10 things you should pack when you move to China

Packing for ChinaI remember one of the biggest headaches when I found out we were moving to China was figuring out what to pack. I had no idea what to expect and was completely overwhelmed. Will I be able to buy what I need when I get there? What is and isn’t available? What if I don’t pack it and then they don’t have it? What if I forget something and then need it???

(There are several things on this list that I didn’t bring the first time… I was lucky enough to make a trip back to the States just 2 months after we moved. The result was one of our return bags weighing 87 pounds!)

I did do some research (a lot, actually) but realized that much of it seemed outdated, especially considering how much China has changed in the last 10-15 years. The smartest thing I did was to get in touch with several other expats who made the move months before I did to get advice.

The amount of stuff you’ll bring with you will obviously depend on how much shipping space you are allotted. However, all of these things were “must haves” for me. Hopefully, my list will give you a starting point, and feel free to comment or email me if you have any questions on other items you are considering.

#1. Deodorant

I’m really not sure why you can’t find deodorant here, but you can’t. Chalk it up as a big cultural difference, I guess? I don’t know whether Chinese people just don’t sweat or they do but don’t feel the need to mask the smell that comes along with it. But either way, you’ll need to pack a supply of deodorant for as long as you’ll be China. You won’t be able to buy it here.

#2. Laptop with VPN

Apple MacBook Pro MC374LL/A 13.3-Inch Laptop Let me preface this by saying, I was totally a desktop girl before we started this whole adventure. The Left Brain built (yes, built. He’s awesome like that.) me a REALLY nice, souped up desktop for my birthday a couple of years ago and I love it! It is much faster and has more storage than nearly any laptop on the market. However, with the amount of traveling that goes along with an expat assignment, I really think a laptop is necessary. I got a 13″ MacBook Pro the day before we left and I have to admit it is really handy. We can hook it up to the TV to watch DVD’s or stream internet TV (with the Apple you’ll need a Mini DisplayPort to HDMI cable). It’s small and easily fits in my shoulder bag when we’re traveling. And it’s great for blogging on the go!

The other thing you’ll need to go along with your laptop is a good VPN service to access the internet through the Great Firewall of China (which blocks Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc. and you can’t live without that, can you?) We use Witopia.net and it is a great service. Maybe pricier than some, but they have servers all over the world (so you can pretend you are in nearly any country you want to depending on the website you want to access.) And their customer service is fantastic. We have the Combo plan at $69.99 per year, which lets me connect my laptop through PersonalVPN plus the iPod Touch through PPTP. Works great. Plus, that’s only $6 per month and with the cheap internet rates here, you’re still getting out cheaper than you’d be paying for internet service in the States.

#3. Shoes

Ok. I know this seems like an obvious thing to pack, but here’s the thing… unless you have relatively small feet you won’t be able to buy shoes here. That means you need to make sure you have shoes for all seasons. (Ladies, the streets are gross… you can skip the open toes and sandals and save the packing space. I seriously doubt you’ll want to wear them after you get here. I know… it’s a bummer!) The largest woman’s size I’ve been able to find here is a European 40. To give you an idea, I wear a US 8.5 which seems to be around a 41. Men, a US 10 is the biggest size you’ll find (and those are sometimes difficult.)

**Guys, at this point you can skip straight to #5. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.**

#4. Tampons

In a country with half a billion women who are most likely NOT pregnant thanks to the one child policy, it is truly beyond me why you can’t find a normal tampon around here. Seriously, Tampax… where are you?? There is a huge aisle in most supermarkets devoted to feminine hygiene products, however, the ONLY kind of tampons I’ve been able to find here is a box of OB that was apparently made for fairies or something similar in size.

This box apparently contains 8. Tell me how that is possible?

Tampax. Please come to China.

‘Nuff said.

Moving on, now.

5. Coffee Maker and Coffee (I suggest Dunkin Donuts Whole Bean)

Whole Bean Dunkin Donuts DecafYou probably already know that Chinese people drink tea. Not the amazingly sweet and syrupy stuff we drink in South Carolina. But hot tea. They aren’t really into coffee. Which I find incredibly unfortunate. I LOVE coffee. Starbucks is making it more popular and you can find several small coffee shops selling espresso drinks, but brew at home is a little trickier.

