Living in China is an experience unlike any other. Your perceptions will shift as you embrace language and culture. You will face challenges and new experiences that will help you to learn and grow. You will make new friends and build yourself a home. Don’t be intimidated! After living in China you will realize that it is unique and fascinating, not scary.
Here is a brief list of some of the good and bad things about life in China.
Culture – You will learn so much about China’s history and culture. The country is overflowing with thousands of years of history.
Cost of living – It is much cheaper to live in China than it is to live in most western countries. As expats are typically paid more than the average Chinese citizen, you will be able to enjoy a comfortable lifestyle.
Travel – Once you are in China, it is cheap and convenient to travel around and experience the whole country via their sophisticated train systems. You will see the Great Wall of China, the Yellow Mountains, and the Longjing Tea Fields. The rest of Asia is just a short flight away as well.
Language – You will end up learning at least some words and phrases just by immersion. Those who plan to seriously study Chinese will find themselves conversational in about a year.
Safety – Crime in China is extremely low. A young woman can feel safe walking the mile home from the subway station late at night. Though you should still be smart as petty theft still exists in some areas.
Culture shock – No matter how prepared you are to visit China, you will experience some type of culture shock. Some easily overcome it, others take time to get used to the different lifestyle in China.
Air quality – While it has improved over the past 5 years, the air quality in China gets pretty bad, especially in bigger cities such as Shanghai and Beijing. If you struggle with asthma or are an avid out-door runner, you may want to consider which city you move to based on its average air quality.
Home Comforts – It is a bit harder to find western products and food in China, and when you find them, they can be pricey given import costs. While you can get most stuff these days, you still might find yourself missing some of your favorite things from back home.
Language – Regular people in China do not speak fluent English and the language barrier can add a lot of frustration and confusion to your experience. Learning the language is a pro but struggling to get to that point can be a con.
Bad Habits – There are things that are hard to get used to or that are straight-up annoying. People in China are known for cutting in line, spitting on the ground, and staring at foreigners. Not all Chinese people will be like this, but you will come across them.
Blocked internet – The Great Firewall of China. You need to get a VPN in order to visit most websites including Google, Facebook, Instagram, and Netflix. It is a necessity.
Cost of Living
While costs are rising, China still has a relatively low cost of living, and it is easy to live a comfortable lifestyle. Below is a rough estimate of what a single person might budget for per month living in China.
All prices in this section are in U.S. Dollars. These represent tier 1 cities. You can take about 30% off these prices if you live in a smaller Chinese city.
For more details, check out our cost of living guides:
Accommodation: US$1,200 for a 1 nice bedroom or a studio apartment per month. Note that upon move-in, you will need 3 or 4 months rent up front.
Bills and Utilities: $150 because you will need a phone plan, a home wifi hookup, VPN subscription, gas, water, electricity, maybe a cleaning service and laundry.
Food and drink: US$500 is a fine budget if you cook a bit at home, eat out when you feel like it, brave the occasional street food, and enjoy the occasional beer.
Clothes and Beauty: US$250 will cover you for a couple of massages, a good haircut, some products, and some new clothes for work.
Household items: US$100 should be more than enough each month for things you need round the home as apartments in China come furnished. You will want to get yourself small electronics, bedding, and miscellaneous items.
Transportation: US$70 will be enough to get you around the city in taxis or rideshare cars and set you up with a metrocard for public transport.
Total: US$2,270 per month or around 15,000 RMB is what you will spend to live a very comfortable and easy life as a single foreigner in China.
Considering most young professionals, international school teachers, and successful expats make 25,000 to 35,000 RMB per month, this means you can save a lot of cash and enjoy frequent holidays and luxury items.
There are plenty of exciting job opportunities in China for foreigners. Many foreigners become entrepreneurs once they get settled, opening bars, restaurants, and other businesses.
The Beijinger and SmartShanghai are good websites to visit to find opportunities for work. Most jobs available for foreign expats in China are to teach English.
Qualified teachers (those with an MA.Ed or a PGCE, and a teaching license) should register on both Schrole and Search Associates as all of the highest paying international schools recruit exclusively via those sites.
