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Foreigners Are Still Banned From Most Hotels in China

You can travel off the beaten path in China, but where will you sleep?

off-the-beaten-path-china

Imagine this: You travel to a new city, scour the streets looking for a good, cheap place to sleep, and when you finally find one you’re told you can’t stay just because you’re a foreigner. Now play this story out over and over again for 90% of the hotels you try to stay in and you have an idea of what it’s like to travel in China.

Technically, Chinese hotels are suppose to have a special permit before they can admit foreign guests. To get this permit they first must have the proper surveillance equipment installed — meaning a computerized registration system — and, or so it is my impression, be up to snuff and project the image of China that the government wants the outside world to see, which is to say: modern, developed, new, clean, and expensive.

These rules are nothing new, but, from my previous travels through China, I don’t remember them ever being enforced very readily. It has been my experience that one out of every two or three inns that didn’t have a foreigner’s permit would let you stay anyway. Like so, travel in this country was not that much of a hassle: when denied at one inn you’d just walk over to another until you found one that didn’t give a shit. But now this seems to be getting more difficult, for the first time in all my travels in China I was defeated when trying to find accommodation.

I can’t find a hotel in Jiangyin

I was riding a bicycle from Taizhou a hundred or so kilometers to Huaxi, the “miracle” village with a skyscraper, when I broke a peddle. I limped the bike into Jiangyin, and got it fixed up at a local bicycle shop. By then it was night so I figured I’d just sleep there and continue my journey the following day. I began looking for a cheap inn to bed down in.

I quickly found one and asked for a room. The lady running the place was shucking corn in the lobby, and she looked at me funny for a moment and asked if I was from China. I knew what was coming. I answered that I live in Taizhou in the crispest Mandarin I could muster. She asked me where I’m from. I responded that I live in Taizhou a second time, but it was of no use — I admitted that I was from the United States.

“You can’t stay here,” she spoke matter of factly.

“But I went to Zhejiang University, I live in China,” I tried to protest.

It wasn’t happening. I couldn’t stay in this inn.  My foreign face and accent gave me away, and the inn would not give me a room no matter how much I pleaded. No problem, I’ll just walk on to the next one. I asked the lady at the reception desk if she knew of another cheap inn 旅馆 that I could stay at. She told me to go to a hotel 宾馆. The difference between the two is one little character, but the impact is colossal:  it means the difference between spending $5 and $30.

I then began the march which all long term travelers and expats in China know so well. I went from inn to inn, cheap hotel to cheap hotel, trying to get one of them to let me stay. Most just said “no way” outright. Some were polite, others a touch rude. They all said, “go to a hotel,” as though spending exponentially more money for the same service was a simple solution.

The situation became futile as the night wore on. Even a Home Inn — a modern, Western style hotel chain — would not let me stay. At one point, when I was trying to talk a hotel manager into giving me a room a young guy got in my face and spoke Mandarin in a slow retard voice: “You. Are. A. Foreigner. You. Can’t. Stay. Here.” In another situation, an inn owner who previously denied me a room actually followed me outside and down the street to make sure that I wouldn’t find a different place nearby to stay at  — I would walk into an inn and she would follow behind me making sure the managers knew that they couldn’t give me a room. I went to another part of town and found myself being given the boot from yet another hotel. This time I turned around and told the manager that I was from Xinjiang, but it was to no avail:  “You’re still a foreign guest,” he said in a way that I could not tell if he was joking or serious.

I had probably requested accommodation at a dozen hotels, just to be kicked back out into the street by all of them. Usually, I can find an inn that doesn’t care about the permit, who doesn’t really know about rules, or wants my money enough to harbor me for a night or two. Sometimes I can get a room by explaining that I’m a Chinese resident, I live in the country, work here, study here etc . . . But nothing was working in Jiangyin.

The fact of the matter was that the only places that would take my kind in that city were the fancy hotels. I walked into one for kicks, and I was met with a big, welcoming smile and told that a room would cost 200 RMB ($32). That’s not a fortune, but it’s a large amount of money when the inns are charging a mere 40.

It was the time of a national holiday, so this may have had a play into why these hotels were so inclined to stick to the rules, but that doesn’t justify the fact that thousands and thousands of foreigners are living long term in a country that doesn’t permit them the liberty to choose their own place of accommodation.

