Soaring skyscrapers in high-tech cities, ancient walls in surreal natural settings, and delectable cuisine made by hospitable locals are all part of the bucket-list appeal of China. But from the 15-hour plane ride to air pollution and intermittent Internet access, it can feel like another world—one that you need to be prepared for. Some items that you probably don’t usually consider bringing on vacation are must-have essentials when it comes to packing for China.
What to Pack for China
Here’s what I discovered about packing for China on a recent trip to Shanghai and Suzhou. Once you’re prepared for the semi-unique conditions you’ll encounter in China, you can relax and enjoy the journey.
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Opting for a carry-on bag frees you from the worry of losing your luggage on any layovers—you don’t want to land in China without your must-have items. A suitcase with a portable charger that you can remove and use in-flight, like an Away hard-side spinner, is ideal for the long flight. A good carry-on suitcase is a must-have, and Away has a lifetime warranty, so you’ll never need to buy another.
The Personal Item
Dagne & Dover’s Medium Landon Carryall duffle bag is my go-to personal item for long flights. It’s roomy with plenty of organizational pockets, yet it fits comfortably under the seat in front of you. The best feature is its wide-mouth zippered top that unbuttons from the sides so you can easily see your in-flight necessities without needing to rummage around. As for what to fill it with, useful things for a 15-hour flight include:
- Fire Tablet (or similar) for books, magazines, and pre-downloaded entertainment
- A safe and reliable sleep aid like Unisom or melatonin for jet lag adjustment
- Hand sanitizer and/or antibacterial wipes (you’ll definitely want them by hour 10 of sharing personal space with a stranger)
- Eye mask
- Neck pillow: I usually avoid them to save packing space, but on a long flight like this one, I was glad I had an inflatable one, which packs down into a tiny pouch.
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China Packing List: Clothing/Accessories
Dressing in China is a little more complicated than on your typical vacation. Some colors have offensive or controversial cultural meanings, so it’s best to stick to neutral or muted colors, avoid wearing all white (which is typically worn to funerals), and skip loud colors like yellow and neons. Muted reds, greens, blues, and most neutral tones (black, grey, tan) are generally safe.
- Comfortable walking shoes: I relied on closed-toe Cole Haan Cloudfeel Espadrilles, which have a thickly cushioned foot bed, for most of my trip.
- Performance fabrics: Casual pieces made of high-performance material, like Eddie Bauer’s Departure Ankle Pant and Infinity Split-back Top—both of which I wore again and again thanks to their breathable, quick-drying, and wrinkle-resistant fabrics perfect for long walks in high humidity.
- Sun protection: A wide-brim hat is an on-trend way to protect yourself from the strong sun in China; or throw a sunscreen stick in your daily bag for long walks and river cruises.
- Sunglasses: Especially in summer, the sun is strong and makes even overcast skies glow in a harsh way that will have you constantly reaching for some shades.
- Pashmina scarf: Even warm, humid days turn to cool nights, and you never know when you’ll need to cover up for a pagoda or temple visit.
- A light, hooded jacket: For cooler nights and rainy days, you’ll want a hooded, high-performance option like Eddie Bauer’s Atlas 2.0 Jacket, which comes in many neutral shades, and has a back vent that keeps you cool—plus hidden pockets for travel necessities
Lesser-Known Essentials to Pack for China
Air pollution and the technicalities of getting online in China require some important essentials, ranging from simple toiletries to niche gadgets and apps you’ll need to acquire before landing in the Internet-restricted country. Here’s what toiletries you’ll almost definitely need:
- Air-quality and other travel medications: If you have asthma or allergies, you may need medicines to deal with high air pollution levels in urban areas. Talk to your doctor about what allergy or respiratory aids you should keep on-hand, like Zyrtec or a prescribed inhaler.
- Tissues: Public bathrooms and casual restaurants don’t always provide paper, so it’s smart to always have some on-hand.
- Saline eye drops and nasal solution: Another good way to avoid complications from air pollution is to use saline drops and nasal solution daily.
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Gadgets to Get Ahead of Time
- Download a VPN: the most important thing to download before you leave for China is a virtual private network, which will establish a private connection to any Wi-Fi you use and allow you to access Internet sites that are blocked in China. I used ExpressVPN for about $7. (Note: VPNs are a legal gray area in China, but are still widely used by tourists without issue.)
- A mobile hotspot: Wi-Fi isn’t available in many rural places in China, so if you’re dependent on yours and not exclusively sticking to the cities, it could be worth purchasing a portable hotspot before you depart.
- Portable charger: Running a VPN and troubleshooting Wi-Fi can drain your battery fast.
- A banking solution, if needed: If you’re an American Express cardholder, you might need to acquire a preloaded debit card that will work in China. American Express isn’t largely accepted, but services like eCard make it easy to acquire an alternative before you land.
- Alternative map and translation apps: Google is blocked in China, so you’ll be out of luck if you’re planning on using Maps or Translate. Download alternative options that Chinese locals use: Osmand Maps for offline map navigation (that can be switched to English) and Beijing NetEase for verbal-to-text translation.
What to Pack for China That I Didn’t
- Reusable face mask: Face masks are commonplace in China because of the air pollution, and returning home with bronchitis I developed thanks to breathing big-city air while I had a cold made me wish I had used one while I was there. Masks rated as N95 filter out 95 percent of PM2.5 particles, and are the bare minimum for pollution protection.
- Air purifier: Getting sick from the pollution in China might not have happened if I had remembered to bring my trusty Portable Air Purifier by The Pure Company, which I use nightly at home. On top of its filter-less aromatherapy and ionization, it’s a nice source of white noise that can help lull you to sleep.
- Insurance Card: Don’t forget to pack a hard-copy of your medical insurance card in case, like me, you need to pay a visit to the international clinic. Luckily I was able to get in touch with my insurance company while I was in China, but if yours doesn’t have 24-hour support, you’ll want to have proof of insurance in case of a medical emergency.
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- Travel umbrella: Hotels in China don’t usually provide umbrellas, which can be a near-necessity if you’re visiting in rainy season (which varies depending on the region).
What Not to Pack
- Water bottle: My reusable canteen got virtually no use and only took up space since China’s tap water isn’t potable unless boiled. Even though it’s disappointing to not be able to use a reusable bottle to cut down on plastic use, buying purified water is the only option. There are hot (read: boiled) water stations at some public places, like train stations and airports, but I wasn’t willing to risk drinking any on my trip.
More from SmarterTravel:
- The Essential Carry-on Packing List
- 9 Essential Things to Know Before You Visit China
- 8 Secret Places in China Tourists Haven’t Discovered Yet
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SmarterTravel Editor Shannon McMahon writes about all things travel. She visited Shanghai, Suzhou, and Nanjing courtesy of Travel to Suzhou. Follow her on Instagram for more China travel insight @shanmcmahon.