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let’s go to Taiwan

things to consider as you plan your trip

KNOW BEFORE YOU GO

VISAS: US citizens do not need a visa for visits under 90 days. If you are staying longer than 90 days, or are studying or working, you will need to get visas.

CUSTOMS: Most restrictions on what you can bring in are pretty typical (you can bring in up to about $650 in goods, up to $10,000 cash, 200 cigarettes, 1L bottle of liquor, no fruits, live animals, etc). And of course no drugs (this includes marijuana) – drug trafficking can be punishable by death.

There are no required vaccines for visiting Taiwan. There are a lot of mosquitos in the summer though, so make sure to avoid mosquito bites with spray, long sleeves, etc. Taiwan has modern Western medical facilities as well as traditional Chinese medicine. There are plenty of pharmacies in the cities, as well as walk-in clinics. Hospitals in Taiwan are also a lot more accessible than the US, people tend to visit more frequently for minor illnesses and injuries. In general, the healthcare system is pretty robust. They have a highly successful universal health insurance system, and even without insurance, the costs are pretty affordable compared to the US. 

Taiwan is generally safe with low crime rates. The biggest threat to safety is probably traffic accidents, which, given the congested cities can be pretty common. The second biggest threat would probably be a natural disaster, though generally cities are built to withstand typhoons and earthquakes. Pickpocketing is not as rampant as it is in other cities, especially because there are security cameras everywhere (and most cars have cameras as well…so there’s no shortage of footage if there is a crime). Surveillance is widely accepted here. It is generally pretty safe for solo female travelers and young travelers as well – in subway stations they have nighttime waiting areas designated for women with extra surveillance. In case of emergency, call 119. To report crimes, the local police can be reached at 110.

 

BATHROOMS: Women’s bathrooms tend to have both squat toilets and regular toilets. Newer buildings tend to have regular, while older have the squat toilets. Mens bathrooms have urinals and regular toilets. Also important to note that the habitual practice is to not flush toilet paper (rather, throw it away in the trashcan) because earlier on there were issues with the toilet paper and plumbing. Toilet paper sometimes comes in sheets (like tissue) rather than in rolls in households. Now, it is generally ok to flush, but you may notice that people still don’t due to habit. In some places (outdoor parks, rural rest stops, etc) toilet paper may cost money, so best to carry a pack of tissues.

WHEELCHAIR ACCESSIBILITY: Taiwan has laws that protect the rights of people with disabilities. In public institutions (including the subway and buses) and new buildings, everything is accessible. However, older buildings often have narrow hallways and stairs without elevators, so be sure to check if you are staying at an Airbnb or homestay.

DIETARY RESTRICTIONS: Taiwan is very vegetarian / vegan friendly. Many people are vegetarians for religious reasons, so restaurants are labeled with the Buddhist swastika (hint: the Nazi symbol is rotated 45 degrees). Buddhist vegetarians in Taiwan are pretty much vegans – they do not eat anything with animal products (eggs, milk, etc) or any “fetid” vegetables (with strong flavor, such as garlic, leek, etc). There is an abundance of vegetarian restaurants as well as vegetarian options at other eateries and things are labeled to be fully vegetarian or “eggs and dairy-friendly” vegetarian. There are also plenty of options for gluten-free, since a lot of dishes are made with rice. Same with lactose-free, a lot of Asians are lactose intolerant, and generally the cuisine doesn’t usually use milk products. Popular breakfast drinks are soy milk, rice milk.

MONEY: Credit cards are super popular in Taiwan, people generally have several to collect points and rewards in the competitive programs. That being said, for visitors, it might be easier to carry cash. Street food, night markets, hole in wall places tend to only take cash. You can also load money on an EasyCard for transportation, 7-Elevens, and other stores as a sort of debit card.

ELECTRICITY: Similar to the US, currents are 110V AC and sockets are compatible with two prong flat plugs. If you have three prong, you’ll likely need a converter.

VAT is usually 5%, and there are often tax-return kiosks in department stores, as well as at the airport. Generally, tipping isn’t expected. In restaurants, there is often a built-in service fee added to your bill. Receipts in Taiwan double as lottery tickets. If you’re not down to check the website for the bi-monthly lottery drawing, you can find plastic donation bins all around the cities to drop your receipts for charitable causes.

INTERNET: Like it’s east Asian neighbors, Taiwanese people love their internet and their smart phones. Internet is widely available, especially in the cities. There is free wifi in every MRT station, public bus and 7-Eleven – which combined cover a significant portion of Taiwan and mean that if you’re in Taipei you are probably never more than a block away from free wifi. Taiwan offers free wifi to all foreign visitors through the iTaiwan government service. You can pre-register here for 30 days (with extensions up to 90 days). Taipei also offers free wifi to all visitors: you can register with a valid passport and e-mail address.