WeChat is the most important app to have in China for digital payments and more. The built-in translator will save you so many headaches. Select the plus (+) button on the top right corner, select “Scan” and then on the bottom select “Translate.” You can take a picture of any Chinese text and it will translate it into English for you.
The Google Translate app will be most useful as well. You can input your sentence, translate to Mandarin Chinese (simplified Chinese characters), and then either have the Chinese person read it themselves or play the audio.
While living in China, don’t pass up the opportunity to learn Chinese:
Healthcare in China is generally free or extremely cheap for Chinese citizens at government facilities. In some cases expats can receive free healthcare as well.
The service provided at public hospitals in China is inconsistent in quality, language is a struggle and many times you can be waiting in line all day to see a doctor.
Service and quality care at international or private clinics in China is some of the best in the world and still comparatively affordable compared to countries without universal healthcare like the USA.
Most expats in China choose to take out private health insurance so they can visit private or international hospitals and clinics.
To learn more about heath and health insurance in China, see our guides:
Foodies are in for a treat when they move to China!
Chinese food is so diverse and the international food scene is booming with world-class high-end restaurants as well as independent global cuisines represented at artisanal eateries.
In the north of China, wheat-based dishes like dumplings and noodles are popular, while in the south, rice and seafood star. Sichuan cuisine is known for its spice, Cantonese cuisine is famous for its delicate and fresh ingredients. Then there is Hunanese, Shanghainese, and Fujianese; each region bringing a distinct cooking style and flavor.
Street food in China is an integral part of the country’s culinary culture and street vendors can be found all over the country serving up an array of delicious and affordable dishes and snacks.
Some of the most popular street foods in China include Jianbing, a savory breakfast crepe made with egg, scallions, and crunchy fried dough; Baozi, steamed buns filled with meat and veggies; spicy Sichuan noodles; and grilled Xinjiang lamb skewers.
Home comforts are easily available in fast food chains from KFC and Macca’s to Starbucks and Pizza Hut, but also in more niche outlets like LA’s Fatburger, Canada’s Tim Horton’s, and Philippines’ Jollibee.
China has something to eat for every palette at every price range. You can easily spend a dollar on breakfast and 500 dollars on dinner.
Crime and Safety
Personal safety is typically not a major issue for most individuals in China because of the low crime rate. Pickpocketing, scams, and rare acts of violence are a few risks to be wary of, just like in any other country.
It’s important to use caution and common sense, especially at night and in crowded settings, and to always be aware of your surroundings.
The most common crime you will come across is blatant, happens when you are new to the country, and is pretty much unpunishable: Rip off scams.
There are taxi drivers at airports who refuse to use the meter and charge you ten times the usual fare. There are pretty girls who will ask you to go to a teahouse with them and then stick you with a bill for hundreds of dollars for some mysterious “rare” tea you unwittingly let her order. There are drivers who will take your real hundred yuan note, pretend to inspect it, and then hand you back a counterfeit one telling you yours was fake.
A visa is always required for entry into China. In order to get a visa, you, or someone representing you, has to appear in-person to a Visa Office. You need to plan ahead and make sure you have the proper documentation and fees.
There are business and tourist visas if you would like to visit the country first before deciding to live there but the main type of visa for those who plan to live long-term in China will be the Work Visa (Z).
For more information on Chinese visas, see our guides:
There are multiple flight options going into China but the pandemic disrupted global travel and China was possibly the worst affected country with restrictions going on for much longer than elsewhere around the world.
China has at least 25 international airports. The main ones are:
Beijing Capital International Airport (PEK)
Shanghai Pudong International Airport (PVG)
Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport (CAN)
Shenzhen Bao’an International Airport (SZX)
Chengdu Shuangliu International Airport (CTU)
Xi’an Xianyang International Airport (XIY)
Kunming Changshui International Airport (KMG)
Hangzhou Xiaoshan International Airport (HGH)
Chongqing Jiangbei International Airport (CKG)
Tianjin Binhai International Airport (TSN)
Peak travel seasons will see prices soar during holidays like Chinese New Year (Spring Festival) in January or February, National Day (Golden Week) in the first week of October, Christmas in December, and School summer break around August.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic there are fewer flights into and out of China these days as their travel industry just starts to get going again. From January 8th of 2023, China scrapped quarantine for all travelers.
