Moving to China Expat Guide
Moving to China as a foreigner can present a number of challenges for expats. The country is known for having a long and proud cultural history spanning thousands of years, and the cultural differences expats experience when living in China can be a huge shock at first and difficult to overcome - combined with a challenging language barrier which can make those first few months as a foreigner very difficult.
Despite the challenges most expats are likely to encounter, China provides a wealth of opportunities. The country’s major cities are home to millions of people, and each vibrant hub has its own unique personality and culture, job opportunities, and a wealth of opportunities to immerse yourself in the daily hustle and bustle.
The large majority of expats move to China for employment purposes, and most will find that it takes some time to adjust to the challenges life in China can present. Preparing yourself for the move can be a good way to arm yourself against the obstacles you are likely to face. In this guide, we’ve covered some of the main things you need to know about moving to China as an expat.
Types of Visas When Moving to China
Applying for a visa
Expats are advised to start the visa application process at least a month to three months before you travel to China. You will usually need to visit your nearest embassy in person in your home country to apply for your visa to China where you will be expected to submit all relevant documents as well as have biometric fingerprints scans taken.
|Visa Name||Valid For||Requirements||Cost|
|Tourist (L visa)||Single-entry visa: valid for 3 months Double-entry visa: valid for 6 months for stays up to 30 days at a time Multiple-entry visa: valid for 12 months with stays up to 30 days at a time||Your passport with at least 6 months validity, proof of travel itinerary, proof of funds, visa application fee, evidence of an onward journey||$30 - $140|
|Student visa||X1 visa: for students moving to China to study for 180 days or more X2 visa: for students moving to China to study for less than 180 days||Passport, original and photocopy of the letter of admission from the Chinese institution you will be studying at, and visa application to study in China.||$30 - $130|
|Work visa (Z visa)||For expats who are working in China for more than 6-months (expats deemed highly skilled and urgently needed should apply for an R visa)||Confirmation letter of invitation issued by the employer, notification letter of work permit. A work permit is also essential for expats wanting to work in China.||N/A|
Way of Life in China for Expats
Moving to China can bring with it a mix of emotions for expats. On the one hand, China will be an exciting place to live with a rich culture you’re unlikely to have experienced before. On the other hand, it can present a huge shock, leaving many expats struggling with feeling isolated and trying to brush up on their Mandarin skills to settle into the country better.
China has been under communist rule since 1949, and while the country is undergoing significant economic and social development, the political structure of the country may present some challenges for Western foreigners to adapt to. Generally, however, expat life in China can be as exciting as it is challenging. The bigger cities tend to have lower crime rates compared to many other big cities around the world, with some amazing cuisine to be sampled and of course, the ancient history around which China’s culture revolves to discover more about everywhere you go.
The sheer size of China means the climate can be varied across the country. The north of China, for example, can experience very cold winters and short summers, while southern China is known for having the opposite climate - hot summers and short winters.
Despite China being such a large country, travelling via public transport is still very easy and convenient whether you choose to travel via air, seat, or land. Here’s an overview of your options for public transportation when getting around China:
Air: China has over 200 airports and a number of airlines handling both international and domestic flights. Low-cost airlines for travelling within China include Spring Airlines and Air China. You’ll generally find that airline staff can speak both English and Mandarin to make navigating airports and your flights easier.
Train: China has a well-developed network of high-speed trains which can significantly reduce the travel time between China’s major cities. The country also has a good network of lower cost regular trains that will take longer but can provide an interesting experience, with a range of options for sleeper trains for longer distances.
Bus: Travelling by bus within China’s cities is cheap and quick, with a well-developed network within the city and to the suburbs. For longer distances, you’ll generally find that buses are comfortable and air-conditioned to provide a pleasant journey.
Taxi: Uber and Lyft don’t operate in China, but you shouldn’t have any problems hailing a regular taxi.
Expats will need a Chinese driving license in order to rent or buy a car in China, so a good work around is to rent a car with a driver. You should be able to find a reputable agency to facilitate this in most major cities.
Crime in China
China is generally very safe for expats, with crime rates in the major cities much lower than in other major cities around the world. You should still be aware of your belongings and your surroundings when out and about, of course, to avoid being a victim of opportunistic pickpocketing and follow common-sense safety measures.
Working in China
China has numerous job opportunities in a range of industries, especially the financial, business, and education sectors. The large majority of expats moving to China are doing so for employment, with most foreigners able to enjoy a low cost of living for higher salaries.
Many expats find employment opportunities as teachers or tutors in China, where English is valued as a second-language. However, as one of the global leaders in technology, finance, and with one of the largest economies in the world, highly skilled workers in these industries can find lucrative career prospects with major Chinese employers.
