16 Things You Must Do Before Your Exchange to China

I was on exchange in Shanghai, China two years ago so please learn from my experience and hindsight!

If you are going when not on exchange with your university please see if you are eligible for the Chinese Government Scholarship, Australian Govt. New Colombo Plan Scholarship or other scholarships. Once arrived your university may offer scholarships for good grades and 100% attendance.

1) Sort your finances. Tell your bank you are going overseas and for how long. Order travel cards from your bank or they are available at the post office – they have a specific one for China. Convert your money before you leave Australia! Even better if you can get cash before you go. You might not have wifi access while you are in the airport. Many public wifi connections only work if you have a Chinese phone number and other stuff which was too complicated and probably not worth it for me to go through the process. The fun bit which caught me a lot is your money doesn’t convert on weekends! Also pretty much no where accepts card, especially foreign cards. REMEMBER that the ATMs in China will take your card unless you tell the machine to give it back after taking your cash. If it takes you card, immediately go to the nearest bank which is the same company of the ATM. Explain what happened and you will have to show your passport, your name match the card, or in the instance of the post office card put it into an ATM at the bank and show that the PIN is correct. Do this ASAP because otherwise your card might end up in a bank an hour away. The currency in China is RenMinBi, RMB, CNY, kuai, qian and other confusing names. I doesn’t really matter what you call it. Just remember that HongKong and Taiwan have their own currencies!
2) Get a passport – duh. As soon as you get accepted by your home university I suggest applying for your passport. I was waiting until the host university accepted me and then I was in such a rush to get my passport so I could fill in the form and send it back. Accommodation comes as a first in best dressed basis so I missed out on the cheaper room for the semester because I hadn’t got my passport sooner.
3) Research which visa you need –X1 VISA is for going to study 6 months plus and X2 is less than 6 months. You can enter on an X2 and your university may (SHISU did) have a program to change it to X1 so that you can visit other countries in the semester holidays while you are there. Hong Kong and Taiwan are considered separate to mainland China so you will need to upgrade to X1 or visit on your way over/back. To get the X1 visa extended to that 180+ days you will have to get a medical done and fill out a JW202 form. You must do this WITHIN 30 days of arriving in China so DO NOT fly in and travel before your school semester. Allow maximum two weeks before your semester starts.
4) Get your VISA – this will require getting a Chinese visa photo taken, filling an application, getting foreigner medical examination for X1 VISA. You can only apply 3 months before you intend to arrive! If you try to be organised and get it done 5 months in advance you will be rejected! I made it all the way to Sydney only to be turned back and hop on a train back to Wollongong because I thought I had to get it done sooner that three months rather than after. Because I was living back in my hometown I used the service the post office provides which got my Passport safely to the Chinese Embassy in Sydney and back with my VISA on it.
5) Think about if you will need vaccination… what do you want to go see? Piggery, rice, fresh waters etc. I did not get any vaccination before I went because as much as I wanted to see the rice fields, it was not in season while I was there. This time I will be getting Hep A, Typhoid and Malaria vaccinations so I can eat worry free and enjoy the rice fields. https://www.travelvaccinationclinic.com.au/destinations-advice/vaccinations-for-china/ use this as a resource for yourself.

This was the first time for me seeing the Bund. I think it was my third day in SH and I was in complete culture shock for my first week.

