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Chinese Basic Words and Phrases for Travel


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Chinese Basic Words and Phrases

Why You Need to Know Chinese Basic Words and Phrases

If you’re going to travel in China, then you really need to learn a few common Chinese phrases. I speak from experience when I say that traveling in China without knowing at least some basic Chinese words and sentences is incredibly frustrating.

Even if you’ve traveled in dozens of other countries without speaking the local language, the language barrier you’ll come up against in China will be unlike anything you’ve experienced before.

But the good news is, learning just the very basics of Chinese will really go a long way. And who knows, you may fall in love with the language like I did and want to keep learning!

When I first started learning basic Mandarin in 2009, I saw it purely as a survival tactic. Nick and I were working in Guangzhou, China off and on for a few weeks, and in between work stints we had lots of time to explore the country.

For our first short trip in China, we chose the remote Western Chinese province of Gansu. This was not the wisest choice we could have made. Fascinating as it was to explore such an off the beaten track part of China, we got ourselves into all kinds of trouble. 

We even wandered into an out of bounds area and found ourselves surrounded by a S.W.A.T. team of half a dozen police officers! Of course, we could have avoided all of this if we had just known some Mandarin basics.

If you memorize just a few Chinese words and phrases from the list below, like “please”, “thank you”, “sorry” and the very useful “I don’t understand”, this will already make your trip a lot smoother.

And for the phrases you can’t remember, just keep them on hand so you can show them to people as needed.

Should I Learn Simplified or Traditional Chinese Characters?

Chinese lanterns Zhangye night market
Writing in simplified Chinese on a lantern at a night market in Zhangye, China

In the list below, each phrase is written in both simplified Chinese and traditional Chinese characters. So, which one should you show to locals when trying to communicate with them? Well, it depends on where you are traveling.

The simplified Chinese script is used throughout mainland China and also in Singapore. Traditional Chinese characters, on the other hand, are used in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan.

In Malaysia, schools switched to teaching simplified Chinese in the 1980s, but most Chinese speakers there are able to read both sets of characters without much difficulty.

Chinese-speaking communities in other parts of the world are probably more likely to use traditional characters, but this may be changing over time with new waves of immigration. If you’re not sure, you can just point to both.

Chinese, Mandarin, Cantonese … What’s the Difference?

Chinese character for travel
This character, used in the words “tour”, “tour guide” and other travel-related words, is pronounced differently but written the same in the various Chinese languages.

When people find out that I’m studying Chinese, they often ask me if I’m learning Mandarin or Cantonese. The answer is, I’m learning Mandarin, but those are not the only two forms of spoken Chinese.

While Mandarin is the lingua franca in China, there are actually several hundred different Chinese languages! And that’s just the “Sinitic” languages spoken by the majority ethnic group, the Han. There are also about 300 minority languages spoken by minority groups in places like Tibet and Yunnan.

But even the Chinese languages are as different from each other as English is from German, or as Spanish is from French.

However, these differences only show up in spoken form. The written form of Chinese, which is based on Mandarin, is standardized throughout the country.

In fact, it’s pretty common for Chinese people who speak different languages to resort to writing things down in order to communicate with each other. So, if you point to one of the written phrases in this list to get your point across, this won’t be seen as weird.

Although, it’s more fun to try pronouncing them yourself! Just one word of caution, though. Don’t try to pronounce Mandarin words or phrases without knowing something about tones first.

Mandarin Pronunciation and Tones

Chinese traditional Trumpet player
If you’re musically inclined, there’s a good chance that you’ll pick up Chinese tones very easily.

Mandarin is a tonal language, and you really do need to get the tones right if you want to be understood.

If you say the syllable “ma” with a rising tone (“ma?”) instead of a falling tone (“ma!”), for example, you’ll end up saying a completely different word. 

This is where pinyin comes in handy. Pinyin is a system for romanizing Chinese, which means writing Chinese words phonetically using the Latin alphabet. 

A tone marker over is written over each syllable to indicate whether it’s pronounced as a first tone (mā), second tone (má), third tone (mǎ), fourth tone (mà) or neutral tone (ma).

For each of the basic Mandarin words and phrases in the list below, you’ll find the pinyin with tone markers next to it in the right-hand column.

Of course, you still need to know what the different tones sound like in order to pronounce them properly. 

More Resources for Learning Basic Mandarin

ChinesePod

“Say it Right” is a free Chinese pronunciation course offered by ChinesePod.

It would be silly of me to try to teach you tone pronunciation in a written article, so instead I’ll direct you over to ChinesePod, one of my favorite resources for learning Chinese.

