Your Ultimate Guide to Living in China

Updated: December 23rd, 2019

Top ESL Jobs in China

  • Where is the best place to live in China?
  • Which Chinese city should I live in?
  • Tier one and two cities
  • Tier three cities
  • What about air quality in cities in China?
  • What is the cost of living in China?
  • Settling into Life in China
  • Is it safe to live in China?
  • What are the pros and cons of living in China?
  • How can I learn Chinese?
  • How can I make friends in China?
  • What food can I eat in China?
  • Where can I go shopping in China
  • What are my transport options in China?
  • What do I need to know about technology in China

Before making a big move to teach English abroad you have a lot of choices to make.
Some choices, like how long you want to go for, how much you want to earn and the kind of teaching you want to do, can be quite simple to make. Much harder is choosing a destination you know you’ll enjoy living in every day, especially if you want to move somewhere that is unfamiliar.

For many people, this is the case when they move to China

The salaries look greatand there are thousands of jobs to choose from, but how can you find out what it’s really like to live in China as an English speaker?

Making an informed decision about where you teach English is important. Let’s take a deep dive into the ins and outs of living in China.

Where is the best place to live in China?

One of the first things you will notice about China is that it’s huge! Geographically, China is a similar size to the US and, as you might expect, your lifestyle could be quite different depending on where you choose to live. Let’s take a closer look at five major areas in China.

Which Chinese city should I live in?

As China becomes more prosperous it’s cities are growing and changing at a rapid pace, and a tier system has developed to help classify cities according to their size.

The system has three tiers,and the larger the city the higher tier it is in. So, Beijing and Shanghai are first tier cities because they have large populations, high income levels and plenty of commerce and business opportunities. Second tier cities are slightly smaller, and third tier cities smaller still. However, the tier system is unofficial, and as China’s cities are undergoing great changes they often move between tiers.

As an English teacher living in China, understanding the tier system is important. The region you choose to live in might affect your lifestyle, but the type of city you choose to live in will have a direct impact on your salary, living expenses and ability to save money.

  • Tier one cities
    14, 000 Average monthly teaching salary ¥ RMB 9,900-12,700 Average monthly cost of living ¥ RMB 400-700 Average monthly savings $ USD
  • Tier two cities
    10,000 Average monthly teaching salary ¥ RMB 4,950 - 6,350 Average monthly cost of living ¥ RMB 500-900 Average monthly savings $ USD
  • Tier three cities
    8,000 Average monthly teaching salary ¥ RMB 2,500-3,200 Average monthly cost of living ¥ RMB 600-950 Average monthly savings $ USD

Of course, choosing a city to live in is not just a question of money, it also depends on the kind of lifestyle you enjoy. But, generally speaking, cities experiencing economic growth will have increasing amounts of jobs, foreign investment and rising wages, making them great places to teach English in China.

The following were the best-performing cities in China in 2019.

Tier one and two cities

CHENGDU, SICHUAN

SHENZHEN, GUANGDONG

BEIJING

LANZHOU, GANSU

ZHENGZHOU, HENAN

XI’AN, SHAANXI

GUIYANG, GUIZHOU

CHANGCHUN, JILIN

WUHAN, HUBEI

XIAMEN, FUJIAN

Tier three cities

DONGGUAN, GUANGDONG

NANTONG, JIANGSU

ZHUHAI, GUANGDONG

TAIZHOU, JIANGSU

Key Takeaway

China has three city tiers -> the larger the city the higher tier it is in.

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What about air quality in cities in China?

Air pollution in China is an issue, but it’s impact on your health will depend on where you live in China and for how long.

On a daily basis, pollution levels fluctuate depending on the weather and human activity. Throughout China there is typically less pollution in warmer months, and during major holidays like October festival, when factories shut down. Pollution tends to be worse in north-eastern industrial hubs like Beijing, and much lower in southern and western China.

The effects of being exposed to air pollution over the long-term are concerning, but if you only plan on living in China for a couple of years the impact on your health is likely to be minimal. However, it is still a good idea to consult a doctor before moving to China if you suffer from respiratory problems and be aware of advice you can follow to reduce your exposure to air pollution.

In the meantime, the Chinese government is working to improve air quality by bringing in new laws that prioritize clean energy sources over fossil fuels. One major and highly successful change has been the removal of all gasoline powered scooters from cities like Beijing, in favour of zero-emission ebikes. Businesses are also working to improve indoor air quality for employees and customers.

