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Most Chinese people dress for comfort, and you can do the same. There's little risk of offending people with your dress; Westerners tend to attract attention regardless of attire. Although miniskirts are best left at home, pretty much anything else goes. Sturdy, comfortable, closed-toe walking shoes are a must. Summers are dusty and hot, so lightweight slacks, shorts, and short-sleeve shirts are great options. A light raincoat is useful in spring and fall. Come winter, thermal long underwear is a lifesaver. A long overcoat, scarf, hat, and gloves will help keep icy winds at bay. That said, in Beijing you can arrive unprepared: the city is a shopper's paradise. If you can't fit a bulky jacket in your suitcase, buy a cheap one upon arrival. Scarves, gloves, and hats are also cheap and easy to find.
Carry packets of tissues and antibacterial hand wipes with you—toilet paper isn't common in Chinese public restrooms. A small flashlight with extra batteries is also useful. Chinese pharmacies can be limited, so take adequate stocks if you're picky about lotions and potions. Beijing is quite dry, so moisturizer is a must. Choice is also limited for feminine-hygiene products, so bring along extra.
If you're planning a longer trip or will be using local guides, bring a few items from your home country as gifts, such as candy, T-shirts, and small cosmetic items like lipstick and nail polish. Be wary of giving American magazines and books, though, as these can be considered propaganda.
If you're a U.S. citizen traveling abroad, consider registering online with the State Department (travelregistration.state.gov/ibrs/ui), so the government will know to look for you should a crisis occur in the country you're visiting.
All U.S. citizens, even infants, need a valid passport with a tourist visa stamped in it to enter China (except for Hong Kong, where you only need a valid passport). Getting a tourist visa (known as an "L" visa) in the United States is straightforward, but be sure to check the Chinese embassy Web site and call them to make sure you're bringing the correct documents. Visa regulations sometimes change on short notice. Standard visas are for single-entry stays of up to 30 days and are valid for 90 days from the day of issue (NOT the day of entry), so don't get your visa too far in advance. Costs range from $130 for a tourist visa issued within two to three working days to $160 for a same-day service.
Travel agents in Hong Kong can also issue visas to visit mainland China. The visa application will ask your occupation. The Chinese authorities don't look favorably upon those who work in publishing or the media. People in these professions routinely state "teacher" under "occupation."
Under no circumstances should you overstay your visa. To extend your visa, go to the Division of the Entry and Exit of Aliens of the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau a week before your visa expires. The office is also known as the Foreigner's Police; it's open weekdays 8 am to noon and 1:30 pm to 4 pm. Under normal circumstances it's generally no problem to get a month's extension on a tourist visa. Bring your passport and a registration of temporary residency from your hotel. Keep in mind that you'll need to leave your passport there for five to seven days. If you're trying to extend a business visa, you'll need the above items as well as a letter from the business that originally invited you to China.
CIBT Visas (800/929–2428. cibtvisas.com/china-visa.php.)
Consulate General of the People’s Republic of China (520 12th Ave., New York, NY, 10036. 212/244–9456 or 212/244–9392. www.nyconsulate.prchina.org.)
Embassy of the People's Republic of China, Washington (2201 Wisconsin Ave. NW, Suite 110, Washington, DC, 20007. 202/337–1956. www.china-embassy.org.)
Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau Division of the Entry and Exit of Aliens (2 Andingmen Dong Dajie, Dongcheng District, Beijing, 100007. 010/8401–5300 or 010/8402–0101.)