Tipping in China is generally uncommon and can even be considered rude or embarrassing in some circumstances. Seriously. Leaving money on a table in an authentic restaurant may confuse a staff member or cause them stress.
They may have to choose whether or not to chase you down to return it (and risk causing you a loss of face) or put it aside and hope that you come back later to retrieve it. Either way, your kind gesture may cause distress!
In a worst-case scenario, leaving gratuity could cause someone to feel inferior, as though they need additional charity to get by. Even worse, gratuity is illegal in airports and some establishments. Your well-meant gesture could be misinterpreted as a bribe for a favor expected in the future.
Tipping in China Isn't Expected
Mainland China, and most of Asia, don't have a history or culture of tipping — don't spread one! As always, there are a few exceptions. Tipping is more customary in Hong Kong, and leaving gratuity at the end of an organized tour is acceptable.
The staff in luxurious hotels and upscale restaurants may have grown accustomed to receiving tips from Western travelers who are not sure whether they should tip or not. Usually, a service charge of 10-15 percent will already be included in your bill to cover the salary of service personnel.
Tipping in tourist areas may no longer cause offense as more and more travelers to leave a gratuity, but you shouldn't introduce a new cultural norm.
How to Tip in China (Even Though You Shouldn't)
- Ensure that the establishment doesn't have an official policy forbidding employees to keep tips. Many do.
- Be discreet. Making a big show of your gratuity is likely to cause embarrassment and a loss of face.
- Express gratitude. Tell someone "thank you" for a job well done.
- If possible, put your tip into an envelope. Pretend it is a gift, give it, then never mention it again. No winking, smiling, or nudge-nudge.
- Do not expect the recipient to open the envelope or look at your tip until later when they are alone.
Why You Should Be Cautious About Tipping in China
Leaving a tip in China the wrong way can cause loss of face — something that could ruin someone's mood rather than uplift them as you intended. Tipping the wrong way can say "I'm better off financially than you are, so here is some charity" — or even worse — "this coin means a lot more to you than to me."
The act of tipping is thought to have originated in England and become widespread in America. It is largely a Western concept. Introducing practices that aren't the local norm causes cultural mutation and problems later we may not immediately see. For instance, staff may be more inclined to take care of foreigners because they know a tip may be involved. Locals, on the other hand, may begin to receive inferior service in their own city.
Although someone may appreciate the short-term boost a tip provides, management in places often cites tipping as an excuse to cut costs. The boss may be less inclined to provide a pay raise, or even a fair wage at all if they think employees can receive money directly from customers.
Tipping Taxi Drivers in China
Taxi drivers do not expect a tip on top of the fare amount, however, rounding up your fare to the nearest whole amount is common. This keeps all parties from having to deal with small change and gets them on their way to the next fare faster.
Tip: Don't expect taxi drivers to carry change for large-denomination banknotes! Play the "no change game" everyone else does by holding your smaller denominations whenever possible. Break large denominations in big businesses where change comes easily, then pay exact to independent proprietors. Giving large denominations to drivers and street vendors causes them a lot of inconveniences.
The One Scenario When You Should Tip in China
Assuming you received excellent service and are satisfied with the effort, plan to tip organized tour guides and private drivers in China.
Even if you paid a large sum for a tour through an agency, there's a good chance that the guide and driver will receive only their relatively small salaries, no matter how hard they work. In these instances, you may wish to tip the guide and driver directly so that they are rewarded for their effort.
If so, tell them how they made the tour extra enjoyable for you so that they'll share the "secret" with other guides — it's good karma! As already mentioned, be discreet when tipping your guide. Try not to do so in front of their boss or cohorts.
When booking an organized tour, ask if a tip will be expected at the end. This is also the time to inquire about what fees are covered in the tour cost (e.g., entrance fees, meals, drinking water, etc). Entrance fees can be comparatively pricey for foreigners in China — ask about them while negotiating your fee with the guide or tour agency.
Note: When organizing a guide or driver yourself, a tip won't be expected or necessary. Use your discretion. Since you'll be paying the negotiated fee yourself directly to the guide or driver, you know how much they are receiving. You may wish to negotiate up front for a better rate, then give some back at the end for a job well done.
Don't be caught by surprise. You may be expected to pay for your guide's meals if they dine with you as well as their entrance fees at sites and attractions. Meal costs in China are relatively inexpensive, especially if you let your guide order some authentic local food!
Tipping in Hong Kong
With plenty of Western influence over the years, the etiquette for tipping in Hong Kong differs from the rest of China. Although a service charge will inevitably be added to bills in hotels and restaurants, you may want to leave an additional token of appreciation.
Doing so lets the staff know that you recognized and appreciated their service. If no service charge is added to your room bill, leave a small tip for the housekeeping staff at the end of your stay. There should be a designated envelope in the room.
Tipping staff, porters, bellboys, and even the bathroom attendants of upscale establishments is common practice in Hong Kong. You don't need to tip in cafes or bars in Hong Kong.