E494: Heading Back to China Post-COVID—What has Changed?
China, the factory of the world, has once again opened its doors to foreigners after several years of lockdowns and COVID restrictions.
Fortunately for EcomCrew listeners, Dave just came back from his first trip to China post-COVID, and he’ll be sharing some of the biggest changes you want to take note of when planning your own trip down south soon.
This episode will cover things like China’s current rules regarding old and new visas, practical tips for navigating customs and other travel requirements, and a few changes you might notice when in China.
- 00:00 – Intro
- 01:23 – China has started honoring old visas; How to secure new visas
- 04:09 – Flights to China are extremely expensive
- 05:57 – You need an online customs declaration when entering/exiting China
- 08:37 – Need-to-knows about COVID tests, vaccinations, and masking
- 11:15 – Should you head over to China for trade shows in the Spring?
- 13:26 – Big changes for foreigners traveling to China over the past three years
- 20:04 – Odd and fun things you’ll notice when heading back to China this year
- 22:02 – Overall attitudes towards the west and Xi Jinping
- 24:40 – Final thoughts on going back to China
We hope this episode helps you strategically prepare and make the most out of your upcoming trip to China. Please do leave us a review on iTunes if you enjoy this kind of content.
Happy selling, and we’ll see you in the next one!
Full Audio Transcript
Dave Bryant [00:00:00]:
Hey, guys, it's Dave Bryant coming at you today with a solo podcast. I just got back from China two or three days ago from the time of the recording of this podcast and in today's episode, I want to share with you some of the things that I learned and discovered about going to China for the first time in well over three years since COVID first started.
So I know a lot of you guys are now looking at going back to China now that China has, kind of, officially dropped the COVID Wall and is opening itself to both business travellers and tourists. So Canton Fair is going on in a couple of weeks here. Some of you are thinking about going over to China for the Canton Fair in the middle of April. Some of you are thinking about going a little bit later in the year. And if you are one of those people, I think you're going to find this episode really valuable and really informative. So without further ado, let's hop into it.
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Dave Bryant [00:01:24]:
Okay, first things first. Let's talk about visas. So when I first bought our plane tickets to go over to China, China was basically not honoring any of the old visas that people had and I had a current visa that was good up until 2026. One of those ten-year visas that China used to issue out very easily. However, they weren't honoring those visas when I booked our tickets and by the time that we actually took off for China.
However, they changed those rules basically the day after I arrived in China, and China is now honoring all of those old visas. So unfortunately for me, I went through all the hassle and pain of getting a brand new visa. Didn't actually need to do it because a day after I arrived, they would have honored my old visa. So I should have booked my plane ticket a day or two after when I did and predicted the future that China would start honoring those old visas again.
So good thing for you listening or watching that have an old visa that's still current. China is now honoring those visas.
However, if you don't have a visa, whether expired or you just have never gotten a visa to begin with, a little bit of bad news. So back in the day, the easy thing to do to get a visa was to go through one of these travel agencies or visa agencies, pay them $50-$100 and they would actually take your paperwork and your passport, go into the consulate or the embassy and get your visa for you. So you would never have to step foot inside a Chinese consulate or embassy.
Unfortunately, that's kind of changed, at least for the time being. So visa agencies, travel agencies, they are not really issuing China visas anymore. And there's a couple of reasons for that. The first one is simply for the fact that China just opened up and so these visa agencies just aren't up to date with the new standards where China is accepting tourists now. So they just haven't updated kind of their protocols and their systems to start issuing visas again. So they're just not doing it for that fact.
On top of this, though, China is now requiring fingerprints for most visas before you actually get that visa. So it used to be that you get your fingerprints stamped on arrival. You can still do that, but China is kind of having this policy where they want you to get your fingerprints before they issue your visa to make sure that you're not some criminal or tax evader or some other nefarious person trying to get into China. So you're probably going to have to go to a consulate or an embassy to get your visa.