Why does China care where foreigners sleep?

zhangjiagang-new-china

The New China

It is my impression that these are the reasons why China restricts foreigners’ access to accommodation:

  1. For public surveillance. It’s far easier to keep track of foreigners if they are only permitted to stay at a few well known places in a city rather than in any little rat hole set up as a luguan.
  2. For face. There is a MASSIVE divide between the image that China wants to promote to the outside world and the reality behind this front. China seems to view every foreigner as a potential ambassador, and likewise only wants them to see the modern, wealthy, powerful sides of the country. It’s my impression that the government feels they could lose face by having foreigners reporting home about the grubby hotel room they stayed in for $3 — by having foreigners see and experience a side of the country they pretend doesn’t exist. Having foreigners getting robbed, cheated, in altercations, or getting too close to local people and events is also not good for the country’s face
  3. For our protection. Foreigners in China are often treated as dumb children, as people who need to be watched over and taken care of. The Chinese seem to think that their language, writing system, and customs are too complicated for us to understand, and we may get ourselves in trouble or lost when traveling because of it.
  4. For money. There are literally seas of star-rated hotels all around China that are severely lacking guests. For one thing, they’re too expensive: most Chinese people are staying in the cheap joints. So to get some economic leverage foreigners are directed towards these places or international youth hostels. This is not as bad as it was twenty years ago, as there is now a good hosteling system and chains of mid-ranged hotels, but “government approved” accommodation generally cost more than the inns which catering to a local-only clientele.
  5. Social organization and bureaucracy. It is an understatement to say that China is a highly bureaucratic country. There are rules for everything, and overbearing organizational systems categorize and place everyone. Very often, the policies that stem from this system are ridiculous and unworkable in reality, but this doesn’t seem to change anything. Politically speaking, this is still a very Communist country. In this system it perhaps makes sense to have hotels for foreigners and others for locals. It’s just the way things are done here.
  6. Many small hotels and inns simply don’t bother getting the foreigner permit. These places simply don’t cater to foreigners, so why should they go through the hassles and pay the expenses related to getting a permit to house them? I don’t know how difficult or expensive it is for a hotel to get these permits, but, as many branches of big and wealthy hotel chains often don’t have them, I’m guessing that it’s no small amount.

China likes to keep it’s foreign population at arm’s length, but the reality of the matter is that we’re here, and we’ve become a part of the country — a fact the central government doesn’t really seem to know what to do with.

If they want to keep tourists away from seeing the underbelly of China, fine — I don’t agree with it, but I can understand it — but preventing people who live and work here from staying in the most economical hotels is more than a touch onerous. Being a tourist in a foreign country is like dating it: you go around and see its outward show, you see the good things it has to offer, you only experience its best side. Living in a foreign country is like you’re married to it: you see it’s dirty underwear, it’s bad habits, and what the place is really like beneath the surface. While it’s rather archaic for China to ban tourists from staying in their choice of hotel, it’s an insult that they do the same for foreign residents who live and work here.

500,000 to a million foreigners live in China, but the country doesn’t yet seem comfortable with this fact. Foreigners are all across China working, studying, renting apartments, buying homes, making business investments — living. Maybe there was once a day when foreigners would rarely get off the tourist trail here, but now we are stationed throughout the land. We are here in China, and we are everywhere — the locust have not only descended, but scattered. I have to laugh as I look at my daughter and think about how she could grow up in China, speak Mandarin and know local customs like a native, and still be turned away from most hotels just because she has a foreign face and was born in another country.

But this is just the way China rolls. This one fact shows how foreigners are viewed here: no matter how close you try to get, no matter how long you live here, you will always be an “outside guest” in this country. Most hotels may as well just hang up the little sign that says “no dogs or foreigners.”

One of the exciting things about living and traveling in China is that things are done differently here — this is truly a different culture that views the world in its own way. The desire to experience and learn from another culture is one of the main draws of traveling, and you get this in full in China. But to pick these fruits you also need to accept the occasional thorn and tolerate many rules, regulations, and customs that seem, simply put, ridiculous. This is just a part of the traveling experience here, and, from I can tell, it’s worth it.

As I rode my bike out of Jiangyin I knew I was defeated, but I wasn’t demoralized.  Being cast out of a hotel and into the street from time to time is part of the price for watching the rise of China in person. I found some bushes next to a highway on the outskirts of town, laid down my tarp, made camp, and slept outside under a clear sky. There was no police registration out here, no checking in, no need to comply with xenophobic government policies, and no chance that I would be denied a place to sleep on the grounds that I’m a foreigner. But, perhaps best of all, there was also no bill.