The cost of flights into China will vary widely depending on the time of year, the airline, the departure city, and the duration of the flight.
To get an idea of flight prices into China, you can check online travel booking websites and airline sites as well as sign up for email alerts to help you learn about promotions or discounts.
Here are some one way flight price averages for June of 2023 (USD):
Bangkok – Beijing: $200
Singapore – Chengdu: $230
Sydney – Shanghai: $600
Paris – Beijing: $730
London – Hangzhou: $840
Los Angeles – Beijing: $1,400
New York – Shanghai: $2,000
Abu Dhabi – Beijing: $1,500
Shipping to China
You will likely want to take important items with you to China in the beginning before you get settled and figure out where to buy things.
Don’t forget all of your important documents when you move to China such as ID, insurance cards, credit and debit cards, medical records, prescriptions, and of course all of your visa paperwork and passport.
Some items are more expensive in China or harder to find. Consider packing things like:
There are many wonderful cities to live in in China as an expat.
The number one city for expats to live in is Shanghai. It is full of expats from all around the world, and it is a fun mix of both Chinese and Western influence. The French concession is a beautiful area to explore both during the day and night, and the Bund and Nanjing Road are the most popular tourist destinations, with stunning views, delicious food, and lots of shopping and sight-seeing.
Shanghai has no shortage of restaurants, bars, nightclubs, cafes, parks, gardens, and shopping centers. It is also easier to find some Western comforts in Shanghai than in other places. Although Shanghai is more expensive than most other cities, it is still relatively cheap compared to Western standards.
As the capital of China, Beijing is home to unique opportunities, and is an exciting place to live with a large expat community. Beijing is home to some of China’s most famous attractions, such as the Great Wall of China, the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, and the Summer Palace.
Beijing has gone to great lengths to preserve its cultural roots and ancient streets, while at the same time enjoying modern expansion and architecture.
The transportation in Beijing is cheap and convenient, the food is delicious, and the dialect in Beijing is considered the standard Mandarin Chinese pronunciation.
Known for its spicy food, relaxed lifestyle, and vibrant culture, Chengdu offers a unique blend of modernity and tradition.
The city is home to a pretty large international community, and expats can easily find familiar comforts while also immersing themselves in the local way of life. From exploring ancient temples to enjoying a hot pot meal with friends, to snooping on adorable pandas, Chengdu is a great option for your new home.
Hangzhou has a growing expat community while also offering a more intense cultural experience. Hangzhou has smaller groups of expats that form a tight-knit community and get together often to play sports, attend events, and explore the city.
Hangzhou is very close to Shanghai and is a popular spot to live when that SH life is just too expensive.
Hangzhou is most famous for its West Lake area and its stunningly beautiful Longjing Tea Plantation. It is also home to many restaurants and parks and shopping centers to fill your nights and weekends.
Other popular cities for expats to live in include Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Suzhou, Qingdao, Tianjin, Xi’an, and Wuhan.
Each of these cities has its own pros and cons. But each of them could potentially be a great home for you and your family.
There are various types of accommodation for you to choose from:
Studios: typically one-room apartments, ideal for single individuals. They usually have a combined living and sleeping area, a small kitchen, and bathroom.
One-bedroom apartments: typically consist of a separate bedroom, living room, kitchen, and one bathroom.
Two or three-bedroom apartments: suitable for families or groups of friends who are looking for more space. They typically have separate bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen, and one or more bathrooms.
Serviced apartments: fully furnished apartments that come with amenities such as housekeeping, laundry, and a concierge service. They are ideal for individuals or families who want the convenience of a hotel with the space and comfort of an apartment.
Villas or townhouses: usually on the outskirts of town, they are suitable for families who want more space. They come with a garden or a terrace, and shared facilities such as a gym or swimming pool.
