If you’re going to spend some time working in Beijing, your experience will be much better if you know what to expect and how to prepare. Calvin Sun is living in Beijing through the winter and he shares the practical lessons he’s learned.

Founded centuries ago, it’s the capital of the largest country in the world and recently concluded not one, but two Olympic events. It’s home to nearly 18 million people and countless businesses. Its Haidian district, west of the downtown area, has become known as the Silicon Valley of China. The city is Beijing, of course. At some point, you may be traveling here on business. If you do, here are some things to keep in mind.

Note: This information is also available as a PDF download.

#1: Alerting your bank and credit card companies

If you start using your cards in China, and you haven’t told the issuer, it might well freeze your card because it suspects your transactions are fraudulent. Prevent this problem by telling the issuer in advance. When you call, ask the representative to “remark” your account; that is, to make a notation in your customer record that you’re in China. However, be aware that even though your card may be “good,” some bank ATMs might still might not permit you to make withdrawals. You may have to shop around to find one that does.

Yes, maybe you could take care of it after you’ve arrived, perhaps by sending a secure e-mail via your online Internet account. However, by that time, you’ve probably already experienced the dreaded “transaction denied” or the “current balance: ¥x available balance: ¥0” messages on the ATM screen and you’re under stress. For your peace of mind, it’s better to address the issue beforehand.

In fact, ATM withdrawals should be done only as a last resort, because the currency exchange rate there is generally less than what you could get if you actually converted U.S. dollars into Chinese renmenbi (RMB).

#2: No checks in China

Businesses and individuals in China neither use nor accept personal checks. China banks will not accept a U.S. check to open an account or for currency exchange, and China bank accounts do not offer personal checks. While traveler’s checks are accepted in theory, you will run into delays and possible problems if you offer them. If you’re staying for a longer period of time and need to pay expenses, you’ll need to either pay cash or pay via your bank’s Internet Web page account.

#3: Electrical devices

When trying to use electrical devices in another country, you must consider two factors: First, will your plug physically fit the outlet? And second, is the voltage compatible? Don’t assume that just because the plug fits, the device will work. If the voltage is incompatible, you risk damaging your device or causing a fire.

The majority of outlets in Beijing, as well as in the rest of China, look like this:


The bottom receptacle is designed for “native” Chinese devices and plugs. The top receptacle will accept U.S. two-pronged nonpolarized plugs. Grounded (three-prong) plugs will NOT fit, nor will polarized plugs (one in which one prong is larger than the other so that the plug can be inserted only one way, and not upside down).

Electric current in China is generally 220 volts and 50 hertz. Your computer or other device might be compatible as-is. Check the label on the power adapter. (Usually it’s on the “brick”.) If you see a range of voltages and of hertz on the input side, e.g., “Input: 100-240 volts, 50-60 Hz,” your device should be okay. In theory, the adapter can handle this range of voltages and convert it accordingly to what the device needs. On the other hand, if your device is limited to 100 to 120 volts, you will need a current converter kit, like Radio Shack sells, to step down the voltage.

#4: Telephone issues

It might be possible to use your existing cell phone and carrier while in China. However, doing so could be expensive.

Cell phones in China use a 900 MHz frequency, different from the United States. Before you plan to use your own phone in China, check its specifications. Many phones are capable of operating both in the United States and China. Once you confirm that your phone is China-compatible, check with your carrier to see how (and if) you can make and receive calls while you’re there. Most important, check the rate you will be charged. Chances are, you may end up paying as much as U.S.$2 per minute, if not more. This high rate may make you consider alternatives to your regular carrier.

One such alternative is a prepaid SIM card, such as M-zone, offered by China Mobile via its “service halls” and other authorized distributors. (There are tons of them in Beijing.) The store person will show you a list of available telephone numbers (which could be as long as 11 or 12 digits), with a price after it. This price is the initial value of the SIM card associated with that number. Think carefully about the types of calls you will be making, because that choice will determine which type of SIM card you purchase. One type allows you, from within China, to call other countries. The other type allows you to call only places within China. When you first purchase your SIM card, bring your passport.

