Save With a Great Lifestyle: Expat Cost of Living in China

Liz Smith
Liz Smith

Liz Smith left the daily grind in the States to travel the world with her husband. Eventually teaching English in China & loving it, she began sharing her experience with others who are interested in embarking on this new adventure!

 / Mar 31, 2017

It’s understandable that young professionals today dream of having a good lifestyle.  But many recent graduates are struggling to get by with student loan debt, and entry level jobs with only satisfactory pay.  Not only that, living in a fun neighborhood in a cool city can be expensive.  But imagine being able to afford living in a major city, full of life and entertainment, and earning a salary that enables you to go out frequently, travel, and indulge in luxuries like massages and even a housekeeper for your apartment?  Luckily, that lifestyle is possible by working in China.


Livable Salaries in China for Overseas Professionals


Business is booming in China, and as the country becomes an even bigger international player in the global economy, there are a wide range of Chinese companies who are looking to compete on this global stage.  One way to do this is to hire international talent from overseas who can help them grow and understand new markets.  And since English is the international language of business, English speakers are also in high demand to assist these companies.


While salaries an range widely in China based on the profession and level, the salaries for expats are quite livable.  This is because companies in China want their international employees to feel satisfied, and keep them comfortable.  Many companies will also include a housing allowance along with the salary, to ensure that expats working in China have a comfortable apartment and living situation that is comparable or even better than what they could afford back home.


Take for example an international English teacher in China.  The typical salary can range from an average of 10,000 – 15,000 RMB per month.  This converts to roughly $1500 - $2200 USD per month.  Now while this may seem like a low salary when compared to your home country, the thing to keep in mind is that the cost of living in China is overall dramatically lower. 


As we will show you below, when you factor in the actual cost of living expenses in China, you will see that this salary actually allows for a comfortable lifestyle as well as giving you the ability to save money!

 

Cost of Renting an Apartment in China


Similar to what people experience in their home countries, the cost to rent an apartment in China is going to be the biggest monthly expense that you have.  Still, it’s quite lower than even small towns in the USA. 


For example, a one-bedroom apartment in the outskirts of a city of China only costs roughly 2000 RMB each month (less than $300).  Of course, living in the center of the city is more expensive – ranging upwards of 3000 – 5000 RMB depending on the city and the area of town.     When it comes to utilities like electricity, water, gas and even internet, the combined price per month will only be a few hundred RMB in addition to your rent.  So it’s quite affordable!


Many expats in China weigh the cost of the apartment with the location and the lifestyle.  It’s exciting to live in a fun part of town where there is nightlife and lots of young people.  For this reason, some expats are willing to pay a bit higher price to be able to have an exciting city-living experience that they could never afford back in their home country!  Another option is to have a roommate, which not only brings the cost down but helps you to make friends.  However, many expats in China have no problem affording their own apartment.


Again, keep in mind that many companies will offer a housing allowance too – typically starting from 2000 RMB per month.  This allowance can also vary depending on the city, for example, Beijing will be a higher allowance. 


When you are negotiating your salary in China, be sure to clarify if the salary total per month is before or after the housing allowance.

 

Cost of Transportation in China


On the whole, transportation within cities in China is quite cheap.  Typically, the city bus only costs 2 RMB per ride, and the subway / metro starts at 2 RMB for short distances, then goes up from there.  In many of the larger cities, you can get across town on the subway (a good 1 hour ride) for little more than 10 RMB.


Taxis are everywhere in Chinese cities, but of course they are a bit more expensive.  A short ride – maybe 15 minutes, may cost you around 15 RMB.  Depending on traffic, this might not take you very far.  So it definitely depends on the time of day and the traffic situation. 


Another option that is becoming more popular in China is DiDi – similar to Uber in other countries (in fact, Uber used to be in China but was bought out by DiDi).  You can call the car with your smartphone app or via WeChat (China’s most popular social media platform) and even pay through your phone.  The only issue is that it’s predominantly in Chinese.  However, if you can manage Chinese or have a friend to help you, then you can get a DiDi taxi across town for cheaper than a normal taxi.


When it comes to traveling between cities in China, the cost is also fairly inexpensive.  Local buses are the least expensive, and regular trains are also quite affordable.  However, traveling by high-speed train is exciting and allows you to cover more distance quite easily – for a bit higher price though.  However, it is still cheaper than flying and makes for a great weekend journey out of the city.

 

Cost of Food in China


Another big chunk of your monthly budget in China will go to food and dining out.  However, depending on your tastes, this too can be much less expensive than what you might spend going out in your home country. 


Dining Out in China


There are a variety of food options in China, from street vendors to quick service fast food, local family restaurants, and high-priced expat restaurants.  Again, the variety of food available will very much depend on the size of the city and the district of town.  Local areas will be full of local Chinese food and budget options, especially street food.  While trendy expat areas may have less street food available and more higher end restaurants and bars. 


Most expats living in China will mix it up during the week.  They might eat a combination of street snacks here and there, and some local restaurants.  During the night and weekends, they will often meet up with friends for drinks or go out to nicer restaurants. 


