Beijing City Guide for Expats

Liz Smith
Career China Digital Marketing Manager
May 7, 2017

Living in Beijing as a visitor or an expat can be both a fascinating and overwhelming experience at the same time. On one hand, the city boasts a wide array of magnificent historical sites, breathtaking tourist attractions and a vibrant culture more than any other city in the world. 

But on the other hand, the dense population, language barrier and air pollution can be turn offs for many expats considering moving to Beijing. Here is a comprehensive guide that will brief you on what to expect in Beijing if you are considering traveling or moving to Beijing, China.

Overview of Beijing City

Located in Northern China, and with a population of approximately 21. 5 million people, Beijing is no doubt one of the world’s most populous cities. Beijing is also China’s educational, political and cultural center. Moreover, the city blends together traditional and modern architecture thus making it a spectacular place to live and work.

This ever-changing megacity is rich in history, yet truly modern, something that is exemplified in its global influence in business and economy, education, politics, music, sporting, language and culture.

The city is governed by the Chinese national government as a direct-controlled municipality. It has 16 urban, suburban as well as rural districts. Beijing boasts a rich history that dates back 3 millennia. It is particularly famous for its opulent temples, palaces, gardens, parks, walls and gates.

The city played host to the 2008 Summer Olympics. It was further selected to play host to the 2022 Winter Olympics, thus making it the first city in the world to host both events. In 2016, the InterNations Expat Insider Survey ranked the city at the top for expats in Asia, based on salary vs. cost of living. 

Neighborhoods/Districts of Beijing 

As a municipality, Beijing is a large region, similar in size to a state or a province. It is divided into neighborhoods, commonly referred to as districts.

The district includes the city’s densely populated metropolitan areas as well as its suburban, and its vast semi-rural area together with large swatches of mountainous terrain.

Below are some of the districts of Beijing.

Dong Cheng District - The district occupies the eastern half of Beijing’s city center, spreading from north and east, right from the city’s southwest corner. Dong Cheng is Beijing’s most important tourist district, which is home to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. The district also includes major shopping streets such as Dong Dan and Wangfujing (also called “food street”), alongside major temples such as Confucius Temple and Lama Temple (Yonghe Gong).

Xicheng District - It occupies the western half of the city’s central area, extending beyond the Second Ring Road towards the west, all the way to Third Ring Road. The district is home to some of the city’s most popular tourists attractions such as Beijing Zoo(one of the world’s biggest zoos),Beihai Park and National Center for Performing Arts. 

Haidian District - The district covers the city’s northwest main urban area. It is the epicenter of the country’s vibrant high-tech industry and it is popularly referred to as ‘China’s Silicon Valley’ in Chinese local media. It is one of the city’s largest business hubs, and also home to the city’s major concentrations of universities. 

Chaoyang District - The district covers a huge area of Beijing’s centre city, starting from Second Ring Road, stretching all the way to Fifth Ring Road towards the east. It is home to some of Beijing’s finest attractions, including among others Chaoyang Park, 798 Art Zone, Olympic Green (a group of Olympic venues) and Ritan Park. It also plays hosts to several embassy areas. 

Fengtai District - The district covers parts of the city’s west and south areas. It is home to one of China’s largest railway stations, Beijing West Railway station.

Getting in/out of Beijing

Tourists, foreign residents and expats coming in and leaving Beijing normally get in and out of the city by air, though some residents of neighboring countries such as Russia can use the train. Here are some of the airports that are used for visitors’ arrival and departures. 

Beijing Capital International Airport - Located in Shunyi (one of Beijing’s suburban district), is the second busiest airport in the world and serves millions of tourists and foreign residents coming to Beijing and China by extension. Once you arrive at the airport, you can take a free shuttle bus at terminal 1 or 2. Outside the airport’s premises, there are several taxis carrying visitors to the destinations of their choice within the CBD. But remember to have the name of your hotel or designated place or residence written in Chinese characters. If you are familiar with the city, you can catch the Airport express train to get into the city. The train connects the airport with Sanyuanqiao and Dongzhimen stations (where you can connect to the subway system). There are also many airport shuttles running to various locations across the city. 

