How Safe is Solo Travel in China? A Comprehensive Guide
Updated: Nov 23
Welcome, fellow adventurer! By now you've probably figured out that I've lived in mainland China for several years and might be considering visiting the middle kingdom yourself. And if you're a solo traveler who is new to the region, you may also be wondering is it safe to travel China alone.
With its vast landscapes, rich culture, and diverse cities, China offers a unique experience for solo travelers. In this comprehensive guide, I'm going to explore the safety aspects of traveling alone in China. I'll discuss everything from the low crime rate to the language barrier, local laws, and practical safety tips to ensure your journey is not just safe but also incredibly rewarding. So, grab a cup of tea and let's get ready for this adventure together!
Is Solo Travel in China a Good Idea?
Call me biased, but the short answer is yes, traveling solo in China is a good idea! China is not only one of the safest countries for international tourists but also a country with a rich history, some of the most incredible landscapes you'll ever set your eyes on, and food so delicious you'll be dreaming of it for years to come. However, like any travel destination, it's important to be aware of potential safety concerns and take precautions to ensure a worry-free trip. In this guide, I'll delve into the nitty-gritty of solo travel safety in China.
China, like any other country, has its unique safety considerations. Let's break down the key factors you should keep in mind:
Low Crime Rate
China boasts a remarkably low crime rate. While small crimes like pickpocketing and general petty theft might occur in crowded areas, it is exceedingly rare and police are immensely helpful in helping identify the thief. If you have a general idea of where/when your items were stolen, you can head to the police station responsible for that area and they will scour the cameras in that area during the specified timeframe. I once had an incident where I dropped my backpack after a scooter crash (nothing serious, don't worry) and the police were able to identify the person who took it in less than 10 minutes. It was mind-blowing!
Due to the accuracy of high prominence of CCTV cameras literally everywhere (seriously, you'll even spot them out in the mountains!), violent crime is pretty much nonexistent. Though this may concern some in terms of privacy, I found it to be extremely reassuring, especially for solo travelers. After all, I had nothing to hide!
The crime rate is so low, cops don't even walk around with guns or really...any weapons. Being an American and seeing this was really eye opening for me - I never imagined that a large city could function without armed police.
One of the primary challenges for international travelers is the language barrier. While you'll find many English speakers in major cities, it's still a good idea to have a translation app handy especially if it's your first time in the country and you're still finding your bearings. Learning a few basic Chinese characters can also be a great help in navigating your way through Chinese cities.
New York taught me always to be on top of my game when it comes to taking taxis. The first thing I learned how to say in Chinese was 打表(dǎ biǎo) "are you charging by the meter?" and it saved me with many taxi drivers who wanted to take advantage of the fact that I didn't know the local rates. Luckily, you can avoid this by using China's version of uber - Didi, but if for whatever reason the app fails you, make sure you know this one phrase!
Before you embark on your solo adventure, make sure you invest in travel insurance. It is incredibly important to have health insurance when traveling anywhere. Ensure your policy covers the specific areas you plan to visit and the activities you intend to participate in. This is a good place to start when it comes to ensuring your safety abroad.
SafetyWing is my pick for reliable coverage for a wide variety of activities. You can check out SafetyWing's different coverage options here. Trust me you don't want to be caught in a foreign country without health insurance in the case of a crazy freak accident. Always better to be safe than sorry.
Visiting Xinjiang and Tibet
China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and Tibet have experienced political unrest. As a result, some areas may be off-limits for foreign visitors, and the Chinese government has implemented strict travel restrictions in these regions. If you plan to visit, staying updated on the latest travel advisories and regulations is essential.
Pro Tip: If you plan on going to China just for a visit and are in the midst of applying for a tourist visa, you will be required to disclose the cities you plan on visiting. If you disclose that you intend to visit Xinjiang and/or Tibet, there is a high probability that your visa will get rejected. I would suggest* getting your tourist visa first and then securing a Tibet or Xinjiang group tour afterwards (an organized tour is mandatory for Tibet, but not Xinjiang).
*I am not qualified to give legal advice, this is merely my suggestion based on my experience with China as well as other travelers' anecdotes.
Even though they're not really a threat to your safety, there are a few recurring scams in China that you should be wary of. These are usually petty crimes, but they can con you out of a significant chunk of change which might wind up being detrimental to your budget.
As mentioned above, taxi drivers may attempt to scam you by charging an arbitrary price instead of running the meter. However, this is not the only way they might try to take you for a ride (so to speak). Since this might be your first trip to mainland China, they might try to drive you around in circles to run up the meter.
Again this is easily avoidable if you use the Didi app, but if you happen to be unlucky like me (Didi didn't work for me for nearly 2 years and I still have no idea why!) and have to hail a taxi, use a reliable map app like Apple maps or Gaode (搞得) to keep an eye on your route while you're on the way. This way you can spot any wrong turns or unnecessary detours. Do not use google maps as it is extremely unreliable and inaccurate in China.