Street food is the cheapest, just 2 – 3 RMB for most items, such as a jianbing (a kind of Chinese burrito), fresh fruit, buns, or something grilled on a stick.  For small local restaurants, you can get a bowl or noodles, rice and meat for 10 – 15 RMB.  There are fast food options available, such as KFC and McDonald’s – where a basic hamburger costs around 12 RMB.  So dining out this way can be quite affordable! 


The nice thing about being in a central city district is that there are more options, including Western food like hamburgers, pizza, sandwiches, or salads.  But these items are much more expensive, ranging from 25 – 60 RMB.  However, some of the nice expat restaurants and bars in popular areas of town will charge upwards of 100 RMB for meals, plus drinks.  So as you can see, dining out this way can be more spendy. 


It’s really up to the individual how much they want to spend on dining out.  Considering the fact that dining out in America costs upwards of $10 for nearly every meal, eating in China is much less expensive overall.


Grocery Shopping in China


There are number of options for grocery shopping in China.  If you are up for adventure, then check out the local market in your neighborhood.  It will be bustling with locals, and inexpensive food.  For just a couple RMB you could pick up a variety of fruits, vegetables, and little snacks.  But there are also larger style supermarkets all around town.


At a supermarket, the price is higher than the local market – but still quite reasonable.  You could get your fruits and vegetables for roughly 5-10 RMB depending on the quantity and size.  A small carton of milk is about 7 RMB, and other items like rice, water, or beer are only around 5-8 RMB too.  A small pack of chicken breast is around 15 RMB and some ground pork maybe less than 10 RMB. 


In big cities, you may also have some expat super markets where they have imported popular items from overseas.  This is a nice option if you are missing anything from home (because most local Chinese supermarkets won’t carry these items).  These stores will carry a variety of Western foods, like pastas and sauces, chips and snacks…maybe even tortillas and Mexican food items!  However, it comes at a price.  These expat supermarkets can get quite expensive, even charging 30 RMB for a big bag of Doritos!  Still, if you are tired of eating rice and noodles, it is good to have this option in big cities.

 

Cost of Leisure Activities in China


This is what it’s all about.  Living in China is about the experience of actually being in Asia – so of course, most expats want to explore.  Leisure activities can range widely.  Some local museums are free, while others may charge 20 – 50 RMB entrance fee (even the popular Forbidden City in central Beijing only costs 60 RMB during the high season).  


A night out at the movies will depend on the theater you attend, but it could range from 40 – 65 RMB.  There are also some local theaters and tourist shows that could cost more, like attending the Chinese opera.  In big cities, you will also find a thriving arts and theater scene, with traveling Broadway-style shows, like Phantom of the Opera.  These are international productions and will cost a few hundred RMB.


Another popular leisure activity is just going out to a nice dinner.  Restaurants that serve Chinese food like the famous Peking Duck, and even high-end steak restaurants can be quite a lovely evening out.  Prices for meals like this can range from 100 – 200 RMB per person depending on the restaurant.


Some Luxuries are Affordable in China


While buying luxury goods in China can actually be quite expensive, some experiences that would be considered “luxury” in other countries are actually quite affordable in China.


For example, going to the spa or getting a massage.  Massage is a very important part of traditional Chinese medicine, and you will find massage parlors in nearly every neighborhood.  The best part is that massages are quite inexpensive, starting around 40 RMB for 30 minutes at a local establishment.  But there are also luxurious spas, especially in major cities in China where you can be pampered for a whole evening for just a few hundred RMB. 


Housekeepers are also very affordable in China, starting out at roughly 30 – 40 RMB for a couple hours.  For most people in the States or in Europe, it seems luxurious to afford to hire a person to come and clean your apartment each week, or to go spend your weekend at the spa getting a massage. 


Example English Teacher Monthly Budget in China



As you can see, the cost of living in China is not that high.  Below is an example breakdown of an example English teacher’s budget while living in China.

  

In this example, we have estimated quite a nice apartment with a hefty dining out budget (80 RMB per day average) + a few hundred RMB each week for leisure activities, such as shopping, massages, movies, etc.  With this nice lifestyle, you can see that the balance leftover is nearly $1000 USD each month — which can be put in the bank to save.



 

An Interesting Job and a Great Lifestyle


It’s hard to imagine as a young graduate out of University that you could be able to earn a good living with an interesting job, have a great lifestyle where you can afford little luxuries like massages and housekeepers, be able to go out with your friends, travel…and still even save some money!  But working in China, the salary combined with the low living expenses allow for such a lifestyle. 


Especially when compared to opportunities back in your home country, and the cost of living, taking your career to China can not only open a lot of doors and give you amazing experience, but it allows for a lifestyle that you may not have been able to afford otherwise.  


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Liz Smith

Liz Smith left the daily grind in the States to travel the world with her husband. Eventually teaching English in China & loving it, she began sharing her experience with others who are interested in embarking on this new adventure!