Nanyuan Airport - the former military airport is situated approximately 8 miles from the city’s CBD. China United Airlines is the dominant airline here, offering several domestic and international flights. Taking a taxi is by far the most convenient way of leaving the airport to the city, for its takes around half an hour. You can also take a shuttle Bus to the city. There are many shuttle buses here that travel to different parts of Beijing.

Getting around Beijing (transportation/traffic)

There are several different ways for tourists and visitors to get around the city. But before you begin your trip around Beijing, it is always good to know the places you look forward to visiting written in Chinese. Get as much detail as you can regarding your destination. This will help eliminate any inconveniences that may stop you from moving around the city.

Below are some of the common means of public transportation you can use to get around Beijing.

By subway - China, and more specifically Beijing, boasts one of the most extensive subway networks in the world. The city’s subway network offers the quickest way for travelers and expats alike to get around the city. The subway also offers a budget-friendly way of getting around the city, and it’s quite convenient.  There are subway stations in nearly all districts, where you can purchase your ticket to the destination of your choice. 

By bus - The city’s bus system is convenient, cheap and it operates within the entire city. Though the bus stop system is one of perfect choices for locals, it can also be an ideal mean of transportation for tourists and expats who have a decent understanding of Chinese or Mandarin languages. Most bus staffs usually speak little English, and a couple of bus lines operating in city center often broadcast stop signs in English (although outside the very center or tourist area is mostly in Chinese). Overall, taking a bus can help you get nearly anywhere and it is also a perfect way to tour parts of Beijing that visitors normally don’t visit.

By taxi - Taxis offer an excellent choice of getting around the city for travelers who are touring the city with luggage or together with their families. Because owning a car in Beijing can be costly and inconvenient due to heavy traffic, taxis offer a cheap mean of transportation throughout the city. Few taxi drivers in Beijing speak English, and neither do they recognize names of places written in English. As such, ensure you understand the exact location you wish to travel to prior to hiring a taxi. Again, always make sure you are hiring an official taxi to avoid being ripped off your money. All official taxis in the city bear license plates starting with letter ‘B’. Beware of other unofficial cars around tourist sites that are offering transportation. They will actually charge you high fee for your journey, and these vehicles may be entirely unreliable. The main drawback with getting around the city by taxis is that, they are vulnerable to the city’s huge traffic and could take a long time to get to your destination. Again, taxis operate only within the city center and therefore they aren’t the best choice for visitors traveling to suburban and other places outside the city.

By bicycle - If you are a biking enthusiast, you can get around the city with a bicycle. Bicycling can be inexpensive and faster than using public or private transport due to the huge traffic congestion present in motorized traffic lanes. You can rent a bicycle from any bicycle rental stores in Beijing and use it to get around the city. 

By walking - Walking is always a good option especially if you want to get to a place that is not far from your hotel or place of residence. But when walking, always use the pedestrian walk and take care while crossing the roads.  

By minibus - This is an excellent transportation choice for visitors traveling outside the city. There are several privately owned minibuses all over the city, with most of them charging below ¥10 for short journeys, and a bit more for longer journeys. 

By car - Driving in the city can be complicated thanks to the seemingly perpetual traffic jams. Nevertheless, you can still get around the city and some of its main tourist attraction sites by a car. Since owning a car can be expensive and unreasonable for tourists and foreign residents, the best thing is to rent a car from a reputable car rental in the city and then use it to get around.  But honestly, it’s much easier not to drive yourself in Beijing, especially if you aren’t familiar with it.  Plus, parking is a nightmare.

Safety / Scams to Be Aware of

Tourists and expats are usually preyed upon by touts and cheats who try to pull several scams on them. Be particularly cautious when in the inner city, especially around Tiananmen Square as well as tourist-crowded routes on your way to the Great Wall. Although there are some common scams in the city, that shouldn’t be a reason to be dismissive of the people whom you encounter in the city.

People living in Beijing are friendly to tourists, foreign residents and expats. Identifying a scam needs a similar common sense to traveling anywhere else in the world. After all, Beijing scams aren’t particularly brutal and innovative in global comparison.

As long as you observe basic safety measures such as keeping your cash out of sight, then you can always travel almost anywhere in the city devoid of fear of theft, scams or violence. Here are some of the common Beijing scams you ought to be aware of.