The folks there have put together a great video course called Say It Right that’s all about Chinese tones and pronunciation. It’s totally free; you just need to sign up for a free account.

And check out some of their Newbie lessons while you are there, which are really engaging and fun. I started out by castually listening to a few of their Newbie lessons back in 2009 and ended up sticking with it all the way to the Advanced level.

uTalk

If you’re not interested in learning Chinese to an advanced level and just want to have some common Chinese phrases at your fingertips, then uTalk is a great option

Inside the uTalk smartphone app, you’ll find hundreds of useful Chinese words and phrases on all kinds of topics ranging from asking directions to watching a football match.

I’ve already included in the list below the Chinese phrases that I have found most useful when traveling. These start with most common Chinese words and phrases, like how to say “thank you” in Chinese, how to say “how are you” in Chinese, and how to say “where are you from?” in Chinese.

In addition, the list below also covers the main topics of eating out in restaurants, using public transport and checking in and out of accommation. I’ve limited the list to about 100 words and phrases to keep it a manageable size for a blog post.

But if you’d like to have a more extensive list of Chinese phrases in English translation, covering dozens of other topics, then do check out uTalk. 

Even if you don’t plan to actually learn all the phrases in the app, it also works as a really handy electronic phrasebook. Just type in a word such as “train”, and you’ll instantly see all the revelant phrases, like “the train is canceled”, “the train is delayed” and “when is the last train?”.

uTalk has some really affordable monthly subscription plans, and you can even get 20% off through this link. This discount is valid for any of the 140+ languages uTalk offers, not just Chinese. Oh, and they do offer Cantonese and Shanghainese as well as Mandarin!

Chinese Travel Phrases

And now here’s that list of Chinese travel phrases I promised you. I created this list based on my many years of experience studying Chinese, and I also checked it with a native speaker. So you can be sure that everything here is correct and sounds natural in Chinese.

Most Common Chinese Words and Phrases

English Chinese (Simplified) Chinese (Traditional) Pinyin
Hi 你好 你好 nǐ hǎo
Good morning 早上好 早上好 zǎo shàng hǎo
Good morning (Taiwan) 早安 zǎo ān
Good afternoon 下午好 下午好 xià wǔ hǎo
Good evening 晚上好 晚上好 wǎn shàng hǎo
Yes 对, 是 對, 是 duì , shì
No 不对, 不是 不對, 不是 bú duì , bú shì
Please qǐng
Thank you 谢谢 謝謝 xiè xie
You’re welcome 不客气 不客氣 bú kè qi
One
Two èr
Three sān
Excuse me 不好意思 不好意思 bù hǎo yī si
I’m sorry 对不起 對不起 duì bu qǐ
What’s your name? 你叫什么呢? 你叫什麼呢? nǐ jiào shén me ne?
My name is … 我叫 。。。 我叫 。。。 wò jiào
Nice to meet you 很高兴认识你 很高興認識你 hěn gāo xìng rèn shi nǐ
How are you? 你最近怎么样? 你最近怎麼樣? nǐ zuì jìn zěn me yàng ?
Fine, thanks. 我很好,谢谢 我很好,謝謝 wǒ hěn hǎo , xiè xie
Where are you from? 你是哪里人? 你是哪裡人? nǐ shì nǎ lǐ rén ?
I am from [the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada]. 我是【美国,英国,澳大利亚,加拿大】人。 我是【美國,英國,澳大利亞,加拿大】人。 wǒ shì [měi guó , yīng guó , ào dà lì yà , jiā ná dà ] rén .
Do you speak English? 你会说英语吗? 你會說英語嗎? nǐ huì shuō yīng yǔ ma?
I don’t speak Chinese. 我不会说汉语。 我不會說漢語。 wǒ bú huì shuō hàn yǔ .
I don’t speak Chinese (Taiwan) 我不會說國語 wǒ bú huì shuō guó yǔ.
I speak a little Chinese. 我会说一点汉语。 我會說一點漢語。 wǒ huì shuō yì diǎn hàn yǔ .
I speak a little Chinese (Taiwan) 我會說一點國語。 wǒ huì shuō yì diǎn guó yǔ.
I don’t understand. 我不明白。 我不明白。 wǒ bù míng bái .
Can you repeat that, please? 请再说一遍。 請再說一遍。 qǐng zài shuō yí biàn .
How much does it cost? 这个多少钱? 這個多少錢? zhè geduō shǎo qián ?
Could I have a discount? 可以打折吗? 可以打折嗎? kě yǐ dǎ zhé ma?
Where are the toilets? 洗手间在哪里? 洗手間在哪裡? xǐ shǒu jiān zài nǎ lǐ ?
Where is the nearest ATM? 最近的取款机在哪里? 最近的取款機在哪裡? zuì jìn de qǔ kuǎn jī zài nǎ lǐ ?
Goodbye 拜拜 拜拜 bái bái
See you later! 再见 再見 zài jiàn

Chinese Restaurant Phrases

Chinese steamed buns
How do you know what’s in those buns? Use these handy phrases to ask!

