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China information centre

Passport and visa requirements
All British, EU and citizens of other countries need a visa to enter China. Visas can be obtained from the China Visa Application Service Centre (CVASC), 12 Old Jewry, London, EC2R 8DU, either in person by making an online appointment via the website (www.visaforchina.org), or by postal service. There are also offices in Manchester, at First Floor, 75 Mosley Street, Manchester M2 3HR; and Edinburgh, at Exchange Tower, 19 Canning Street, Edinburgh, EH3 8EH. We supply all our customers with application forms, documents and instructions on how to apply.

Visas are valid for entry within 3 months of the date of issue, so the ideal time to apply is about a month or two before you go. We recommend that passports are sent special delivery post to avoid loss. The fee including service charge and VAT for a single entry tourist visa for UK citizens is £151 per passport for standard 4-working days service if you apply in person, or £175 for postal service. Payment is taken by the Centre by debit card only. Turnaround is between one week to 10 days for postal service, which is generally efficient and well-managed. Applications can be made in person at the CVASC, but you need to make an appointment online via the centre’s website first. There is no same day visa service. Visas are generally issued for a stay of up to 30 days. Longer stays are granted at the discretion of the embassy officials. Passports must be valid for at least 6 months before their expiry.

From 16 January 2012 all tourist and family visit visa applications also need to provide copies of roundtrip airline ticket and hotel reservations, or invitation letter from organization or individual. Also required is a photocopy of your passport photo page

British and EU citizens can enter Hong Kong without a visa for stays of up to 6 months. British and EU citizens can also enter Macau without visa for stays of up to 20 days.

Separate permits are required to visit Tibet. These can be obtained as part of a tour package organised with us.

Arrival
On arrival at your Chinese arrival airport a China Direct representative will be waiting in the arrivals hall to meet you once you have cleared immigration, picked up your bags and passed through customs. Please look our for a China Direct placard with your names on it. If transfers are not included in your package, a taxi from Beijing Airport to your Beijing hotel costs about £12 one-way depending on the traffic.

Baggage
The baggage allowances for your international flights will be given as part of your information pack. For flights within China, the baggage limit in economy class is 20kg per person. Hand baggage is one item of up to 5kg, plus handbag or similar. The airport authorities seldom weigh hand luggage, but the size of it does matter, particularly when the flight is full. Sometimes rules are strictly enforced, sometimes not - depending on the local airport and how full the flight is. The rules for checked-in luggage are usually enforced, particularly in the inland cities. However, charges for overweight luggage for domestic China flights are not excessive, usually at US$3 to $4 per kilo. Checked-in baggage must be locked during transport in China. If your bag is found unlocked during transit, the airline or the train station will lock it for you and you will be charged for the locks. Similar restrictions to those in the UK on liquids carried in hand luggage have been introduced for international flights departing China. Any liquids (not totalling more than 1 litre) must be in separate containers of not more than 100ml each and contained in a clear plastic resealable bag. For domestic flights, the 1 litre limit is still in force, but there are no restrictions on the size of containers. We are not responsible for any loss or damage to your luggage and/or personal belongings. You must report any loss or damage immediately at the time of the incident and obtain a written report from the local authority for submission to your travel insurance provider. If your luggage is lost or damaged by the airline, a baggage claim form must be filled in with the carrier before leaving the airport.

Toilets
The standards of public toilets in China vary greatly. Try to use those in hotels or shops/restaurants catering for tourists as these will generally be cleaner and 'Western-style' rather than 'squat' or 'hole in the ground' toilets. If your guide asks you to visit a shop or restaurant to use the toilets, please take the opportunity. Toilet paper is in scarce supply outside of hotels (it blocks the drainage system), so it is a good idea to take a roll with you during the day in case of emergencies. Put the used paper in the bucket provided, not down the toilet otherwise you will simply add to China's blocked drains. A small packet of antiseptic hand wipes is also useful to clean your hands before and after meals and a handkerchief to dry hands in the absence of towels or paper.