The other downside is that when I applied, there was about a two month wait to get an appointment at the consulate. It's probably gotten a little bit better now, but expect to have to wait probably a few weeks to get an appointment at the consulate or embassy. So if you're thinking about going back to China anytime soon, go and get your appointment now and get your visa started and get it underway.
All right, you got your visa. You're ready to go, you're ready to hop on a plane or at least book your plane ticket. One thing you wanted to be aware of is that right now, as of April 2023, flights to China are extremely expensive. When we booked our flights, we paid roughly four times what we were paying prior to COVID. And there's a couple of different reasons for that.
The biggest reason, though, is that there's just a huge demand right now from basically every Chinese person that has family or relatives in China that they haven't seen in 3 years. Basically, every single one of those people want to get back to China as soon as possible. So there's huge demand.
Now, as we all know from Economics 101, there's demand and there's supply, and the supply of flights to China is not very good right now. Basically, the airlines have not quite adjusted their schedules yet, and they don't have a lot of flights going into China. So right now, out of Vancouver, it's about 10% of the number of flights that there were prior to COVID. So there's just not a lot of flights going into China.
Hello Kitty! If you're watching on the YouTube, my cat just walked by the camera, so hi there, Luca.
So be prepared to pay a lot more for your flights. The other thing is too, if you do get a flight to China, it's probably going to be indirect. So you used to be able to get a direct flight into any of the major Chinese cities. Right now, there's not a lot of direct flights to a lot of second-tier cities, and even first-tier cities like Beijing and Guangzhou. The airlines have not quite updated their flight schedules yet, so be prepared if you're going to China to take an indirect flight, probably through Seoul, in Korea, maybe through Hong Kong, maybe through some other far flung place in Asia, and be prepared to pay a lot more for it.
Okay, so congratulations. You got your airline ticket. You paid 10 gazillion dollars for it. You're flying through four different transit locations to get into China, and you got your visa, which you had to go and wait in line four months for to actually get a new visa. Congratulations. Now, what do you need to know about actually getting on that flight?
Well, there's one more little tripwire that China is throwing at you. China now, like a lot of countries, is requiring an online customs declaration for both entry and exit to and from China. Now that doesn't sound all that bad. A lot of countries are doing this now. They're getting rid of the paper forms and saying, “Hey, we want you to do your paperwork online, either through an app or through a website” and China is the same way.
If you've been to China before, you know that you get these little yellow papers or blue papers that you got to fill out and give to the customs officer, basically giving your passport number, the hotel that you're staying at, and a couple of other things. And they've basically done this, but in a website, that would be fine and dandy. However, if any one of you listening or watching has ever used any Chinese website or app that's been translated to English, you know that they are absolutely terrible. And the same thing is true for this customs app that you have to use, or Customs website, and we'll give a link in the show notes below. The website is just extremely buggy.
You'll get through it, it's probably going to take you instead of the two or three minutes that it really should take you, it's probably going to take you 20 or 30 minutes. So it's not a huge deal. But you're probably going to forget to do this before you get to the airport to leave for China. And the airline is not going to let you board before you get the QR code that you get after you fill out this customs app.
If you get to the airport way ahead of time, that's great. If you're like me and you get to the airport three and a half seconds before your flight leaves, you're not going to have time to fill out this app and you're going to get turned away from your flight. You don't want to do that for some silly little app that you need to fill up. So if you're going to China, go to Ecomcrew.com, find the podcast for this episode, go to the Show Notes, find the link to the customs app and fill that out ahead of time.
And before you leave China, make sure that you fill it out again, because you need it for both entry and exit. Otherwise the same thing is going to happen when you leave China. If you're arriving at the airport seconds or minutes before your flight, thinking that you're all good and you forget to fill out that little application, it's going to hold you up a lot of time because it's just as buggy on exit as it is for entry. So just make sure you fill out that little customs app before you leave. Nobody's going to tell you about it before you get to the airport, except for Mr. Dave Bryant. So there you go. I've told you.