1. Great Wall tours - if you are heading to the Great Wall, only pay the driver once you get to the destination but not before. Some drivers may stop and drop you before you get to your destination if you pay them in advance. Refrain from paying for the Great Wall organized tours that are usually advertised by some people giving out flyers to tourists, or you may very well end up being swindled.

2. Be wary of the vendors at the Bird’s Nest-here, there are vendors who pretend to be selling small items such as toys and the Beijing 2008 memorabilia to passersby and tourists for much less. But once you pay them, they will shortly afterwards claim that you didn’t pay for your item. They will later follow you until you give them back the item you bought, or pay again altogether. While these vendors usually sell items at very good deals, never allow yourself to fall for the trick. 

3. Don’t follow strangers, students and locals willing to show you something- such people are scammers and their intentions is to trick you into giving them your money.

4. Avoid free tea sampling – while tea sampling is a common event in Beijing and China at large, the event is however used by scammers to extort tourists, foreign residents and expats. While locals may sample tea for free, never take part in tea sampling prior to asking whether it is free for tourists or not. You might end up being confronted with a huge bill if you sample different types of teas thinking it is for free.

5. Currency scam - be wary of an individual trying to give you change in the largest currency bill, which is ¥50 or ¥100. They might otherwise be ripping you off your money by giving you a counterfeit bill. Unless you are at a store, try to pay using the smallest denomination bills to reduce the chances of being given a big counterfeit bill. 


Climate and best time to visit Beijing

Beijing has a continental climate, marked by very cold winters, long and dry season accompanied by strong Siberian winds. September and October (during the Golden Autumn) are among the best times to visit the city.

The spring season is marked by dust storms and it is overly warm and dry, while the summer season can get oppressively hot. During this season, tourist crowds are remarkably large, while the prevailing winds coming from the south come with pollutants thus making the entire season to have a poor air quality. 

Top things to do in Beijing for tourists

Beijing is a renowned travel destination, thanks to the numerous tourist attractions that are spread across the city. Being the country’s capital for over 800 years, the city is home to the finest remnants of the country’s imperial sites. Here are some of the best things for tourists to do in Beijing.

Visiting the historic Great Wall of China - The mighty wall extends 4,000 miles and its construction began more than 2,000 years ago. The wall passes near Beijing and there are numerous sections of the wall not far from the city, including the rugged sections and restored sections. Some of the most visited sections by tourists from various places across the world include Jinshanling, Mutianyu and Jiankou.  Badaling is also extremely popular…but it’s quite crowded with tour groups and is very rebuilt – making it feel less authentic.

Spending the weekend at The Summer Palace - this is among the finest things to do in Beijing for tourists, especially the ones who are enthusiastic about nature. The Summer Palace is renowned globally for being the world’s best-preserved and largest imperial garden. Visitors who frequent here during the weekend gets the opportunity to witness firsthand the representation of ancient Chinese garden. It is also a charming and a great place for tourists to witness the first manmade landscape that was thoughtfully designed hundreds of years ago. 

Spending a day at Beijing Hutongs - Hutongs are ancient alleyways where tourists can witness traditional Beijing architecture. These structures give a perfect glimpse into the city’s traditional life. For tourists seeking to discover firsthand the traditional Beijing life, paying a visit to a Hutong family can be a nice way for them.

Watching acrobatic shows - watching acrobatic shows can be a thrilling and exciting way for tourists to be treated to some of the best forms of traditional Chinese entertainment. Some of the best and most popular acrobatic shows take place in Tianqiao Acrobatics Theatre and Chaoyang Theatre, located in Xuanwu District and Chaoyang District respectively. Watching acrobatic shows can also present an opportunity for tourists to witness a breathtaking show of flexibility that involves ballet, jumping hoops, bikes, chairs, rotating plates and human strength.

Witness the city’s finest landmarks - Beijing has a number of must-see landmarks for tourists. For instance, thousands of tourists drawn from all corners of the world visit the Tiananmen Square located in Dongcheng District, which is the largest public square in the world. The magnificent square is surrounded by Museum of Chinese History and the Forbidden City among other grand buildings surrounding the city. Other landmarks in the city that are a must-visit include the CCTV Building, World Trade Center Tower and The National Stadium popularly known as ‘Bird’s Nest’. 

