What to take to China

Trip Start Jan 30, 2007
Trip End Dec 31, 2011

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Flag of United States  , California
Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Last year a friend from overseas arrived in China, laden with some things they thought wouldn't be on sale here. Like toilet paper.

So what should you bring to China? Or what should you not take?

Ben, a mid-westerner in the Middle Kingdom, has put together this list:

This past week I've been spending my time getting everything ready for my upcoming trip to China. This will be the fifth time traveling from the United States to China, so I have my routine down pretty well. Before my first trip to China, I distinctively remember a feeling that I would need to buy all necessary items for my trip before I left the US. While there certainly is worth to the old Boy Scout adage of "always be prepared," you can save yourself quite a bit of money buy waiting until you arrive in China to buy certain products. Here's a rundown, from my experience, of what to buy in China, and what to buy before you go to China.*

Contacts and Eyeglasses

The last time I bought a pair of glasses in the US, they cost me $250 USD. The last time I bought a pair in China they were only 400 RMB (approx $60 US). The frame quality was similar, and I could see perfectly out of both of them. For this upcoming trip to China I plan to buy 2 new pairs of glasses, a full-year supply of contact lenses, and athletic goggles. When I figured everything out, I estimate I will save around $500, compared to buying them in the US. Moral of the story: stock up on eyewear in the Middle Kingdom, and save yourself a bundle of money.


Last week I bought a pair of Teva sandals. They cost me 50 dollars. I bought my previous pair of Tevas for the same price two years before I first left for China. I wore them throughout my junior and senior year of college, before finally throwing them out after my first semester in China (a total of nearly 3 years). After that point, I went through a series of Chinese Teva knock-offs each purchased for around 100 RMB (approx $14 USD). The longest any of them lasted before completely falling apart was four months. I've had similar experiences with athletic shoes and hiking boots. Additionally, if you wear bigger than a size 10 US, don't even think about shopping for shoes in China. You're wasting your time. Footwear may be cheap in China, but when you consider how often they need replacing, you pay almost the same as you would had you bought the name brand. Do yourself and your feet a favor and buy your footwear before you go to China.

Note: Name brand shoes such as Nike and Reebok can be purchased in most Chinese major cities, but will typically cost more than they do in the US.


Chinese cigarettes come in many varieties, both expensive and cheap. The ones I most often see smoked by foreigners cost around 7-8 RMB a pack (approx $1 USD). Currently cigarettes in Chicago are selling just under $8 a pack. So from a cost-basis standpoint, it's certainly worth it to puff on those Zhong Nan Hai's while you're in the Middle Kingdom. Be warned however, from my limited cigarette smoking experience, Chinese cigarettes are considerably stronger than American ones, and contain more even tar and nicotine. Most Chinese kiosks do sell "Marlboros," but 99% of them are just Chinese cigarettes in Marlboro packaging. If by chance you are looking to gain some face with Chinese men, bring a carton of real Marlboro cigarettes to distribute as gifts. Make sure the recipients know these Marlboros are the real ones, purchased in the US, not bought in China. Do not give cigarettes to Chinese women as gifts.


Toothpaste, toothbrushes, mouthwash, shampoo, conditioner, combs, brushes, cue tips, hairspray and just about any other bathroom product imaginable can be purchased in China for a fraction of their cost in the US. There's no reason to risk having them leak or explode during your flight, when you could just buy them in China cheaper than they would cost back home. The one exception to this rule is deodorant, which by in large the Chinese do not use. When it is used, it is somewhat of a low-volume specialty item and can be more expensive than it would be abroad. In major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, deodorant can be purchased in most department stores, but if you're going anywhere else, you may want to bring your own, just to be safe.


These days, many name-brand electronic devices such as laptops, cell phones, PDAs, and cameras are produced in China. However, this does NOT mean they are cheaper when purchased in the Middle Kingdom. In fact, most name brand electronics are actually more expensive in China than they are in the United States. The only electronics which will be cheaper in China are inexpensive, off-brand, Chinese-made devices such as MP3 players and cell phones. However, the quality on many of these devices can be suspect. From my experience, you'll be lucky if they last more than a few months. To avoid any hassles, buy your electronics before you go to China.

Cell Phones

Chinese cell phones all use SIM cards. The SIM card can be taken out and replaced by another one, effectively switching your cell number. If your phone uses SIM cards, try taking it with you and buying a Chinese SIM card (approx $5 USD). For owners of phones which do not have a SIM card slot, you are going to need to buy a new phone in China, which is not cheap (the cheaper ones start at around $100 USD). However, the service will be much cheaper than what you would pay for an international plan. If your phone uses the cards, take it with and try your luck. If it doesn't, just leave it at home.


Most clothing in China comes in 2 kinds. There's the expensive, glitzy, name-brand stuff, of which each article costs more than the average migrant worker's monthly salary. Then there's the cheap stuff, in which each item usually costs no more than a meal at McDonald's. I have encountered two major problems with cheap Chinese clothing. Firstly, like shoes, the quality is generally not good. If you buy a shirt for 20 RMB, look at it like clothing rental, since it's probably going to fall apart after a couple washes anyway. The other problem is that Chinese clothing styles are very different from those worn in the West, and finding clothes which appeal to Western tastes can be a taxing experience. If you're tall, matters will be even more complicated. I'm 6 feet 1 inch. When I would finally find a shirt or pair of pants in China which appealed to my tastes, more often than not it wouldn't come in my size anyway. Make matters simple and buy your clothes before you get to the Middle Kingdom.

With all this in mind, my bags are packed-clothing, shoes, deodorant, and electronics all in place. Next post will be coming from Beijing.

*These comparisons all come from US prices. I can't vouch for prices in other Western countries. Anybody care to comment?

You can read his excellent blog at http://www.benross.net/wordpress/?p=183
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