All right, Congratulations EcomCrew listener or watcher. You have your expensive flight, you have your complicated visa, and you even figured out how to fill out that customs declaration form. However, there's one more trip wire for you, and that is a COVID test potentially, depending on where you're coming from and or when you're listening to this, you may require a COVID test to get into China.
It varies depending on the country, and it varies, obviously, depending on when you're listening to this. If you're listening to this in 2032, COVID testing is probably not really a thing. But right now, in April 2023, it's a thing for a lot of Western countries to get into the country. I, as a Canadian, required a PCR test to get into China, so just be aware of that. Now, China doesn't really actually check this COVID test, believe it or not. So in that little customs declaration, they're going to ask, do you have a COVID test if you need it? And you're going to say, yes, I do, and that's it. They're not going to check it at all. The airline, though, is going to check it before you get on your flight. And they don't give a very thorough examination of your COVID test, but they do look to see that you have a PDF or a piece of paper that has the word negative on it. So just be prepared for that.
Now, let's talk about vaccinations and masking. Always a polarizing topic, so let's talk about it just for a second. If you're jab shy and you haven't got vaccinated, well, congratulations. Don't worry about it. China doesn't require any vaccinations to get into the country, so don't worry about that if you haven't been vaccinated, now, what about masking?
Nobody likes to wear masks. A lot of people do, even if they don't like it. But nobody really enjoys it. And if you're one of those people who would just rather skip the mask, kind of good news. China's masking policy first off, they don't legally require it anywhere except for on public transit. So it's not legally required in buildings, walking down the street, in your hotel anywhere except for, basically subways. On subways, it is required to have a mask. And the security before you get on the subway is actually going to make sure that you put it on. So you are going to need a mask in China, at least if you're going to ride the subway.
In kind of average day-to-day situations like in buildings and in hotels, I would say roughly 75% of people are wearing a mask and 25% aren't. This might sound like a lot if you're listening in Canada or the US. But compared to other Asian countries, especially Hong Kong, the Philippines, Japan, the masking policy in China is pretty lax. So if you don't feel comfortable wearing a mask, you're not going to get any odd stares. The only time that would actually occur is on the metro. But if you're just at your hotel, you're not wearing a mask or you're walking around a trade show, nobody's going to look at you twice for not wearing a mask. Nobody's going to judge you for not wearing a mask. It's pretty lax over there in terms of masking.
All right, you did it. You passed all of the trip wires, and you are ready to go to China. Congratulations, you are just in time for all the trade shows that are opening, especially trade shows like the Canton Fair, which is back for the first time in years for in-person visitors.
Now, as a little side note, the Canton Fair has been open for an online show ever since COVID started. And don't worry, though, it was absolutely garbage, so you didn't miss out on anything.
Now, does that mean, though, with all the trade shows coming back, that you should go right this second back into China for the first Canton Fair in years, and all the other little trade shows that are going on as well? This is where my opinion comes into it. I probably wouldn't go right this second.
A lot of companies that haven't been obviously exhibiting at these trade shows for the last few years aren't going to be exhibiting in the near future for these trade shows that are opening up in spring. There hasn't been enough time for them to prepare for it. So a lot of them are passing on these first trade shows. So my prediction for the Canton Fair is going to have a pretty small number of exhibitors relative to other years. Now, keep in mind, the Canton Fair, for example, is a massive show, so even a small number of that massive number is still going to be a large number.
But some of the other shows especially, there's going to be a small number of exhibitors there. And personally, I probably wouldn't head over to China for trade shows in the spring. If you need to go see your suppliers and you need to see your factories, sure, by all means, do that. But if you're going over there just for the trade shows, I would probably save it for all the fall sessions. So fall and spring are the big trade show times in China. If you're going just over for trade shows, I'd probably save it until fall. And I'm sorry if you already bought your plane tickets and your visas and all that and you're going over there in the spring no matter what. Sorry for not letting you know beforehand.
