The fourth largest country in the world in terms of landmass, and the biggest by population, China is a vast and diverse nation with a rich culture, and a history dating back over 5,000 years. From the bustling metropolises of Shanghai and Beijing to the ancient city of Xi’an, expats moving to China can expect a fresh and enriching lifestyle, with a high standard of living and ample opportunity to experience Chinese culture – not to mention its world-famous cuisine.
In a nation of towering skyscrapers and ancient temples, it’s easy to find your place in the crowd. But beware – culture shock is no joke, and Chinese culture can differ dramatically from Western countries in everything from dress to social conduct. That’s why we’ve created this handy guide to moving to China, giving you everything you’ll need to settle into your new life overseas.
Culture in China
China is a vast and diverse country with a rich culture and history that is very different from Western countries. This can be both a challenge and an opportunity for expats moving to China, who may find Chinese customs and culture difficult to adopt.
Here are a few of the most important Chinese customs to keep in mind:
- Lǐmào 礼貌 / (Politeness): Chinese culture is very polite in ways that might seem extreme to Western expats. In Chinese culture, respect is of the utmost importance, and includes things like using the correct forms of address, avoiding making eye contact with people of higher social status, and not speaking loudly in public. As you can imagine, this level of politeness is something of an acquired skill. However, the quicker you learn, the less likely you are to offend and the faster you’ll be accepted as an equal.
- Diūliǎn 丢脸 / (Not ‘losing face’): Another important concept in Chinese culture is the idea of maintaining ‘face’, or in other words, not making a spectacle of yourself or losing the respect of those around you. Criticising someone in public, refusing a gift, or not showing up for an appointment are just a few examples of what the Chinese might consider ‘losing face’.
- Lǐ shàng wǎng lái / 礼尚往来 (Gift giving): In China, gift giving is way of showing someone that you respect them. When giving a gift, it is important to choose something that is appropriate for the occasion and the recipient. It’s also important never to turn down a gift as this is seen as a sign of disrespect.
- Shāng wù lǐ yí / 商务礼仪 (Business etiquette): Business etiquette in China is different from what you may be used to in your home country. It can often appear highly traditional and overly formal. It’s important to be punctual for meetings, to dress formally, and to avoid discussing sensitive topics such as politics or religion in any situation.
- Jiāo jì / 交际 (Socialising): Socialising is a big part of Chinese culture, which is great news for expats looking to settle into their new lives in China. Just remember when socialising, it is important to be respectful of others to avoid talking about yourself too much. Be prepared to be offered a lot of alcohol – keep an eye out for Baijiu, said to be the world’s most popular spirit despite only a small amount being available beyond Chinese borders.
What language do they speak in China?
The official language of China is Mandarin Chinese. It is spoken by 1 billion people in China and 1.2 billion people worldwide, making it the most spoken language in the world.
Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language, which means that the same word can have different meanings depending on the tone of voice used. There are four tones in Mandarin Chinese: high, rising, falling, and departing. Latin-language speakers should note Mandarin is one of the most difficult languages to learn.
In addition to Mandarin Chinese, there are also a number of other languages spoken in China, including Cantonese, Wu, and Min. Cantonese is spoken in the southern part of China, Wu is spoken in the eastern part of China, and Min is spoken in the southwestern part of China. The niggle, though, is that these languages are not mutually intelligible with Mandarin Chinese, which means speakers of one language will not be able to understand speakers of another language.
So, if you’re moving to China, be sure to research which Chinese language is going to be most useful, and be prepared to put in a lot of hard work learning that language.
Working life in China
Working culture in China is fairly hardcore compared to most of the Western world. Expats working in China can expect to work long hours – usually between 50 to 60 hours per week. Working overtime is regarded with favour, especially if it involves helping a fellow employee. China is a collectivist society, so it’s important to put the needs of the group before the needs of the individual.
