How have I not already made a Moving To China Checklist?! I have almost 100 videos from Beijing, tons of blog posts about Nanjing, a China packing list & more. I receive thank you messages from people saying how much those videos and blog posts have helped them, so I hope this checklist helps you as well.
The very first step before you read on is BREATHE! Moving abroad is hard, but if you take it one step at a time, you’ll get to experience something life-changing. If you’re still not sure, there are tons of options for emotional support at the end of this post.
Moving To China Checklist
Get Your Passport
The sooner you do this, the better! In the US, your passport must be valid for at least 6 months beyond your actual travel date. So if you’re flying out for Shanghai on January 1st 2018 and your US passport expires on April 25th 2018, they may not let you board your flight. Double check your passport to ensure the expiration date will not affect your China travel plans.
My passport was still valid for a few more years before we left for China, but I had to get a new one because of my name change. We got married soon before we left, so as soon as I got my new social security card, I mailed in my passport and name change documents. It became stressful when I realized I needed my original marriage certificate for my Visa application, too. That’s why I say the sooner you can do this, the better!
Book Your Flight
Some study abroad and teach abroad programs require you to book round trip. When we went into the Chinese consulate-general in San Francisco to submit our Visa applications, they told us this is not required.
Asian airlines are not scary, actually they’re quite nice. We’ve flown a handful of Asian airlines, including some Chinese ones, and were always blown away by the amenities. They gave everyone slippers, pillows, blankets, and headphones, plus there was free beer, wine and booze, and there were free movies available that weren’t even out on DVD yet!
Don’t forget to think through your transfers. Most, if not all, major Chinese cities have multiple train stations, multiple airports, and multiple subway lines. For example, when we were moving to Nanjing, we flew into Pudong airport in Shanghai (not to be confused with Hongqiao), took a taxi to the Shanghai Railway Station (there’s also a Shanghai South and Shanghai West), arrived at the Nanjing Railway Station (not Nanjing South), and finally took a cab to our hotel. If you map it all out in advance and write down directions, you’ll be just fine!
Figure Out Visa Requirements
Your Visa requirements depend greatly on why you’re going to China. When you get a teaching job in China the company usually handles the Visa stuff for you. But if you’re studying, working, or just moving for fun, this page on the Chinese Embassy website will help.
If you’re curious, my husband was studying abroad in China on an X1 Visa (X1=student for 180+ days), and I sorta tagged along, so I got the S1 Visa (S1=visiting family for 180+ days).
Start Learning Basic Mandarin
It’s not as scary as it sounds! I couldn’t even grasp Spanish in high school, but I was able to survive China! I made a Lazy Girl’s Guide To Mandarin Chinese if you’re feeling truly lazy about learning Mandarin, but I recommend Chinese Pod if you actually want to have conversations with people in China.
Go To A Chinese Embassy or Consulate
I’m taking a deep breath right now and hoping you were prepared to hear this. You cannot apply for a Chinese Visa by mail – you have to go into an official Embassy or Consulate-General. If you live in the US, go here and click your location on the map to see where you’ll have to travel to get your Chinese Visa.
Please be aware that Visas are not a guarantee to enter China – that’s up to the folks at the Immigration checkpoint at the airport. If you’re really in a bind and something goes wrong with your Visa on arrival, just know there are options. The website says “NO VISAS ON ARRIVAL!” but I totally saw a sign at the Pudong airport pointing out where to go for a “Visa on Arrival”. But please DO NOT rely on that system! I’m just telling you in case you’re like me and always considering the worst case scenario. If you don’t have a Visa in your passport, I doubt the airline would even let you board.
Talk To Your Doctor
Make an appointment to discuss prescriptions and vaccines with your doctor! You’ll want to ensure you can bring all the prescription medications you need for the duration of your time in China. My doctor was very understanding, but my insurance company was not. Here’s a video where I explain how I talked them into giving me extra birth control, and what I did when that ran out.
This page on the CDC website will give you up-to-date information on what vaccines you need to travel to China. When I told my doctor where I was going, she consulted this page, laid out my options, and I ended up getting 3 shots in one day.
Print Extra Passport Photos
We brought a few extra passport photos, but blew through them like crazy and ended up needing to get pictures taken again. Between the Visa, study abroad program, resident’s permit, and registering with the local police, we probably went through 5 photos each.