What is the cost of living in China?

One major benefit of moving to China for many English speakers is the great salaries available to foreign teachers!

As well as allowing you to save money, you’ll find that the low cost of living in China means your teaching salary will allow you to live a very comfortable lifestyle. Daily expenses in China like dining out, going to the movies and getting take away coffees are all very affordable for English teachers.

  • Steamed bun: 1RMB
  • Chinese meal: 20RMB
  • Medium latte: 32RMB
  • Western meal: 50-100RMB
  • Public bus: 2RMB
  • Movie ticket: 35RMB
KEY TAKEAWAYS FOR COST OF LIVING IN CHINA

The daily expenses above include eating three meals out and going to the movies, for a total cost of 190RMB.

Depending on the city you live in, your teaching salary will be around 8,000-14,000 RMB per month.

This means, even if you ate all meals out and went to the movies every day, you still wouldn’t come close to spending all of your teaching salary in China!

The low cost of living in China provides an opportunity for many teachers to save money, and still afford some unique luxuries while living in Chinatoo.

Check out the Cost of Living for ESL Teachers in China from one of our teachers!

Tutoring and teaching English online in China

If you want to earn extra money in China, private tutoring online or in person can be very well paid.

However, before you take on any private students, make sure you ask the employer that sponsored your visa to include the right to do so in your contract. Working outside the terms of your contract is not legal and will jeopardise your right to a working visa in China.

Our Featured Schools in China

Settling into Life in China

Once you’ve chosen where you want to live in China, it’s time to start thinking about the practicalities of setting up a new life in a new country. In many cases your school or recruiter will give you practical and social support as you settle into life in China.

How to get a SIM card in China

One of the first things you will need to do in China is update your smartphone with a Chinese SIM card. You may still be able to use your foreign SIM card in China, but switching to a Chinese SIM is the cheapest way to make calls and go online - something you will be doing a lot!

There are three main phone networks in China, and each has different packages. The first thing you’ll need to do is compare the packages to decide which is the best China SIM for you. Many countries around the world require ID to purchase SIM cards, and in China you will need to show your passport. Many stores in larger cities will have English speaking staff, so if purchasing in person you can take your passport to the store with you. If purchasing online you may need to provide proof of identification by sending a copy of your passport.

How to set up a bank account in China

Setting up a bank account in China is pretty straightforward. Similar to opening a back account in any foreign country--you’ll need your passport, some money to deposit and, in some cases, proof of address. If you are living in a large city in China there is a good chance employees at your bank will speak English. If you are in a smaller city you may need to take a Chinese speaker to help you. In many cases schools will have someone on hand to help new foreign teachers set up bank accounts, and they will be able to advise you on which bank to choose.

Check out our blog on ATMS and Banking in China here!

How to rent an apartment in China

Many schools provide accommodation for their English teachers in China. In this case, a small house or apartment will be ready for you to move into when you arrive.

Schools who don’t provide housing often still provide a housing allowance to cover rent, and practical support to help foreign teachers find accommodation. Many major Chinese cities have English speaking rental agencies and most cities will also have English language rental groups online to flag up vacant apartments.

Accommodation for teachers in China is normally rented furnished, so when you find a place to live, you can set yourself up quickly.

Check out a tour of an Apartment in Nanjing below from one of our teachers!

Is it safe to live in China?

In a word—yes! The vast majority of foreign teachers who live and work in China do so with no problems. Crime rates in China are actually far lower than in many cities in western countries.

However, while living in China as a foreign teacher, it’s worth remembering that you’ll need to take the same precautions to stay safe that you would anywhere else in the world. Get to know the place where you live in daylight, write down your new address and always have a plan to get home safely when you go out at night.

Beyond this, there are a few practical tips you can follow to stay safe in China.

  • Drink bottled water rather than tap water.
  • Wash fruits and vegetables before you eat them.
  • Check street food is fully cooked before you eat it.
  • Remember pedestrians don’t have right of way when you cross the street.
  • Carry a copy of your passport with you.
  • Download a weather app. Some areas of China experience extreme weather.
  • Follow local laws. Gambling and drugs (including marijuana) are illegal in China.

What are the pros and cons of living in China?

Moving to any foreign country comes with its share daily ups and downs, and China is no exception.