The other key thing to note about Chinese working culture is the hierarchy. Be very wary when it comes to challenging your superiors and always bow to those above you in the food-chain. However uncomfortable this may feel, it is important to be aware of these cultural differences when working in China. By understanding the cultural expectations, you can avoid making any mistakes that could damage your reputation or working relationships.
How many expats live in China?
Despite a short-term decline during the pandemic, the number of expats living in China has been steadily increasing in recent years, encouraged by China’s growing economy, its low cost of living, and its rich culture and history.
The majority of expats in China come from neighbouring Asian countries, such as Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. However, there is also a significant number of expats from Western countries, most notably from the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom.
The cost of living in China varies depending where you choose to live, and the lifestyle you choose. However, in general, China is a relatively affordable country to live in. Expats living in China can expect to pay less for rent, food, and transportation than they would in Western countries.
The cost of living in Shanghai
Shanghai is a rapidly developing city with lots to offer expats. Home to over 24 million people, Shanghai is a melting pot of cultures, cuisines and people from all over the world. It is also a major financial and commercial centre, meaning there are always new opportunities for expats looking for work in China.
While Shanghai is certainly not the cheapest place to live in China, the cost of living in Shanghai is still much lower than in many Western cities.
Rent in Shanghai is, on average, 54.2% lower than in London, while the estimated cost for a single person to live (without rent) sits around US$692 per month. This means that as an expat living in Shanghai, you can expect to have more disposable income to spend exploring the rest of the country, or to enjoy Shanghai’s vibrant nightlife.
See the table below to get an idea of the average cost of living in Shanghai:
Average cost in Shanghai (USD)*
*As of June 2023, Numbeo
Cost of living in Beijing
An obvious choice for expats moving to China is the capital city, Beijing. One of the most populous cities in the world, Beijing is a sprawling metropolis and China’s major centre for business, finance, and technology. It’s also home to many historical landmarks, including the Forbidden City, the Great Wall of China, and the Summer Palace.
The cost of living in Beijing is again far lower than in Western cities, with the average price of rent in Beijing being 56.1% lower than in London. The estimated cost of living in Beijing as a single person is around $669 per month, making it ever so slightly cheaper than Shanghai.
See the table below to get an idea of the average cost of living in Beijing:
Average cost in Beijing (USD)*
*As of June 2023, Numbeo
How much does it cost to rent in China?
The cost of renting a place in China varies greatly depending on the city you are living in, the size of the apartment, and the amenities that are included. To give a better sense of the average rent in China, here’s a comparison of average rent in the most popular Chinese cities for expats:
Average rent (3-bedroom apartment, city centre, USD)
*As of June 2023, Numbeo
The Chinese government has made it relatively easy for expats to live and work in China, however acquiring a visa for China can be a little tricky. You will need to ensure you have a visa before visiting China (not including Macau and Hong Kong), and to acquire one you may need to go through a lengthy application process at your nearest Chinese embassy.
Citizens of countries who have a bilateral agreement with China may enter without a visa, however if you intend to stay longer than 30 or 60 days, you may still need a visa. Be sure to research your individual visa requirements thoroughly before embarking.
When it comes to finding work in China, expats should be aware that the market has shifted slightly over the past decade as the skills and experience of local graduates has grown. As such, many of the mid-level roles that expats used to move for are now being filled by local staff. Expats moving to China today are most likely to be hired into senior or skill-specific roles, with a particular demand for skilled workers in the technology sector.
It’s difficult to quote the ‘average’ salary for expats working in China, as they vary greatly between industries. Expats with experience working in China and with the ability to speak Mandarin are also more likely to be offered much higher salaries. Expats hired from overseas will also earn more than those hired locally and will likely be offered generous benefits packages including everything from health insurance to a housing allowance. If you’re thinking of living and working in China it’s absolutely essential to line up a job offer before you go.
See below for the average salary range for expats working in China based on profession in 2023:
Salary range (US$)
Source: FDI China, May 2023
How do I find expat jobs in China?
