GSS Country Snapshot
A brief overview of Harvard activities, safety & security, health, cultural, and outbound immigration considerations
Registered Trips in 2023
Harvard University’s academic and research engagement with China runs deep. Historically, China has been a popular destination for Harvard affiliates to study, research, attend conferences, and travel. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, China consistently ranked in the top 10 registered locations for Harvard travelers, and since China re-opened its borders in March 2023, Harvard's travel numbers to the mainland are starting to climb back. China is also home to the Harvard Center Shanghai, a University-wide resource for Harvard faculty, students, and alumni across all of Harvard’s Schools.
On campus in Cambridge, the Harvard China Fund, Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, Harvard-Yenching Institute, Harvard-China Project, Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, and Asia Center support research and interdisciplinary scholarship on China and/or the region through opportunities such as fellowships, trainings, partnerships conferences, and academic study. And each year, anywhere from 1,800-2,300 Chinese students and scholars study at Harvard.
The information below is intended as a high-level summary and is not all encompassing. Situations on the ground can change rapidly. We encourage you to review the additional resources and utilize your Harvard network to learn more. You can also schedule a consultation with us if you’d like to discuss the safety and security or operational matters unique to you and your travel or project. We’ll work with you to minimize risks and help you make informed decisions about your travel and activities.
Safety & Security
The Harvard GSS risk rating for China is moderate risk. Some of the factors that influence this rating for Harvard affiliates include crime, cybersecurity, natural disasters, road safety, strained US-China diplomatic relations, restrictions on political activism, and the risk of arbitrary detention. Petty crime and street scams are risks for travelers, and there are reports of sexual assault on public transportation. Homosexuality is legal but same-sex marriage is not recognized.
The US government has identified a pervasive threat to information security from China, and there is heightened scrutiny between the two nations regarding foreign involvement in research and higher education.
Since China fully re-opened its borders in March 2023 for the first time in three years, a series of new and updated Chinese national security and intelligence laws, coupled with strained US-China diplomatic relations, may heighten the travel risks. Many Chinese laws are written vaguely, they are applicable to activities that occur both inside and outside China, and they are arbitrarily and inconsistently enforced. When in China and its special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macau, travelers are subject to the local laws and may face interrogation, deportation, exit bans, or detention if violating Chinese law.
As with any country, you need to research and consider all factors in the context of your identity, your activities in country, and your familiarity with the country and its culture. Consider your personal, professional, and academic backgrounds and relationships and the increased risks you may face given the cultural, social, and political landscape. If a security incident occurs, contact International SOS through the Assistance App or by dialing +1-617-998-0000.
“There were several times in China where I missed a train home or got lost somewhere, and though I was able to navigate those situations myself, it was reassuring to know I had resources to contact in case things didn't work out.”
– Harvard undergraduate student
Weather and environmental incidents can create safety risks in China. The south is affected by heavy rains, monsoons, and occasionally typhoons during the summer and fall months. The west is earthquake prone, especially near the Tibetan Plateau. Make sure you’re informed, prepared, and have a plan in case a natural disaster occurs. Download the International SOS Assistance App to receive push alerts about incidents in your area.
China has an extensive domestic air network, train network, and an expanding modern highway network. Traffic conditions can be difficult in many locations, and major cities are often congested. Travelers are advised not to self-drive because conditions may vary from what you’re used to. Licensed taxis are an option, and ride sharing applications are available in big cities.
While mobile phone networks are extensive in China, and internet access is widely available throughout the country, the government blocks many websites and mobile apps. Due to internet censorship and surveillance, a Virtual Private Network (VPN) is needed to access most Western news outlets and social media sites. China’s laws for VPN usage are vague, however, and only government-sanctioned VPNs are legal. The government may monitor communications through the approved VPNs, and travelers can assume that all communications are surveilled. Research your legal in-country VPN options prior to departure, and know how to keep your data safe abroad.
"Take a temporary laptop....Use a VPN always, but especially when traveling."
– Harvard research fellow
Make sure you’re up-to-date on any required or recommended vaccines for China. Health risks such as avian influenza, Covid-19, dengue fever, Japanese encephalitis, malaria, rabies, tickborne encephalitis, tuberculosis, typhoid fever, and yellow fever may be present. High levels of smog and air pollution are present, particularly in the winter months. If you're traveling with medication, check to see if your medications are legal and available in China. Many common U.S. medications and supplements are illegal abroad or require special authorization. Visit your doctor or a travel clinic (such as Harvard University Health Services) at least a month before your departure to discuss all health risks and your individual health with a professional, to receive any vaccines or medications you’ll need, and to learn how to reduce your risk of infection or transmission.
All travelers have a small risk of developing traveler’s diarrhea in any country, and it’s common in China. You’re advised to drink only bottled or boiled water, to avoid ice, and to eat only properly prepared food. Learn how to make safe food and drink choices.
The quality of medical facilities varies in China; select facilities can offer good care. If you need any medical or mental health assistance while on a Harvard-related trip in China, contact International SOS through the Assistance App or by dialing +1-617-998-0000. International SOS can direct you to appropriate inpatient or outpatient care and provide translation assistance. Major cities in China have emergency and trauma capabilities, but long wait times are reported, and serious medical conditions may necessitate evacuation.
China is a one-party socialist republic ruled by the Communist Party of China. With more than 1.4 billion people, it’s the world’s second-most populous country, largest exporter of goods, and second-largest importer. Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism have played a significant role in shaping Chinese culture.
Mandarin is the official language, and there are numerous dialects and regional languages, including Mongolian, Uyghur, and Tibetan. English may be spoken in some business settings. Be mindful of culturally sensitive topics such as politics, religion, and ethnic relations, including China’s leadership and policies, Tiananmen Square, Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang.
Mobile app payments such as WeChat Pay and Alipay are widely used throughout China. Real-name registration is required, and it can be challenging to pay without using these types of methods. Cash may be used in some instances, and credit cards may be accepted in business-class hotels and restaurants in major cities.
When booking travel or scheduling meetings, be mindful of China’s holidays and festivals since businesses may be closed or have reduced hours.
Visas & Travel Documents
Before traveling to China, make sure your passport is valid for at least six months from your date of entry. All foreigners require a visa to enter China, and travel to Tibet and other restricted areas also requires special permits. Make sure you travel on the correct visa for your activity. Chinese visa requirements can change without notice and are often specific to the embassy or consulate where you've applied. Although you applied for one type of visa, the embassy or consulate ultimately decides the visa type, duration, and validity you will receive.
Generally, the most efficient way to apply for a Chinese visa is through a visa services vendor. One option is CIBTvisas, but you can use any visa services agency. Visa services vendors are in regular contact with embassies and consulates and will take a conservative stance when providing advice. Chinese photo regulations are quite strict, and authorities may reject visa applications submitted with incorrect photos. China’s visa policies can change without notice, and websites may not be updated in a timely manner. Always check your visa and travel document requirements well in advance.