But with that being said, it's probably going to be okay. It's going to be a smaller number of exhibitors. The good news is, though, that there's also going to be a smaller number of foreigners. So these companies are going to be especially eager to see a foreigner walking by that they can potentially woo their business from. But if you haven't booked any tickets, haven't committed anything, I would probably wait until the fall to start gearing up for trade show season.
All right, for the rest of the podcast, I'm going to kind of talk about some things about China and things that have changed in China over the last 3 or 4 years. So I've been going to China for 15 years now, at least 2 or 3 times a year. So I've kind of seen this big shift in China every time that I go to China now that I haven't been for three and a half years, I've seen some pretty dramatic changes over that 3 year+ horizon. Let me just run through a few of those.
The first is train tickets. So if you've been to China before, you know that the high speed rail is incredible in China. It's arguably the best in the world. It's fast, convenient, on time, cheap, comfortable, clean, all those great things. However, there's been one annoying thing about China trains ever since they really became a thing, and that is the fact that foreigners always had to go pick up their tickets. Now, that might sound like it's not a problem if you've never been to China before, but if you've been to China before, you know that picking up train tickets is an absolute pain.
The lines are long. People are pushing and shoving to get ahead of you. They don't speak English. You can't figure out which booth you need to go to. Good news, all of that is gone now, because all you need to do to get into your train is you just show the passport that you use to book your train ticket to begin with. So I recommend that you go to Trip.com and book your tickets there. It's the easiest, most convenient way to book China train tickets.
Just make sure that you enter the correct passport number, your passport number, when you book your train tickets because that's what is going to register in the system when you go to scan your passport to get onto the train. Now, for whatever reason, these trains and their ticketing system doodad that they have going on to scan your passport and check your ticket. It doesn't really seem to handle passports all that well. So I would expect at least half of the time that your passport is not going to scan. You're going to have to talk to the ticket guy that's going to be standing there and explain to him that your passport is not working.
He's going to try to scan your passport because you're just a silly foreigner that can't scan your passport, but it's just not going to get recognized. At that point, he's probably going to say, do you have a copy of your ticket? Take a screenshot of your booking confirmation that you have on Trip.com, or however else that you use to book your tickets. They're going to look at that. They're not going to examine it very carefully, but they do want to see that you actually booked the right train on the right time, on the right day. And they're going to assume that you actually have a ticket, but they just want to make sure that you're actually on the right train. So take a screenshot of that.
You're not going to need a ticket, but have a screenshot of your ticket just in case because there's a good chance that your passport is just not going to get recognized. It's not a big thing. It's not going to recognize your passport. Just give a screenshot of your ticket and you'll get on your train pretty quickly. So not a big deal, but just do have a copy of that confirmation in hand.
Okay. Next thing, domestic flights. Domestic flights have always been really cheap in China. You're talking about $100 to go pretty much anywhere in China. The planes are fairly safe, fairly clean, fairly reliable. It's not that much different from in America or Canada or wherever else you're flying from. So flying, although I don't recommend it over the high speed rail, sometimes you do need to fly, especially if you're going from somewhere like say, Guangzhou to Beijing, which is 2000 plus kilometers in between.
Just be prepared that when you book your domestic flights, they are really expensive right now. So everyone within China is eager to travel again within China. There's been a lot of intra provincial restrictions on traveling within China. So the domestic tourism industry in China took a huge hit through COVID and that has resulted in what we've seen in North America a couple of years ago when everybody was looking to travel again. Same thing is happening in China and the same thing is happening with airfare flights.
They're expensive and the airports are fairly busy too. So try to avoid flying if you can. And if you are flying, just be prepared that you're going to pay more than you probably have in the past.