We have both Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts here in Shenyang, and they sell ground coffee. (Not whole bean though. And no decaf.) Many of the import stores sell ground coffee too (although none of it is as good as Dunkin’s, and no decaf there either). However, getting a coffee maker is another story. You can find them here. Metro sells several, but the cheapest one is around $80 US, and that is for a 4-cup, off-brand, cheapo that would cost you $15 at Walmart and probably makes bad coffee. Aerobie AeroPress Coffee and Espresso Maker Don’t get me wrong. I would spend $80 for a coffee maker, just not one that makes bad coffee. For those of you in countries with 220-volt electricity, count yourselves lucky. I couldn’t even bring my coffee maker with me since it was made for the US 110v power.

My solution was this nifty little contraption I found on Amazon called the AeroPress Coffee and Espresso Maker. It makes great single cups of coffee (or up to 4 at a time) and doesn’t use electricity so I don’t have to worry about voltage no matter where I am (it goes with me when we travel too.) It is essentially a French Press, but it’s faster and easier to clean. I also packed a small hand-held grinder for my whole bean coffee (which you’ll need to bring because they don’t sell it here unless you make friends with one of the coffee shops).

#6. A Pharmacy of Drugs

Medicine to pack when you move to ChinaMost over the counter medicines can be found in China. And the nice thing is they are cheaper than you can get in the States. However, I would suggest packing a pretty good supply to hold you over until you can figure out where to get them. There is nothing worse than getting sick and having no idea where to get the stuff to make you feel better. Definitely pack some Pepto for an upset stomach, some cold and cough medicine, allergy medicine, and pain relievers.

#7. Chinese – English Dictionary

This also probably goes without saying. But remember to pack this somewhere handy. You’ll need it as early as the taxi ride from the airport. If you are going to one of the bigger cities like Hong Kong or Shanghai you may find someone who speaks English. Anywhere else in China… don’t count on it.

#8. Taco Seasoning & Ranch Dressing Mix

And any other spices you are particularly fond of cooking with. I packed big jars of both of these and I’m very glad I did. You can find a lot of the spices we use in the US like basil, parsley, and oregano, but it took me a while and they are in the import store. Garlic powder, salt, pepper, red pepper, and five spice are everywhere. Anything Mexican or Southwestern is non-existent. (Dang it, I would kill for some guacamole right now.)

#9. Kindle or other E-Reader

Kindle 3G Wireless Reading Device, Free 3G + Wi-Fi, 3G Works Globally, Graphite, 6″ Display with New E Ink Pearl Technology You won’t find English books except in the largest tourist cities. You may be able to find some of them on Amazon.cn or Ebay but remember China censors what printed materials come into the country also. The best thing, especially if you’re an avid reader like me, is to pick up one of the new e-readers. We got the Kindle 3G Global Wireless which is fantastic (and dangerous. it’s so easy, it can get expensive fast.) because you can download books instantly anywhere in the world via wifi. We love the Kindle because it reads just like a book. I know a lot of people say that the e-readers are just not the same as reading a real book, but the Kindle is incredibly close. It isn’t backlit (which means you can’t read in the dark without a light) and therefore doesn’t make your eyes tired like a computer screen. Actually, we love ours so much we had to get a second because we fought over whose turn it was to use it.

#10. Reminders of home

You’ll want to make sure you bring things that make your new place feel like home. This will probably be different for everyone. This can be photos or artwork or decorations. The thing we were very glad we packed was our blankets and pillows from home. It was so nice when the shipment came to be able to curl up on the couch with my favorite fleece throw. A mattress topper is a good idea if you have room as the beds here are like concrete. Don’t bother with sheets though. The bed sizes are different and it’s unlikely they’ll fit.

Like I mentioned before, the list will be different for everyone. But if any of these are things you like to have around, you’ll want to bring them with you when you move to China.