Another taxi scam commonly occurs at airports. Every major airport in China will have an official taxi line. Head here if you don't have Didi, but make sure you have the name of the place you need to go written out in Chinese because taxi drivers very rarely speak anything other than Mandarin. These official taxi lines are regulated by the government and have to use the official rates as well as run the meter, so they can't give an arbitrary price.
You will often see people with a badge or nametag trying to tell you (in English!) that they are official taxi drivers and to follow them. They will not hurt you, but do not go with them unless you are familiar with the area and the prices or are traveling with someone who does - they will charge you an arm and a leg to get you where you need to go. If you do know the correct pricing, it's pretty easy to tell them you will only pay them that amount. They will take it and get you to where you need to go safely without the need for waiting on the taxi line (which isn't usually that long tbh).
This one's (mostly) for the fellas. A lot of times swiping on tinder or bumble will find you matched with a super pretty girl who is ready to meet the next day or even the same night. They won't make too much conversation, but will tell you that they want to choose the location of the date (in Shanghai, this is usually somewhere in People's Square). If you try to suggest a spot, but they refuse, this is the first red flag you should watch out for.
The next red flag is if you choose to go on the date anyway (no shame in that - it might not be a scam!). You'll be taken to a relatively dingy looking spot with an average food and drink menu with items listed in English and no prices written. This is your next red flag and when you should RUN. If you continue, your date will start to order you shots. A lot of shots. With the intent of getting you drunk and not paying attention.
Then when the check comes, you'll find that it's thousands of dollars even though you maybe only had one dish and a few drinks. If you try to make a fuss, the manager who is very intimidating from what I've heard (5 separate guy friends of mine have had the same story, and acquaintances have also shared the same experience) and it might seem like you're going to get beat up if you don't follow through with the bill. The police can help in this situation if you call them, but most people are too scared to.
Your best bet in this scenario is to register the red flags and run from the start before you consume anything!
These days tea scams are much less common, but they are still something to be aware of. They usually occur around busy tourist attractions and happen when someone claiming to be a guide approaches you under the guise of being helpful. They will suggest you visit a local tea house and bring you to it, but just like in the dating scam where the date is in cahoots with the restaurant, your "guide" will be in cahoots with the tea house. They'll offer you tea and give the impression that it's free, but at the end of your visit you'll be hit with a hefty fee and that you have to pay in order to exit.
Practical Tips for Ensuring Your Safety
Now that we've covered the safety concerns, let's explore some practical tips to ensure your safety while traveling alone in China. Honestly most of these are a good rule of thumb for solo travel in general:
1. Plan Your China Trip Itinerary
Before you set off on your solo trip, have a well-detailed travel itinerary. Share this with someone you trust back home, and make sure it includes your accommodation details, contact numbers, and any planned activities. Of course, you can leave room for spontaneity, but the main idea here is to make sure that someone knows where you are in case of an emergency!
Check out some of these travel apps which help with all aspects of planning your travel from budgeting to directions. There are also a few safety apps handy on the list as well.
2. Travel Documents
Ensure that all your travel documents are in order. Your passport, visa, and any permits required for specific areas should be kept in a secure place. I usually keep everything in one clear folder that is easily accessible to me when at the airport. Make sure this stays in your personal item and not your carry on, in case it has to be gate checked.
You can read up on China visa info here for employment and students if you're going to be living there long term and planning on solo traveling like I did.
Pro Tip: Make sure to have copies of absolutely everything. Also if you're not sure whether or not you should bring a document - bring it! Better to be safe than sorry.
3. Consider a Local Guide or Tour Group
If you're planning to visit remote areas or places with a significant language barrier, consider hiring a local guide or joining a small group tour. They can provide valuable insights and enhance your experience. Additionally, you can rest assured knowing that the speak the language and know the area, so you won't get lost (in translation or just in general).
4. Hotel Safety
When booking a hotel room, opt for well-established, reputable places in safe areas. It's also good practice to choose a hotel with a 24/7 front desk and security.
5. Emergencies and Exit Plan
Familiarize yourself with local emergency numbers and have an exit plan in case you encounter unexpected situations. In China, calling 110 will get you the police, 119 the fire department, and 120 yields ambulance service.
Final Thoughts on Traveling Alone in China
As a usually solo female traveler, I've found that China is a very safe country for travelers. Having explored 19 of the 34 provinces on my own, I can confirm that a solo trip here can be an incredible experience. The key is to stay informed, exercise common sense, and be aware of your surroundings. Whether you're exploring the vibrant culture of Beijing, the bustling streets of Shanghai, or the serene beauty of one of the many national parks, China offers something special for every kind of traveler.
Remember that safety concerns can exist anywhere in the world, even in your own home country. The most important thing is to step out of your comfort zone, learn about new cultures, and broaden your horizons. Traveling solo in China can be a life-changing experience!
So, what are you waiting for? Start planning your next trip and get on over to China ASAP! It is one of the safest countries for international tourists, and your solo adventure here will be an unforgettable journey.