World ? Asia ? China

China: Fast Facts

Business Hours -- Offices are generally open from 9am to 6pm but are closed Saturday and Sunday. All shops, sights, restaurants, and transport systems offer the same service 7 days a week. Shops are typically open at least from 8am to 8pm. Bank opening hours vary widely. In Hong Kong most offices are open Monday through Friday from 9am to 5pm, with lunch hour from 1 to 2pm; Saturday business hours are generally 9am to 1pm. Most Hong Kong shops are open 7 days a week, from 10am to at least 7pm.

Car Rentals -- Rental is only possible with a Chinese driver, except in Hong Kong and Macau.

Customs -- What You Can Bring into China

Generally, you can bring into China anything for personal use that you plan to take away with you when you leave, with the usual exceptions of arms and drugs, or plant materials, animals, and foods from diseased areas. There are no problems with cameras or video recorders, GPS equipment, laptops, or any other standard electronic equipment. Two unusual prohibitions are "old/used garments" and "printed matter, magnetic media, films, or photographs which are deemed to be detrimental to the political, economic, cultural and moral interests of China," as the regulations put it. Large quantities of religious literature, overtly political materials, or books on Tibet might cause you difficulties (having a pile of pictures of the Dalai Lama certainly will, if discovered), but in general, small amounts of personal reading matter in non-Chinese languages do not present problems. Customs officers are for the most part easygoing, and foreign visitors are very rarely searched. Customs declaration forms have now vanished from all major points of entry, but if you are importing more than $5,000 in cash, you should declare it, or theoretically you could face difficulties at the time of departure, although once again, this would be highly unlikely. Importing or exporting more than ť6,000 ($780/ţ390) in yuan is also theoretically prohibited, but again, it's never checked. Chinese currency is anyway best obtained within China (or in Hong Kong), and is of no use once you leave.

What You Can Take Home from China

An official seal must be attached to any item created between 1795 and 1949 that is taken out of China; older items cannot be exported. But in fact you are highly unlikely to find any genuine antiques, so this is a moot point (and if the antiques dealer is genuine, then he'll know all about how to get the seal). There are no such prohibitions on exporting items from Hong Kong, which is where you can find reliable dealers with authentic pieces and a willingness to allow thermoluminescence testing to prove it.

Almost everybody is amazed at the number of cheap DVDs on sale in China. They are extremely tempting, especially compared to the ridiculous prices at home. Know that the producers of these discs are often the same gangsters who smuggle undocumented migrants in containers and sell females into sexual slavery; don't give them your money.

U.S. Citizens: For specifics on what you can bring back and the corresponding fees, download the invaluable free pamphlet Know Before You Go online at www.cbp.gov. (Click on "Travel," and then click on "Know Before You Go! Online Brochure") Or contact the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), 1300 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20229 (tel. 877/287-8667) and request the pamphlet.

Canadian Citizens: For a clear summary of Canadian rules, write for the booklet I Declare, issued by the Canada Border Services Agency (tel. 800/461-9999 in Canada, or 204/983-3500; www.cbsa-asfc.gc.ca).

U.K. Citizens: For information, contact HM Customs and Excise at tel. 0845/010-9000 (from outside the U.K., 020/8929-0152), or consult their website at www.hmce.gov.uk.

Australian Citizens: A helpful brochure available from Australian consulates or Customs offices is Know Before You Go. For more information, call the Australian Customs Service at tel. 1300/363-263, or log onto www.customs.gov.au.

New Zealand Citizens: Most questions are answered in a free pamphlet available at New Zealand consulates and Customs offices: New Zealand Customs Guide for Travellers, Notice no. 4. For more information, contact New Zealand Customs, The Customhouse, 17-21 Whitmore St., Box 2218, Wellington (tel. 04/473-6099 or 0800/428-786; www.customs.govt.nz).

Doctors and Dentists -- Many hotels have medical clinics with registered nurses, as well as doctors on duty at specified hours or on call 24 hours. Otherwise, your concierge or consulate can refer you to a doctor or dentist. If it's an emergency, get a Mandarin speaker to dial tel. 120 in mainland China, or dial tel. 999 in Hong Kong or Macau.

Driving Rules -- "I'm bigger than you, so get out of my way," sums it up. But you won't be driving anyway. When you cross a road, assume that the drivers are all out to get you. Driving is on the right. Hong Kong and Macau are far more law-abiding, and driving is on the left.

Drugstores -- Bring supplies of your favorite over-the-counter medicines with you, since supplies of well-known Western brands are unreliable and sometimes fake. All familiar brands are available in Hong Kong.