Life in Beijing for expats 

Life in Beijing as an expat can be very rewarding considering that the city is the epicenter of the Chinese culture and politics. Beijing also boasts a special place in today’s global business.

But as much as Beijing is a top destination for expats, it isn’t always accommodating compared to other international cities. Foreign residents including expats normally encounter challenges of familiarizing themselves with a culture and language that is completely different from their own. Still, being the largest city in China, there is a massive and thriving expat community in Beijing.  And foreigners can find the largest variety of international dining options, including Irish Pubs, that provide a level of comfort for those who miss home.  Here is a look into the life of an expat in Beijing.

The good

A blossoming career - moving to Beijing can help propel your career as an expat and further take it to a whole new level. Expats from different places across the globe have had a blossoming career while working and living in Beijing, due to China’s rise as a global economic power and hub for international business. Working in this megacity as an expat can help you determine your own future and on your own terms, while enjoying an exciting career at the same time.

Cross-cultural friendships and dating - for expats, the prospects of dating and making friendships with persons from different nations across the world are remarkably high in Beijing. As an expat living and working in the city, this can be a nice place to make friendship with people whom you share a sense of worldwide camaraderie. 

Offers an opportunity to develop intangible skills - the fact that you aren’t fluent in Chinese or Mandarin while living in Beijing means that, you have to develop some form of agility of mind so as to figure out your day-to-day obstacles. Eventually, you will end up developing intangible skills in order to do basic things such as knowing the subway station to buy your ticket, how to order your meal and figuring out the places you are supposed to go.

The bad

Language and cultural barriers - nothing can be more challenging for a first-time expat in Beijing than having to speak a language and to adopt a culture that is quite different from yours. This can make you feel isolated from the locals, which is a common feeling among the expats living and working in this megacity.

Hazardous levels of pollution - this is commonplace, thanks to the rapid industrial growth taking place in the city.

Tips for expats living in Beijing 

Embrace the culture - expats who embrace the Chinese culture tend to cope easily with life in Beijing. Like with any culture in the world, the Chinese culture has quirks as well. But if you want to have an exciting time whilst working in Beijing as an expat, be ready to accept their culture, including the bad, the ugly and the good. That is one of the surest ways of enhancing good interaction between you and the local populace, something that will help guarantee you a nice stay in the city. 

Be adventurous - if you live in Beijing as an expat but only travel to your place of work and then back to your place of residence, you will never understand the city, its people, culture and all its amazing places. As a result, you will always remain a stranger and you may never cope with life in Beijing. As such, explore the city to understand its complexity. That way, you will truly know the city you are living in and life will be a lot easier whilst living and working here as an expat.

Learn Mandarin/ Chinese - nothing can make your stay worthwhile while working in Beijing as an expat than being able to speak and read Mandarin/ Chinese. It is actually the most important step you can take to improve both your career and personal life whilst living and working here. Once you have learned basic Chinese/ Mandarin, you will no longer be susceptible to language barrier like most foreign residents who stay here. There are numerous resources online you can use to learn the language, or you can also take a Chinese/ Mandarin class in some of the city’s learning institutions.

Meet the people - Living in Beijing can offer a great opportunity to interact with people from an entire different culture from yours. Once in the city, be social and meet with as many different people as you can. That way, you will be able to start strong friendships and learn many things about Beijing culture as well. That way, you will always feel at home whilst working and living there.

Abide by the law - being caught on the wrong side of the law while working in Beijing can be the worst nightmare, particularly for foreign residents. It can actually earn you a jail term or deportation. Always abide by the law and avoid anything than can get you on the wrong side of the law. Desist from indulging in criminal activities, breaking traffic rules or doing anything that could be perceived wrong by the authorities.

Festivals/events in Beijing

Here are some of the common festivals/ events in Beijing that are quite popular with tourist and the locals alike.

Temple Fair - Temple Fair offers an excellent way to enjoy the city’s Spring Festival. There are plenty of temple fairs in the city at the beginning of every Spring Festival. Some of the temple fairs that take place during this festival include the Temple of Ditan, The Temple of Changdian, The Temple of Longtan Lake and The Temple of Lotus Park among other temple fairs. The Temple Fair is truly a must-see for people travelling to Beijing.