Electricity
Electricity supply is at 220 volts, 50 cycles AC. Plugs are mostly two-pin, but you may also find 3-pin plugs. Take an international adapter. Adapters and converters are readily available at all hotels but may be limited in number. You are therefore advised to bring your own adapter. Hair dryers and irons are readily available also.

Water
Even though tap water in China is treated and chlorinated it is not considered safe to drink. Drink only bottled water or boiled water. All your hotels offer kettles in rooms to boil water to make tea.

Mobile phone and internet
Mobile phones are everywhere in China, so if your mobile allows international 'roaming' you should be able to make and receive calls. You can also buy a local SIM card as soon as you arrive in China. The cards are prepaid, for example RMB100 will give you quite a bit of talk time and at lower cost than the hotel direct dial service.

Internet access is available at almost all hotels on your China Direct travel itinerary. Computers are available in the business centres of hotels for a fee. Internet access is usually charged by minute and may be expensive. Many hotels, however, offer free internet access in your hotel room, so you may want to bring your own laptop, but some hotels do charge for this and it could be expensive (up to £15 per day). Wi-Fi is not commonly available in Chinese hotels and may be confined to public areas but access is spreading and becoming more common. Data roaming for iPads and similar devices can be expensive. Some popular websites you are familiar with at home, such as Facebook and YouTube, are banned in China.

Flights and trains
Most flights within China are operated by the four main carriers: Air China, China Southern Airlines, China Eastern Airlines and Hainan Airlines, or their subsidiaries. There are also a number of smaller airlines. Routes out of Hong Kong are also operated by Dragonair. Civil aviation in China has been transformed in recent years. Most aircraft are modern Boeings and Airbus, and many new airports have been built, including Shanghai Pudong airport and the new terminal 3 at Beijing airport.

There has also been major investment in China's railway system, with new lines and high-speed trains being introduced. There are two classes: 'soft' and 'hard'. For high-speed daytime trains there are two classes: first and second. Long distance trains have four-berth compartments in soft sleeper class, with some trains having deluxe two-berth compartments.

English is generally not spoken by any of the staff on the trains or in the railway stations. Limited signage in English is available in the railway stations. A separate waiting lounge is available in the railway stations for passengers travelling in the soft sleeper class. Preferential boarding is available for those passengers.

The restaurant carriage will be located in the 7th, 8th, 9th or 10th carriage, depending on the train. The choice of food will be limited and only Chinese food will be available. Most local people buy food in advance or buy food from the vendors on board the trains.

Baggage space is limited and must be stored in your compartment so it is wise to travel with smaller bags rathern than large suitcases. Most train stations have numerous stairs to climb to reach the platforms and bags have to be carried up and down these stairs. Most stairs have a steep ramp so that wheeled bags can be dragged up as you walk up the stairs. Your local guide will inform you if the local guide waiting for you at the next city will be able to pick you up on the platform outside your carriage or not, as on public holidays and summer holidays or particularly busy days the guides are not allowed enter the station. In these cases they can therefore only pick you up and see you off outside the train station, so please be prepared to carry up your luggage yourself. Alternatively you can ask a porter for help for a fee of RMB10 per piece. In Shanghai, Suzhou and Hangzhou the guides are definitely not allowed to enter the train stations.

Tipping
Tipping can sometimes be confusing for travellers to China. Tips are a primary source of income for tour guides and therefore are expected in China's booming foreign inbound travel industry. We consider that tips should be a reward for good service. This means that if you are not completely satisfied with the service received, DON'T TIP. Furthermore, please report any service of behaviour that you think do not live up to China Direct's standard to our office immediately so we can make prompt correction. It is crucial for us to maintain a high level of quality service.