Decide On VPN Plan
If you’re still at the stage of “wait, isn’t VPN illegal in China?!” or even “what is VPN?”, you need to watch this video.
One of my main purposes in China was blogging, so I knew I needed the fastest VPN possible. We got a packet of information from my husband’s study abroad program, and I chose ExpressVPN, because they referred to it as the “best VPN”. After using it for a full year and talking to tons of foreigners living in China, it became obvious to me that ExpressVPN really is the best VPN for China.
There is a big fear about VPN getting shut down in China in 2018, but I still don’t think it’s going to happen. Here’s a video explaining why, and here’s an update on that video. If you don’t have time to watch a billion videos just know I have friends in China regularly reporting to me that everything is normal with ExpressVPN!
Unlock Your Phone (if possible)
Call your cell service provider and ask them if it’s possible to unlock your phone. I had an Android, my husband had an iPhone, and we were both able to unlock them. Unlocking your phone will allow you to use a Chinese SIM card on your device. If you can’t unlock your phone and don’t want to pay way too much for an iPhone (Why are they more expensive in China? They are literally MADE in China!), check out Huawei phones. They’re decent phones and not crazy expensive!
Register To Vote From Abroad
Make your vote count – even while living abroad! I swear it’s not hard. Nomadic Matt made a fantastic step-by-step guide showing you how.
Set Up Mail Forwarding
Setting up mail forwarding with USPS is a great way to ensure you didn’t accidentally forget to update your address with someone important. It’s also easy. And free. We had mail forwarded to my parent’s house for a full year, and it really helped us out.
Figure Out Banking
If you want to experience the ease of using WeChat Pay or AliPay, you’ll need to open a Chinese bank account. If you’re cool using cash everywhere, you’ll just need to inform yourself of the policies at your bank for customers living abroad. Also, be sure to call them and talk to an actual human so you can have it noted on your account that you will be living abroad.
Suggested questions to ask your bank:
-Can I use online banking from abroad? What about the app?
-What is my daily limit for withdrawing cash from an ATM?
-How much will I be charged when I withdraw cash from a foreign ATM?
-How do I transfer money from my bank account to an external bank account while abroad?
-Are there any partnerships between [bank name] and a Chinese banking company?
I had Wells Fargo and my husband had Navy Federal (that’s a credit union). Navy Federal reimbursed us for ATM fees, we were able to transfer money easily, and online banking via VPN was perfectly fine. None of that was true for Wells Fargo. We solved the issues by moving all our money to Navy Federal and withdrawing large amounts of cash at a time. Since we paid rent in cash, we often had to plan this out days in advance, withdrawing the daily limit for a few days in a row to stockpile.
If you want to make any friends in China, you need WeChat! This is also a free and easy way to communicate with friends and family back home! I would suggest downloading it before you go, and encouraging loved ones to do the same. This way you get your family accustomed to it and know how to pull up your QR code when someone in China says “yǒu wēixìn ma?” If you need help learning how to use WeChat, my friend Ling Ling made a great video guide.
Who knew moving to China involved downloading so many apps? You definitely need Pleco! It’s the best English-to-Chinese language app by a long shot. I hardly speak any Mandarin, but I knew how to say “Do you have [item]?” and “Where is [location]?” Knowing tiny phrases like that and being able to pull up any word on Pleco is how I survived China without speaking Mandarin!
When you type in an English word, or start typing some pinyin into the app, it will give you the translation in both Chinese characters and pinyin, plus it will even speak it out loud for you! I hear there’s a premium version, too, where you can take a picture of Chinese characters and it will give you its best translation.
Pro tip: That little square next to the search bar that has either a “C” or an “E” in it tells you whether it thinks the word you’re searching is Chinese or English, so if you’re typing in an English word and it’s not coming up, click that square to switch it from a “C” to an “E”
Purchase The Essentials
Some products you love to use back home may be difficult to find where you’re going in China. Here’s a list of the ones I can think of off the top of my head:
- skin products for skin that’s not insanely pale
- skin products (including sunscreen) without whiteners
- hair products for hair that’s not dark and straight
- large sizes of clothing or shoes
- some western foods (peanut butter, oatmeal, cereal, avocado, lime, taco seasoning, etc)
- coffee & coffee makers (instant coffee is more common)
- lady’s shaving supplies (Nair seems more common)
- basic medicines you’re used to (ibuprofen, melatonin, Tums, nasal decongestant, etc)
- stain remover to-go
- hand sanitizer
- baby formula and pet food that don’t make you feel anxious about giving your kid cancer (or is this just me)
Here’s my guide to shopping for clothes and shoes in China as a larger lady. If you’re in a bind and there’s something specific you’re dying for, check out my friend Ling Ling’s guide to using Taobao because you can find pretty much everything on this Chinese shopping website.
