China is a large country, one of the richest of geographical destinations in the world. Most of China is opened and easily accessed by travelers. You can purchase your air ticket to Beijing, Shanghai or another big city, preparing for exploring the country. Obtaining a Chinese travel visa is also easy. So you arrive in China, go out of the airport, and the first thing you do is to find your hotel. You arrive at the hotel’s reception, and they tell you that “foreigners are not allowed to sleep in this hotel”. Thus you face the first trouble in your trip to China, and although you like adventures, such trouble is definitely not “an exciting adventure”.
The law about hotels and foreigners in China
Since China is a highly touristy country, there are thousands and thousands of hotels, hostels, and guesthouses around the country, especially in popular destinations. But there is a law, required the hotel’s owners to obtain a special license giving them permission to accept non-Chinese citizens. Usually, most of those, who are located in touristy places, invest and get this license. But many others don’t do it, especially if they are in places where foreigners are very rare.
Why there is such a law? Because there is another law, requiring foreigners to register every day during their stay in China. Those who live and work in China and don’t live in hotels, but in accommodation, provided by their employer, must register in the police station. But those who just come to China for travel, don’t need to go to the police station, but the hotel with a proper license do it for them. In the same time, if a hotel doesn’t have such license and can’t accept you, you can’t go to the police station and register by yourself, because the procedure is complicated, and requires the assistance by the hotel (which such a hotel would not likely willing to do).
And the police regularly check the hotels, are the owners following this restriction. If the policemen catch a foreigner in a hotel without such a license, they would let him leave the hotel, and the hotel will have to face some serious problems.
Not everywhere in China is the same
This law is not followed equally everywhere. In some places the situation is serious, the police are very strict and the hotel’s owners are very careful about this problem. An example is Xiamen, a famous tourist city in Fujian province, visited by many foreigners. We had to wander around the city for a long time in the evening until we found a hotel, which can accept us. Another place is Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, where the political situation is a little tense, and checking people (not only foreigners but everybody) is everywhere.
In the same time, there are some other places, mainly small non-touristy towns or villages, with only one or a few hotels. These hotels also don’t have such a license, since it is very unlikely for foreigners to come. But yet, if a foreigner comes, they usually would accept him. First, because it is not a popular place, the police would not check the hotels. Second, because in such a small place most of the people, including the policemen, know each other and don’t care too much. And third, because they even might not know about such regulation.
Hotels accepting foreigners
So, how can you know if your hotel, which you have already booked, can accept you? Yes, if you are a tourist, and come to China by a travel company, you would not worry about this problem, because they know how to arrange your accommodation (unless you travel by a fake or highly unprofessional company). But if you are an independent traveler, you have two options.
How to book a hotel in China from a website
First- book your hotel from an international website like Booking, Agoda, Hostel World or Hotels. Because the hotels, which are registered in these accommodation networks, obviously consider that foreigners can visit them. So, it is likely that they would obtain the necessary license. And the second option is to go to a city, walk from hotel to hotel and ask until you find a place that can accept you. If the second option doesn’t work, there is a third option…a bus terminal, a night club (maybe a little funnier if you are not tired), or a bench in a park…
But let’s look at the first option. Before you book your hotel from the website, read carefully all the provided details. Some hotels would write something like “accept only Chinese citizens”, so you skip them. Many other hotels would not mention this information, but it doesn’t mean that they have permission to accept foreigners, even if they are registered in an international booking website.
Our experience in a hotel without a license
We have faced such a case. During our first trip to Eastern Tibet, we had to spend the night in Ya’an, not far from Chengdu, Sichuan province. I found from Booking.com a cheap hotel there. I thought that since it is registered in Booking, most likely they would accept foreigners. But when we arrived at the hotel, they told us that they don’t have such a license. Anyway, because I was the only foreigner in our small group, they still accepted me, but just didn’t register my name, told me to be silent, to not walk too much around the hotel (since the police station was very near), and to leave the hotel on the next morning as early as possible.
Check out the hotel in advance!
Not every hotel without a license would care a foreigner in this way. So, the best thing that you can do is before booking (especially before you make the payment if required in advance) to send message to the hotel, asking them clearly can they accept you. And the cheaper is a hotel, the more possible is that they may not have permission for foreigners.
Yes, usually the luxury and expensive hotels in China all have permission to accept foreigners. But if you are a budget traveler, looking for a cheap hotel, you most likely have to deal with this problem, especially if you go to visit some not so touristy place.