PHONES: If you still need a phone, it’s pretty easy (and cheap!) to get a pre-paid SIM card for voice, text and/or data with Taiwan Mobile. This is usually for 30 day periods, and cards can be refilled at any convenience store. Packages start around 300NT (<$10). They also have day passes (100NT / day for unlimited data). Note that in Taiwan, you are only charged for outbound calls. So even if you ran out of money on your card, if someone calls you, you can still answer. If you need charging on the go but don’t have an external battery, bring your cord with you – there are charging stations and outlets in all MRT stations.

Smoking is not allowed in any indoor public places. Cigarettes are definitely more commonplace than the US, but less so than in Europe.

The legal drinking age is 18 and Taipei is pretty good about carding, though anything goes in rural areas.

You must have an international driving permit to drive in Taiwan. Like in the US, you drive on the right side of the street. There are different licenses for different types of vehicles (yes, you need a special license to ride an electric motorcycle)

Taiwan does not observe daylight savings.

Many buildings (especially hospitals) will not have a 4th floor because the word for 4 sounds like the word for death. Generally, the ground floor is the 1st floor (rather than 0 like in other countries), and basement levels are labeled B1, B2, etc.

PLANNING YOUR TRIP

There are many things to consider when you decide when to visit Taiwan. First of all there’s the question of weather. Summers are hot. With intense levels of humidity that make it difficult to breathe. The kind where you step outside and immediately get a layer of sticky sweat on your skin. But don’t worry, it washes off in the daily afternoon downpours. During mid to late summer (into September) you can also count on at least one or two typhoons to sweep by. Generally, it will rain for a few hours every day, so don’t leave without an umbrella, and plan all outdoor activities for early morning.

Fall and spring are more mild. Still warm, but not offensively so. Still rainy, but maybe not every day. The driest months are November through January. It’s also a lot cooler these months and into early spring (March), with average temperatures in the 60s.

In terms of plane tickets, it’s best to avoid summers and late January / early February (wherever Lunar New Year lands). Summers in Taipei are particularly grueling because there is a surge of expats (and their crazy teenage children) because of summer break. Oh and sweaty college student backpackers, also because of summer break. Plane tickets (economy class) during high season (from key hubs like LA, SF and NY) generally go from $700-800 on the really low end to upwards of $1500+ on the high end depending on when you book. Compare this to off-season (say, March or late September), where you can easily find tickets under $600.

The best time of year for mild weather and decent plane ticket prices would be April or October, plus or minus a month. 

There are a lot of ways to explore Taiwan, from an extended layover to a month-long adventure. How long you should go for depends on what you want to do.

If you’re just on a layover, you can hit the main sightseeing spots and eat plenty of famous Taiwan food in a couple days in Taipei. If you’re really into nature and outdoor activities, you’ll probably want to explore the eastern coast and an island, which could take longer: a week or two at minimum. Given that Taiwan is pretty compact, you could comfortably do a full island tour (or even circumnavigate on a bike) within a month.

If it’s your first time here and you want to get a taste of everything without too much of a deep dive, 7-10 days would give you enough time to explore Taipei, take a couple popular day trips in northern Taiwan, and spend a few days out in central or southern Taiwan. 

Lunar New Year: This is the biggest holiday of the year, also called the Spring Festival. It generally lands in late January or early February. It is a 15 day celebration (from new moon to full moon) that is full of traditional symbolism and rituals that have evolved and adapted to modern society. In Taiwan, people generally get New Year’s Eve off, as well as 3 business days following, similar to the common Christmas to New Year’s holiday break in the US. Prior to New Year’s Eve, there are traditional holiday markets worth checking out. On the 15th day (and often in days leading up to and following that day), there are Lantern Festivals all over Taiwan that attract locals and travelers alike (and adults and children alike as well!). A lot of restaurants and shops are closed during the first week, so it may not be the ideal for tourists. 

2/28: This is a day of memorial for the massacre that occurred on February 28, 1947. Like Memorial Day in the US, it has basically become a long weekend vacation. For visitors, this translates to a lot of locals also flocking to popular tourist spots outside the city.

Tomb Sweeping Day: This is a public holiday that has generally landed on April 5 (but moving forward may be a long weekend holiday). It’s a day dedicated to the remembrance of ancestors, where families visit the graves or temples (where cremation urns are shelved) to tidy up and pray. Often, families bring flowers and other offerings and light incense, burn joss paper for ancestors.

