Tips for Foreigners in Beijing

Living in Beijing is not too difficult for foreigners (“wai guo ren” – lit. “outside of country people”). Many of you probably won’t speak Mandarin, or will only have a basic grasp of it. If that’s the case, it isn’t too different from living anywhere else where you don’t speak the language. The blessing is that it’s a big international city, so you will often find someone who speaks your language, and you’ll probably work with people who have decent English. Your company may even provide a full time translator (and possibly driver). There are also very large ex-pat communities here, and shops and services to cater for them.

Here are some vital day to day tips from my own experience, which may come in handy.  

In general, most people here are very patient and helpful with foreigners. Not many people expect you to know how to speak Chinese, but do whatever you can to learn some. Every bit helps.


Certain iPhone / iPad apps are essential:

  • Pleco dictionary – especially the optical character recogniser, which lets you “read” Chinese script through the camera on your phone
  • Beijing taxi guide – it gives the address in Chinese of thousands of major locations, and you can even add a specific addresses of your own. Just flash it at the cab driver, and they should be able to get you there.
  • CN Air Quality – great for checking air pollution levels, which range from excellent to hazardous. You’ll come to love windy days, which clear it up in an hour or so

Getting Around

Cab drivers speak no English whatsoever, so use the Beijing Taxi guide noted above, or call your colleagues at work for translation help. It also pays to learn some basic terms, noted here phoenetically – left (zoo woh) / right (yo) / stop (qing ting) / can I have a receipt? (fa peeoh)

Get your home and office address written down in Chinese. You’ll need a digital copy of that also for online ordering sites. Addresses are completely back to front compared to most western addresses; you write the country first, then city, then district, etc.. right down to the flat number. 

The subway system is much like any other, easy to use with english buttons on the ticket machines. It only costs 2 Yuan to get anywhere in the city.. that’s a few cents. Crowded rides, but it’s a great quick way to beat the (at times) horrible road congestion.

It’s not a walkable city, it’s huge. You’ll need to be close to a subway or try to use cabs.

Wear a seatbelt in the cabs, even though most people don’t bother. The drivers here are pretty crazy.. not Mumbai crazy, but it’s a country I would  NOT recommend driving in. 


Pointing when shopping for things always works, and use “zhe ge” or “na ge” (sounds like “chayger” and means “this”, or “naga”, which means “that”)

Get to know your local shop keeper (they will spot you quickly, you will stand out). I think ours is from Korea because she is always happy when I buy Kimchi. I assume she is saying “it is good for you!”.

Learn the difference between the 5 Yuan note, and the other smaller “5” note, which is actually only worth 0.5 Yuan. Don’t try to use them in a drunken stupor at your local shop, insisting that you’ve paid 30 Yuan, when all you’ve given them is 3 Yuan.


Winters are very cold and dry, so bring every bit of the warmest clothing you have and wear them all at once. Layer up. If you are not from a place with cold winters (e.g. Australia) then make sure you buy proper winter clothing from the internet, from cold weather countries like Canada / US / Europe. Your usual “winter” jackets will not be up to the task. As a minimum, you will need a giant puffer jacket that is truly warm. Don’t forget scarves, hats, gloves and all related material.. it snows here, and is regularly sub-zero.

Tourist Spots

Speak French < insert any other language besides English > to ward off the tourist guides/touts near the big sights like the Forbidden City. They assume that all foreigners speak English, and they find French almost impenetrable. You will be approached every few metres by young students wanting to show you around the city, or sometimes by single ladies wanting you to go for a coffee. Hahaha… like I would. Completely covering yourself up in the winter doesn’t help either – they still spotted my foreign looking eyes… and maybe my height was a give away too?

Getting Food

If you like dumplings (like me), you’ll be in heaven… an easy and quick meal that steams up from frozen in 15 minutes. Better than instant noodles, of which there are also a lot.

Find the few English speaking restaurants and delivery services, and get their menu, so you can call and order takeout. This is a good one: Whilst the operators taking your order speak English over the phone, none of the delivery drivers do.

Shopping for food is easy.. there are lots of big name brands like Tesco’s, Walmart, McDonalds, KFC, Starbucks, Costa, etc and thousands of small local shops. Buying anything is pretty easy if you don’t need any information on the products – just read the price (they are always in Roman numerals), take it to the till, read the price off the till and pay. Same as anywhere, you won’t starve. 

Restaurants can be a little tricky, but just dive in. You can always point at something random on the menu and see what appears! Or better yet, take your “Pleco” character recognition app (see above) and figure out what the menu says. Hours of fun. 

Drink Up

Brush up on your drinking skills. Alcohol drinking is a competitive activity.. a dare. Wine and spirits are not considered something to be savoured, sadly. Aways a heart wrenching thing for me when I see an expensive bottle of French red wine downed in one go. On the flip side, Tea drinking is to be savoured, admired, respected and is an activity that you relax and take your time over. Tea here can also fetch exorbitant prices, so be careful.

Baiju (lit. “white wine”, really more of a spirit) is an essential component of most dinners as it is taken before a meal as a conversation starter. Warms everyone up too. If you’ve been living in London for many years like me, it’s not too hard to keep up, and most of the locals struggle with a lot of alcohol (something called the Asian Flush Syndrome – check it out on Wikipedia). It seems that many Chinese, Koreans and Japanese have a gene which allows them to process alcohol very efficiently, but which creates a by-product that is much more toxic than the alcohol itself. Poor chaps.

Language Fun

From lots of experimentation, the best online translator is It seems to give a better translation than Google, but whatever you use, always translate back into English to check if it makes sense. There is nothing like finding out that your cleverly translated Chinese text of “I want to know how many terabytes of data you have on the sever” comes back as “I want to steal your terracotta”

You’ll quickly learn the Chinese letters for China (中国)and Beijing(北 京). They are written on most signs, and knowing that will give you some small satisfaction. 

Do a course online (like Memrise: to learn to read and pronounce Chinese script. You will suddenly start to be able to recognise more and more characters around you… I find that most rewarding. Signs start to almost “materialise” in front of you, going from a hazy blur to having full meaning (almost).  

Internet and that Great Firewall of China

VPN: arrange one before you come. Strong VPN is what I use. You will need access to western web sites, more than you think! Unfortunately they are tightening up on a lot of VPNs so make sure it works in China before you buy. 

Get the Chinese and pinyin languages installed on your PC/Mac. You’ll need it to fill out certain addresses on web sites, etc. It’s easy to switch as needed, through a hot key. 


Most flats have underfloor central heating and full double glazing, and are super cosy. Make sure yours does!

Hot water is usually paid by meter, as are electricity. You need to find out where to do this, and you’ll need a card. Your work colleagues should help. 


Don’t end up in a Chinese hospital, they are crazy chaotic places and you will be tested for everything under the sun, most of which won’t be related to what you are suffering from. They like to get the big picture. I was taken in with a stomach bug complaint (my generous hosts were concerned), and ended up having several X-rays, a CAT scan, a blood test and an ultrasound… none of which showed that I had an upset stomach and was vomiting and dizzy. At least I know now that my brain is fine. 

Do not drink the tap water!!! After boiling, it is probably OK, but I would guess that it has a lot of other toxins and heavy metals in it from the old water pipe system.  

Crime.. or general lack of it

For such a massive (and I mean MAAAASIVE) city, Beijng is suprisingly safe… very safe… crime is highly unlikely to affect you at all, but take the usual precautions you would for any big city. I suppose most Chinese people don’t really want to get in trouble with the State, for obvious reasons. Having said that, it really doesn’t feel like a police state in any way… another pre-conception of mine blown.

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