6) Travel insurance. If your home university doesn’t already cover – get travel insurance. Also your uni might have dodgy travel insurance so actually research what it covers. Your Chinese University might also require you to take out your own health insurance and there might be a small insurance fee when you arrive to your university. In my experience my home university was not a source of information and was not helpful in telling any of this information, or about VISAs, VPN etc. You may have to do all the research yourself. I recommend reaching out to others who are also going on exchange because two brains is better than one! I will be going with my health insurance as my travel insurance, although a bit more expensive they cannot argue with themselves. You may find that if something goes pear shaped your travel insurance and health insurance will fight relentlessly trying not to pay.
7) Book your flights Cheap flights in Mid Feb! You get to go over for just $595 right now with Qantas! What a steal. Fun Fact: You do not have to book your return flight home at the same time or prove it to anyone when you enter China. I would recommend not booking your return flight so far in advance. You might forget to factor in picking up your academic transcript or saying goodbye to the good friends you have made. You might also have some money left to travel a bit before you go! Or the opposite.. you run out of money! Just remember how many days your VISA permits you to stay in China! Do not get caught out!
8) Register your trip with your country – In Australia this is “smart traveler”. It will give you insight about anything that might affect your trip or safety. Make sure you update it if you go travelling after the semester and input the address of hotels you are staying at.
9) Educate yourself on the university, living area, region, culture etc. If you cannot speak Mandarin please learn Hello, Thank you, Sorry and counting to 10 with your hands in Chinese and remember to be patient when you cant find anyone who doesn’t speak English because you are in THEIR country. China is unlike Vietnam and Thailand, not everyone is going to speak English for your convenience. Do your research! Please I cannot stress this enough. The more research you do in your home country the more you will understand while you are over there, and the less frustrated you will be. There are funny things you need to learn about the lack of cold beer and water, pedestrian crossings, and Chinese people giving you directions, etc. which all come from some small cultural lessons.
10) If you want to use the internet for literally ANYTHING, get a VPN. It is outstanding the amount of people who do not do their research or who are just plain ignorant about China’s political system. A VPN is an app (I recommend express VPN which you pay for) which tells your server that you are in another country, thus getting over the whole great firewall of China thing. China is constantly cracking down on VPNs so do your research before downloading a VPN. The paid ones are better – trust me. But I did survive with the free VPN for five months last time because I tried to stay off socials and enjoy the experience in China. PS: Make sure you log onto Facebook every now and then so that your paranoid parents don’t think you have been arrested or in a ditch somewhere lol. I hadn’t logged onto socials for a week and because of the need for VPN I didn’t get any notifications or messages and so of course being dead was my parent’s conclusion. I logged on and to my surprise I had like 50 messages and some missed calls to which I had to respond “I am alive, stop over-reacting!” If you do not want to download a VPN and engage more in life than on the tech, encourage your friends and family to download WeChat so you can have ease on communication.

Prayers at the temple

11) Download wechat – you really don’t have a choice with this one. It is really the only form of social communication in China. Wechat can be used as Facebook, messenger, translator of any language, twitter and cardless cash – no fancy chip in your phone needed.
12) Download Pleco, but if you speak Mando you probably already have this. This is a super cool translation app which can use typing, writing and speaking to translate from English to Chinese. It works offline too! I don’t think the speaking part works offline.. This app will also tell you how to pronounce the words and has a lil voice button you can press to play to Chinese if you cannot pronounce the word.
13) Download an app called airpocalypse. It will give you updates on the amount of pollution in the air. It will say when it is okay to exercise, you should wear a mask or it might recommend you stay indoors that day. I am an asthmatic and I didn’t have any problems with the pollution as such, keeping in mind I was there from Feb-August. I did suffer from worse Hay Fever than usual. Funny story – Chinese don’t think hay fever is an actual thing, you are instead just sick. It was quite interesting to hear them say it was a western concept that they learned in UK.
14) If you don’t have apple maps, download baidu maps (it is all in Chinese so good luck to you!) which will help you navigate and tell you which bus to catch etc. OR if you are a completely directionless noob like me follow a friend who has the app! Unfortunately my sense of direction didn’t improve much.
15) Stock up on Tim Tams, Milo, Vegemite, Caramello Koalas and other Aussie (or your home country) treasures before you go. I didn’t think I would need to because I was so pumped for the food but the truth is, you will get sick of eating Chinese and Asian food. You will get homesick and you will want to stuff your face with comfort food you are familiar with. If you run out, you can order these things on an amazing website called Taobao but you must have a Chinese bank account with Chinese card to do so. PS Tim Tams cost me $20 AUD a pop on taobao but it was totally worth. There is an amazing international community with great foreign food but you will need something from your home country. Oh and PS it is so so so hard to find any Aussie food in China! I found lots of Aussie wine, but that was no use to me!
16) Dump your boyfriend. Get rid of that excess baggage. Do I even need to explain this?

张家界 – ZhangJiaJie – Visiting Tiananmen & The avatar mountains.

This was one of my first times in a rural area which also had Chinese tourists from all over. As such, many had never seen a foreigner before so they took lots of photos of me or yelled out that I was a foreigner or an American. This was relatively common in Shanghai in high tourist areas, however they were a little more reserved. This might be because so many people are learning Mandarin now so they do not want to draw attention to themselves when they point out foreigners. When I went travelling however, everyone assumed I couldn’t speak Mandarin, and my friend Sally (South Korean) was my Chinese friend. One person actually asked he if she was my personal tour guide.

This Chinese lady is now the view, photo bombing my tourist photo. She then asked for a photo with me so she could have one on her phone ahha. This is not uncommon!

The parks were incredible to look at, as can tell from the pictures. The people here were very lovely and accommodating. A grandpa and Grandma ran the hotel we were at. They had their Grandchildren over nearly every day so we got to play with them and talk to them. The boy who was about 6 years old was very cheeky correcting our pronunciation, teaching us new words and shaking his head at us saying we were stupid. It was quite amusing and humbling. God forbid this five year old heard me try to order a coffee when first arriving in Shanghai. The other child was a very cute toddler who only just learned to walk. Sally and I had lots of fun playing with him and his grandparents were very trusting. While at the entry of the hotel Sally and I attracted quite a few local residents over.

