The Essential Guide to Finding Suppliers in China

By #howto, #marketing

The Canton Trade Fair

The Canton Trade Fair (China Import and Export Fair) is a really big deal as it hosts over 60,000 exhibitors over 3 phases, twice a year. It’s the largest trade show in China and attracts over 200,000 buyers from all around the world. On average the show facilitates around $32B USD in trade (Yes, that’s a B!) This means you’re bound to find exactly what you are looking for at a price point you didn’t think possible but to get there requires a bit of admin and a little know how.

I visited the 122ndCanton Trade Fair in 2017 on behalf of a few customers who were looking for new suppliers in China and verification of their manufacturing capability. I spent a week at the fair visiting dozens of stands, creating reports and assessing fit for my customers. I visited a factory in Shanghai to verify their capability and check their QC and testing facilities (all documented with the supplier’s consent) and a rapid prototyping manufacturer in Shenzhen to do the same.

The trip was a massive success for my customers and a real eye-opener for me. By representing a few different customers and sharing costs like this it was it a very cost-effective for companies way to check the Chinese market out before committing large orders.


I wanted to share my experience to inspire you and help you get there yourself or if you prefer, I can represent your business to help you find manufacturing capability and new suppliers, just get in touch and we can discuss your needs and work out a plan to suit.

There are some really good videos online that will help you get to know a little more about the fair and what you can expect.

So, here’s a step by step guide from my experience to help you;

Work out a Plan

Because the fair complex is so large and busy (I mean really busy!) it can be overwhelming. You really need to know exactly what you are looking for before you arrive. Also, knowing what and who you want to see will help when planning flights, accommodation and a daily plan while you are there.

Check out the Canton Fair website to find the categories and corresponding phases/dates that may be applicable to you.

Then drill into the individual exhibitors that you want to visit and make a specific plan using the maps. The complex is huge so you don’t really want to have to go back and forth if you can avoid it. You will do a lot of walking at the fair, I averaged about 15kms per day so wear comfortable footwear (more on this later)

Then give yourself some extra days to visit your new Chinese supplier’s factories and have some downtime to do some tourist activities or recover from all the walking (and people).

Accommodation is reasonably priced (I stayed in a 3-star Chinese hotel for about $150NZD per night) and most hotels offer a shuttle to the fair complex as part of your stay. There is a list of hotels here that the fair endorses.

Flights range from around $750 return via China Southern airlines (very budget no food or extras included) to $1500 for Air NZ via Singapore (Economy).

Food and transport are very cheap in Guangzhou and getting around is easy on the metro system (Virtually all signs include English too).


Canton Fair Registration and Application

Once you have worked out your plan you need to register for the fair and apply for an invitation to the Canton Fair, you will need this for your visa application via the Chinese Embassy and for your registration as a buyer. You can register here and apply for your invitation online here you should print this and take a copy with you too.

Chinese Visa Application

Once you have a plan and your invitation you need to apply for a Chinese Visa. You can download the application form online here and you need to send your completed application, payment, passport, ID photo, invitation and return addressed courier bag to your local embassy here.

IMPORTANT: give them plenty of time to process your visa or, if you have less than 4 weeks, visit them in person and get a one working day service with an urgent fee. (I tried with only 2 weeks to spare and ended up having to visit Wellington to retrieve my passport the day before I was due to leave!!)

You will most likely be applying for an “M visa”

Pre-Application for Buyers Badge

Once you have your Visa you should register as a buyer to receive your buyers badge for the fair, this can be done online and makes getting your badge at the fair much quicker. You can apply here.

Once your buyers badge has been confirmed you just need to pick it up from one of the hotels listed online or at the fair itself.

Be prepared

When you have been confirmed as a buyer you can download the Canton Fair App and login to access the fair maps, exhibitors and their contact details. You can pre-arrange meetings and ask basic questions like minimum order quantities etc before you arrive to save time.

I had a list of ten manufacturers I wanted to visit on day one at the fair so I developed a question list to assess and compare them, a map and an itinerary so I knew how long I had and who I was going to see. This helped me to whittle the list down to two who I revisited the following day and that helped us to quickly identify the perfect supplier that met all of our requirements.