“Am I safer out here?” I jested to an imaginary Chinese government official as I looked up into the night sky. “Can you monitor me better here? Were you able to sucker more money out of me?” On and on I joked about the contradictions of a country with one foot firmly planet in the future and the other in the stone age.

Wherever I travel off the tourist trail in China I know that there is a reasonable chance that I will not be able to find a good priced hotel that will offer me accommodation, so I must always prepared for plan B: camping on the sly, in the bushes with the birds and bugs.

Filed under: Accommodation, China, Travel Stories

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3546 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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Wade Shepard is currently in: Astoria, New York

18 comments… add one

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  • Jack October 8, 2012, 8:05 am

    Awesome and relevant post. We visited Urumqi over the summer and stayed in one of the larger hotels there(staying in the small ones seem to be impossible out here). Upon checkin, we paid the 550 RMB per night rate and had to fill out the paper copies of the police registration. Talk about a hassle of filling out 4 copies of the form just a single night stay. I guess they have to personally take these forms to the police station every day.

    I’m thinking an additional reason why some inns/hotels won’t get that special permit or rent to foreigners could also be that they don’t want to deal with the police too much in their business.

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    • Wade Shepard October 8, 2012, 8:25 am

      For sure, bothering with all the paperwork and hassle of having us waibin under their charge is probably a good reason for many inn owners to tell us to hit the road. It’s probably way easier to just not bother with the foreign straggler or two that saunters in every once in a while. But still, these archaic polices sometimes make it pretty challenging to really travel here — but I guess that is not something the authorities really encourage. Anyway, I always have my tarp packed.

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  • Félix October 8, 2012, 8:59 am

    Damn… sorry to hear that, if I had known I’d have lent you my keys 🙂

    But in all seriousness, I think the whole thing depends tremendously of where you are… this past week in Fujian I never had a single problem (stayed at five different places, never a hesitation) and some were HOLES. I was actually gonna write on that place, but to summarize, it was a very “basic” inn… and in their computer they had by default a registration program that asks passport number, nationality, etc.

    My guess is that it’s a mix of 3 and 6 on your list… mostly don’t-give-a-shitness regarding the very, very, very few foreigners who would even go that route, with a large amount of “oh, laowai are so stupid, if one of them gets in trouble in one lüguan, he won’t be able to communicate, better steer him to a hotel where English is spoken (LAWL!!!)”.

    But it depends where. Same with those damn wangba (internet café), some localities take passports, some refuse EVERY foreigner (looking at you, Liaoning province), some don’t give half a shit and let you in with no registration, some just ask you to write on a list and upon knowing you are a foreigner, tell you to write whatever (like, surprisingly, Xinjiang)…

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    • Wade Shepard October 8, 2012, 10:17 am

      Very true here. Location does matter a lot. Especially so if there are other lüguans nearby that may tell on a competitor if they are breaking the rules by harboring a foreigner. I think the local authorities have a lot to do with it as well, such as if the police or city officials are somehow connected to or in cahoots with the more expensive hotels. But, the way things go in China, I wouldn’t be surprised if I went back to Jiangyin tomorrow and landed a place right off the bat. Inconsistencies seem to be the rule here, you truly never know what to expect — I guess this is part of what makes traveling here so much fun.

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  • trevor October 8, 2012, 11:25 am

    hey Wade…. good post… was refused a room in Kunming “railway hotel” they had a note in english in the draw under the desk in reception “no foreigners”, had trouble in Turpan but got a room eventually… and in Xiahe, nr Lanzhou, all places were excepting foreigners and then word was out that come Saturday only one place in town was being allowed to accept foreigners…but i was allowed to stay on as i had been there b 4 the rule was introduced… it was a back packer friendly place and was told that they were expecting protests (again) and wanted to know for safety reasons where all the tourists were in case we needed to get out quickly… or in other words…. so we could be told to leave before we saw too much that the authorities did not want us to witness….. join the YHA.. great deals on cheap rooms!!! all over china…. Shangri la, Shanghai, Dunhuang, Wululuchi, Kashi, Xian, BJ, Tai an…. and private places too… numerous….

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    • Wade Shepard October 8, 2012, 8:01 pm

      That’s funny that they had a pre-made note. Definitely, those youth hostels are pretty amazing here, and I use them when I can, just wish they were everywhere 🙂

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  • frank January 26, 2013, 6:44 pm

    I’ll suggest a primary reason is that the ruling party controls and gets the money from the expensive hotels, and will punish any local found out (they have surveillance – everyone is trained / rewarded to tattle on everyone) to accommodate foreigners for cheaper and denying the party cadres their profit.
     