Much like at home, your daily life in China will include time for work, friends, hobbies and relaxation. At the same time, you’ll have to make space for many new and exciting experiences. Daily life in China means finding a happy medium between getting comfortable and being completely outside your comfort zone.

  • CULTURE
    PRO

    Living in another culture means there are cool new things to discover everywhere. You’ll learn new things and find new interests living overseas.

    People may also find you intriguing! In some areas of China it’s uncommon to see foreigners and you might be frequently stopped and asked to be in photographs.

    CON

    When you first arrive in China you might experience a culture shock, and living in another country 24/7 can cause culture burnout. Sometimes it all gets too much, and feeling overwhelmed by the place you live is no fun.

    Living in China tip: Have a break. Take refuge in your expat friends or your favourite show from home. Then, when you’re ready, remind yourself of the great things about where you live by doing some of your favourite activities you can only do in China.

  • COMMUNICATING
    PRO

    Living in China means you’ll learn to speak some Mandarin, for sure.

    You’ll also learn the subtle art of intercultural communication. This means being aware of how culture influences the way you and others communicate, and being able to adapt to communicate well with those from other cultures.

    CON

    Language barriers can be frustrating, but with a positive attitude (and the right apps) they are easy to overcome.

    Cultural communication challenges are harder to deal with, and it is easy to cause offence without meaning to.

    Discussing some topics might make your Chinese counterparts uncomfortable. Like in many countries around the world, criticising the government is taboo, and pointing out people’s mistakes in an insensitive way can cause huge embarrassment, known as losing face.

    Living in China tip: Follow your Chinese counterparts’ lead when discussing sensitive topics. Be sensitive about how you correct students in the classroom. And when in doubt, ask your Chinese colleagues for advice.

  • FOOD
    PRO

    Food in China is diverse, cheap and delicious. You’ll be able to dine out as much as you want and supermarkets are also cheap and well-stocked.

    CON

    No matter how delicious the food is overseas, sometimes you just want familiar home comforts.

    Living in China tip: If there are particular foods you like to eat because they make you feel healthy or happy, find equivalents in China when you arrive. Supermarkets stock many ingredients, including western ones, so learn to cook some favourite recipes from scratch. Many Chinese cities also have western brand restaurants with familiar items on the menu.

  • TRAVEL
    PRO

    Living in a new place means a whole new set of travel destinations within reach. There are endless incredible destinations to visit in China, and many other Asian destinations are a short flight away.

    CON

    You can’t travel all the time. You have a job and life admin to do, friends to make and you need to rest sometimes.

    Living in China tip: Remember you’re living in China not holidaying there. Some days will be exciting and others will be more normal. You have time for both. Finding a routine can help you make sure you get enough rest and stay healthy, so you can make the most of weekends and holidays.

  • Quality of life
    PRO

    English teachers in China will normally teach around four hours five days a week, which means plenty of time for relaxing and socialising too.

    The salary you earn as a teacher and the low cost of living in China will allow you to live a comfortable lifestyle and save money.

    CON

    You hate working mornings or evenings, have problems with your students and your job and don’t feel at home in the city you live in.

    Living in China tip: There are thousands of teaching jobs available in China. Some will be your perfect match and others won’t. Before you commit to teaching in China, do your research, and seek expert advice to find the right role for you.

  • Friends
    PRO

    You’ll meet tons of new people from all over the world and make many new friends.

    CON

    You’ll be physically far away from your loved ones at home and the new experiences you are having can make you feel mentally distant too. Time differences and China’s changing internet laws can make staying in touch difficult.

    Living in China tip: Encourage your family and friends to use WeChat and make sure you have backups for your preferred methods of communication. Invite close friends and family to come and visit so you can share your experiences with them.

How can I learn Chinese?

Being able to speak and read China’s main language, Mandarin, can have all kinds of benefits when you’re living in China and after.

make daily life in China easier
make local friends while you live in China
gain a deeper insight into Chinese culture
further your future career

Whatever your reasons for moving to China, doing so provides a great opportunity to learn Mandarin. And the good news is, you can definitely do it! Even if you haven’t had much success learning languages in the past, living in a country means being immersed in a different language. With so much daily exposure you’re sure to pick up key Chinese phrases and get used to using them, fast.