Traditional courtyard houses: siheyuan are a type of housing unique to Beijing and other northern Chinese cities. They are typically composed of a central courtyard surrounded by rooms and offer a traditional living experience.
The quality of each building will vary depending on age and price. Older apartment buildings tend to be more spacious but do not have glamorous facilities like gyms, pools, and fancy lobbies. New high rises are often decked out with all the glam accessories, but they come in compact sizes and with higher prices.
A good real estate agent will make the process much easier. You can find them through word-of-mouth, WeChat expat groups, and by walking into any agency you see on the street in the general area you want to live in.
The usual rent period is 12 months, with an option to renew for a second year. Security deposits are generally about two to three months’ rent.
At any place you live, you need to register yourself with your local police. At hotels, fancier condos, or serviced apartment complexes the landlord will do this for you.
Utilities & Bills
Utilities in China include gas, electric, water, internet, and possible extras like cleaning, pool and gym, or laundry. Management fees should be paid by the landlord. Most bills can be paid using WeChat Pay or in person at the management office of your building. See the cost of living section above for approximate fees.
China’s tap water is not safe for drinking, and you should always drink filtered water. Bottled water deliveries in China are very cheap, or you can install a filter on your taps. Showering and brushing your teeth with the water is fine.
Prepare your phone for use in China before you arrive. In order to use a Chinese Sim card, you need to have an unlocked phone. If your phone is registered with a carrier company then you need to contact them on how to get it unlocked or else buy a new phone that is unlocked.
Once you are in China you will need a sim card right away. Prepaid sim cards are most popular. You can buy one at the airport or at any phone provider shop around town.
They will help you set it up. Once you have a number, it is pretty easy to change plans. You can top up for your phone credit with WeChat or the carrier app.
The price of a pre-paid sim card will range from 10 to 100 RMB. Believe it or not, the auspiciousness of the phone number helps determine the price. A number with lucky 8s in it will cost more than a number with unlucky 4s.
The mobile phone and internet market is dominated by three main providers: China Mobile, China Telecom, and China Unicom. They all provide service in English. China Mobile is by far the most popular for foreigners and a safe bet.
Because of the Great Firewall of China, you will not be able to access some apps or websites unless you have a VPN. Although it might be possible to download a VPN after you get to China, it is much easier to do it beforehand.
You will want to download VPNs on any phones, tablets, or computers you will be bringing with you.
VPNs are not entirely foolproof in China, and the government has been known to crack down on VPN usage. Therefore, it’s important to use a reputable VPN provider. Free VPNs are unreliable and possibly unsafe.
WeChat is China’s number one mobile app. It is 100% necessary for an easy life in China.
It is used for literally everything, not just text messaging. It is the main social media app, online shopping, ride-share, travel booking service, and even paying bills.
It is hard to comprehend until you start using it, but in China, you just won’t have all those separate apps on your phone. Everything happens inside WeChat.
WeChat’s messaging system is simple. You can add a friend by scanning their QR code or putting in their user ID number. You can create and join groups.
In addition to joining chat groups with friends and coworkers, you can join public groups for all kinds of things such as sporting groups, church groups, and travel groups.
Each Chinese city will have dozens of different groups that you can find through recommendations from friends. They are a great way to find people with the same interests as you.
Once you get a Chinese bank account, you can link your card to your WeChat and use it to pay for food at restaurants, groceries, and delivery services. Even tiny street vendors selling fruit will have a WeChat QR code for you to pay them.
You will want to choose a bank that is convenient for you since your bank account will be tied to the branch where you opened the account.
Getting a Credit Card
It is hard, but not impossible for a foreigner to get a credit card with a Chinese bank. To be eligible for credit in China, you must have a Work (Z) or Business (M) visa, and provide proof of income for at least two years.
Getting your money out of China is difficult due to strict limits and high fees. However, there are ways to do it, including physically carrying cash, bank transfers, and money transfer services, all of which have rules regarding the amount of money that can be transferred.
Read our guides above to make sure you are prepared for this reality of life in China.
You need to consider where your kids will go to school.