What else should be added to the list? What would you be sure to pack when moving to the other side of the world? What couldn’t you live without?


25 thoughts on “10 things you should pack when you move to China

  1. Hey, great blog post and very useful ( I am moving to Shenyang in 9 days, which I see you have been to by your picture at the top). This is the best list I have read so far so thanks for putting the time into it, it really helps fellow travelers.

  2. 1. Do you now stink?
    2. Woohoo Apple….
    3. Do you wear the same shoes everyday – ones you can wipe off – or have the I-E (or was it E-I) wipe off?
    4. No comment….untill you are back and we can laugh in face. But 8? Really? Huh!
    5. Do you not drink cold brew? I’m still hooked! And the nutritionalist agrees that I can have it….
    6. Ok…good idea
    8. Huh! Who would have known?
    9. Goes everywhere with me anyway, wouldn’t have forgot it.
    10. Of course … I agree.

    • 1. Nope. I packed like 10 sticks for each of us. We definitely don’t stink. =)
      2. I agree. I love it!

      3. Heck no. You know me… I have a different pair of boots for every day of the week. I left about half my collection in SC thanks to the open-toe aversion, but I still packed around 15 pair. =) I have bought a couple here too. I just have to hear a lot of “mei you”s (Don’t Have) before I find one that fits. Bought a pair of Converses the other day for $15 bucks (I think they were men’s, but with those, who would know?)

      5. I drink cold brew in the summer. But I like the hot stuff in the winter. And I like that I can make one cup at a time with the press so I don’t waste the precious grinds. How do you make your cold brew? I’ve been trying to think of how to make the cold brew in my press. I think I can figure out a way with a little experimentation.

      8. Yeah. I still haven’t found chili powder and paprika. It’s weird the things you don’t really think about until you can’t get them.

      9. They are definitely fantastic!!! We LOVE ours. I have the new gray one and he has the 1st gen. The new one is awesome… I won’t even let him try it because I’m scared he’ll have to have it. ha.

      10. Wish I had packed more for the walls though. They look so bare and white.

  3. 1. The Chinese think if you are stinking there is something wrong so you go to the Dr for meds. Really it’s not good for your body to not sweat and unless you are eatting something really funky or not bathing you shouldn’t just stink.
    2. Just FYI, you need to take that one out. If anyone does a search and it’s linked to you the GFoC may cut your service off. Best to not say the company name and such and leave it at that. : ) I just know what’s going on enough to pass the warning along.
    3. Sorry you are having trouble with shoes. I have several open toes and flip flops with me that I wear all summer. I just have them for outside use only. You know you can have shoes made here though, right?
    4. First, OB saves on trash by not haveing an applicator to it, so you have to insert it with your finger, that’s why the box is so small. Second, it’s also unhealthy to use tampons very much and they have really bad plumping here. Can you imagine squat pots getting clogged up!
    5. Our little coffee maker makes 2 cups at a time and it’s just like our mini one in long term storage, keep shopping!
    6. You know you can get pain meds and tummy meds here, right? No need to ship all that with you. You can go to Global Dr too if you have too and they have meds. : )
    Allergie meds ship and buy a mask. It really helps.
    7. Been here a year and don’t have one and wouldn’t use it if I did. I can’t go everywhere with a book in hand. We do have an app on the ipod touch and I use it if I really have to but most times don’t think to even pick one up since they are the kids.
    8. Taco mix you can get in several places, baking good you will need to bring with you. Ranch dressing you can find in many places but not the buttermilk to go with the seasoning mix. Now to find sour cream. BTW, I’ve bought guacamole mix before and you can buy avicados at YooHoo. Some places you can find the guacamole already mixed up but it looks too white. I’m too much a baby to try it. At least we can get ships that are yummy imports!
    9. We bought an iPad in Shanghai. Now he is reading and I never get it. Was looking at the nook. I played with the Sony ones and don’t like them at all.
    10. Do bring sheets! The kings work just fine, they are a tad big but not noticeable while sleeping, just in the making of the bed. Twins work great too. I have yet to see a queen bed to know. I would not make it without my major count sheets! I can’t stand the bottom sheet not being more attached to the bed. It’s a Princess and the Pea thing.
    You can find cheap soft mattress or toppers at IKEA.
    Picture frames can be hard to find. (I’m still looking for frames will be picking some up this summer when we are home. Last summer was books for kids and spices.)