Electricity -- The electricity used in all parts of China is 220 volts, alternating current (AC), 50 cycles. Most devices from North America, therefore, cannot be used without a transformer. The most common outlet takes the North American two-flat-pin plug (but not the three-pin version, or those with one pin broader than the other). Nearly as common are outlets for the two-round-pin plugs common in Europe. Outlets for the three-flat-pin (two pins at an angle) used in Australia, for instance, are also frequently seen. Most hotel rooms have all three, and indeed many outlets are designed to take all three plugs. You need a uniquely Chinese adapter with three flat prongs.

Adapters are available for only ť8 to ť16 ($1-$2/50p-ţ1) in department stores; good hotels will be happy to provide adapters, however, so you needn't be concerned about bringing one. China is quite sophisticated in this area, and I found that one can easily buy a power strip that has the requisite plug to go into a Chinese wall outlet and eight universal outlets that will accept any type of plug used in the world. Just remember that power is 240V (50 Hz), so make sure anything you bring is compatible. If you have 110V devices your hotel will most likely be able to supply a voltage converter. Shaver sockets are common in bathrooms of hotels from three stars upward. In Hong Kong and Macau, the British-style three-chunky-pin plugs are standard, and these also often appear in mainland joint-venture hotels built with Hong Kong assistance. The electrical adapters you need are either those with long, fairly thin round prongs or those with shorter and fatter prongs.

Embassies and Consulates -- Most countries maintain embassies in Beijing and consulates in Hong Kong. Australia also has consulates in Guangzhou and Shanghai; Canada and the U.K. in Chongqing, Guangzhou, and Shanghai; New Zealand in Shanghai; and the U.S. in Chengdu, Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Shenyang.

Emergencies -- No one speaks English at emergency numbers in China, although your best bet will be tel. 110. Find help nearer at hand. In Hong Kong dial tel. 999 for police, fire, or ambulance. In Macau dial tel. 999 for medical emergencies, tel. 573-333 for the police, and tel. 572-222 for the fire department.

Hot Lines -- Hot lines and all kinds of telephone booking and information numbers are given throughout this guide. But in almost no cases whatsoever will English be spoken at the other end. Ask English-speaking staff at your hotel to find answers to your queries and to make any necessary calls on your behalf.

Internet Access -- Internet access through anonymous dial-up is widely available, as are Internet cafes.

Language -- English is widely spoken in Hong Kong, fairly common in Macau, and rare in the mainland, although there will be someone who speaks a little English at your hotel. Ask that person to help you with phone calls and bookings. Almost no information, booking, complaint, or emergency lines in the mainland have anyone who speaks English.

Legal Aid -- If you get on the wrong side of what passes for the law in China, contact your consulate immediately.

Liquor Laws -- With the exception of some minor local regulations, there are no liquor laws in China. Alcohol can be bought in any convenience store, supermarket, restaurant, bar, hotel, or club, 7 days a week, and may be drunk anywhere you feel like drinking it. If the shop is open 24 hours, then the alcohol is available 24 hours, too. Closing times for bars and clubs vary according to demand, but typically it's all over by 3am. In Hong Kong, liquor laws largely follow the U.K. model; restaurants, bars, and clubs must obtain licenses to sell alcohol for consumption on the premises, and shops must have licenses to sell it for consumption off the premises. In either case, licenses prohibit sale of alcohol to persons under 18. Licensing hours vary from area to area.

Lost and Found -- Be sure to alert all of your credit card companies the minute you discover your wallet has been lost or stolen. Your credit card company or insurer may require a police report number or record of the loss, although many Public Security Bureau offices (police stations) will be reluctant to do anything as energetic as lift a pen. Most credit card companies have an emergency toll-free number to call if your card is lost or stolen: In mainland China, Visa's emergency number is tel. 010/800-440-0027; American Express cardholders and traveler's check holders should call tel. 010/800-610-0277; MasterCard holders should call tel. 010/800-110-7309; and Diners Club members should call Hong Kong at tel. 852/2860-1800, or call the U.S. collect at tel. 416/369-6313. From within Hong Kong, Visa's telephone number is tel. 800/900 872, MasterCard's tel. 800/966 677, Diners Club's tel. 2860 1888, and Amex's tel. 800/962 403. Visa also has a phone number for within Macau: tel. 300-28561. Keeping a separate list of the serial numbers of your traveler's checks will speed up their replacement.

