If you are planning a trip abroad, usually you only need your passport. If you've got an up-to-date passport, then that and a credit card are the bare minimum you need! But when traveling to China you will need to manage a few more things, most especially, the document that is physically attached to your passport before you travel that is called a "visa". This visa is not a credit card and, unfortunately, won't buy you anything except entry into the Middle Kingdom.
Here is a breakdown of the main travel and other documents you will need for your visit to China. Depending on your country of citizenship, your local Chinese embassy or consulate may require other documentation from you. The best and easiest way to understand what you'll need is to check with the Chinese embassy or consulate nearest to you. (All visitor visa information can be found online. As an example, here are the visa requirements for US citizens per the Embassy of the People's Republic of China in Washington, D.C.)
First Step: Obtaining Your Passport or Ensuring Your Passport is Up-To-Date
A passport is required for most international travel, so make sure you have one and it is up-to-date. This means that it is not going to expire within the same year you are planning travel. Visitors to mainland China require a passport that is valid for at least six months prior to the date of entry to China.
Visit the US State Department website to understand how to obtain a new US passport or renew your current US passport. Here is more information on how to apply for a US passport.
Once you have your passport ready, you can begin applying for a visa to the People's Republic of China. See the next section.
Second Step: Obtaining Your Visitor's Visa for China
What is a visa?
A visa is authorization by the country you are visiting that allows you to enter the country for a certain amount of time. In China there are various visas that are different based on the reason for visiting. There are different visas for visiting (tourist visa), studying (student visa) and working (business visa).
For a complete list of visas and what is required, visit the website of the Chinese embassy or consulate nearest you. For example, here's a list of visas from the Embassy of the People's Republic of China in Washington, D.C.
How do I get a visa?
A visa is required to enter the People's Republic of China. Visas can be obtained in person at the Chinese Embassy or Consulate-General in your area. If visiting the Chinese Embassy or Consulate is not convenient or possible for you, travel and visa agencies also handle the visa process for a fee.
Your passport has to be in the hands of the Chinese authorities for a period of time so that they can approve your visa application and attach the visa documentation to your passport. The visa is in the form of a sticker that is roughly equal to the size of one passport page.
They authorities place it in your passport and it can't be removed.
Where do I get a visa?
Here is a contact list for the embassy and consulates in the US. Note that the embassy and consulates are generally closed on US and Chinese national holidays. Check their individual websites for closings.
Validity & Cost
Tourist visas, or "L" visas, are usually valid for 3 months prior to travel and are then valid for a 30 day stay. The visa costs $50 for an American citizen, but may be more expensive if you use an agent to obtain it.
The Chinese Embassy site publishes the most up-to-date information on visas in English.