    My adds:
    If you bake, Crisco!! If you can’t pack it ship it! Cookie sheets, cake pans, muffin tins. MIXER! The few mixers we have seen have only had bread hooks.
    Stain remover. Ayi or not, they don’t have good stain remover here and 5spice can leave stains.
    A tv splitter, so you can hook up more things as a lot of the tv’s don’t have enough plugs. Our’s was cheap at Wal-MArt, in the USA can’t get it here, and doesn’t use electricity! Also have apple tv.
    Skype and you have to have video!!! Talking is one thing but getting to see the newborn at teh hospital and the old frined before they pass really helps.
    Throat spray. I still cant believe they don’t have any. (They pull on their neck every 5 minutes all day when they have a sore throat an dsay that helps. )
    Hydrogen Peroxid (I know, it’s amazing.)
    With kids, washable art tools, crayons, markers, paint, cause it’s not going to come off if you buy them here UNLESS you go to the one and only Crayola store and the price is CRAZY high.
    Candy you love! (though there is a Hersey store in Shanghai it’s not like we live there!)

    Like you, I talked to people before comming but so many said, “come and you will know what you need on your first trip home.” Thanks! but, I get shipped over before hand and they don’t pay for a 2nd shipment. We went home too because we really needed some things and I wasn’t waiting a year to get them. Besides, I had to get me some of those new baby hold in oe he would be 14 months before I saw him. : )

    • I’m moving to Xi’an with my 6yr old daughter in August. The school I’m working for will pay for shipping, but are there things you CANNOT ship? I take Effexor (anti-anxiety) can I bring that into china? Will they prevent us from shipping my daughters children’s books? Can I ship spices like chili powder and ranch? Can I ship seeds to plant a little basil or oregano in my apartment? Can I ship protein powder? Have you used Amazon China? If so how does it compare to Amazon US? Are there other good online shopping stores?
      Thanks in advance.

    • I would just like to point out that this comment: 1) makes no sense at all and 2) this person clearly has never lived in China for any extended period of time.

      If you’re moving to China, please do yourself a favor and ignore this comment.

  4. Is it illegal to use VPN for things like Facebook while in China? I’m probably moving to Kunming in the next few months, and as a foreigner I know I don’t want to draw attention to myself. Is it at all risky, or is completely legal? I LOVE YOUR BLOG!

    • I do not believe it is illegal to use a VPN in China. I’ve never heard of anyone having a problem anyway. All of the expats I know use some sort of private connection service. A VPN is really just a way to connect through a secure portal. The same thing companies use to share info on their private servers. Read up on witopia’s website… They explain it very well.

      • It is actually illegal to use facebook in China but the thing is, like many laws there, they do not enforce it that often. Of course if you can live without it I would because the things they do to people in China who break their laws is never pretty.

  5. Thanks for the good advice. Some areas I am wondering about that perhaps you can clarify (or not):
    1. Would you recommend buying foreign cigarettes (e.g. Dunhills) and foreign liquor (e.g. Johnny Walker or a cognac) on the international flight into China – to give away as gifts? I used to live in Taiwan and always did this – and it was a Godsend to my local friends.
    2. What is the situation with US taxes on foreign earnings? Is there a best way to send remittances to the states – like a preferred banking agency?
    3. What about prescription drugs? I have a couple of prescriptions that I renew every couple of months – do you think I can get those through the Chinese customs/mail system easily? My health carrier in California assures me that it is not a problem, but I have my doubts about their experience in dealing with international settings.
    Thanks for whatever advice you might have …

    • oops. overlooked this one somehow. better late than never?
      1. I’ve never done that but I’m sure the locals (and even the local expats) would appreciate it as a gift. If it were just for me personally, I would probably just buy what I wanted before I left and pack it in my checked luggage.
      2. To be honest, I have no idea on this one. We have a tax advisor who takes care of all of that.
      3. Nearly all prescription drugs can be found here in China, and they are cheap too! I don’t think you’ll have any issues shipping them either if you prefer to do it that way. I think you just have to have the prescription included.