Dragon Boat Festival: This is another one of the major 3 holidays of the year. It usually lands in early June (it’s officially the 5th day of the 5th month on the lunar calendar, near the summer solstice). The origins of the holiday is not really clear, though most people tend to know the Qu Yuan story. People celebrate the day by watching or participating in dragon boat races and making and eating zongzi (sticky rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaf). A lot of people also buy decorative fragrant herbal pouches to wear.

Mid-Autumn Festival: This is the third major holiday of the year. It usually lands in late September or early October, on a full moon. This holiday is kind of similar to Thanksgiving. It’s all about bringing the family together, giving thanks (it’s a harvest festival) and celebrating harmony and unity. People tend to gather outside, eat mooncake and admire the full moon and barbecue. In Chinese culture, the moon is extremely important. Traditional holidays still go by the lunar calendar (and many people in Taiwan still use their lunar calendar birthdays). The word for “month” is the same as the word for “moon.”

National Day: Taiwan’s National Day is on October 10th, rather frankly referred to as double ten day (10/10). The date corresponds to the start of the Wuchang uprising in 1911 that ultimately led to the collapse of the Qing dynasty and establishment of the Republic of China. Similar to national days in other countries, festivities include a military parade, speech by the president, and fireworks; restaurants and shops lean hard into the theme and locals enjoy weekend getaways and day trips.

If you’re a shopper, you should also know that fall is the season for “anniversary sales” in all the department stores. Think of it as a blown up Black Friday that lasts a couple weeks and has convoluted deals and offers through combinations of vouchers, giveaways, etc.

Taiwan also celebrates New Year’s Eve along with the rest of the world. December 31 generally has festivities starting in the afternoon and going through the night. Since it’s all about stepping into the next year, they call it “kua nian,” whereas “xin nan” or new year generally refers to the lunar new year. There are huge free outdoor concerts all around Taiwan, the biggest being in Taipei City Hall that culminates with the Taipei 101 fireworks. Concerts generally feature the biggest new names in Taiwan and other Asian countries and are hosted by the most famous hosts and celebrities. The performances are broadcasted on major networks and streamed online.

Although Taiwan has adopted a lot of the commercial holidays in America (don’t be surprised to see Christmas trees and pumpkins at questionable times of the year), they have simply tacked it on to traditional holidays. The seventh month of the lunar calendar is Ghost Month. The Buddhist / Taoist festival lands on the 15th day of the month, but generally, you’ll see retail theme the whole month, similar to October leading up to Halloween. Traditionally, this is the month when ghosts and spirits run free. There are religious rituals performed throughout the month. It’s also unlucky to have weddings during this time. Ironically, on the 7th day of the 7th lunar month, Taiwan recognizes Qixi day, which is essentially Valentine’s Day.

Another thing to note is that Father’s Day is celebrated on August 8th rather than in June. This is because the words “eight eight” sound similar to the word for dad in Chinese. Mother’s Day is the same as the rest of the world on the second Sunday in May. Children’s Day is April 4th. Labor Day / International Worker’s Day like much of the world is May 1.

The famed sky lantern festival in Pingxi is held in February. Details can be found here.

The cost of living is lower than the US and Europe. Prices generally fall in the middle between the more expensive countries like Japan and Hong Kong, and the cheaper ones like Vietnam and Thailand. Taipei is the most expensive part of Taiwan, but for a visitor’s perspective, it isn’t a huge difference.

General Pricing:

A street food / hole in wall meal can easily be under 100 NT / $3, while mid-range restaurants / department store food courts tend to be 200-300 NT ($6-10). On a day to day basis, most people probably don’t spend more than 500 NT ($15) for a sit-down meal, unless you’re going somewhere fancy.

General groceries and household necessities are usually cheaper than typical US prices across the board, even in Taipei, and even cheaper in small towns. Traditional markets are always cheaper than brick and mortar grocery stores and supermarkets for produce, though both are very popular. In terms of brands, Taiwanese and Korean brands are pretty standard priced, while Japanese and American / European brands are more premium priced.

Admission prices to museums, parks, etc are usually pretty cheap (usually <200NT or $6), and there is almost always student/children/senior discounts.

 

Some things do cost more than in the US, such as gas, new smartphones, Apple products, cheese (& other imported foods)… Hagen Daaz (which for some reason everyone is obsessed with). Oh and 3rd wave coffee shops are absurdly expensive given the general cost of living. 

LOCAL TRANSPORTATION

Local transportation is pretty affordable too. MRTs in Taipei have pricing based on how far you’re going, starting at 20NT (~70¢). There is also discounted fare for children and seniors. Buses are even cheaper, starting at 15NT (~50¢). Some bus routes have payments when you board, and others upon alighting (sometimes for longer routes, it’s on either end). You can generally get on and off at the front or back door. 