If you feel that our guides and drivers have been good and provided good service we recommend that the local equivalent of £3 to £5 per day per person should be given to your local guide, plus £3 per day per person to the driver. This guidance is for budgeting purposes - whether you tip, and how much, is always at your own discretion. Please note that tips should be given just before you say goodbye at the airport or station for your onward journey.

Shopping
China is one of the shopping destinations of the world. There are countless opportunities for picking up bargains for souvenirs or crafts of many different kinds. For many travellers shopping is an integral part of international travel, particularly to countries like China. Your valuable travel time in China is, however, limited and therefore China Direct tours feature the minimum of arranged shopping stops compared to all other tours and that shopping stops must be related to a learning experience. Visits to shops on our tours are limited to two in Beijing and one in other major cities, and the duration strictly limited to no more than 1 hour in each place.

There is no obligation to buy anything in these shops, and if you are not interested please take advantage of the chance to use their toilets, however, as they will probably be a bit cleaner than elsewhere. If you are interested in buying something, the quality of goods in these places will be good, but you should bargain hard on the price. All the shops we visit in China Direct's itineraries provide excellent after sale customer care which you don't receive from market traders or a department store where prices are fixed.

Local and national guides

Travel in China can be tiring and confusing and the language barrier can sometimes make small difficulties seem complex problems. All tours therefore include the services of local guides. For a tour group with 12 persons or more, a professional China Direct National Guide (a Chinese national) will be assigned to accompany the group throughout mainland China, supervising the work performed by local agencies and smoothing over any possible difficulties along the way.

Your National Guide is a licensed professional who gives you personal care and is accessible 24 hours a day throughout your trip in mainland China. They will give his/her mobile phone number to you at the beginning of your China tour.

In addition to your national guide, a local guide is assigned at each destination to provide in-depth tour services and offer assistance with local tour arrangements. Sometimes your National Guide may also act as your local guide in the city where he/she is from, provided he/she has a local tour guide licence and is eligible to do so.

If the group size is under 12, the tour will be locally guided, from arrival to departure, with a local guide in each destination area or city. Your local guide will offer a professional service comprising local tour arrangements and will be at your service while you are in his/her city, taking care of your accommodation, sightseeing tours, meals, transportation and transfers. Your local guide will assist you with airport check-in at the end of your tour in that city, and see you safely take off before he/she can go home. You will be flying on your own from city to city. Most airports in China are recently built and equipped with modern facilities with instructions in both Chinese and English, including the airline boarding notices. You should have no problems or difficulties during transit from city to city without an accompanying tour guide.

From time to time, our staff in London may contact our customers while they are in China to ensure their China tour is progressing smoothly and satisfactorily.

China Direct tour guides are hand-picked, well trained and service oriented. They are constantly evaluated based on the performance and results of the evaluation sheets completed by customers. We strive to hire only the best. We know the success of your China trip largely depends on the quality of your tour guides.

Meals
Breakfast is usually buffet style at the hotel, where you can choose your dishes. Lunch will be in local restaurants and will consist of a set meal of several dishes. Chinese do not have much of a tradition in desserts. Chinese food in China may be different in style and taste from what you are used to from your local Chinese restaurant or takeaway. A decent cup of fresh coffee is not easy to find, although coffee bars are spreading in big cities, but Chinese tea is ubiquitous and refreshing. Locally brewed lager-style beer is good, but most wine mediocre and over sweet.

China Direct is always working to improve the quality of meals served to foreign tour groups by improving menus, finding new restaurants and focusing on regional specialities. Particular meals such as an authentic Peking duck dinner, dumpling banquet, hot pot dinner and dim sum can be arranged on request. Ideally, restaurants that cater to both domestic and overseas tourists are our preferred choices and government appointed and approved restaurants are used for most of the meals, especially for lunches. For those who would like to experience eating at authentic local Chinese restaurants, please speak to your local guides but do be aware of the various cultural differences you may encounter: smoking in public places, poor sanitation and cleanliness, and different eating manners. Some Western travellers do suffer from culture shock after visiting some local restaurants. We will try to arrange eating out at one local restaurant in each city if you are interested.