When your SIM card runs low on money, simply go back and purchase a refill card, known in Chinese as a chung zhi ka. Scratch off the hidden numbers on the back, then call the telephone number listed on the card. When prompted, enter the now-revealed code numbers, and the value of the chung zhi ka will be added to your SIM card.

Other additional features might require separate activation or involve separate fees. Such features include the ability to receive calls from international numbers, to call places in China outside Beijing, or to make calls within China outside of Beijing.

You can use a prepaid SIM card if you already have a China-compatible SIM card phone (which you would have if you are a customer of T-Mobile or AT&T). In that case, you can remove your current SIM card (and keep it in a safe place) and insert the prepaid one. If you don’t have such a phone already, you’ll need to get one before you arrive (e.g., via eBay) or purchase one in China. (I found a K-Touch telephone for ¥240, or about US$30.)

#5: Receiving calls in China

If you’re expecting people to call you, they need to know the country code for China (86). If they are calling you on a land line in Beijing, they also must know the city code for Beijing (10). Note, however, that cell phones do not have city codes. Therefore, people calling your cell phone should dial the 86 followed directly by your cell number.

Even if your China Mobile SIM card lets you call numbers only within China, you still can receive calls from outside China, although an extra charge may apply.

#6: No tipping and no sales tax

When you receive your restaurant bill or taxi fare, the printed amount is the amount you pay. There is no tipping and no sales tax.

#7: Monitoring of communications

For all its recent economic progress and freedom, China remains, in many ways, a highly controlled society. Do not discount the possibility that your telephone conversations or your e-mail messages are being monitored. In fact, friends have told me of e-mail messages that they sent but which were never received.

If you’re planning to use Skype for your calls, download the program before you leave for China. If you wait until you get there, your request to visit the Skype site will be redirected to a Chinese version site, and you will download a program file that allegedly allows for monitoring. Regardless of which version you use, be careful about what you say via e-mail or telephone.

If you must send sensitive information, consider putting it into a password-protected Word document, then sending it via a file transfer feature such as YouSendIt. If you forgot to download Skype before you arrived in China, you might ask a friend to use YouSendIt to send you the Skype program installation file.

#8: Handling passwords and personal information

If you’re going to share sensitive information (such as a bank account number) with a friend, do so before you leave. Sending it via e-mail involves significant risk. However, if you do have to transmit such information, whether by phone or e-mail, consider using personal clues. In your e-mail, for example, you might say, “The account number is six digits. The first digit is the last digit of your Aunt Jane’s area code. The second digit is the number of letters of the city the Smiths visited last month,” and so on. In other words, give clues based on information only you and the other person will know.

#9: Street signs above intersections

If you’re trying to find your way around Beijing, in particular trying to determine street names from street signs, be aware of a major difference from the United States. That blue street sign that hangs above an intersection, parallel to a cross street does not tell you the name of that cross-street, as it would in the United States. Rather, it tells you the name of the street you’re on at that moment. If you look closely, you will see an arrow on the sign, pointing “up” or “ahead.” That sign is saying that if you continue going straight, you will continue to be on the road that is named by that sign.

Sometimes, that blue sign will have multiple names and multiple arrows (“up,” “left” and “right”). In that case, the left and right arrows do indicate the name of the cross-street.

#10: Hygiene

You may want to carry bath tissue and napkins or paper towels with you, because public restrooms, even in restaurants and hotels, may not supply them. Those air dryers merely circulate possibly germ-laden air, and I avoid them as much as possible.

#11: Taxis

Be aware that taxi drivers generally do not speak English. If you’re going to a particular destination, it’s best if you know its Chinese name, not just its English name. For example, rather than tell the driver, “Forbidden City,” you’re better off saying, “Gugong.” If you’re going to a restaurant, store, or hotel, a good strategy is to call the place as the taxi arrives, explain that you’re coming by taxi, hand the phone to the driver and have the driver talk to that person.

The charge for a taxi is ¥2 per kilometer, and this fact is displayed on the taxi window. The minimum charge is ¥10, but this fact is not displayed anywhere.

Calvin Sun (csun@calvinsun.com) is living in Beijing for the fall and winter of 2008, studying and teaching at Tsinghua University School of Law.