Taxis are also pretty cheap compared to other cities with meters starting at 70NT (~$2.50) in Taipei (other cities start a little bit higher). Most local transportation around Taiwan takes the Easy Card (not to mention convenience stories, quick serve chains and more), so it’s a good idea to get one if you’re planning on staying for longer than a couple days and want flexibility to get around.

EasyCard Website

LONG DISTANCE TRANSPORTATION

The cheapest way to get around Taiwan would be by long distance bus. These are privately run and there are a range of options at a range of prices. You can buy these day-of (usually even in the hour before departure) at the stations. Tickets are generally one-way and pretty cheap. Some bus companies are more expensive than others (those might come with big armchair seats and a personal TV screen), many of them have wifi (though not the most reliable service), and pretty much all of them have a bathroom (but still, go before you board). Of course with buses, your travel time is subject to traffic. 

Train fares also vary (express trains are more expensive but save you a lot of time). Be sure to check the timetables and avoid the super local ones that stop in every village and town. Also be sure to buy a ticketed seat, some tickets are for standing room only or flex seats. 

High speed rail is the most expensive form of transportation, but also the most efficient (book ahead of time to save up to 35% off full price tickets).

If you’re trying to get to and from the east coast (Hualien, Taitung), the fastest way to travel would be by plane. Plane tickets aren’t too expensive (you can buy them just a few days ahead), considering the travel time is 30-40 min, compared to the upwards of 5+ hours by train or car. You can fly out of Songshan airport in Taipei (so you don’t have to trek to Taoyuan), to either Hualien or Taitung. The more scenic route would be by train. Puyuma and Taroko trains that go directly from Taipei are a little over 2 hours to Hualien and 4 hours to Taitung.

Links to Inter-City Buses 

Taiwan Trains Website

HSR Website

GETTING TO AND FROM THE AIRPORT

The cheapest way is to take a bus. There’s a ticketing area in the arrivals terminal, and there is regular service to Taipei as well as other cities – though less frequent at night than during the day. Some airport buses take longer than others (they have more stops circling around more places), so if you’re just looking to get to Taipei Main Station or one of the major MRT stations, try to look for an express route with fewer stops.

The easiest way to get to Taipei is by the metro that connects the airport to Taipei Main Station. A ticket from the airport to Taipei Main Station is 160NT and takes 40-50 minutes depending on if you take the “express” or “commuter” train.

 

The fastest way to get to any major city (along the western coast) would be by high speed rail, which takes 25 minutes to get to Taipei (starting at 160NT) and can even get you to Kaohsiung in under 2 hours (starting at 1330NT). You can take the metro from the airport to the HSR station, or take a shuttle. 

Hotels

There is a whole range of hotels to fit pretty much any budget. The lower end rivals hostel prices (if you’re splitting the cost with a travel buddy), while high end hotels offer first class experiences for a 5 star price.

There are plenty of budget hotels (2 star, 3 star) in all the cities. You can easily find a private room for 2 people for under 2000NT (~$65) a night. These might be a little older and smaller, but still come with more amenities than comparably rated hotels in the U.S. 

If you want a classy experience, book a stay at one of the many five-star hotels. From the Grand Hyatt across from Taipei 101 to the Mandarin Oriental near Taipei Arena, there are countless options for 5 star living while racking up points at international hotels. For a traditional old-world experience, head up to Yuanshan and go to the iconic Grand Hotel in Taipei. There are also “motels” which aren’t like a Motel 6, rather, they are more like trendy boutique hotels that are moderately priced. Check out Wego Neihu or CheckInn in Zhongshan.

There are also a whole bunch of luxury resorts in scenic areas, often with great amenities (like hot springs, private balconies, etc) and fine dining included, perfect for an all-inclusive escape.

 

There are also plenty of more budget-friendly family-owned bed and breakfasts (often with super cute themed designs and home-cooked meals) in small towns.

Airbnb / Short-Term Rentals

There are also plenty of Airbnb options in the cities and beyond. In Taipei, you can get a private room for as little as $40-50 a night, or a spacious modern apartment in a trendy neighborhood all to yourself for $250 a night. In the scenic countryside, you can rent an entire beautifully designed home for as low as 3000NT (~$100) a night (seriously, this place is so aesthetic).

 

If you are looking for an Airbnb or other short term rental in the city, make sure to ask where the nearest MRT station is. A good rule of thumb is to stay within a 10 minute walk to the nearest station and to be within a few stops from a transfer station.