If the experience of Chinese food begins to pall, most big cities have branches of McDonalds, KFC or Pizza Hut. There are also numerous local fast food outlets, and food courts in shopping malls. Hotels will have several restaurants, usually with one serving 'Western' food, the others Chinese specialities, and a 'coffee shop' serving snacks.

A full day's sightseeing usually starts at 8.30am and finishes at 5.00 or 5.30pm. If you request, you will go back to the hotel to have a wash and change and rest before the guide pick you up at 6.30pm from the hotel lobby for dinner (if included in the itinerary). We will try to arrange restaurants as near to the hotel as possible.

Health
There are no compulsory vaccinations required for visiting China, but tetanus, typhoid, polio and hepatitis A are often recommended. Check with your GP before travel.

There is a small risk of malaria in the far south of China, including Xishuangbanna and inland parts of Hainan Island, and appropriate precautions should be taken.

Travellers to Tibet and parts of Yunnan and Sichuan should be aware of the dangers of altitude sickness and should check with their doctor prior to travel if they are prone to conditions which could be worsened by altitude. In general, altitude sickness is caused by a sudden ascent to high altitude, so if flying into a place at altitude above 3,000m, take plenty of rest to acclimatise before attempting anything strenuous. Chinese health care is good, with international standard clinics in the major cities. You should be prepared that some of the tours can be tiring, with early starts and busy days.

If you take prescription medicine, please bring enough to last the entire trip. Keep these medicines with you and do not pack them in checked baggage.

Money

Chinese currency, called renminbi or RMB, is issued by the People's Bank of China. The standard unit is the yuan. There are also jiao (one-tenth of a yuan) and fen (one tenth of a jiao). Renminbi comes in denominations of 1, 2, 5, 10 and 100 yuan; 1, 2, 5 jiao; and 1, 2 and 5 fen (although you are unlikely to see any fen).

Chinese currency is not widely available to buy in the UK in advance, but can usually be ordered in advance from banks and bureaux de change. Changing money in China can be done at hotels or China arrival or departure airports and branches of the Bank of China - rates are similar because the official rate is used in most places so there is no point shopping around for a better deal. It is most convenient to change money in hotels. Retain the exchange receipts because you will need the receipt to convert RMB to your home currency at the end of the trip. Those travelling to Hong Kong can change RMB to Hong Kong dollars there, but make sure you convert all Hong Kong dollars to RMB or your home currency before departing Hong Kong. You must exchange all Chinese RMB before the last day of your tour because you won't have time to convert it back to your home currency at the airport. Travellers cheques have a slightly better exchange rate than cash, but it is often difficult to change them and you may have to find main branches of the Bank of China and it can take some time to plough through the bureaucratic paperwork. Hotels may have a limit on the amounts that can be changed in one go. Dollars are preferable for Tibet.

Cash (preferably US dollars, though sterling should not be a problem in most cities) is the easiest way to take money, but not the most secure. A supply of US dollars in cash is also very useful in more remote areas and in emergencies. Counterfeit notes are fairly widespread (in the higher denominations) so it makes sense to change your money with a reputable source. Please try to ensure that your notes are not worn, marked or dog-eared or they may be regarded with suspicion and will not be accepted by local vendors.

Credit cards are also accepted in large hotels, department stores and shops (but note that credit card fraud is widespread, so don't let your cards out of your sight). Some ATM cash machines in big cites can also give cash advances on credit cards. Debit cards can also be used in ATMs from the main banks in China, such as Bank of China and Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, but please note outside of major cities like Beijing or Shanghai they sometimes only work intermittently. Please call your credit card company to inform them you will be travelling in China so any transactions made during your trip won't be declined. In general, don't rely on using cards like you do in the UK - cash is 'king' in China.

