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20 Essential Chinese Phrases for Newbies and Travellers

It will only take 8 minutes to read this post!

A few years back, I took a few weeks out of the Written Chinese Office to spend some time traveling with my parents and fiance, now husband, in China. I was really impressed by how quickly they picked up words and asked what they meant. Even on the first day, they were already saying 你好 (Hello) and 谢谢 (Thanks). Somewhat embarrassingly, I have to admit that it took me a lot longer to master these basic phrases when I first arrived in China.

You can hear what they thought of their first few days in China on the Two White Chicks in China podcast.

The following phrases are for complete beginners of Chinese or those who wish to have some basics under their belt to travel in China. Unless you’re really interested in learning the Chinese language, you might not want to put a whole lot of time into studying Chinese, especially if it’s for a short time or you have a tour guide for your trip.

However, just like learning to say bonjour in French or Danke schön in German, you can just as quickly learn these essential Chinese phrases too!

Each Chinese phrase below is linked to our Online Written Chinese Dictionary, where you can click on each word to hear the pronunciation and a more detailed breakdown of a character. 

If you’re entirely new to Chinese, it’s worth noting that the Chinese ‘alphabet’ is not the same as the English one, so listening to how words are pronounced is quite essential.

Essential Chinese Phrases

1. Thank you! (xiè xie) 谢谢

A simple way to say thank you.

2. You’re welcome. (bú yòng xiè) 不用谢

Translated as ‘no need for thanks’, this a typical response to 谢谢 (thanks).

3. Hello (nǐ hǎo) 你好

Hello, in Chinese, combines the words ‘you’ and ‘good’. To ask someone ‘How are you?’, add the character’ 吗. ‘ This character is used when asking a question:

How are you? (nǐ hǎo ma) 你好吗?

4. OK/Good (hǎo)  / (hǎo de) 好的

5. Not OK/ Not Good (bù hǎo) 不好

6. May I ask… (qǐng wèn) 请问

7. I’m sorry (duì bu qǐ) 对不起

In this phrase,  (duì) also means ‘right’ and is often used in the same way we would use ‘yeah’ in English.

It is common in Chinese for short words such as 对 (right) and 好 (OK) are often repeated three times for emphasis.

Chinese Phrases for Travelling

8. Do you speak English? (nǐ huì shuō yīng yǔ ma?) 你会说英语吗?

If you’re traveling around China, I feel as though you should try and get this question mastered because you can never assume that everyone will speak English. On the other hand, you might be pleasantly surprised by how many people can speak English in China!

If you ask this question, you need to understand their response, as they might not say ‘yes’ or ‘no’!

If they cannot speak English, they will probably respond with:

I can’t speak (bú huì) 不会

9. Where is the bathroom/washroom/toilet? (xǐ shǒu jiān zài nǎ lǐ?) 洗手间在哪里?

This is a pretty important one, especially if the bathroom sign isn’t in English. Most people will point you in the correct direction!

10. Help! (jiù mìng) 救命

Hopefully, you won’t need to use this while traveling in China, but it’s good to know how to get the attention of people around you.

11. I’m sorry, I don’t understand. (bù hǎo yì si, wǒ méi tīng dǒng) 不好意思, 我没听懂。

There may be times when someone speaks to you in Chinese, and you have absolutely no idea what they’re saying. No need to be rude; just be honest and say so!

You may also be asked:

Do you understand (what I’m saying)? (tīng de dǒng ma?) 听得懂吗?/ (tīng dǒng le ma?) 听懂了吗?

I don't understand. Essential Chinese Phrases

Do you understand (what I’m saying)? (tīng de dǒng ma?) 听得懂吗?/ (tīng dǒng le ma?) 听懂了吗?

If you don’t understand, you can respond with 听不懂 (tīng bu dǒng), 没听懂 (méi tīng dǒng), or 没有 (méi yǒu)*.

I relied heavily on the phrase 听不懂 (tīng bu dǒng) instead of studying, but it’s a useful phrase to know.

If you can understand, you can reply using 是的 (shì de), which means ‘yes’ or 听懂了 (tīng dǒng le), ‘I understand what you are saying’.

*没有 is a simple phrase that you will almost certainly begin to hear EVERYWHERE. Not only is it a useful phrase to be able to speak and listen out for, but when spoken, it sounds like ‘mayo’.

It can be used to say ‘no’ or ‘I don’t have (something)’.

12. Please excuse me. (jiè guò yī xià) 借过一下

If you find yourself squashed on the metro and the doors open on the other side, you can politely use this phrase to have them move aside for you!

13. Wait a moment / hang on a sec (děng yī xià) 等一下

You may not use this phrase yourself, but you’ll probably hear it spoken frequently.

An alternative version of this phrase is 等一等 (děng yī děng).

14. Welcome (huān yíng guāng lín) 欢迎光临

This is another phrase you will hear throughout your day when you enter shops, restaurants, and cafes.

15. The bill, please. Thank you. (jié zhàng, xiè xie) 结账,谢谢。

You may also say 买单, 谢谢. (mǎi dān, xiè xie.) The first character,  (mǎi) means ‘to buy’.

Extra Sentence: I want…(wǒ yào) 我要。。。

Combine this sentence with the following items:

…a beer 。。。(yī píng pí jiǔ) 一瓶啤酒

…a cup of coffee 。。。(yī bēi kā fēi) 一杯咖啡

…a bottle of water 。。。(yī píng shuǐ) 一瓶水

If you forget how to say a specific measure word, such as ‘a bottle’ or ‘cup’, you can use 一个 (yī gè), which is a general term for ‘one of’ something.

16.  How much is it? (zhè ge duō shao qián?) 这个多少钱

Even if you haven’t learned all the numbers in Chinese, you will either receive a paper bill in a restaurant or be shown the price on a calculator (it’s pretty handy, especially if you want to haggle the price).

More Phrases for Beginners

17. How do you say that in Chinese? (zhè ge yòng hàn yǔ zěn me shuō?) 这个用汉语怎么说?

If you’re a curious beginner, you can use this phrase to ask someone how to say a particular object in Chinese. This is useful if you’re in your local supermarket or restaurant!

18. I don’t understand. (wǒ bú tài míng bai) 我不太明白

This is slightly different from saying ‘听不懂’, which means you don’t understand the spoken language. 明白 means’ clear’ or ‘obvious’ and is an excellent way to explain you don’t understand the person’s meaning.
Alternatively, you can also ask the following:

19. What do you mean? (shén me yì si) 什么意思?

This allows the speaker to explain themselves more clearly. If you’re feeling confident, you can also ask the speaker to explain in more detail by using the following:

Can you explain a little more? I don’t understand what you mean. (kě yǐ jiě shì yī xià ma? Wǒ bú tài míng bai.) 可以解释一下吗?我不太明白。

Once you start learning Chinese, you’ll need to use this phrase to ask a speaker to repeat specific words or sentences.

You might also be interested in our other article about being polite in Chinese, 谢谢: 10 Polite Chinese Expressions, and How to Use Them.

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