English in China: Proficiency and Tips for Travelers

Home » China Travel Insights » English in China: Proficiency and Tips for Travelers
WeChat pay for foreigners

China, with its vast population and rich cultural heritage, has become an increasingly attractive destination for travelers and business professionals alike. However, one crucial question often arises when planning a visit to this diverse nation: “Do people speak English language in China?” In this article, we will explore the nuances of English language proficiency in different regions of China, what you need to know about language communication in China, and tips for travelers.

Do People Speak English in China?

Yes, some people in China do speak English, but it’s not the primary language spoken in the country. Mandarin is the official and most widely spoken language in China, with various dialects and regional languages also in use. English is taught as a second language in many Chinese schools, and there are English-language programs and courses available in universities and language schools.

In major cities and in areas with a high concentration of international business or tourism, you are more likely to encounter people who can speak English to some extent. However, the level of proficiency can vary widely, and outside of these areas, English proficiency may be limited.

Understanding the Numbers

With a population of approximately 1.4 billion people, China is a linguistic mosaic. While Mandarin, the official language, is spoken by the majority, it’s important to note that around 540 million people in China are currently learning English to varying degrees. Moreover, approximately 14 million people have completed English at the undergraduate level, accounting for roughly 10% of the population, and nearly 50 million people speak English at a conversational level. This English-speaking demographic primarily comprises young individuals who have learned English at school, those who can afford to travel and study abroad, and those residing in major urban centers.

English in Major Cities


As the capital of China, Beijing has a population of approximately 22 million people. Basic English is widely spoken here, especially among younger generations and those working in international companies or the tourism industry.


As the financial and business hub of China, Shanghai, with a population of around 25 million, boasts a strong English-speaking community. Its history of international influence has led to greater exposure to the language.


Once a fishing village, Shenzhen has transformed into a global manufacturing hub with a population of 18 million. Basic English is prevalent, thanks to education and proximity to Hong Kong.


As the third-largest city in China, Guangzhou, with more than 18 million residents, is a global manufacturing powerhouse. The local population, especially the youth, can communicate effectively in English.

Hong Kong

Due to its colonial history, Hong Kong has a high percentage of English speakers, both as a first and second language. The city’s international atmosphere ensures that English is widely used.

Languages in China

While Mandarin is spoken by approximately two-thirds of the Chinese population, other languages such as Wu and Cantonese have their strongholds in specific regions. For instance, Wu is prevalent in Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang, while Cantonese dominates in Guangdong, Guangxi, and Hong Kong/Macau.

Is English Necessary in China?

In major Chinese cities, basic English is often sufficient for interactions in restaurants, bars, and hotels. Locals may also be eager to practice their English.

Travelers heading to less frequented locations may need to rely more on the local language, as rural areas may have fewer English speakers.

Do signs and menus have English translations in tourist areas in China?

Cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an, and Guilin, which are popular tourist destinations, are more likely to have signs and menus available in English. Major international hotels, restaurants, and tourist attractions in these areas often cater to English-speaking visitors.

However, in more remote or less touristy parts of China, you may find fewer English translations, and English proficiency among locals may be limited. In such cases, hiring an English-speaking guide or having a translation app or a basic knowledge of common Chinese phrases can be helpful for communication.

It’s worth noting that while English signage and menus are becoming more common in China’s tourist areas, there may still be variations in the level of English support, so it’s a good idea to be prepared for some language barriers, particularly if you venture into less touristy regions or smaller towns.

Common Chinese phrases for tourists

Hello你好Nǐ hǎo
Thank you谢谢Xiè xiè
Yes是的Shì de
No不是Bù shì
Excuse me / Sorry对不起Duì bu qǐ
Goodbye再见Zài jiàn
How much is this?这个多少钱?Zhège duō shǎo qián?
Where is…?…在哪里?…zài nǎ lǐ?
I don’t understand我不懂Wǒ bù dǒng
Help!救命!Jiù mìng!
I need a doctor我需要医生Wǒ xū yào yī shēng
Food食物Shí wù
Bathroom / Toilet厕所Cè suǒ
Hotel酒店Jiǔ diàn
Taxi出租车Chū zū chē
Airport机场Jī chǎng
Train station火车站Huǒ chē zhàn
Bus公共汽车Gōng gòng qì chē

Do’s and don’ts related to local culture or customs that tourists should be aware of when interacting with locals

Respect Elders: In Chinese culture, showing respect to elders is highly valued. Use proper titles like “Aunt” or “Uncle” when addressing older people, and always defer to their wishes.

Be Polite and Patient: Patience and politeness are virtues in Chinese culture. Maintain a calm demeanor and avoid raising your voice, even in frustrating situations.

Don’t Discuss Sensitive Topics: Avoid discussing sensitive topics such as politics, Tibet, Taiwan, or human rights, as these can lead to uncomfortable situations or misunderstandings.

In conclusion, navigating language diversity in China, particularly concerning the prevalence of English, is a multifaceted journey. While Mandarin remains the dominant language, English has made significant inroads, primarily in major urban centers and among the younger generation. Understanding the numbers and the distribution of English speakers across cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, and Hong Kong can be immensely helpful for both travelers and locals alike.

For tourists, basic English proficiency can often suffice in major cities, facilitating interactions in various settings. However, venturing into less frequented areas may require a greater reliance on local languages. Therefore, when traveling outside major cities in China, it is advisable to hire an English-speaking guide or use translation app.