to present your passport when checking into a hotel in China.
(Editor’s note: A good tip when travelling around China is to put a little sticky note in your passport on the page with your date of entry into China, as it comes up more often than you’d think).
Internet access and mobile phones
If you want to keep using platforms like Google, Facebook and the BBC while in China then you’ll need a virtual private network (VPN) to bypass the country’s infamous Great Firewall. VPNs are a bit of a legal grey area in China, but the major illegality tends to relate to selling VPN access rather than using one. Just be sure to get everything installed and ready to go before you get to China.
In our experience, the most reliable VPN for use in China is Astrill, although NordVPN and ExpressVPN are also popular.
If you have a good international roaming package, you should also be able to access Google and others on mobile data. If you’d prefer to get a local Chinese phone number for the duration of your trip, China’s three mobile providers – China Unicom, China Mobile, and China Telecom – offer sim-only plans that you can buy by going into one of their stores. Again, you will need to register with your passport.
Taxis and public transport
Taxis in China are abundant, especially in major cities. Most people use a ride-hailing app like Didi, which can be used to book everything from taxis to luxury limos. Unfortunately the Didi app is not currently available to download from UK app stores, but it can be used as a mini-program on WeChat and Alipay if you have either of these set up.
Most major cities in China – including Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Chengdu, Hangzhou, Wuhan, and Nanjing – have subway lines linking key business districts and tourist attractions. All the subway networks are easy to navigate thanks to signage and announcements in English.
Following the linking of Covid health codes to subway tickets during the pandemic, some subway ticket machines now require you to enter a Chinese ID card number, so it may be necessary to find a staffed ticket booth. If you are going to be taking the subway a lot, it’s worth buying a top-up transit card (again, from a staffed ticket booth) – note that you’ll need to get one for each different city you visit.