What to Pack When You Come to China


Packing for a trip always involves a number of go/no-go choices. Even if expense is not a factor, carrying too many items greatly complicates the process. Yet, living out of a backpack is not really a viable solution for an extended trip. There are a number of issues to consider when deciding what to bring.


When I stepped off the plane upon my arrival in China, I was accompanied by a padded laptop carrier and three softside suitcases crammed so full that they were round. But I was relocating for an indefinite period, not merely visiting for a short time before returning home. So, what are indispensable travel items for your one or two or three suitcases? It depends, of course, on the length of your stay, what you will do while in China, and how much you are willing to live without in order to simplify and reduce expense and weight. Personal preferences enter into the picture; what might be essential to you, may not seem so important to me.

For the typical traveler going to China on a plane, packing means prioritizing and cramming everything into a manageable size and weight. The first consideration, of course, is the length of your stay in China. Two weeks as part of a tour group is entirely different from a becoming a semi-permanent resident. Another big factor is where you will be staying. If you are in one of the larger cities and have a local guide, you should be able to purchase almost everything you need after you arrive, even imported items. So, anything you forget, forego, or deplete can be obtained locally later.

Here are a few factors to consider as you pack and plan:

Suitcases: I prefer the wheeled type of suitcase with a handle but choose your own style. If it doesn’t have wheels, be sure it has shoulder straps. Name tags on each item. Colored tape, monogram, or some other form of easy, highly visible identification to make your luggage unique in appearance. Sturdy, of course. There are many people handling your luggage; not all of them will be gentle. Likewise, there are many opportunities for your suitcase to become torn, dropped, spilt upon, sat upon, or used as a stepladder. Be careful of loose straps or anything else that might catch on people or things while on a conveyer belt.

Essentials: Medicines (with prescriptions), glasses and spares (with prescriptions), birth certificate, medical records and vaccination history, any documents related to your work, visa, official invitation or acceptance, and any other documents that might be needed to identify yourself and verify the purpose of your trip.

What else to bring: Clothes, shoes, books, and, toiletries take up lots of space. Choose what you really, really want to use in China but keep in mind that it is usually cheaper to buy new things after you arrive in China than ship old stuff halfway around the world.  Figure that everything you pack means leaving something else at home.


While traveling by air, always keep your passport and boarding pass handy and always in the same pocket so you don’t have to search for them while standing at the head of the line. Keep them safe; they are your primary travel documents. Lose them and you can expect your trip to get much more complicated.

Use the same name on all of your documents. Make sure it is the same as the name shown on your passport (the universal identity card for foreigners in China). For example: Randy Green is not the same name as Randall Green. And, Randall Green is not the same name as Randall Lee Green, as shown on my passport. Think it doesn’t matter? It does. Don’t ask how I know.

Electronics: Computer, whatever form you wish – but bring one with you. In China, it may be difficult to buy computers with software in English. If you use a local computer, you may have to deal with Windows in Chinese. (Also, if you plan to buy a computer or some software after you arrive, be aware that counterfeits are common.) Remember that there are still very few foreigners in China. Local stores cater almost entirely to Chinese customers – and Chinese customers don’t need computers with Windows in English so the stores don’t carry them. Cameras: If you want to bring a big, beautiful DSLR camera, okay. You already know the pleasures and perils of carrying one around while traveling. You decide if it is worth it. Or purchase one locally after arrival. All major brands of cameras are available.

Phone: Apple’s iPhones are very popular but there are Chinese phones that will deliver the same capability for a much lower price. I think it is possible to convert your Western phone to the Chinese phone system but I have always bought my phones locally. If you are interested, do an online search for the details of using your particular model phone in China. But check the publication date of that information. Things change fast and what was true last year may be unusable today.

Worried that you will forget something? Relax. In the bigger cities, you can find almost everything you used in your old life. (Note that I said “almost”.) However, be prepared to conduct a time-consuming search for sources of imported foods and many electronic items – and to pay a premium price. Ask the local expats you encounter where they shop and what places they avoid.

Carrying illegal drugs for personal use? I have no experience but I would strongly advise against it. If you get busted, you sit in jail while waiting for a court date – and I read recently that Chinese courts have a 99% conviction rate. Bringing in drugs? I would say, don’t even think about it. Still, it’s your life, your choice. They say Chinese prisons are lovely this time of year.

Did I forget something? If you think of something that should be on this list, please leave a note in the comments section.

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