Things You Should Do Before Traveling to Beijing

Try Khov
7 min readOct 8, 2023

Disclaimer: Some of the links in this article are referral links

I recently came back from Beijing and to say that I had an amazing time is an understatement.

Despite the awful traffic and struggling to understand the local Beijing accent, I felt sad when I left.

Nonetheless, I want to share with you a few things you should know if you plan to visit Beijing, or just China, in general.

Download a VPN

If you plan to share your pictures with your friends and family on Instagram, Facebook, and other social media sites, you need a VPN.

Contrary to popular belief, having a VPN in China is not illegal as long as the service and your use of it abides by Chinese regulations.

While I won’t get too deep, I strongly recommend getting a VPN if you want to share your adventures on Instagram like I did.

While there are numerous VPNs out there, the most reliable one for me was Astril VPN.

While NordVPN and ExpressVPN are also popular, I frankly found them unreliable when I went to China.

I experienced this first hand when I settled down in my hotel and found out that none of their servers were able to connect.

So my friend in Beijing recommended Astril and the customer support team was great in helping me set it up.

Download the Essential Chinese Apps

AliPay and WeChat

(left) AliPay, (right) WeChat

Yes, while some places still accept cash, don’t be surprised when other places don’t.

In China, the vast majority of vendors and merchants rely on apps such as WeChat Pay and AliPay for daily transactions.

Essentially how it works is that you or the vendor scan a QR code to make payments.

If you’re unfamiliar with WeChat, it’s essentially China’s main app for communication and payments.

When you make friends, they’ll likely ask for your WeChat to stay in touch.

Just earlier this year, WeChat implemented a new feature that allows you to use foreign credit cards. That means that you no longer need a Chinese bank account to use its service.

This was especially great for me because I was able to attach my Apple Credit Card, which has 0% foreign transaction fees and reliable security settings to prevent fraud.*

*Apple Credit Card doesn’t charge a foreign transaction fee, but some merchants / vendors may.

While AliPay functions similarly to WeChat Pay, the main difference is that it’s solely for payments while WeChat Pay is just a part of the WeChat app.

While some may prefer one of the other, I highly recommend that you have both.

This is because near the end of my trip, WeChat Pay became more and more unreliable as it kept asking me for verification. This was an issue because it was WeChat asking for verification as opposed to my card company and their verification process was often slow and required information such as a Chinese residency ID, which I don’t have.

But with AliPay, whenever there was an issue such as a large transaction, I had to go through my card company’s verification process instead of AliPay’s.

Another great feature about these apps is that have mini apps where you can do more than just make payments.

Throughout Beijing, you’ll see a lot of bikes.

As an effort to decrease the awful traffic, curb pollution, and other reasons, Beijing has rental bikes throughout the city for residents to use and get around.

With apps like AliPay or WeChat, you can rent bikes just by scanning the QR code with your phone.

The most fun I had throughout my trip involved traveling on these bikes.

Meituan

Frankly, I have a love-hate relationship with this app.

What I love the most is the convenient takeout delivery service.

While there are valid environmental criticisms against takeout such as the immense waste of plastic, the Chinese takeout system is far superior to the UberEats and DoorDash service that we have in the States.

For one, many (if not all) of the Meituan drivers use bikes. This makes the delivery service much faster and more affordable.

However, my biggest criticism of this app is the lack of accessibility if you don’t have a Chinese phone number.

While I was able to use this app because my friend allowed me to use his Chinese phone number, I found it frustrating that the majority of its features were blocked off because I couldn’t verify my identity because I don’t have a Chinese ID.

This is different from other apps such as WeChat or AliPay that simply ask for your passport if you’re a foreigner.

Another issue for many foreigners, especially those that can’t read Chinese, is that this app is almost entirely in Chinese.

While I understand that this app was designed for Chinese residents, it’d be nice to have some form of language translation like AliPay and WeChat.

DiDi

While I don’t think you need to download the DiDi app because it’s already a mini program in WeChat and AliPay, I still think it’s worth discussing.

DiDi is essentially China’s version of Uber.

Beijing is an incredibly large city and bikes and the metro can only take you so far in a convenient time.

While its service doesn’t require much explanation, it still an important service to be aware of during your travels.

Disclaimer: If you order a DiDi from WeChat, the mini app is likely going to be in Chinese despite your WeChat’s default language. If you can’t read Chinese, I recommend using the DiDi app itself or AliPay’s mini program.

Gaode Map

Gaode Map is a helpful tool if you’re looking to find a particular destination.

This tool was really helpful on my bike rides as I looked for specific places and it provided real-time accurate distance and arrival time.

Since Google is almost completely banned in China, its map system has become unreliable, thus making Gaode your next best option.

Consider Getting a Chinese SIM Card

While I ultimately decided not to get a Chinese SIM card during my trip, I highly recommend that you consider it for yours.

While my international phone plan worked in China, the experience was inconsistent and often frustrating.

Apps, even ones like Instagram, were slow outside of WiFi. In addition, alot of Chinese apps require Chinese phone numbers as part of the verification process to in order to access all of their features.

While I don’t know the pros and cons of Chinese mobile providers, I learned from a sales associate at a China Telecom store that it may be best to go with China Mobile if you plan to travel outside of Beijing, since China Telecom is for those that live in Beijing.

For my next trip (or when I move to China), I’ll be sure to get a Chinese SIM.

Preorder Tickets for the Forbidden Palace

This is just one part of much larger palace

The Forbidden Palace is an enormous and spectacular place to visit.

For many of you that have this on your travel list, it’s important to know that you need to buy tickets ahead of time because it’s such a popular tourist destination.

I had to learn this lesson first hand when I first visited it because I was told that they didn’t sell tickets on site and that I needed to pre-order tickets online. Fortunately my trip was longer than a week so I was able to buy a ticket for a later date.

Fortunately, you’re reading this post so you won’t make the same mistake that I did!

So before your trip, prepare accordingly if you plan (which you should) to visit the Forbidden Palace.

Also, it’s important to know that if you plan to explore the entire palace, you may need to purchase multiple tickets because certain sections require different tickets.

Here’s the link that I used: https://www.forbiddencitytickets.com/

Summary

If I could go back to Beijing, I would in a heartbeat. There’s so much to do and so much to see that I wasn’t able to get it all done in two weeks.

However, I hope that you feel more prepared should you ever visit and avoid some of the inconveniences that I experienced there.

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