These phrases will definitely come in handy when ordering food in a restaurant in Chinese. This list includes phrases for explaining food allergies and for ordering vegetarian or vegan food, which you won’t find in most phrasebooks.

Be aware that the Chinese word for “vegan” is commonly used in Taiwan (where veganism is very popular) but is unlikely to be understood in China. There are actually two words for “vegan” in Taiwan. The one I’ve used below is “全素” or “full vegetarian”, but you could also say “純素” or “pure vegetarian”.

Either way, in China you will probably need to explain what that means.

But don’t worry, I’ve also included in the list phrases like “I don’t eat any animal products” and “I don’t eat meat, fish, eggs or dairy products” to help you do just that.

English Chinese (Simplified) Chinese (Traditional) Pinyin
A table for two, please. 两个人的餐桌,谢谢 兩個人的餐桌,謝謝 liǎng ge rén de cān zhōu , xiè xie
Could I see the menu? 我可以看一下菜单吗? 我可以看一下菜單嗎? wǒ kě yǐ kàn yí xià cài dān ma?
To eat in 这里吃 這裡吃 zhè lǐ chī
To take away 带走 帶走 dài zǒu
I am vegetarian 我是素食者 我是素食者 wǒ shì sù shǐ zhě
I am vegan 我是全素食者 我是全素食者 wǒ shì quán sù shí zhě
We are vegan 我们是全素食者 我們是全素食者 wǒ men shì quán sù shí zhě
I don’t eat any animal products. 我不吃任何动物产品。 我不吃任何動物產品。 wǒ bù chī rèn hē dòng wù chǎn pǐn
I don’t eat meat, fish, eggs or dairy products. 肉,鱼,鸡蛋,奶制品我都不吃。 肉,魚,雞蛋,奶製品我都不吃。 ròu ,yú ,jī dàn ,nǎi zhì pǐn wǒ dōu bù chī
I eat vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts, fruit, etc. 我吃蔬菜,谷物,豆类,坚果,水果,什么的。 我吃蔬菜,穀物,豆類,堅果,水果,什麼的。 wǒ chī shū cài ,liáng shí ,dòu lèi ,jiān guǒ ,shuǐ guǐ shén me de.
I don’t drink alcohol. 我不喝酒。 我不喝酒。 wǒ bù hē jiǔ
Does this contain [eggs, dairy products etc.]? 里面有没有【鸡蛋,奶制品,什么的】? 裡面有沒有【雞蛋,奶制品,什麼的】? lǐ miàn yǒu méi yǒu [jī dàn , nǎi zhì pǐn shén me de]?
Can you make it without [meat, eggs, etc.]? 可以不放【肉,鸡蛋,什么的】吗? 可以不放【肉,雞蛋,什麼的】嗎? kě yǐ bú fàng [ròu ,jī dàn shén me de]ma?
Can you replace it with [beans, tofu, etc.]? 可以用【豆,豆腐 什么的】代替吗? 可以用【豆,豆腐 什麼的】代替嗎? kě yǐ yòng [dòu ,dòu fǔ shén me de]dài tì ma?
What’s this? 这是什么? 這是什麼? zhè shì shén me?
Do you have …. [soy milk, tofu, veggie burger, etc.]? 有没有【豆浆, 豆腐,素汉堡什么的】? 有沒有【豆漿, 豆腐,素漢堡什麼的】? yǒu méi yǒu [dòu jiāng ,dòu fǔ ,sù hàn bǎo shén me de?
I want … 我要 。。。 我要 。。。 wǒ yào …
I don’t want … 我不要 。。。 我不要 。。。 wǒ bú yào …
I’m allergic to … 我对 。。。 过敏 我對 。。。 過敏 wǒ duì …guò mǐn
Meat ròu
Chicken 鸡肉 雞肉 jī ròu
Pork 猪肉 豬肉 zhū ròu
Eggs 鸡蛋 雞蛋 jī dàn
Dairy products 奶制品 奶制品 nǎi zhì pǐn
Milk 牛奶 牛奶 niú nǎi
Cheese 奶酪 奶酪 nǎi lào
Butter 奶油 奶油 nǎi yóu
Lard 猪油 豬油 zhū yóu
Beef broth 牛肉汤 牛肉湯 niú ròu tāng
Chicken broth 鸡汤 雞湯 jī tāng
Vegetable broth 蔬菜汤 蔬菜湯 shū cài tāng
Mayonnaise 蛋黄酱 蛋黃醬 dàn huáng jiàng
Garlic suàn
Onion 洋葱 洋蔥 yáng cōng
Shellfish 贝类 貝類 bèi lèi
Gluten 麸质 麩質 fū zhì
Nuts 坚果 堅果 jiān guǒ
Mustard 芥末 芥末 jiè mo
Soy milk 豆浆 豆漿 dòu jiāng
Honey 蜂蜜 蜂蜜 fēngmì
No straw, please. 不要吸管,谢谢 不要吸管,謝謝 bú yào xī guǎn, xiè xie
The bill, please. 买单 買單 mǎi dān