Book a Hotel
For peace of mind, I recommend booking a hotel room in China for your first two nights! Be aware that foreigners are restricted to hotels that are licensed to host foreigners, typically these are 4 stars or higher. I recommend reading the entire description online to ensure it doesn’t say “Chinese citizens only”. On arrival at the hotel, you will need to show your passport, Visa, and entry stamp to the hotel and they will register your information in the government system. If your hotel doesn’t perform these steps, it may not actually be legal for you to be there. I know many foreigners who have stayed at a Chinese hotel like this without issue, but for your personal safety I recommend keeping it to the 4 star+ hotels.
The only packing list you need:
Set up VPN Service
Creating content about China constantly reminds me of all the weird questions I had about VPN before I used it. I answered a lot of those questions in this video, but here are the basics:
VPN is an app that you’ll download on each device. A single ExpressVPN subscription can be activated on up to 3 devices, and you can use 2 devices simultaneously on the same VPN account. In other words, you may not want to share a VPN subscription with your partner if you want to be able to use your phone and laptop at the same time. After you subscribe, you should receive a download link, an activation code, and step-by-step instructions. I followed the instructions from ExpressVPN and found it to be pretty simple! There were a few times I had questions about my VPN service which is how I realized ExpressVPN support is super fast and awesome.
If you’re still worried or confused, watch my VPN 101 video.
Moving to China from the “western world” is a really big change! This fact probably excites and worries you. Tackle your travel anxiety. Remember how it feels to be in the moment so you can cope with feeling overwhelmed. Equip yourself with knowledge so you know what to expect when you get to China. Sign up for online counseling so you have someone you can be completely honest with. And lastly, expect that you’ll go through a tornado of emotions after arriving in China. Here’s a blog post full of my thoughts on that:
After Arriving In China
There were a bunch of tasks we did as soon as we got to China. Unfortunately, I have limited advice on this stuff because my husband speaks Chinese, so I just followed him around various offices. Hopefully this list gives you a good idea of where to start, though:
Get a Chinese SIM Card
You only have a few options, and they’re pretty much the same thing. Most foreigners I knew had China Mobile. Be aware that you have to bring your passport in order to obtain a Chinese SIM card.
Find An Apartment
Set Up Wi-Fi
Most people use either China Unicom or China Telecom for home Wi-Fi. You’ll select a plan based on how fast you want your internet to be, and you’ll likely have to wait a day for someone to come install it.
Register Residence With Local Police
You’ll need to have your apartment address written down in Chinese characters, which your landlord should be able to do for you. They should also be able to tell you which office to go to. You need to do this prior to applying for a resident’s permit.
Apply For Resident’s Permit
Your Visa grants you entrance into China, but your residence permit is what allows you to live there. According to the Chinese Embassy website, “A holder of category D, J1, Q1, S1, X1 or Z visa must apply for a residence permit at the local public security authorities within 30 days of entry into China,” Travel China Guide has a page that explains the steps to acquiring this permit, which includes completing a health exam.
Plan Your Travels
The train system in China is awesome, so I encourage you to use it to explore places outside the city you live in! Use the Ctrip English website to book train tickets, hotels, and flights. Be sure to check out this calendar so you know about upcoming Chinese holidays, because you DO NOT want to travel during national holidays if you can help it!
I doubt you’re ready to think about this yet, which I totally understand, but don’t forget to prep your mind when it’s time to leave China. I documented what it was like to move back home, but I think the most important thing to be aware of is reverse culture shock.
I DID IT! I WROTE THE CHECKLIST! 2,700 words? Whoa. I hope this helps you guys out! Get in touch with me at laurenwithoutfear(at)gmail.com if you have any questions, and know I respond to every email! Thanks for reading 🙂
Talk to you soon,