This trip was not extravagantly expensive, but it was not cheap. The cheapest aspect was the food and hotel we stayed at. Word of advice: If you are booking online make sure there is a picture of the bathroom. I was weary but my friend was unbothered and booked it at a very cheap price. Lets just say you could do all your bathroom activities (toilet, shower, teeth) standing in the exact same spot! Some may say it was a win but I was not impressed at the time! Now I laugh about it, but please learn from my mistakes.

The food was amazing! A word of advice when travelling away from the comfort of shanghai where people understand that white people think pepper is spicy. Always say ‘no spice’ buyaolade 不要辣的 Because their version of a ‘little little little bit of spice’ yidiandiandianlade 一点点点拉的 will blow your block off!

We met a lovely NZ couple at our hotel who were real life bloggers! Mario & Rachel are now full time travel vloggers. Find their video on Zhangjiajie and TianmenShan 天门山 (Sally and I featured) here and subscibe to their amazing channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vJXXGB0yyS4 Rachel & Mario knew how to say hello and thank you in Chinese, very badly so Sally and I helped them with the pronunciation and translating for them along the way. They told us some funny stories which happened from cultural miscommunication. And they helped us navigate all the different parks as they had done much, much more research than us and had already been to one of the parks we visited.

Posing on the 999 steps to the gate to heaven with rachel & Sally. Photo cred to Mario from
A Walsh Life

Important Info for tiananmen: Pick a hotel in the town of Zhangjiajie close to the ticket booth and not close to the Zhangjiajie national park. To get to the ticket booth place you pretty much just look up and follow the cables down to the ground. You will have to line up outside, and then there is another line waiting for you inside! Bring your passport and Chinese student ID with you to purchase tickets. Foreigner student ID is invalid everywhere! This is because you are not contributing to the Chinese economy so why should you get stuff for free? Wake up early to take advantage of a smaller queue. The ticket office opens at about 7am, but the park doesn’t open until 8am. I suggest getting up early, buying a 2 liter bottle of water, going to the plaza and buying yourself some dumpling soup or fried bread sticks for breakfast, then heading to the line. Also take snacks with you into the park! They do not check and they charge top dollar inside the park. Make sure you dispose of your rubbish responsibly! After all this head to the ticket office

Price of tiananmen: This is why I said it wasn’t cheap. From March to November Adult Tickets cost 258 CNY. December to February tickets cost 225 CNY. These are for just one day! These kinds of “peak season” prices occur in most places in China. Students with a Chinese University student ID 158 CNY, seniors (60+) are also 158 CNY. Children under 1.2 metres are free of charge otherwise Children under 18 are half price of adult tickets. There are extra hidden costs later such as walking on the glass walkways – 5 yuan, taking the chair lift – 25 yuan. Bring lots of cash with you into the mountains as it is so expensive to buy snacks, water and meals plus the hidden costs. There are no ATMs up there.

The chair lift was so scary at fist because there is no harness or anything to catch you if you fall off. You would probably hit some trees on your way down and be a gorna. (Photo Credit to A Walsh Life who we traveled with on this day, being their personal translators and asking us funny questions about China/ Chinese Culture.

Cultural take #1: The gate to heaven has 999 stairs. Why not make it 1,000 you say? This is because 9 is the most significant number for Chinese people. It is the royal number and very lucky.

Cultural take #2: Chinese take health VERY seriously. On the very last day when we were due for a 22 hour train ride to xi’an (would not recommend) I woke up feeling so unwell with the highest fever I have ever had, my clothes were wet, and I had a migraine which is super not fun when people in China honk so much. Sally dragged my to the local Chemist and they took my temp and told me I needed to go to hospital! Sally and I explained that we had a train to take and I could not go to hospital (imagine the bill too). I asked them for some drugs and they were really nice but still said I should go to hospital. Thankfully the drugs worked and my migraine went, but I still felt pretty doughy for about 2 days.

Cultural take #3: A lesson from the New Zealanders. Mario told us a very funny story about an encounter with a taxi driver after we mentioned that you only need to learn hand signals to understand how much money you need to pay someone. Mario and Rachel asked a taxi driver to go somewhere. The taxi driver was asking for 60 yuan and the NZs wanted to negotiate to 50 yuan but they kept going back and froth like a tennis match. Eventually the taxi driver gave them that ‘shakkas’ hand signal so Mario took that as home giving into the 50 yuan. Upon arrival he found that was not the case because the ‘shakkas’ actually means ‘six’ so he was reiterating that he wanted sixty yuan. Mario felt very bad because he became angry at the driver after thinking he was mislead.

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