The short answer is, yes! Speaking Chinese (Mandarin) is not a must if you want to travel to China.
In fact, if you are planning to travel to bigger cities like Shanghai and Beijing or other major tourism cities, many people can speak English.
Additionally, taxi drivers and other public transport operators are trained to know at least basic conversational English to help you get to your destination, and most restaurants in the big cities have English menus.
However, the ability to speak at least basic Mandarin Chinese will indeed significantly help. This is true especially if you want to travel to the countryside or any cities where tourists aren’t really common.
So, what if you don’t have the time to learn Chinese but still want to travel to China? Below we will share some tips you can use right away.
Using these actionable tips will help enhance your experience in visiting China, and you’ll potentially be able to develop more memorable connections with the locals whom you speak with.
1. Take Advantage of Technology
With current technologies, one of the most popular ways to explore China without knowing Chinese is to use your smartphone.
Nowadays, there are hundreds of apps that are designed to help you, whether to help you learn basic conversational Mandarin in intuitive ways, interactive and easy-to-use dictionary, and also apps that can translate from/to Chinese on the go.
These English-Chinese voice translation apps are probably your best bet if you want to travel to China without learning Chinese, and although there are various apps to choose from, we generally have two recommendations:
1. Google Translate: most likely you already have this on your phone especially if you own an Android phone.
Google translate offers a very accurate translation, fast, and very reliable overall. However, it’s worth noting that Google is blocked in China and you’d need to use a VPN to use Google Translate.
While there are ways to use VPN legally in China, it will eat up your bandwidth (which can be expensive if you are on a roaming connection) and slow down your connection speed.
2. iTranslate Converse: one of the most reliable voice translation apps on the market, and especially reliable for English-Chinese conversations.
The iTranslate Converse app is only available on iOS devices, but there is an alternative Android app from the same company called iTranslate Translator, but you’d need to pay extra for voice translation.
However, if you plan to use your smartphone as a translation device, you’d need to ensure reliable internet access on your phone. Your best bet is to purchase a Chinese SIM for the phone.
Yes, there are ways to find reliable WiFi in China, but no matter what, there will always be blind spots.
Another option is to download an offline translator app. Pleco is totally free and is available for both iOS and Android. Also, apps like Google Lens can help you translate street signs and signboards with just your phone’s camera.
In short, check the available apps on your smartphone for viable options you can use.
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Related reading: “A Tourist’s Guide to Accessing the Internet in China“
2. Master The Art of Sign Language
A useful tip if you go to a restaurant without an English menu or any picture on the menu is to just get inside the restaurant’s kitchen and point at the ingredients you want to eat.
It is actually a very common practice in China and when you enter restaurant kitchens pointing at what you want, you probably won’t be the only one doing so.
Pointing at stuff will be a very useful skill to have if you want to travel to China without actually speaking Chinese. You can go to a street peddler and street food stalls and point at what you want, or you can also go to any store or a restaurant and point at what someone’s eating. Pointing is a universal language.
Smiling, and thumbs up are also universal. Most Chinese are pretty patient with tourists, so don’t be ashamed of doing this.
Also, a useful thing to learn is that the Chinese have different hand signs for numbers. It’s the same from one to five but they are different from six to ten. You can learn about them here.
3. Research Your Destination Ahead of Time
In general, you won’t find much information in English on most tourist destinations so, if you want to have the best experience in visiting these places, it’s better to look them up before the trip.
Remember that Google is blocked in China, so it’s much harder to find information online while you are on-site and you might need to use a VPN.
Also, you can book a lot of train tickets online (and most of them in English), and usually you’ll always find people speaking English at most bus stations.
It will help a lot if you do your research right. For example, make sure to have your hotel or hostel name written down in Mandarin Chinese (and save it in your phone).
This way, you can easily give it to your taxi driver and they will understand it. Nowadays, you can also screenshot the address from the hotel’s website.
Also, save pictures of the tourist sites you are going to visit. This can be useful so you can show the taxi driver the picture of the Hanging Temple of Hengshan and they’ll know where to go.
4. Don’t Be Afraid To Ask in English
Many people do speak English in China nowadays, which might surprise you. Younger people (like high-school or college-age people) can most of the time help you.
They might say “I don’t speak English very well”, but in combination with sign languages, you are most likely to get the answer you need. Also, most of them are very willing to help out tourists, so don’t be afraid.
As mentioned, most taxi drivers in big cities speak at least a bit of English, and virtually everyone in the tourism, travel and hospitality industry can speak a little bit of English.
So, don’t be afraid to ask anyone in your hotel for directions if necessary.
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5. Try To Find Restaurants With Picture Menus
Even when the restaurant does offer English menus, it might not be easy enough to understand as the translations can make no sense. On the other hand, don’t just limit yourself to ordering familiar stuff like noodle dishes or Kung Pao chickens. It’s vacation time so it’s a time to explore.
With that being said, a great approach is to try restaurants that provide photos of every dish on the menu. This way, you can easily point to the picture and motion for how many portions you’d like.
Most decent and nice restaurants in China, especially in big cities offer picture menus, so you should have plenty of options here.
Also, you might want to learn basic Chinese characters for common ingredients, such as:
- rou (肉- meat
- zhurou (猪肉) – pork
- jirou (鸡肉) – chicken
- niurou (牛肉) – beef
- yangrou (�肉) – lamb
So you can recognize the ingredients of the dish you are ordering.
Also, don’t be afraid to try street foods. You might be worried about getting sick from these stalls, but they are generally safe and healthy enough. The great thing about these food stalls is that you can see what they are cooking and see the ingredients.
Another tip we’d like to share here is to try a food tour while in China. They will take you to various restaurants and are widely available in tourist cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, and Xi’an.
Related reading: “How to set up and use WeChat and WeChat Pay as Tourists“
6. Book Your Hotel Early
Researching your hotel options ahead and booking your hotel online will significantly help during your travel to China. You can easily book your reservations online nowadays, and also read the reviews about the hotel you will be staying in (in English).
If you wait it out until you get there, it can be confusing and difficult to look for a place to stay if you don’t know any Chinese.
Also, some tips regarding booking your hotel:
- Not all hotels in China accept foreigners, but the ones that do generally have English speaking staff
- Again, make sure to have the Chinese name of your hotel written somewhere. Take a picture (or a screenshot) of the name and address of the hotel from its website or the booking site. You can then easily show it to the taxi driver or anyone when you’re lost without much hassle.
- If your booking confirmation is on your email, make sure to take a screenshot of the email and if you are not planning to buy a Chinese SIM card, load the email before you leave WiFi connection.
While traveling to China without speaking Chinese can be a frightening prospect, nowadays China is much friendlier to foreigners than a decade ago.
Many locals can now speak English pretty well (some are very fluent), and they are in most cases, always willing to help tourists.
Although we’d definitely recommend learning a bit of Mandarin Chinese if you can to maximize your travel experience, the tips we have shared above can definitely help you if you don’t have time to learn the language.
Check out our “Free Culture Library“. We have compiled some great free resources, about Chinese culture, for your research.
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