Chinese Transportation Phrases

Chinese National Day bus station
Maneuvering through a crowded Chinese bus or train station is never easy, but these phrases will certainly help.
English Chinese (Simplified) Chinese (Traditional) Pinyin
Bus 巴士 巴士 bā shì
Train 火车 火車 huǒ chē
Plane 飞机 飛機 fēi jī
Where is the railway station? 火车站在哪里? 火車站在哪裡? huǒ chē zhàn zài nǎ lǐ?
Where I can buy a ticket? 在哪里买票? 在哪裡買票? zài nǎ lǐ mǎi piào?
one-way ticket 单程票 單程票 dān chéng piào
return ticket 往返票 往返票 wǎng fǎn piào
Is this train going to [Beijing]? 这趟火车去[北京]吗? 這趟火車去[北京]嗎? zhè tàng huǒ chē qù [běi jīng] ma?
Do I need to change buses/trains? 我要转车吗? 我要轉車嗎? wǒ yào zhuǎn chē ma?
Is this the right platform? 这个站台对吗? 這個站台對嗎? zhè gè zhàn tái duì ma?
Where do I get off? 我应该在哪里下车? 我應該在哪裡下車? wǒ yīng gāi zài nǎ lǐ xià chē?
What time does the train leave? 火车几点出发? 火車幾點出發? huǒ chē jǐ diǎn chū fā?
What time does the train arrive? 火车几点到达? 火車幾點到達? huǒ chē jǐ diǎn dào dá?
Where are we? 我们在哪里? 我們在哪裡? wǒ men zài nǎ lǐ?

Chinese Accommodation Phrases

A typical budget hotel room in Taiwan
A typical budget hotel room in Taiwan
English Chinese (Simplified) Chinese (Traditional) Pinyin
Where can I find a hotel? 哪里有宾馆? 哪裡有賓館? nǎ lǐ yǒu bīn guǎn
I’d like to check in. 我想入住 我想入住 wǒ xiǎng rù zhù
I’d like to check out. 我想退房 我想退房 wǒ xiǎng tuì fáng
What time do I need to check out? 我需要几点钟退房? 我需要幾點鐘退房? wǒ xū yào jǐ diǎn zhōng tuì fáng?
I have a room booked. 我预定了一个房间 我預定了一個房間 wǒ yù dìng le yí gè fáng jiān
single room 单人间 單人間 dān rén jiān
double room 双人间 雙人間 shuāng rén jiān
twin room 标准间 標准間 biāo zhǔn jiān
For how many nights? 住几晚? 住幾晚? zhù jǐ wǎn?
How much is the room per night? 这个房间多少钱一晚? 這個房間多少錢一晚? zhè ge fáng jiān duō shǎo qián yī wǎn?
Can I see the room? 我可以看一下房间吗? 我可以看一下房間嗎? wǒ kě yǐ kàn yí xià fáng jiān ma?
Is breakfast included? 包含早饭吗? 包含早飯嗎? bāo hán zǎo fàn ma?
What time is breakfast? 早饭几点钟? 早飯幾點鐘? zǎo fàn jǐ diǎn zhōng?
Where can I leave my luggage? 行李放在哪里? 行李放在哪裡? xíng lǐ fàng zài nǎ lǐ?

Want to learn even more Chinese words and phrases? And learn how to pronounce them correctly?

Remember to check out ChinesePod and uTalk. These are the top two resources I recommend for people traveling to China or any other destination where Chinese is spoken. 一路平安 (Bon Voyage)!

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