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  7. Oh wow! I have just found this blog. Thank you so much. :) I am from SC also. We will know for sure in a few weeks or so if we will be moving to Shendang. I am excited and anxious all at the same time. Some of the things on your packing list are questions I have been wondering about. I am going read every post on here. Thanks again. Have a great day!

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  10. With regards to guacamole, it is extremely simple easy to make from scratch! ;-)

    With regards to a VPN, Relax!
    It almost sounds like many think of it as a ‘thing’ to be discovered! Subscribe to the service for a year or two before you go.Thereafter you can renew via PayPal. Most VPN provider websites are blocked from within China, so its Catch 22.

    If for personal use, no big deal. If for a family and you want to use it for secure phone communications as well, you might check into a multiple user (Home Office) plan covering all (in terms of number) of the intended devices. Not difficult, but it may raise your ~$70/year subscription to about double that per year. It is a service you log into, nit a thing. Think of it as logging into an intermediate service and then logging into the destination. There is nothing to be ‘discovered’ – unless you simply feel compelled to advertise it! And I suggest you just keep it to yourself!

    Has anyone had experience looking (and actually finding) bike helmets large enough to actually fit an adult lao wei? I know, I know you will look like the only crazy person amidst the sea of crazy drivers.

    Also, if one has small children, you might want to bring a child’s safety seat for cars.

    Re coffee makers and various other appliances.
    One might consider sourcing 220v appliances to carry over from sources such as East-West Intl ( http://www.eastwestintl.com/office_appliances/laser_printer.htm ). A little pricy, but at least you can source them and take them with you as opposed to not finding them at all.

    Also, and alternative is to use a step down transformer. These can work fine BUT you cannot simply use the ones included in conversion packages! They MUST be properly sized for the device and they MUST be rated larger than the intended load, otherwise you will simply burn up your device. Undersized/inadequate transformers are the reason for so many discouraging transformers.These are available cheaply at the major electronics malls. If you want to cover most of the bases, a 3000watt unit will handle most all of the common appliances. (You can look at them on Amazon, but wait until you get to CH to buy them)

    Also, while veterinarians May carry some brands of cat/dog food (at least in the tier 1 cities – good luck elsewhere!!!), if you need anything other than the basic Purina fare, BRING IT WITH YOU.

    While large containers of white vinegar is available for vinegar-water vegie and fruit soaking/rinses to remove residue and kill surface bacteria, I would be interested to see if anyone has located a source for LARGE containers of baking soda.(useful for a million things, including putting on the bottom of cat litter boxes to negate odors.

    Also, I am still convinced that hydrogen peroxide has to be available somewhere! (Carrefour, WalMart, etc…..) Anyone haing any luck.

    Baking powder can be found on TaoBao if you can’t find it in one of the local bigbox western stores (Carrefour,WalMart)

  11. Do you have any trouble downloading kindle books via wifi? Do I need both the 3G and wifi or if I just have the kindle wifi will it work? Do I need to set up a VPN with my kindle?


    • We had the 3G version and never had a problem downloading books from anywhere. I *believe* the wifi version works as well though.

  12. Nice Blog! My wife and I are from Greenville, SC and have been living here in China since 2006. Life is certainly different but fun here!

  13. This list is very useful! I just accepted a teaching position in Zhenjiang, and I will be leaving in two weeks. I didn’t even think to bring these things, but now that I’ve come across this post, I’m making a very detailed “to buy” list! Thanks! :)

  14. Thanks for this! My husband and I are near Greenville, SC and looking to move to China soon! It just feels like there’s so much to plan for lol. How’s the clothing situation? I’m a bigger girl, but shrinking so it’s hard to plan in advance what to bring… How much extra did it cost to have an overweight bag?