As we’ve already mentioned, it pays to have a job offer before moving to China, as you’re likely to be offered a significantly higher salary and comprehensive moving package.
Jobs boards like LinkedIn and Indeed are a great place to start on your job hunt. There are also recruiters who specialise in placing expats in jobs in China, and who will come with knowledge of how to get you the best setup possible for your new life in China.
How do I get a visa for China?
There are many different types of visas for expats moving to China. The type of visa you need will depend on how long you’re planning to stay and your employment status. Here are some of the most common types of visas for expats moving to China:
- Z visa: This is the most common type of visa for expats moving to China for work. The Z visa allows you to stay in China for up to one year and can be renewed for up to five years.
- F visa: This visa is for foreign nationals who are visiting China for non-commercial purposes, such as tourism, study, or medical treatment. The F visa allows you to stay in China for up to 30 days and can be extended for up to 60 days, so could be ideal if you’re only planning to be in China for a couple of months.
- M visa: Another short-term visa, the M visa is specifically for those coming to China for business purposes. It allows you to stay in China for up to 60 days and can be extended for up to 180 days.
- Q visa: This visa is for the family members of Chinese citizens or permanent residents who are visiting China. The Q visa allows you to stay in China for up to 180 days and can be extended for up to one year.
- R visa: For expats who are investing or working in China, the R visa allows you to live in China for up to five years and can be renewed indefinitely.
The specific costs and requirements for each type of visa may vary, so it’s important to check with the Chinese embassy or consulate in your country before you apply for a visa.
You can apply for a Chinese visa online or in person at a local Chinese embassy or consulate. Once you’ve submitted your application, the Chinese embassy will review your application and will notify you of the decision usually within 2-3 weeks. If your application is approved, the visa will be stamped in your passport and will allow you to enter China for the specified period of time.
How to open a bank account in China
The process for opening a bank account in China varies depending on the bank. However, most banks require you to visit a branch in person and to fill out an application form. You will also need to provide your passport, visa, proof of residence, proof of identity, proof of income, and a bank deposit.
Once you have submitted your application, the bank will review your application and notify you of the decision. If your application is approved, you will be issued a bank card and be able to start using your bank account.
To open a bank account in China, you will need to provide the following documents:
- Passport: Your passport must be valid for at least six months after the date you intend to move to China.
- Visa: You must have a valid visa for your length of stay.
- Proof of residence: Proof of residence could include a utility bill or a rental agreement.
- Proof of identity: You’ll need a second proof of identification, which could be a driver’s licence or national ID card.
- Proof of income: A recent pay stub or a letter from your employer detailing your monthly income.
- Bank deposit: You will need to make a bank deposit, which is usually around ¥1,000 RMB/US$140.
How to pay taxes in China
As an expat in China, you’ll have to pay individual income tax. The tax rate depends on your income, marital status, and the number of dependents you have.
Here are the steps on how to pay taxes in China:
- Register with the State Administration of Taxation (SAT) – you’ll need to register with the SAT within 30 days of arriving in China. You can do this at any SAT office
- Get your tax identification number (TIN) – this will be issued when you register with the SAT
- File a tax return – file your first tax return by June 30 of the following year after you move. You can file your tax return online, by mail, or in person at any SAT office
- Pay your taxes – pay your taxes online, by mail, or in person at any SAT office
The tax rates in China are progressive, which means that the higher your income, the higher your tax rate. The following table shows the tax rates for individual income tax in China for non-residents:
Monthly taxable income (RMB ¥)
Income tax rate 2023
Source: PwC, December 2022
The tax year in China runs from January 1 to December 31.
The healthcare system in China is a mixed bag. It has made great strides in recent years, but there are still some areas where it falls short, with long wait times and a shortage of specialists making some treatments inaccessible.
