How easy is it to find public toilets when you're traveling around China? Are all toilets squat toilets? Are the toilets smelly? These questions plague many travelers to China but never fear, this article set straight your expectations about toilets in China.
While people may still tell you outrageous stories about using toilets in China, in reality, they have come a long way in the past decade.
Following several major pushes by the China National Tourism Administration and the cities themselves, most big cities and major tourist attractions all have new public toilets and an attendant who practically lives there to keep them clean. Almost all Chinese public toilets are free or charge a small fee. The only thing you need to be aware of is that you should carry tissues with you, as free toilet paper is not the norm outside five-star hotels.
However, if you plan to visit smaller cities or tourist attractions in less developed areas, be prepared to encounter some more primitive toilets.
A toilet in Tibet sitting at an altitude of 5248m
For example, in Tibet, most public toilets are in primitive condition and usually charge a fee for people who use them. Some toilets in rural areas my even be open to the elements.
(Note: Since 2017, the Tibetan local government has started a toilet "revolution". Now, more and more popular tourist destinations have modern toilets, including the Potala Place.)
A modern toilet at the foot of Potala Palace
Chinese toilets are normally the squat style, which admittedly take some getting used to. However, comfort yourself in the knowledge that using a squat toilet means you don't touch anything and you don’t have to cover the toilet with paper before you can sit down. Studies have even show that using squat toilets is beneficial to your digestive health.
In China, most hotels have standard Western-style toilets. Public restrooms in big cities usually have at least one Western-style toilet which you can choose if you really hate the idea of a squat style toilet.
A public toilet with both Western-style and squat toilets
In big cities, most toilets have cubicles with separating walls and a door that offers complete privacy. However, some toilets in the old area of big cities and many toilets in smaller cities only have a waist-high divider to give restroom users some privacy. Some of them even lack these frames and have no separations between them. There's only a row of squat toilets and that's it.
Most Chinese people in big cities won't flinch an eye if you come in and use the squat toilet right next to them. Nevertheless, be ready to receive some stares if you're in a smaller city or town where Chinese people don't get to see foreigners that often. Nevertheless, as with all things when you are traveling, remember to keep an open mind.
Most Chinese airports have accessible toilets. More and more public toilets in big cities also have accessible facilities for handicapped people. However, this is still not the norm and you should not expect to find accessible facilities at every venue, so plan accordingly.
An accessible public toilet facility
How to find a public toilet in China
If you are on one of our guided tours, ask your guide to keep a lookout for good toilets and they can usually find you a good option. However, if you are traveling on your own, here are some tips for finding a toilet in China.
Public toilets in China are usually clearly signposted. The characters 公测 (gong ce) literally mean "public toilet." You might see it on a signpost at an intersection or on the side of a building. For example, there are plenty of public toilets in Beijing if you keep your eyes open for signs like the one below.
Like anywhere else in the world, most toilets are clearly marked "male" and "female". Nevertheless, it might be helpful for you to save and memorize the characters below so you can recognize which toilet is which.
Don't hesitate to ask a Chinese person if you are unsure which restroom to use. Even if they don’t speak English, they will probably be willing to help you (i.e. point at yourself, then point at the bathroom).
Star-rated Public Toilets
Toilets in China vary greatly, which is probably why the government has started rating them with stars and handing out awards. We've never seen any awarded less than three stars — one and two-star toilets don't seem to get labeled.
One of the requirements for public restrooms to receive a top rating is to have toilet paper. So wherever you see a triple star restroom, your chances of finding toilet paper will be quite high.
The "Toilet Revolution"
China's first "toilet revolution" took place in Beijing in the 1980s. The latest intensive effort to improve the nation's facilities started in 2015. As of the end of 2017, 68,000 toilets around the country have been constructed or re-constructed.
Today, Beijing has some of the most advanced restrooms in the country, including one equipped with personal TVs, charging stations, Wi-Fi, ATMs, and relaxing music. As you can imagine, this particular restroom has become a tourist attraction in its own right.
Both the Temple of Heaven's toilets and the Bird's Nest stadium in Beijing's Olympic Green have facial recognition toilet paper dispensers. The facial recognition software prevents visitors from taking more toilet paper than they need. Anyone who wants an extra 60cm of toilet paper has to wait for nine minutes to get it.
Shanghai has also stepped up its restroom game by opening its first gender-neutral public toilet.
Overall, many parts of China are still developing, which means that the types and cleanliness of public toilets aren't completely uniform. However, most public toilets in big cities and at tourist attractions are clean, free, easy to find, and conveniently located.