Aside from being immersed in the language, you also have another ace up your sleeve. As an English teacher, you’ll gain insight into how you like to learn. You could invest in lessons, buy a book to study from, or find a language exchange partner--focus on what works for you. And don’t forget there are many free learning resources online. YouTube channels Elementary Chinese and the Duolingo app can help build your vocabulary, or to build familiarity with Chinese characters, try the Chineasy app.

Learning a language can be an incredibly rewarding, and sometimes frustrating, journey. For those days where it all feels too much, another app will come in handy-- Waygo provides real-time text translations.

How can I make friends in China?

One of the highlights of living in China as a foreign teacher will be the friends you make during your time overseas. It might seem scary moving to a new place without knowing anyone but there are plenty of ways to meet people while living in China.

● Start with your colleagues. Many of them will be in the same position as you and keen to make new friends.
● Find the expat community. Most cities will have some bars and restaurants where foreigners gather.
● Language classes can help you meet people from all over the world.
● Language exchanges can help you meet locals.
Join clubs and groups based on your interests either in real life on WeChat.

You might find the shared experience of setting up a new life overseas means you form some friendships quickly, while making Chinese friends or meeting people outside of your work circle takes more patience. If you keep an open mind, living overseas puts you in a unique position to make genuine connections with people from all over the world.

What food can I eat in China?

You might already think you know what to expect from a Chinese meal, but real Chinese food can be quite different to what you’re used to seeing in Chinese restaurants at home.

Chinese food is incredibly diverse, and if you travel around the country you’ll find many different regional cuisines to try. There really is something for everyone, including vegetarians in China. Here are some popular dishes you’ll find everywhere.

  • Chinese hot pot

    A giant pot of simmering broth to cook meat, fish and veggies in. Top with your favourite spicy sauces and share with friends.

  • Jian bing

    Delicious pancakes filled with egg and other savoury fillings. Buy for a breakfast on the go.

  • Baozi

    Hot, pillowy steamed buns, stuffed with sweet or savoury fillings. Another tasty take-away snack.

Eating in restaurants in China

Dining out in Chinese restaurants can be a lot of fun--typically they are noisy, relaxed and affordable places to eat. However, you might experience some different dining out habits to what you’re used to at home.

Most groups in Chinese restaurants eat family style. This means ordering many plates for the table to share. Eating is normally done with chopsticks, although knives and forks may be available, and it’s not considered rude to slurp food. You may have to call wait staff to your table to be served and if tableware is sometimes delivered in plastic wrap to keep it clean. It’s more common to drink hot water, or tea, than cold water.

Food Delivery in China

Food delivery is very popular in China. Many food delivery apps are available in English and Chinese making it easy to order food online direct to your door at affordable prices.

Western food in China

If you’re feeling homesick and need some comfort food, or just fancy a pizza, there are western food options in most Chinese cities. International brands like McDonalds, KFC, Pizza Hut, Burger King and Starbucks are widely available throughout China--there’s even a Starbucks along the Great Wall!--although some of the menu items may surprise you.

Supermarkets in China

Once you learn to navigate a Chinese supermarket, you’ll find Western foods and familiar brands are widely available. Although they might not stock every item you hope to find, basics like pasta, ketchup, bread and wine are common. And, of course, you can cook whatever kind of cuisine you prefer with basics you’ll find in the supermarket like vegetables, meat and fish. As well as food, supermarkets also stock toiletries, cleaning and home products.

Where can I go shopping in China

Shopping is a popular pastime in China and there are plenty of places to do it, from luxury department stores and shopping malls to flea markets, street markets and night markets. Jade, pearls and tailored clothes are all affordable in China. If shopping for clothes make sure to try them on as sizing can be erratic.

Check out our blog on Shopping in China here!

  • Bargaining in China

    While not advised in department stores or places where the price is clearly marked, almost everywhere else is fair game for haggling in China. In fact, most salespeople will enjoy haggling with you. Make sure you research typical prices for products beforehand to get an idea of how hard you can bargain and always be polite.

  • Western stores in China

    You’ll see many familiar brands when you are shopping in China. Ikea, Apple, H&M and Zara are all popular. Larger cities in China will also have places for you to buy English language products like books, magazines and dvds.

What are my transport options in China?

Whether you’re commuting to work or taking a longer trip, travel in China is safe and affordable.

