Here is a complete packing list for China including specific things you can’t get in China so you know what to take — and what to leave behind!
Going to China is a huge adventure, and you can make it even more awesome by packing the right things. After living in China for two years, here is my list of exactly what you should take to China.
You will struggle to get shoes in large foot sizes so if you’re above a men’s 8 (US 10), or women’s 5 (US 8), take at least two pairs of shoes. In China, people value smartness, so be sure to pack a pair of dress shoes or smart women’s sandals alongside a pair of trainers (sneakers).
Same as the shoe issue, grab yourself some socks before you go. You’ll want some comfortable ones that keep your feet warm in Beijing and wick away the sweat in Shanghai.
If you have freakishly large hands like my husband and I both do, get yourself some gloves before you go if you’re travelling in winter or if you expect to go skiing. These lightweight ones will keep the chill out in the city, or for adventurous travel, these bad boys are the top choice.
If you’re not tech-savvy, don’t buy an Android phone in China, because you will have to do a lot to it to make it work in English and it’s very hard to get all the essential Google Play apps such as maps (or any English equivalent) inside China, and you may want all these when you leave China. There’s a good selection on Amazon. Personally, I use an iPhone but my husband is android to the death which makes for some interesting discussions, haha.
If you’re into taking good pictures, something like a Canon Eos DSLR will work great. The current top ones are the Canon Eos 4000D and the Canon Eos 800D. If you’re new to DSLR cameras, check out my page on photography which has lots of articles on everything from choosing a camera to setting up a shot. Don’t forget to take a couple of 64GB SD cards to store all your photos. You can get very cheap spare batteries in China so don’t worry about those but do remember your battery charger.
If you have boobs, take at least 2 or preferably 3 bras with you. Unless you’re elfin in height and width, you will not find bras that fit you and the sizing of bras in China is completely different to the US or UK sizing. If you need something while you’re in China, Victoria’s Secret have an excellent store in Shanghai with western sizing on the labels.
English-language books, or a Kindle
If you’re a big reader, buy a Kindle or pack a few English-language books to take with you. These are almost impossible to find in China and if you try to buy them on line, it takes months for them to get through customs because someone will read them.
Take 3 or 4 packets of Imodium with you for a long trip to China because you just can’t get loperamide or Imodium anywhere in China and you will need it.
Again, take a big packet (32 or more tablets) with you, especially if you have periods and need it for “that” time of the month.
Coffee powder or ground coffee
Take coffee if you’re backpacking or renting an apartment and planning to cook your own food rather than eat out all the time (which I recommend, you miss some of the China experience if you never go to the supermarket or try and cook food here). There are lots of coffee shops in Chinese cities but making coffee at home hasn’t caught on, yet, and buying coffee to make at home is difficult and expensive (over £7 or $9 for 100g of coffee when I was there, and that was for cheap low-quality instant coffee granules). You can’t get decaf coffee at all in China.
Swimwear is available in China but I find choosing swimwear half the fun of travel.
A warm coat
China gets cold in the winter, even down in Shanghai. Geography 101 tells us the further away from the coast you get, the more seasonal extremes the weather has.
China gets a lot of rain all year round. Sometimes the sky just seems to go for it and it’s pelting with fat drops of water for days. They also get typhoons. I’ve written about my experience getting a flight in a typhoon here. Umbrellas are easy to come by in China in all sorts of cute designs, but if you want a lightweight heavy-duty one, check out this windproof one.
Something smart to wear, such as a dress or shirt (or even a shirt dress, haha). This is essential for getting a table at a restaurant.
It’s so much easier to travel with shampoo bars than to carry around all that excess water in a bottle of shampoo. You can make your own following my recipe here.
This is another essential. It’s easy to buy shampoo and conditioner in China but if you’re moving around a lot and want to keep your luggage lightweight, check out my easy vegan hair conditioner bar recipe and use it VERY sparingly on your hair.
There’s a lot of sun in China, even in the north, and you need to protect your skin. You can buy sunscreen readily when you arrive (and it’s excellent) so don’t waste valuable luggage space on it.
Aloe vera gel
This stuff solves literally every skin issue like sunburn, hemorroids, chafing… Grab some aloe vera gel and decant it into a little mayonnaise travel pot to take with you.
Camellia oil is my other travel skincare holy grail product. This will solve every skin moisture issue. It also gets rid of stretch marks, face redness, it’s a great nipple balm for breastfeeding and a little bit works wonders as a hair serum. Put it into a pump bottle to take in your luggage.
Silver shampoo and hair toner
If your hair is silver or blonde, and you use either toner or silver shampoo, you will need to take it with you because it’s impossible to find in China. It’s not even on Taobao.
Lush do a conditioner bar that’s supposed to be a good silver conditioner but I took a bar of this to China and I was very disappointed, it not only didn’t condition my hair, but it didn’t have those essential violet tones either. It was just a very expensive purple bar of nothing. One star.
So I recommend taking a liquid silver shampoo or conditioner (or both), whatever you usually use, and a bottle or two of Crazy Color Platinum if you need to tone up while you’re out there. The Crazy Color ones are small enough to go in hand luggage if you only travel with a carry-on.
You will also struggle to do your roots as hair bleach suitable for western hair is not available. China was the end of my silver hair because it grew out and then I got pregnant and couldn’t color it.
A couple of DVDs for quiet evenings.
Chinese TV is… in Chinese, surprisingly. And when the internet goes down, the nights can be looooong, especially if you’re travelling with kids. A nursery rhyme compilation DVD (or five) like Little Baby Bum would sure come in handy, and don’t forget something to play it on, such as an external DVD drive for your laptop!
On the very long journeys between different parts of China, the ability to tune out the middle-aged women watching whatever noisy viral video is the current big thing will save your sanity. Invest in some lightweight, high-quality noise-cancelling earphones. Wireless are the best, but on a budget, even a wired set will make a massive difference.
Earplugs and eye mask
On the topic of blocking out sound, a really good pair or two of reusable silicone earplugs are worth their weight in gold. If you’re not a heavy sleeper, add in an eye mask to keep the light out of your face.
This may help you get work done. Conversely it will slow you computer and internet speeds down considerably so I recommend only using it when you really need it. The top VPNs for China are Express VPN and Nord VPN, both are in the region of £100 for the year so for shorter trips to China, it makes more sense to just live without Facebook and Google for a couple of weeks unless you have a boatload of cash. #facebookdetox
While I’ve seen a lot of travel bloggers recommend VPNs to western tourists, in my experience, you can spend hours trying to get a VPN to connect and often at key times of the year they all get taken down, so if you travel at those times and take a VPN, you may find you’ve spent a lot of money on something that won’t work. It’s really more of an expat solution.
In the short-term, it’s better to just find alternatives (you can even set something up so you can still access your Gmail account without a VPN). Here’s my article about English-language alternatives to Google services, news and other sites in China.
Have I missed anything essential? Let me know in the comments!