Mail -- Sending mail from China is remarkably reliable, although sending it to private addresses within China is not. Take the mail to post offices rather than using mailboxes. Some larger hotels have postal services on-site. It helps if mail sent out of the country has its country of destination written in characters, but this is not essential, although hotel staff will often help. Letters and cards written in red ink will occasionally be rejected. Overseas mail: postcards ť4.20 (50Ţ/25p), letters under 10 grams ť5.40 (70Ţ/35p), letters under 20 grams ť6.50 (80Ţ/40p). EMS (express parcels under 500g): to the U.S.: ť180 to ť240 ($23-$30/ţ11-ţ15); to Europe ť220 to ť280 ($28-$35/ţ14-ţ17); to Australia ť160 to ť210 ($20-$26/ţ10-ţ13). Normal parcels up to 1 kilogram (2 1/4 lb.): to the U.S. by air ť95 to ť159 ($12-$20/ţ6-ţ10), by sea ť20 to ť84 ($2.50-$14/ţ1.25-ţ7); to the U.K. by air ť77 to ť162 ($9.50-$20/ţ4.75-ţ10), by sea ť22 to ť108 ($11-$14/ţ5.50-ţ7); to Australia by air ť70 to ť144 ($8.75-$18/ţ4.35-ţ9), by sea ť15 to ť89 ($1.90-$11/ţ95p-ţ5.50). Letters and parcels can be registered for a small extra charge. Registration forms and Customs declaration forms are in Chinese and French. The post offices of Hong Kong and Macau are entirely reliable, but both have their own stamps and rates.

Newspapers and Magazines -- Sino-foreign joint-venture hotels in the bigger cities have a selection of foreign newspapers and magazines available, but these are otherwise not on sale. The government distributes a propaganda sheet called China Daily, usually free at hotels, and there are occasional local variations. Cities with larger populations support a number of self-censoring entertainment magazines usually produced by resident foreigners and only slightly more bland when produced by Chinese aiming at the same market. Nevertheless, these do have intermittently accurate entertainment listings and restaurant reviews. A vast range of English publications is easily available in Hong Kong and Macau, as well as local newspapers such as the South China Morning Post.

Passports -- Allow plenty of time before your trip to apply for a passport; processing normally takes 3 weeks but can take longer during busy periods (especially spring). And keep in mind that if you need a passport in a hurry, you'll pay a higher processing fee.

For Residents of Australia: You can pick up an application from your local post office or any branch of Passports Australia, but you must schedule an interview at the passport office to present your application materials. Call the Australian Passport Information Service at tel. 131-232, or visit the government website at www.passports.gov.au.

For Residents of Canada: Passport applications are available at travel agencies throughout Canada or from the central Passport Office, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, Ottawa, ON K1A 0G3 (tel. 800/567-6868; www.ppt.gc.ca).

For Residents of Ireland: You can apply for a 10-year passport at the Passport Office, Setanta Centre, Molesworth Street, Dublin 2 (tel. 01/671-1633; www.irlgov.ie/iveagh). Those under age 18 and over 65 must apply for a 3-year passport. You can also apply at 1A South Mall, Cork (tel. 021/272-525), or at most main post offices.

For Residents of New Zealand: You can pick up a passport application at any New Zealand Passports Office or download it from their website. Contact the Passports Office at tel. 0800/225-050 in New Zealand, or 04/474-8100, or log on to www.passports.govt.nz.

For Residents of the United Kingdom: To pick up an application for a standard 10-year passport (5-year passport for children under 16), visit your nearest passport office, major post office, or travel agency or contact the United Kingdom Passport Service at tel. 0870/521-0410 or search its website at www.ukpa.gov.uk.

For Residents of the United States: Whether you're applying in person or by mail, you can download passport applications from the U.S. State Department website at http://travel.state.gov. To find your regional passport office, either check the U.S. State Department website or call the National Passport Information Center toll-free number (tel. 877/487-2778) for automated information.

Police -- Known to foreigners as the PSB (Public Security Bureau, gong'an ju), although these represent only one of several different types of officer in mainland China, the police (jingcha) are quite simply best avoided. Since they are keen to avoid doing any work, you have the same interests at heart. If you must see them for some reason, then approach your hotel for assistance first, and visit the PSB offices listed in this guide as dealing with visa extensions, since these are almost the only places you are likely to find an English-speaker of sorts. In Hong Kong and Macau, however, you can usually ask policemen for directions and expect them to be generally helpful.

Radio -- If you own an AM/FM shortwave radio, there are many English-language broadcasts on standard FM radio in Beijing. Small (as in smaller than a mass-market paperback book) sized, battery-operated radios are commonly available in all the electronics markets in the larger cities including fully capable, digitally tuned models for about ť120 ($15/ţ7.50) as well as a full range of walkie-talkie-type two-way radios, and fully functional GPS units. If you do want to hear BBC, Voice of America, or any other regularly scheduled shortwave broadcasts, I'd suggest investigating, copying, and taking along with you their broadcast schedules. The shortwave services tend to broadcast on different frequencies at different times of the day, as well as to make major changes in schedule with the changing seasons. This is because broadcast transmissions are much more susceptible to atmospheric interference, which varies with the relative position of the sun.