  • Bikes

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    Bike riding is popular in China as it is an affordable way to avoid heavy traffic. It’s easy to rent a bike from your smartphone in many cities using English language apps Mobike and OFO. After you have put down a refundable deposit of around 300RMB, renting a bike costs 1-3RMB per journey.

    Bikes

    Bike riding is popular in China as it is an affordable way to avoid heavy traffic. It’s easy to rent a bike from your smartphone in many cities using English language apps Mobike and OFO. After you have put down a refundable deposit of around 300RMB, renting a bike costs 1-3RMB per journey.

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  • Subway

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    Most major cities have modern, clean subway systems with signs and ticket machines in English and Chinese. Once you get used to using the subway in China, it’s often the fastest way to get around the city. You can normally by a pre-paid or single ride tickets for 2-12RMB.

    Subway

    Most major cities have modern, clean subway systems with signs and ticket machines in English and Chinese. Once you get used to using the subway in China, it’s often the fastest way to get around the city. You can normally by a pre-paid or single ride tickets for 2-12RMB.

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  • Taxis

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    Taxis are a common form of transport in cities and normally cost around 15RMB for a 15 minute drive. Prices increase per kilometer. You can either show the diver the address you’re traveling to in Chinese, or use the DiDi app to order a taxi in English.

    Taxis

    Taxis are a common form of transport in cities and normally cost around 15RMB for a 15 minute drive. Prices increase per kilometer. You can either show the diver the address you’re traveling to in Chinese, or use the DiDi app to order a taxi in English.

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  • Bus

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    City busses are cheap and reliable way of getting around, with tickets costing 1-3RMB. Long distance busses, including sleeper busses, are a good way to get around China, including accessing remote areas that aren’t served by train. Tickets are affordable and rarely sell out, but journey times can be long.

    Bus

    City busses are cheap and reliable way of getting around, with tickets costing 1-3RMB. Long distance busses, including sleeper busses, are a good way to get around China, including accessing remote areas that aren’t served by train. Tickets are affordable and rarely sell out, but journey times can be long.

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  • Bullet Train

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    Bullet trains provide a punctual service and a comfortable way to travel between Chinese cities. Journey times are faster than long distance busses, and tickets are cheaper than air travel. The 819-mile journey between Beijing and Shanghai costs around 553RMB one way and takes five hours by bullet train. Tickets are available online or at a station up to 28 days before your trip and can sell out in busy periods.

    Bullet Train

    Bullet trains provide a punctual service and a comfortable way to travel between Chinese cities. Journey times are faster than long distance busses, and tickets are cheaper than air travel. The 819-mile journey between Beijing and Shanghai costs around 553RMB one way and takes five hours by bullet train. Tickets are available online or at a station up to 28 days before your trip and can sell out in busy periods.

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  • Domestic Flights

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    The fastest way to travel around China is by air. Internal flight tickets cost around $150-300 USD, and tickets can be easily purchased online. There can be large queues at airports during national holidays.

    Domestic Flights

    The fastest way to travel around China is by air. Internal flight tickets cost around $150-300 USD, and tickets can be easily purchased online. There can be large queues at airports during national holidays.

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What do I need to know about technology in China

The Chinese are early adopters when it comes to smartphone technology. There is an app for almost everything in China.

Using a WeChat in China

Setting up WeChat on your phone is actually indispensable for life in China. Known as the app for everything, WeChat has a mind-boggling number of features. You can use it as:

● a social network
● a search engine
● to pay for goods and transfer money to friends
● to buy movie tickets
● make video calls
● post stories and photos
● translate Chinese to English (helpful for menus and signs!)
● and more!

Aside from WeChat, Alipay is another popular payment app in China. You can also use Chinese bank cards to pay for goods and services in China.

WayGo is a useful text translation app, and there a plenty of apps to help you travel in China too.

Using a VPN in China

China’s internet access laws change frequently and some familiar websites sites like Google and Facebook are not always available. Downloading a VPN app before entering China to help you access blocked sites but this is not advisable. Accessing these sites is considered illegal in China, and it’s best to abide by the laws of any country you live in.

Social Media in China

Social media you may be accustomed to like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube and unlikely to be accessible in China. As Google is not accessible either, you will not be able to connect to your Gmail account or WhatsApp. This might be a shock to the system at first but many foreign teachers come to find that they enjoy this aspect of living in China. Try using WeChat instead, and make sure you have an email provider other than Gmail to keep in touch with loved ones around the world.

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