Hostels

The cheapest places to stay are at hostels or youth centers. You should be able to find beds for under 800NT (~$26) a night in Taipei, and cheaper rates in other cities. There are a lot of hostels and budget-friendly “backpacker” hotels in the Taipei Main Station area.

GOOD TO KNOW

To someone new to Taiwan, EasyCards might just seem like re-loadable transportation cards. And while that is the primary function, it is so much more. For example, you can use your card for any form of public transportation: bikes, buses, subways, taxis, trains, HSR, in the country. You can also use it at any convenience store (7-Eleven, FamilyMart, etc), and on top of that, a lot of other chain stores (including bakeries, eateries, department stores, grocery stores). It’s like a tappable debit card (a lot of locals actually connect it to their bank accounts so it reloads automatically).

The tap technology is pretty sophisticated, you don’t need to take it out of your wallet or bag (which helps facilitate the endless flow of people during rush hour). Note that for the MRT, you have to scan when you enter and leave the station, since the amount deducted depends on how far you travel.

EasyCards are sold at all MRT stations (in Taipei and Kaohsiung) and at convenience stores. They cost 100NT, plus however much you want to load in. When you’re leaving, you can also return the card for any of the balance you have left, so you don’t have to worry about extra money going to waste. You can refill in the kiosks at MRT stations or at convenience stores in cash or card. There are also scanners where you can check your balance (of course, whenever you use the card on the bus, MRT, it displays your balance).

Priority seats: Sure, a lot of cities have priority seating in public transportation. But in Taiwan, they take it very seriously. Even if you aren’t in priority seating, it is still best practice to offer your seat to any elderly, pregnant, or injured person, or children.

Foot traffic in the MRT stations can get pretty hectic, so the general rule of thumb is to walk on the right side (sometimes there’s even a rail dividing paths in half). When in doubt, go with the flow of people. On escalators, stand on the right half, walk on the left half. This actually was briefly a law, but now it’s just common courtesy.

When waiting for the MRT, stay in the lines drawn on the floor, and do let people get off before going in. Again, these are rules actually followed.

 

On buses, you can usually get on from the back door and leave from the front door. There will be signage that indicates whether you pay when you get on or get off, but there are EasyCard payment machines at both doors. 

Measurements

Taiwan (like the rest of the world) uses the metric system, so brush up on the conversions for everything from temperature to distance to weight to volume.

In traditional markets, produce will be sold either by item or using Japanese mass measurements where “jing” is about 0.6kg and “liang” is about 37.5g.

 

Physical spaces are generally measured in “ping” which is about 3.3 square meters, or the size of two tatamis.

Time

Taiwan does not observe daylight savings, so depending on the time of year, Taiwan is 12 or 13 hrs ahead of EST, 15 or 16 hrs ahead of PST.

Generally, people follow the same Gregorian calendar. However, religious activities and holidays tend to go by the lunar calendar. If you buy a calendar or planner in Taiwan, it’ll probably have the lunar calendar dates overlaid on it. Birthdays tend to be celebrated on either calendar date.

Taiwan also uses both the BCE/CE year count, as well as the “Republic of China” calendar which counts years starting from the first year of the republic, 1912. So, 2020 is the year 109. You can just add or subtract 11 to get the year. A lot of people say their age by the year they were born, like saying your birth year was 83 instead of 1994. And you’ll probably see the ROC year used for expiry dates as well.

 

Age is sometimes calculated differently, though people also go by their “western” age as well. You are 1 year old on the date of birth, and then you count each year with the Lunar New Year rather than your birthday.

Currency

The easy conversion is $1 to 30NT, so you can just mentally divide NT prices by 30 to get the USD estimation. Or even easier but less accurate, use $3 for 100NT, $30 for 1000NT and multiply it out. So if something is 500NT, it would be about $3×5=$15. The actual rate fluctuates but over the past decade it’s stayed around this rate.

 

But if you want the official conversion rate check here.

Packing List

Clothes

  • During winter: sweaters, jeans, coats (they don’t have heaters, so definitely wear layers)
  • During summer: T-shirts, shorts, maybe a light jacket (in case they crank up the AC) but generally loose clothing that withstands humidity is your best friend

 

Shoes

  • Something waterproof with good grip
  • Something easy to walk in
  • Slippers (most hotels will give you indoor slippers)

 

Other Things

 

  • Converter for electronics 
  • Portable umbrella (or buy one there, they’re sturdy and will only set you back $5)
  • Sunscreen
  • Bug repellent (or get this locally)
  • Cash – a lot of street food and hole-in-wall places only accept cash, so make sure you bring some, or at least have access to getting some. You can exchange money at a bank for a decent rate. 

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