Okay, now let's talk about paying for things. If you're booking hotels, plane tickets, train tickets, paying is pretty easy. Just use your credit card. However, pretty much everything else that you're going to pay for in China, they don't accept foreign credit cards short of Starbucks. Starbucks accepts credit cards still. And that's why I always drink Starbucks in China, because they'll take my credit card. But pretty much everybody else does not accept credit cards in China.
Okay, no problem. You'll pay with cash. Well, here's where things get really freaking annoying in China. If you've been to China before, you know that everyone uses WeChat or AliPay to pay for everything, and it's just become more and more prevalent in China.
Everyone is using Alipay and WeChat and all the vendors and stores, they expect to be paid in WeChat or Alipay so much so that they really do not want cash. So that can vary from they're just straight up not going to accept cash to, okay, we'll take your cash, but we don't have change for you. So if you're buying something for 4 RMB and you have 100 RMB bill as your lowest, well, you're not going to get change. You're going to lose out on roughly US$20, especially in taxis.
Taxis basically don't want your cash because there's a lot of counterfeit money going around and they don't want to carry change. So taxis have the correct change or, and here's my little pro tip for you listening to this podcast. WeChat, you cannot sign up for as a foreigner, but Alipay you kind of can sign up for as a foreigner. Now, I'm not 100% sure if this is still the case or if I just have an account that's been grandfathered in, but about 3-4 years ago, I signed up for an Alipay account.
Worked fine as a foreigner, even though WeChat didn't work at that time either, and I was able to sign up as a foreigner. I can't actually deposit money into my Alipay account, but I can have somebody else transfer me money from their Alipay account into mine. So what I do with my Alipay account is I just ask a supplier or a friend or a family member, “Hey, can you send me 500 RMB into my Alipay account?” And they do it and then I just give them cash. Simple as that.
Your supplier is probably more than eager to help you out in that regard if you have an Alipay account. So try to sign up for Alipay and see if you can actually sign up for it and get money deposited into your account. I don't know if it's still possible or if they're just grandfathering in the old accounts. I think it probably still is possible. So definitely try it. And also kudos to the first person who actually lets me know if they're able to sign up for a new Alipay account or are not able to sign up for an Alipay account.
Regardless, though, paying in China, it's going to be a real pain if you do not have at least an Alipay account. And if you can't get the Alipay account, make sure you have lots of small bills. Don't do what everybody does and you come there with a wad full of hundreds because it's going to be really hard to get change.
Okay, let's kind of wrap this thing up with a couple kind of odd, fun things. The first one is being civilized and manners. So again, for those people listening that have been to China, especially those people who have been to China and have also been to other Asian countries like Hong Kong or Japan, you know that there's always been a pretty big gap between manners and just overall being civilized in China relative to places, again, like Hong Kong or Japan.
The stereotypical one is trying to get onto a subway and everyone is pushing to get onto the subway and not letting people leave. Whereas in most countries, especially developed countries, people wait for people to get off of the subway and then they get on the subway and that type of thing.
Year after year, China is getting a lot better in this. And over the last three years, having not been there, I've seen a big jump in just overall level of manner. So line cutting has gotten progressively better over the last 15 years that I've been to China, and it's gotten better in the last three years since last time I visited. There's not a lot of line cutting.
Getting onto trains, people are actually waiting for people to get off the train before getting on. When you're on a train, people are actually offering their seats to old people and people with kids and people in needs. And the most incredible thing, when you are waiting or standing in line on an escalator, people are actually standing to the right and letting people on the left pass. It was an absolutely mind boggling moment when I seen people on escalators doing that in China. I have never seen that in China. And flawlessly, they were doing it on almost every escalator that I rode.
So it's a really nice change. And again, China has gone leaps and bounds over the last 15 years that I've been there, and it's continuing to improve. So it's a nice breath of fresh air. On that note, don't expect to breathe a lot of fresh air in China. They are still terrible, but they do stand on the right and let you pass on the left on escalators.