China has a two-tier healthcare system, with a public healthcare system that is funded by the government and employers, and a private healthcare system. The public healthcare system provides basic healthcare services, such as doctor’s visits, hospital stays, and prescription drugs. However, the public healthcare system can be overcrowded, and the quality of care can vary. The private healthcare system offers a wider range of services than public healthcare providers, and the quality of care is generally higher. However, private healthcare in China can be expensive.
Expats living and working in China can access the public healthcare system as soon as they start paying local taxes. However, many expats choose to go down the private route with international health insurance due to the increased availability of treatments and services, along with the ease of having English speaking practitioners.
Education in China
The Chinese education system is a hot topic for debate. On the one hand, the education system has been highly criticised for being too focused on academic achievement, for pushing children too hard and having damaging effects on mental health. On the other hand, the Chinese education system has also been praised for its high standards and for its success in producing a highly educated workforce.
Whatever you think of the Chinese education system, there’s no denying that it’s well funded. The Chinese government has made education a top priority, investing heavily in education with US$40.7 billion going toward education in 2023. As a result of this financial dedication, the quality of education in China has improved significantly in recent years, ranking 22nd in the world as of 2021.
Chinese universities have also been rapidly rising in the world rankings in recent years. In the 2023 QS World University Rankings, China has 16 universities in the top 500, up from 11 in 2022. Meanwhile, in the 2023 Times Higher Education World University Rankings, China has 15 universities in the top 500, up from 10 in 2022.
Top Chinese universities include Peking University, Tsinghua University, Fudan University, Zhejiang University and Shanghai Jiao Tong University.
The cost of education in China
Primary and secondary education is free throughout China. Tuition fees for higher education vary depending on the institution. Public universities charge lower tuition fees than private universities.
Tuition fees for undergraduate programs typically range from US$2,000 to US$10,000 per year. Tuition fees for postgraduate programs typically range from US$5,000 to US$20,000 per year.
Before moving to China, make sure you have checked off the following:
- ☐ Have you researched the best places to live in China?
- ☐ Have you decided which city you would like to move to, or whether you’d prefer to live in the countryside?
- ☐ If you’ve found an apartment or house you’d like to rent, have you contacted the company offering the accommodation?
- ☐ If you’ve agreed a place to live, have you received your rental agreement?
- ☐ Have you asked your landlord or property manager to set up your home Wi-Fi ahead of your arrival?
- ☐ Have you received a job offer from a Chinese employer? Have they sent you a contract of employment?
- ☐ If you are self-employed, do you have proof of income and/or financial records for your business?
- ☐ Do you know which type of visa you require? Do you have proof of qualifications, e.g. if you are planning to apply for a highly-skilled workers’ visa?
- ☐ Can your Chinese employer help you to acquire a working visa?
- ☐ Have you taken out international health insurance before moving to China?
- ☐ Have you looked into other forms of health insurance to support your life in China, such as life insurance and income protection?
- ☐ Does your health insurance offer access to private healthcare, where you can find medical professionals who speak your native language?
- ☐ Have you calculated a budget that takes into account expenses such as rent, taxes and other bills/fees?
- ☐ Have you set up a bank account?
- ☐ Do you have all the necessary payment cards to go with your account?
- ☐ Have you arranged to get a mobile phone with a local Chinese SIM card?
- ☐ Have you checked to see if you can bring your pets?
- ☐ Have you researched the cost of relocation? If you’re bringing your own furniture from home, have you received a reliable quote from a shipping company?
- ☐ Have you looked into education for your children? If you are planning on enrolling your children in state education, you may need to contact your prefecture or municipality ward office to see if they have school places available.
- ☐ Have you learnt some basic Chinese to help you get by in day-to-day life? Do you know how to access Chinese language lessons once you arrive in China?
Before you go…
Moving to a new country can be stressful. But that doesn’t mean your health insurance should be too. For over 30 years, William Russell has been helping expats find the right coverage for their needs. Our comprehensive and flexible policies can give you peace of mind knowing your family is protected, wherever you are in the world.