Don’t expect to get there and then work out what you want to do, who you want to visit and how you will approach them, I can’t stress this enough. You will be really overwhelmed at the scale of the thing and you won’t make good use of your time while you are there. 


Language – Most of the exhibitors I visited spoke English, some very fluent. If you are patient you should be able to communicate just fine. I found just saying one thing or concept at a time and looking for confirmation worked best for me. There are interpreters available at the show and they only cost around $80 for a day if you feel the need. I also used Google translate and downloaded the Chinese language pack to be available offline.

Transport – Taxis are very cheap but you need to pre-negotiate the fair with your driver first. I took a taxi from the airport to my hotel (around a 1-hour drive) and it cost 200 RMB or around $40 NZD. Sometimes language is an issue, again I found Google Translate helpful here. The metro is very clean, efficient and easy to navigate I purchased a 3-day all you can use cards for around $10NZD and used Apple Maps and Google Maps to work out which stations/stops I needed. Domestic flights in China were on par price-wise with domestic flights in NZ, but do remember it is a very big country. I flew from Guangzhou to Shanghai return with Shanghai Airlines for around $500 NZD. And there are high speed (300kmh) trains from Guangzhou to Shenzhen (115kms) which take around 20 minutes and only cost around $30NZD return.

Food and Water – The food is amazing if you enjoy anything Asian. I didn’t know what I was ordering most of the time but rather pointed at other patron’s dishes or at pictures in the menu. I was told to be brave and I would be rewarded and it was true, go where the locals go as a clue and don’t be afraid of the street food vendors. I was warned not to drink tap water, so grab some water bottles from the local Seven 11 (they are everywhere) and you should also use bottled water to brush your teeth.

Internet – I used Sparks roaming pack to get 1GB data and 100 mins for around $20, it mostly worked OK. Starbucks offer free Wi-Fi and most hotels do too but the great firewall of China made Google, Facebook etc. unavailable.  I used Viper VPN to get through and it worked pretty well (cost about $5)

Payment / Cash – I mostly used cash (RMB) as visa card payment wasn’t always accepted. There are bank ATMs all around Guangzhou. Otherwise ,WePay via WeChat is well accepted and an easy way of messaging your Chinese contacts too. I worked out a very rough way to calculate currency conversion by doubling the RMB and dividing by ten. i.e. 200RMB x 2 / 10 = $40 NZD (it is actually $42.80 but close enough to get a feel) if you want to be more precise use the XE.Com app (don’t forget to factor bank charges too)

Documents – You will be asked to show your passport at the hotel, some train stations and many other places, you should plan on having this on your person at all times.

At the Fair

Business Cards – Some of the vendors won’t give you pricing or brochures unless you give them a business card so bring plenty. Also, once they have your contact details you will get spammed, so maybe use a throwaway email address on specific Canton fair cards to establish the first contact. If you are given a business card, don’t stuff it into your pocket, Chinese people find it disrespectful, check out Chinese business etiquette here while many Chinese businesses have westernised their practices, it’ll help get you off on the right foot with your new contacts.

Attire – I would recommend wearing whatever you will be comfortable in rather than business wear, especially shoes as you will be doing a lot of walking. Also, you will most likely be given a huge number of brochures, cards and sometimes samples so take a bag (some people even had airport type wheelie bags).

Security – You must have your buyers card to gain entrance to the fair and be prepared to spend a bit of time getting through security these guys take security seriously which is reassuring (in fact this is true all over China) Your buyers card will get you discounts at places like the Canton Tower too which you definitely should visit BTW.

Food, Water and Coffee – There are food courts at the show with a large range of Chinese and international food and a few cafes too all very reasonably priced. Make sure you bring cash though.

Wi-Fi – There is Wi-Fi at the complex, you access it via the trade fair app but to be honest I found it a little unreliable.

That’s it, I hope this has been helpful! Please do let me know if you need any more advice or if you would like help or have me represent your business to find new suppliers or manufacturers in China, I’d love to chat and hear how I can help you!