Okay, let's kind of wrap things up. The last and final thing, and that is overall attitudes towards the west and Xi Jin Ping. So obviously China and the west over the last few years have developed a very adversarial relationship, even more so than in the past. They are kind of frenemies.
Now, we can debate all day long whose fault that is. The truth of it is, though, China and the west are just a lot more antagonistic than they were in the past. And depending on who you talk to here in the West, some people are like, oh, who cares? Go to China. Don't worry about that. And other people are like, wow, you're going to China. Aren't you worried that you're going to get thrown in jail? Don't be worried about being thrown in jail. I went to China. Obviously, I came back.
They are not detaining people left, right, and center for arbitrary things, especially not foreigners. I know there's been a couple of high profile cases of, like, the two Michaels in Canada. That's a whole different thing. And if you're listening to this, unless you start openly protesting and lighting garbage cans on fire, you're not going to run into any problems in China.
Now, with that being said, I don't know if it's just because the Communist Party of China is celebrating its 100th year of existence this year, or the fact that I was in the political center of China, Beijing, for most of my trip. But the level of propaganda that I've seen for both Xi Jin Ping and the Communist Party of China is starkly higher than it was in the past.
And again, maybe that's just me seeing what I want to see. Maybe it's just where I was. Maybe it's just coinciding with this 100th year anniversary of the CPC. I don't know. But definitely I've seen a lot more pictures of Xi Jin Ping and imagery of the CPC party than I have in the past. Now, all of that aside, overall attitudes of people in China towards foreigners and Westerners is no different, at least from what I felt, than it was in the past.
Overall, foreigners just always have been treated with the utmost respect and almost admiration in China, and it's no different now. So don't go to China thinking that you're going to get shanked on the street and thrown into an internment camp. It's not going to happen, especially as long as you just behave correctly and in a somewhat mature and respectable way. So don't worry about any of the propaganda that we get here in the west as well about China is this big, bad country that throws everybody in jails. Obviously, there are a lot of issues going on in China, but you as a foreigner, are not going to be subject to it.
All right, that wraps up this episode on Ten Tips for going back to China. Now, for me personally, getting the chance to go back to China for the first time in over 3 years, it was fantastic. China has always been my favorite country to go to. I know for a lot of people, it's not their cup of tea. But for me, I've always loved going back to China. I know a lot of people listening here, too – they've always looked back at their trips to China, a lot of fond memories. So it was fantastic to get back there.
Hopefully a lot of you guys listening that have gone there in the past or new time visitors to China, you guys get a chance to visit China in the near future. Like I mentioned, I don't know if I'd go back for the average listener right this second, especially if it's not some dire need where you need to go check on this big order that you've placed with a supplier.
If you don't have an absolute dire need, I'd probably wait realistically until Fall to go back, mostly because summertime in China sucks. It's hot, it's smoggy, it's just not the best place to be in the summertime. And plus, everybody in China is traveling at that time too, so it's like anywhere else, everything's crowded. So if it was me, I would wait until the fall to go back, especially maybe coincide it with the Canton Fair Fall session. A lot of events should be going on then. I think also just kind of the ecommerce number of events that will be going on around that time too will probably be increased.
A lot of those, especially foreigner focused, have been on pause since COVID, so I would expect fall is going to be a fabulous time to visit China. So definitely pencil that in for your calendar. Go back to China in Fall, get your visa ready, get your flights ready, book them ahead of time so you don't pay an arm and a leg and just get prepared for going back to China in fall.
So hopefully you guys enjoyed that episode. And until the next one, happy selling.
We hope you enjoyed this episode of the EcomCrew podcast. If you haven't done so already, please head over to iTunes and leave us a review. It helps more than you know. Did you know that EcomCrew has a ton of free content, including ecommerce courses? Head over to EcomCrew.com free to check it out today. That's going to do it for this episode of the EcomCrew podcast. Until the next one, happy selling and we'll talk to you soon.