    So locals learn it’s just not worth destroying their business for a transiting foreigner.

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  • hitomi April 30, 2014, 7:04 pm

    Had a similar experience, the first time it happened i felt hurt .haha.
    I agree it seems like they think ALL foreigners must have more money so we must pay more. Enjoyed reading this!

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  • Martin August 14, 2015, 8:36 pm

    I am also annoyed that the foreigner rates on booking sites are more than the local rates posted on the walls at the hotel when you arrive. Sometimes it’s best to cancel your reservations and just show up and pay the posted rates, and risk that a room will be available.

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  • blueflavored September 8, 2015, 9:02 am

    This happened to me my first time in Beijing! I’d just gotten out of a student conference and I had a week before my study abroad program started. I was sick and had a lot of luggage, and couldn’t speak Chinese very well, so I booked in person a day in advance just to be safe. When I arrived the manager gave me my money back (despite the tears) and told me to go somewhere else…

    Now that I’ve spent more time here this article really hits home. Constantly being reminded that I’m an outsider is one of the hardest things about living in China for me, to be honest.

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  • TBOU September 24, 2015, 10:49 am

    I think it’s more a combination of face vs rules. I’ve never seen a rule in China that was treated as more than a guideline. Now, providing the impetus to ignore the rule is the key. As a foreigner, I’ve stayed in many Chinese hotels (expensive, chains, and small town hotels). But, my wife is Chinese and, even though I’m an American, we’ve never been refused a hotel when visiting China.

    I think they have no problem turning away a foreigner (no matter how good the Mandarin), but they won’t dare turn away another Chinese with a foreigner no matter the trouble/paperwork. When we are in places visiting local friends, they truly won’t dare turning away the friend of a local and her American husband.

    Now, they will try. We almost were turned away at a 7 Days Inn in Changsha when manager tried to say my visa was expired. But, after I manually turned my passport to the next page to show her the current visa, she grudgingly registered us.

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    • VagabondJourney September 24, 2015, 11:19 am

      Very true. Most of the time it’s no problem staying, but when I’m given the hard time I try to find a local (a helpful student etc) and ask them to show me to a hotel. Never fails. They won’t reject me if with a local.

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      • Wendy December 24, 2015, 9:27 pm

        It has often failed for us. I’m Chinese and my friend is a foreigner and they turn us down right away when they see him. Btw it’s not about your passport or ID it’s about your look – I left China a long time ago and have a foreign passport but no one ever turns me down just because I speak and look Chinese until my friend comes into the picture. I suggest we all write to the tourism department to complain. Btw you should use Qunar app to call cheap hotels and ask if they accept foreigners – it’s saved us so many times.

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    • Wendy December 24, 2015, 9:23 pm

      That is so not true. I’m Chinese and my friend is a foreigner we just got turned down by 10 hotels yesterday in Dandong

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  • Anna Bachmann December 8, 2015, 8:48 am

    We were travelling in China as foreigners nearly 60 days and our goal was to sleep in hotels. As we realized that China has this old-fashion ugly rules, we started to sleep in the rental car. When there was hotel available for tourists, we stayed in hotels. But there are only a few. Most in the cities centre and we do not want to waist our time stay in the traffic jam to get a hotel which does welcome tourists. So we adjust the rental Van and had our good sleepy bag with us. Very easy and we could sleep at this nice spots at the lakes or nice landscapes, where plenty of good hotelrooms were available – but only for Chinese and not for tourists! A shame for China!

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  • Stephen December 4, 2018, 8:42 am

    I had to sleep in an internet cafe in Beijing 🙁

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    • Stephen December 4, 2018, 8:44 am

      Oh, I meant Nanjing, not Beijing.

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  • dave.relax October 4, 2019, 10:22 pm

    Hi I have stayed in the old town Xitang Hostel a few times over the last 3 years. The people there are beautiful and have made some friends there. When we registered at the Hostel we had to scan every page of our passports and send to the police. We did not ever get refused a room. The breakfast was very simple but good. Next door was a old building with restaurant and the owners brother is a great artist. We spent a lot of evening time there as he has a large art room and paints almost every day. We were trying to learn some techniques which he did not mind demonstrating. Will be back again for more and I am sure that we will have to register every page of our Canadian Passports with the police. Going there in a few days and will post what happens.

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