Music Festivals -There is a wide array of music festivals such as National Day and Annual Day that take place in the city’s Chaoyang Park, Haidian Park, Tongzhou Canal Park among other large parks within the city’s suburban areas. The Music Festival is a great festival for travelers and music enthusiasts to take part in. 

Yanqing Snow and Ice Tourism Festival - This is definitely one of the most important winter tourism festivals in northern China. It is popular for its abundant and awesome landscape of ice and snow. During this festival, visitors can indulge in a variety of snow activities ranging from alpine skiing , snow temple fair, snowmobiling to Longping Gorge Ice.

Beijing Chrysanthemum Exhibition - held each year in major parks across Beijing, this festival is not just famous it has also been held for over twenty sessions. The festival aims to showcase a wide variety of beautiful chrysanthemums.

The Festival of the Fragrant Hills Red Leaves - there are plenty of maples and Cotinuscoggygria trees spreading across thousands of acres in the western part of the city’s Fragrant Hills Park. Before the frost season, the trees’ leaves turn red leaving behind plains and mountains of red leaves that are bright as fire. This festival is held to mark this season. 

Expat resources in Beijing 

There are several great resources that can help make life for expats in Beijing a lot easier. Below are a number of them. 

Beijing expat magazines 

There are a number of expat magazines you can find in many expat bars and restaurants. Most of them provide expats with restaurants reviews and listing as well as provide information about activities and numerous topics for expats. Here are some of the top Beijing expat magazines.

The Beijinger - This is arguably the most popular Beijing expat publication. It provides expats with information about nightlife, dining, style, communities and arts & culture.

City Weekend Beijing - written and designed by the Ringier Media Group, this entertainment publication shares expat information about Beijing nightlife, food and drinks, music and art.

Time out Beijing - the Beijing expat magazine provides comprehensive guides on events, bars and restaurants as well as information about going out in Beijing.

Beijing Kids - True Run Media group are the creative minds behind this expat magazine. The publication is a great source of information regarding international families living in Beijing. It provides information concerning schools in Beijing , shopping, entertainment for all ages, health and dining among other topics offered by this magazine.

Beijing expat forums and platforms 

Beijing Stuff - it is a social networking site concerning Beijing’s nightlife and events.

Beijing Exchange - It is basically a platform for exchanging valuable information among the city’s international residents.

InBeijing - This is an online expat community forum, members share information on some of the events taking place in the city, helpful information as well as Beijing classifieds.

SmartPhone Apps 

There are several apps for China that are helpful to expats living in Beijing. Most of them are compatible with various types of smartphones alongside other mobile devices. Here are some of the Beijing expat apps that are downloadable from the app stores.

WeChat - it works like WhatsApp, where users can send audio, text and picture messages absolutely for free. It also offers group chats, allow users to make videos and audio calls and post comments. Almost everyone in Beijing uses this app.

TrainChinese - you can use the dictionary app on your smartphone for purposes of looking up words and checking for audio pronunciations. 

WayGo - the translation app is designed to translate Chinese characters in menu items to English when aiming the phone at the menu item one wants translated. 

Resources for learning Mandarin

A practical Chinese Grammar - the Chinese grammar book contains several useful examples using Pinyin, Chinese and English characters.

Fluenz - the language learning app offers the best and easiest way to start learning Mandarin prior to coming to Beijing. It is specifically useful to adults striving to learn Chinese. It uses great explanations relating to different languages. 

Tuttle Learning Chinese Characters - it offers a fun approach to writing, understanding and memorizing most useful 800 Chinese characters. 

Enjoy Living in Beijing!

Moving to China is exciting.  While some expats prefer to be in smaller cities or in the coutryside where they can have a more immersive experience, living in Beijing can be quite exciting and fascinating.  This massive city is multicultural in many ways, and has much more to offer than some of the smaller cities in Beijing.  But even if you don't want to live in Beijing, the city is a must visit for those who travel to China.  And we hope this guide has given you what you need to help plan your visit.


Have more questions about moving to China? Check out The Ultimate Guide for Moving to China

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