International hostels in China
International hostels in China are the best option for budget foreign travelers. They are specially designed for foreigners and are often richly decorated with a lot of art, and adventurous “attributes” (especially if they are in places like Tibet or other high mountain areas). You can really enjoy the explorer’s atmosphere and the local formed community of foreign travelers, sharing stories, experience and plans of their journeys, drinking beer and eating “western” food”.
Normally, all international hostels have a license to accept foreigners, because this is their market. In addition, they are cheap. So, unless you are a luxury tourist, spending a night in a hostel can be a really nice experience, just like everywhere in the world.
Guesthouses and Airbnb
Depending on the guesthouse, as far as I know, it can obtain a license for accepting foreigners too. We have been in a very nice Tibetan guesthouse in Tagong, Eastern Tibet (Western Sichuan), often visited by foreigners. Nobody required any registration outside of the guesthouse (the owner just wrote our passport data and that was all) and we spent a comfortable night there. I can’t say whether it is because the owner of the guesthouse had a license for accepting foreigners, or because Tagong is a small town and nobody really cares about these regulations.
However, with Airbnb (and every other) private accommodation the things are more complicated. According to the recent regulations, you must go and register in the police station together with the landlord of the property, or at least with provided all necessary documents by him (in fact, since this regulation is quite new, in various cities the policemen would have different requirements). But again, it depends on the location in China. When we were in Yangshuo (in April’2019), we spent two nights in an Airbnb property. And again, nobody required any registration for me as a foreigner.
Camping in China
If you are more adventurous, camping is a really exciting option. However, don’t expect government arranged campsites, there are no such campsites in China. The only exception is Hong Kong, which is “not exactly” China, although part of the country. Other “officially permitted” places for camping are some national parks and beaches with an entrance fee- actually they don’t offer “campsites”, but just permit camping after you pay the required fee. Everywhere else is just a wild choice of yours.
Is camping illegal in China?
It is not illegal to camp anywhere, however, it is in contradiction with the mandatory registration of a foreigner. But since it is technically impossible to follow this law strictly, in most cases nobody would care where are you camping. And when you leave China, nobody will check your itinerary day by day.
Anyway, it is better don’t camp in parks or just near the big cities. If the police see you, they would kindly (but implacably) take you to a licensed hotel (or if there are no free rooms anywhere, you may spend the night in the police station). But if you are in the wilderness, nobody would check you.
Dangers of camping
Is it dangerous to camp everywhere? I have camped in various kinds of places- on the top of a mountain (with many other local hikers), near a village in a karst hills area, on the beach (both paid and free), in a national park, as well as just on the grassland in Eastern Tibet. With some exceptions, we were a group of campers, and nothing dangerous happened.
But it doesn’t mean that everything is safe. As I said, there are not arranged campsites. Dangers may come from bad people, wild animals, snakes, insects, or natural disasters. Talking about people- in general people in remote villages are pure, friendly and good. But nobody knows whether there is someone who looks to the foreigners as “prey” to steal or do other harm to them. Prevention? Be a larger group. Or if you are a solo traveler, it is better don’t be near a village, hide somewhere far from houses and roads for the night (and do it in advance, before the dark).
Animals? Usually, the most dangerous animal (not only in China) is the dog. Wild animals are afraid of people. But the local village dogs can be hostile to strangers. Snakes, spiders or other insects? Yes, they can appear too. Don’t leave food outside your tent, and pack well your food inside.
Natural disasters? Yes, possible. If you are in the high Tibetan plateau, you may face a sudden blizzard or thunderstorm. Don’t camp close to a river, because a sudden rain can cause a flood. If you are in South China, you may also face heavy rain, even a typhoon. Again, don’t camp near the rivers, look for high and remote places.
And in general, bring good gear with you! If you plan to go to high mountains, or in winter, bring a 4-season tent, proper for cold weather. If you go to South China in the summer, bring a good waterproof tent, because the rains are often. You can see more information about tents here.
No matter how would you like to spend your nights during your journey in China, just have in mind all these peculiarities. As I said, the easiest way is just to make a trip by a travel company as a tourist. But for adventure travelers (as I am too), independence is very important and part of the exciting experience. And concerning accommodation (and transport) it has its specific Chinese features. Just learn them, plan accordingly and enjoy your trip to China.