Traveling to China for business can be incredibly exciting, especially if you’ve never had the chance to visit China before. However, your first trip to China – especially if you’re going for business – can also be rather intimidating. If you don’t speak the language and aren’t familiar with the customs, there will be plenty of opportunities to stick your foot in your mouth.
But not to worry. With a bit of planning, some humility, and these tips, you can help ensure that your trip is a success.
China Business Etiquette Tips
1. Ask Your Colleagues For Advice
If anyone in your company has already been to China on business, meet with them to ask any questions you have about what to expect. Lists like this are helpful for covering the basics, but if someone in your company has first-hand experience meeting with the actual people you’re going to meet with, that insider knowledge is going to be invaluable to you.
2. Start Looking For Good Gifts
In China, it’s commonplace for business people to exchange small gifts when meeting for the first time, especially when one of the parties has travelled internationally to get there. So start thinking early about what sort of gift might be appropriate for the people you’re meeting with. Try to make it personal and thoughtful, but not too showy. Try to make it something unique to the place you’re from that would be a novelty in China. And also think about what you will be able to pack with ease.
3. Make Sure Your Passport is Up to Date and Secure a Business Visa
Obtaining a business visa to China requires a letter of invitation from an authorized party within China, and that’s not something you’ll want to ask for at the last minute. Your passport also needs at least six months of validity left on it in order to visit China, so if yours is set to expire this year, it’s time to renew. You can make the whole process easier and save yourself a trip to the Chinese Consulate by working with a company like Swift. (If applying for your visa yourself, you’ll need to go to the consulate twice – once to apply in person and a second time to pick up your visa. If you work with us, we can send your visa to you via FedEx or a courier service. Just saying.)
4. Give Yourself Time to Recover
If you’re traveling to China from somewhere in the United States, you’re looking at a very, very long flight. Keep that in mind when you schedule your flights and your meetings. You may need a day or more to fully recover and be at your best before heading into a big negotiation. Don’t overbook that time, and expect to be tired. If you manage to avoid jetlag, awesome! But don’t count on it.
5. Pack a Few Essentials
If you’re visiting a big city like Beijing, be aware that air quality is going to be an issue. Plan ahead by packing a pollution mask and some eye drops. You’ll also want to bring a few power converters so you can charge up your American devices in China, and you may also want to bring things like antacids or anti-diuretics if you have a weak stomach, as you will likely be expected to try some foods that aren’t part of your usual diet. Better safe than sorry.
6. Remember That China is a Big Place
It’s WAY bigger than America. Would you pack the same way for a meeting in Birmingham as you would for one in Seattle? Would you expect the food or the culture to be the same? Obviously not. China is a diverse place with many different languages, ethnic groups, cultures, styles, and customs. Learn what you can about the specific place you are going to and not just China in general – you’ll be glad you did.
7. Tell Your Bank Where You’re Going
Getting your credit cards shut off while traveling is no fun. Be sure to warn your bank, and also look into the most affordable way to exchange currency while you’re in China. While more and more hotels and restaurants in China accept major credit cards, the preferred currency in many locations is cash, so you’ll need to turn your dollars into yuan at some point. And if you want to get some souvenirs, be prepared to haggle.
8. Be Prepared For Negotiations to Take Time
Business dealings in China are rarely hasty ordeals. Expect any negotiations or agreements to take a while, and be prepared to put in the necessary face time. Be aware that no doesn’t always mean no, and yes doesn’t always mean yes…
9. Be Punctual and Polite
Always, always be on time, and always be respectful. If you’re not sure whether a gesture or a touch – such as a handshake or a hug – is appropriate, wait for your host to initiate. Try a bit of every food that is offered to you, and learn to use chopsticks before you arrive. Don’t open gifts that you’re given in the room, but show gratitude. And always give and receive objects with two hands and a slight bow.
10. Schedule Appointments in Advance
Scheduling appointments in advance is recommended, especially during the months of April, May, June, September, and October. While Chinese business people typically forgive faux pas in visitors’ behavior, having a firm grasp of business etiquette in China is apt to impress your overseas colleagues, contacts, and clients.
11. Allow Your Host to Order For You at Business Lunches/Dinners
Business lunches/dinners in China are often held in a restaurant’s private room. Unless you’re familiar with the menu, allow your host to order the food. Most meals consist of soup, different vegetables and meats, and plenty of rice. You can expect the food to be hearty and exotic, and you will likely spend an extended amount of time eating and socializing during the gathering.
12. Let Your Host Pay For Business Lunches/Dinners
The host is the one who pays the bill, although you can offer to pay if you mention it before the meal. Fighting over the bill is standard for business lunches in China, making it necessary to mention your intention to pay beforehand to avoid arguments. Tipping in restaurants is simply not done.