Hotels
Hotels in China are ranked on a star system. Five-star hotels are equivalent to luxury hotels elsewhere in the world. Four-star hotels come close, often lacking some technical requirements, such as a large swimming pool. We tend to use good-quality 4- and 5-star hotels. See our hotel list for details of those we use regularly. Three-star hotels are usually Chinese-managed, and have fewer amenities and poorer maintenance and are more suited to those on a budget seeking a place for the night rather than a quality hotel.

Standards do vary within star ratings, and you may find that hotels of the same rating have standards that may be below (or above) what you expect. You may also find that few staff speak English, especially in less visited areas. Please remember that tourism is a young industry in developing countries and levels of service may not be at the level you expect.

The majority of hotels will have a choice of restaurants, and some will have a swimming pool. All rooms have double or twin beds, private bath and/or shower, air-conditioning and TV. The Silk Road, Tibet, and parts of the west, south and north of the country are less-developed for tourism and hotels are generally simpler than equivalent hotels elsewhere.

Most hotel rooms have two large beds, on American lines, rather than a double bed. Double bedrooms tend to be smaller and there are far fewer of them. If you have a preference for a double we will request it, but we cannot guarantee that it will be met all the time.

Please note that ultimately we have no control over the daily management of hotels or the allocation of rooms and any change of hotel will be to one of a similar standard. Breakfast usually means a 'western-style' buffet breakfast at the hotel and lunch and dinner at local restaurants. These may be different in style to restaurants you may be used to, but often provide the opportunity to try local cuisine and specialities. Local interpretations of what a 'western' breakfast consists of will vary, and may be unavailable in simpler hotels or in areas away from the main tourist routes where only Chinese breakfasts are available. Special diets can be catered for, but please enquire at the time of booking.

Weather and when to go
It is difficult to generalise about weather is such a large country, but spring (late March to May) and autumn (September, October and the first two weeks of November) are generally considered the best times to visit as they are the most temperate. Winters are cold, particularly in the north, northwest and northeast, and summers are hot, and often wet and humid in central and south China. The south of the country is subtropical, so winters here are generally milder, but the climate here divides between a wet season in summer and a dry season in winter.

Average daily temperatures (max and min,°C) and monthly rainfall (mm)

Jan

Feb

Mar

Apr

May

Jun

Jul

Aug

Sep

Oct

Nov

Dec

Beijing

max °C

3

6

15

21

27

31

31

30

26

22

11

4

min °C

-8

-5

1

7

13

18

21

20

14

6

0

-6

rainfall

4

5

8

17

35

78

243

141

58

16

11

3

Shanghai

max °C

8

8

13

19

25

28

32

32

28

23

17

12

min °C

1

2

5

10

15

19

23

23

19

14

7

3

rainfall

48

58

84

94

94

180

147

142

130

71

51

36

Guilin

max °C

16

17

20

25

29

31

32

32

31

27

23

19

min °C

8

10

14

19

23

25

26

26

24

19

15

12

rainfall

33

56

97

160

206

193

160

178

84

43

38

37

Kunming

max °C

20

22

25

28

28

29

29

28

28

24

22

20

min °C

8

9

12

16

18

19

19

19

18

15

12

8

rainfall

8

18

28

41

127

132

196

198

97

51

56

15

Hong Kong

max °C

18

17

19

24

28

29

31

31

29

27

23

20

min C

13

13

16

19

23

26

26

26

25

23

18

15

rainfall

33

46

74

137

292

394

381

367

257

114

43

31

Before you go
It is your responsibility to check the following: a) your passport is valid; b) you have obtained an entry visa for China and any other countries that may require visas; c) check the spelling of names on your airline tickets to make sure it matches EXACTLY on your passport. It is advisable to make two copies of the photo page of your passport. This will help with replacement if your passport is lost or stolen. Bring one with a passport-sized photograph and leave the other at home with friends or relatives. Also leave a copy of your itinerary and the helpline contact information with family or friends at home so that you can be contacted in case of an emergency.