Cost of Living in China
The general cost of living in China really depends on where you are located and the type of lifestyle you are living. For example, many expats will find that they can live very comfortably on a budget of less than $1,000 per month in most major Chinese cities, but of course, there is room for that budget to increase if you want a little more luxury.
Standard accommodation in China can cost anywhere from $300 - $700 per month, with more luxury apartments and suites available for expats with a bigger budget. If you are teaching or have a job offer from a Chinese company, they should be able to help you arrange accommodation for the duration of your stay in China.
If you are looking for a place to rent yourself, find a reputable agency that can speak English and is experienced in helping expats. Recommendations from people who have previously lived and worked in China can help you avoid choosing a property in a less ideal neighbourhood or looking via an agency who may give you a bad deal.
Due to the difficulties of overcoming the language barrier in China, most expats choose to send their children to an international school. Thankfully, there are many quality international schools to choose from in China’s major cities with the largest concentration in Beijing, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou.
Most international schools follow the International Baccalaureate (IB) programme which is recognised worldwide, but you may find some schools offering a curriculum from the country that they represent. Classes will typically be taught in English or the primary language of the school’s home country, with a focus on teaching Mandarin as a second language.
The caveat of international schools is their high tuition fees. Expats moving for work purposes should think about factoring education costs into their package.
The overall quality of healthcare in China can vary quite significantly depending on where you are based, as you might imagine with such a large country.
Public healthcare in China is generally considered to be substandard compared to Western practices, with long queues and the language barrier often making it difficult for expats to find quick and effective treatment. Of course, the overall quality of the care you receive will vary depending on where you, but most expats choose to take the private healthcare route for treatment that meets Western standards.
Most expats opt for private healthcare when in need of medical services in China. International hospitals will typically have English-speaking staff with Western training, which provides a much smoother experience for expats in need of care. You will find several high-quality international hospitals in China’s major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, but expats living in more rural areas may struggle to find Western-centred healthcare.
You should note that the cost for private healthcare can be much higher than public healthcare in China, sometimes costing double for the same treatment.
Negotiating private health care insurance as a part of your employment package when moving to China should be a top priority to avoid expensive medical bills should you need private medical care while living in China.
You should be able to find a number of Western insurance companies with a growing presence in China, while local providers are also an option provided they have the correct license to sell private healthcare insurance. You may also want to check that the hospital you are likely to use
Banking in China
In China, WeChat Pay has become the most commonly accepted payment method - with users able to pay for purchases by simply scanning a QR. As an expat, you’ll only be able to use WeChat Pay if you have Chinese bank account. Otherwise, you’ll need to pay by cash or card - something that not all businesses accept these days.
If you receive a salary from a Chinese employer and need to pay rent and utilities for your apartment, having a Chinese bank account will make life a lot easier. In order to open an account, you’ll need to have a one year visa, and bring your passport and the minimum deposit amount.
Unfortunately, if you are staying in China and have a visa for less than one year, your application to open a local bank account is likely to be denied - although it’s worth trying a few different banks if you are rejected at first.
Some of China’s central banks include:
People's Bank of China (BOC)
Industrial & Commercial Bank of China (ICBC)
China Construction Bank (CCB)
You can also find international banks in China such as HSBC and Citibank, but choosing a bigger bank with more branches and ATMs in the city your living on is a sensible move.
Sending money internationally to China
There may be a point in which you need to transfer money from your home country to China, whether that’s to your local bank account, to your mobile, or to pick up from an agent location as cash.
Sending an international transfer from your bank can incur high transfer fees and exchange rate markups, so looking for a third-party money transfer provider can be a cost-effective solution whether you’re sending a larger one-off lump sum, or looking to send money to China on a frequent basis. Use our comparison tool below to find the best operator for you based on cost, exchange rates, transfer time, and more.
Popular places to live in China
Beijing is China’s capital city, and with a population of 21.5 million, this expat favourite really has something to offer everyone. Beijing has a number of commercial districts that provide good job opportunities to skilled workers and is home to much of China’s long history - with the Great Wall, Forbidden City, and Summer Palace all being within reach of the capital.
Shanghai has a population of 26 million people and is perhaps the most developed city in China. It is a very safe place for expats to live and can be an exciting place to live with plenty of different opportunities for immersing yourself in the Chinese culture. As China's financial hub, there are good job prospects in Shanghai for skilled workers in the finance and business sectors.
Formerly known as Canton, Guangzhou is a highly technologically advanced city with great job prospects for expats. Guangzhou is known for its excellent Cantonese cuisine, and expats living here will also be pleased to know that they’ll have access to an abundance of natural beauty not far from the city.
Shenzhen has quickly grown from a small fishing town into one of the largest technology hubs in China, with a peaceful atmosphere that expats will love. Shenzhen is known for its amazing seafood, so expats looking for city living with plenty of options for sampling amazing seafood might be interested in this city!