Although public school is free to Chinese citizens, foreign students need to pay tuition fees. Public schools in China are also taught in Mandarin Chinese, so your child will need to be proficient in Chinese before they attend in order to understand the curriculum.
There are plenty of private and international schools for expat children to avoid the language barrier of public Chinese schools. These schools are the popular choice for expats but they are expensive with annual tuition fees anywhere between US$10,000 and US$25,000.
Private schools are in high demand, and children are often put on long waiting lists.
Once you decide which city you will move to, you can search online for schools in the area and find plenty of reviews for the best schools in your city.
We have also created some in-depth guides to international schools:
In China, anyone earning money as an employee or business owner is expected to contribute to society through taxation, but the taxes are relatively low compared to other countries, and paying them is simple for most expats.
All income earned within China is subject to taxation, while non-residents only need to pay tax on income earned within China.
The tax system is progressive, with higher percentages being applied to higher income bands. For instance, the first RMB 36,000 is taxed at 3%, and the next RMB 108,000 at 10%. These rates are subject to change.
Making Friends & Exploring
Adjusting to life in China takes time, but exploring your city is the best way to do it.
Exploring different cities in China can be a lot of fun, but it’s not always easy to know what activities to do or find people to do them with. Luckily, there are online resources that can help:
That’s Beijing (Also has pages for Shanghai, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Tianjin, Suzhou, and Sanya)
There are also Facebook groups like Foreigners in Beijing and subreddits like Expats in China that can connect you with fellow expats, who you can then chat with on WeChat to plan family trips, weekend getaways, or bar crawls.
With abundant restaurants and street food, you can wander around and try different culinary treats. Take the local transportation and meet new people to make friends and start to feel at home. Learn the language and don’t be afraid to strike up conversation with locals.
China also offers nighttime activities such as cinema, shopping, clubs, and dance performances. Parks and gardens in China are beautiful and a great way to explore your new city.
Renting a car or buying a new or used car in China as a foreigner is not for everyone, but it is possible.
Driving in China can be challenging due to the high volume of traffic and the country’s unique driving culture. In many cases, it may be more practical to use public transportation, such as the extensive subway systems found in major cities like Beijing and Shanghai.
However, if you plan to explore more remote areas or have specific transportation needs, renting or buying a car may be necessary.
Keep in mind that foreign drivers need to obtain a Chinese driver’s license, and it’s important to research local driving laws and regulations before hitting the road.
Luckily, we have lots of guides to help you out whatever your driving need:
The process of moving to China should be allowed plenty of time.
Once you have a job, obtaining your visa alone can take anywhere from a few days to a few months. You will need to get flights, arrange accommodation for when you first arrive, and pack up your life for the adventure of a lifetime.
Here is a sample timeline to get everything in order:
Three months out:
Obtain a passport or make sure yours has at least a year of validity and more than 6 blank pages to be safe.
Start looking at airplane tickets and budgeting accordingly.
Find schooling for yourself and/or your children.
Two months out:
Apply for your Chinese visa.
Purchase flight tickets.
If you are bringing a pet – start the vaccination process
Contact realtors in China about renting an apartment.
One month out:
Pack up your belongings and have them shipped to China if you are using a moving service.
If you are bringing a pet – get them microchipped and vaccinated. Prepare their documents, carrying crate, and supplies.
Sell items you are not taking with you or put them in storage.
Sell your vehicle or make arrangements to leave it with someone.
End your rent lease, sell your home, or prepare your home to be unoccupied or else rented out.
Order all needed items online to arrive at least a week before you depart.
Move money to a Visa debit card that you can use in China.
Purchase Chinese currency.
Finalize housing arrangements in China.
Let your bank know when you will be in China so they do not shut off your credit or debit cards.
Now, on to You
So this is it, the exhaustive list of pretty much everything you will need to think about for your big move to China. All of the links to our extensive guides are on this page for your convenience.
As the Chinese say 祝你在冒险中好运! (zhù nǐ zài mào xiǎn zhōng hǎo yùn) – Good luck on your adventure!
Here are some of the most important guides you must read when moving to China: