One thing that stands out about China is its massive size, not just the country but its many mega cities, such as Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen. Therefore, knowing how to get around quickly is important for getting by. Thankfully, there are many transportation options that foreign visitors can take advantage of, including subways, buses, bikes, taxis, not to mention walking (though it may take you a while).
You can also take a taxi, though in my experience this can be one of the more difficult ways to travel, as unlike other modes of transportation, directing a taxi to yourself, as well as your destination, requires a much greater degree of communication in Chinese. Therefore, based on my own experience with Chinese taxis, I’d like to share what I consider essential tips for foreign visitors in China, especially those that speak little of the local tongue. So take a few minutes to read through the below tips and before you know it you’ll be an expert at taking a taxi, Chinese style.
Hailing a taxi on your own
- Choose a good location: The first step to having a good “China taxi experience” starts with actually getting one. And for those not familiar with the often chaotic conditions of Chinese traffic, it may not always be clear where the best place is to find a taxi. Based on my own experiences some of the best places include intersections (corners), bus stops, and subway stations exits, and outside major shopping centers. It’s also useful to remember that some, but not all, higher-end hotels can help guests call a taxi, or even have a queue outside where guests (or anyone) can wait.
- Avoid the crowds: One thing many visitors to China are not prepared for is the sheer amount of people. It is not uncommon to see five to ten different people at a single location waiting for a ride, especially during peak hours and at busy locations. One way to improve your chances of grabbing a taxi is to shift locations. At popular locations that draw lots of taxis you can simply walk along the road in the direction cars are coming from to stake out a less competitive spot. Another option is trying a different intersection to try for better luck.
- Be proactive and visible: Another issue that defines life in China is many people competing for a scarce amount of resources. Therefore with taxis it’s first come first serve. Out on the dusty streets of urban China, few people care if you were there first, and there is no line to wait in. Therefore, if there is a free taxi coming (light on and no yellow placard indicating they were reserved by an app) you have to jump out and get it. Also, when waiting by the side of the road, it’s important to make yourself as visible as possible – so step out into the road a little (when safe) and wave your arms to get a driver’s attention.
- Have your address written down: There are never any guarantees that a driver will be able to speak English (almost never) or even understand any Chinese phrases you know. The safest bet is to always keep a list of addresses (or even just place names in Chinese) on your person at all times. If you are coming to China for a business trip or tour, make sure you prepare the Chinese names of your hotels and intended destinations.
Hailing a taxi with an app
- Download Didi Chuxing: The first step to using a ride-hailing app in China is of course to download the app. Didi Chuxing is the main ride-hailing app in China, and therefore the one you’ll want to use no matter what city you’re in. The nice thing about this app is that it comes with an English version, making it easy for visitors to China to start using, right off the bat.
- Know how to say your starting location in Chinese: A major issue that will prevent visitors to China (who don’t speak Chinese) from successfully using ride-hailing apps is the language barrier. Not only do most Chinese drivers not speak English, but there is an enormous reluctance to rely on customers’ GPS locations. As such most drivers, almost without exception, will immediately call a customer upon accepting a fare to ask where they are. So it doesn’t matter if you switch on a ride-hailing app’s English version, the driver will still call you and ask in Chinese for your destination. Therefore, the easiest way to resolve this issue is to learn the Chinese names of the places you often frequent, such as your home, office, and favorite hangouts.
- Have a Chinese friend help you out: An even easier way to use a ride-hailing app for non-Chinese speakers is to enlist the aid of a Chinese friend or coworker. And while it certainly is easier, it is not something I would recommend over the long term, simply because it prevents you from being able to get around Chinese cities, independently. However, if you’re ever in a rough spot and can’t describe a specific location, this technique can save you a lot of time.