Restrooms -- Street-level public toilets in China are common, many detectable by the nose before they are seen. There's often an entrance fee of ť.20 (5Ţ/5p), but not necessarily running water. In many cases you merely squat over a trough. So, use the standard Western equipment in your hotel room, in department stores and malls, and in branches of foreign fast-food chains. In Hong Kong and Macau, facilities are far more hygienic.

Smoking -- The government of China is the world's biggest cigarette manufacturer. China is home to 20% of the world's population but 30% of the world's cigarettes and is growing fast, especially now that young women are starting to take up the habit. About one million people a year in China die of smoking-related illnesses. In the mainland, nonsmoking tables in restaurants are almost unheard of, and nonsmoking signs are favorite places beneath which to sit and smoke. Smokers are generally sent to the spaces between the cars on trains, but they won't bother to do so if no one protests. The same is true on air-conditioned buses, where some will light up to see if they can get away with it (but usually they'll be told to put it out).

Taxes -- In mainland China, occasional bed taxes are added to hotel bills, but these are minor and usually included in the room rate. Service charges appear mostly in joint-venture hotels, and range from 10% to 15%. Many Chinese hotels list service charges in their literature, but few have the nerve to add them to room rates unless the hotel is very full. However, restaurants may add the service charge. Departure taxes must be paid in cash at the airport before flying: domestic ť50 ($6.25/ţ3.10), international (including flights to Hong Kong and Macau) ť90 ($12/ţ6). There are also lesser taxes for international ferry departures at some ports. In Hong Kong, better hotels will add a 10% service charge and a 3% government tax to your bill. Better restaurants and bars will automatically add a 10% service charge. Included in your ticket price are an airport departure tax of HK$80 (US$10/ţ5) for adults and children older than 12, or a marine departure tax if you depart by sea. In Macau, better hotels charge 10% for service as well as a 5% tax. Marine departure taxes are included in ticket prices. Airport passenger tax for flights to China are MOP$80 (US$10/ţ5) adults and MOP$50 (US$6.25/ţ3.10) children ages 2 to 12; for other destinations the tax is MOP$130 (US$16/ţ8) adults and MOP$80 (US$10/ţ5) for children. Transit passengers who continue their journey within 24 hours of arrival are exempted from passenger tax.

Time Zone -- The whole of China is on Beijing time -- 8 hours ahead of GMT (and therefore of London), 13 hours ahead of New York, 14 hours ahead of Chicago, and 16 hours ahead of Los Angeles. There's no daylight saving time (summertime), so subtract 1 hour in the summer.

Tipping -- In mainland China, as in many other countries, there is no tipping, despite what tour companies may tell you (although if you have a tour leader who accompanies you from home, home rules apply). Until recently, tipping was expressly forbidden, and some hotels still carry signs requesting you not to tip. Foreigners, especially those on tours, are overcharged at every turn, and it bemuses Chinese that they hand out free money in addition. Chinese never do it themselves; in fact, if a bellhop or other hotel employee hints that a tip would be welcome, he or she is likely to be fired.

In Hong Kong and Macau, even though restaurants and bars will automatically add a 10% service charge to your bill, you're still expected to leave small change for the waiter, up to a few dollars in the very best restaurants. You're also expected to tip taxi drivers, bellhops, barbers, and beauticians. For taxi drivers, simply round up your bill to the nearest HK$1 or add a HK$1 (US15Ţ/5p) tip. Tip people who cut your hair 5% or 10%, and give bellhops HK$10 to HK$20 (US$1.30-US$2.60/65p-ţ1.30), depending on the number of your bags. If you use a public restroom that has an attendant, you may be expected to leave a small gratuity -- HK$2 (US25Ţ/10p) should be enough.

Television -- The propaganda machine known as the Communist Party quickly realized the potential of TV very early on, and has made sure that nearly everybody now has access to its broadcasts. No visitor should leave the PRC without sampling some of the world's most bizarre programming. In Guangdong, the Hong Kong news channels are frequently blocked, with censors on the mainland manually replacing unfavorable news items with public service broadcasts. On the mainland, there are hundreds of channels to choose from, but the best to look out for are the huge party glorification concerts where loyal masses sing hymnlike praises to the party with lyrics like "Without the Communist Party, there would be no new China."

Water -- Tap water in mainland China is not drinkable, and should not even be used for brushing your teeth. Use bottled water, widely available on every street, and provided for free in all the better hotels. Tap water is drinkable in Hong Kong, but bottled water tastes better.

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