- Wave and show your phone: Interestingly, many drivers will assume a foreigner cannot use a Chinese ride-hailing app, even if you’re not able to converse in Chinese over the phone. I’ve therefore found it useful to not only wave to get an incoming driver’s attention (after spotting their license plate) but to wave while clearly showing my phone. This makes it much easier for drivers to understand that you are their fare, and prevent them from continuing down the street and missing you.
- Enable phone payments: I personally recommend that anyone in China for a few months or more enable payments via their smartphones. This is usually fairly easy enough to manage providing you open a Chinese bank account. Once you have a Chinese bank card, you should be able to link that card directly to difference payment services, such as WeChat Pay or AliPay.
- Know where different colored taxis can go: Some large Chinese cities restrict certain types of taxis to certain areas of the cities. For example, in Shenzhen all green-colored taxis are not allowed to enter the city center, while red and blue taxis have free run of the entire metropolis. This is important to be aware of, not just due to differences in price, but because a very small minority of drivers may try to take advantage of passengers by taking on fares they know they cannot complete, and simply dropping them at the boundaries of their no-go zones.
- Learn some Chinese: In the end, the more Chinese you can speak, even only simple sentences, the easier it will be for you to give more complicated directions to taxi drivers. So it’s worth putting in a little more time, if only to make your time in China more enjoyable. To start you off, I’ve listed some simple yet important phrases below that you can using when taking a taxi.
- Make use of hand gestures: Even if you don’t speak Chinese, there is a lot of communication that can be achieved via a liberal use of hand gestures, especially when combined with basic directions in Chinese. This can help you get to your destination quicker, especially when you are familiar with where you are going and the driver may not be.
- There is no tipping in China: While it may be second nature in some countries like the United States, tipping is basically unheard of in China. And while there are certainly no laws that prevent you from doing so, I would recommend disabusing yourself of the habit while in China. Basically, there is no sure way of knowing how someone will react. Some Chinese certainly will be happy to accept extra money, but many more will be embarrassed and refuse to accept your generosity. Therefore, when in China, do as the Chinese do.
- Don’t be a jerk: By and large I have had pretty positive experiences with Chinese taxi drivers over the years, with only a small amount of bad apples. It’s useful to note that many of my bad experiences have been with drivers who themselves have clearly had bad experiences with foreign passengers (e.g. drinking and/or yelling). So please do all visitors to China a favor and treat your driver well (or at least don’t treat them badly). They are simply working to get by, and how you treat them could have a significant impact on the next foreign passenger they meet.
Useful Chinese phrases when taking a taxi
These Chinese phrases are by no means the only ones you could use when speaking to a Chinese driver, but they are the ones I use by far the most on an everyday basis. And if you’re not quite sure how to pronounce some of these Chinese words, you can check out my article on Chinese Pinyin for some in-depth tips.
- I don’t speak Chinese (wǒ bù huì shuō zhōng wén; 我不会说中文)
- I’m a foreigner (wǒ shì lǎo wài; 我是老外)
- Please look at the GPS/navigation system (qǐng kàn dǎo háng; 请看导航)
- Here (zhè lǐ; 这里)
- Turn right (yòu zhuǎn; 右转)
- Turn left (zuǒ zhuǎn; 左转)
- Make a u-turn (diào tóu; 掉头)
- Stop on the right side of the road (kào yòu biān tíng; 靠右边停)
- Drive straight (zhí zǒu; 直走)
- Do you have spare change? (yǒu líng qián má; 有零钱吗)
- I want to pay with my phone (wǒ yào shǒu jī zhī fù; 我要手机支付)
- Thank you (xiè xiè; 谢谢)
In conclusion, taking a taxi in Chinese can be an unfamiliar and sometimes daunting experience, but if you follow the above tips you’ll have a much better chance, not just of reaching your destination, but of enjoying your trip. Happy trails!
Thanks for reading!
Do you have any additional questions about taking a taxi in China? Do you have any personal experiences you would like to share? Please feel free to post your thoughts in the comments section. You can also send a send a message directly to the author on social media.