Though Beijing is a megacity of high-tech infrastructure and showpiece modern buildings, its dynastic past is very much a part of its identity. Dramatic temples add pockets of colour to the grey urban landscape, and winding alleys connect one place to another as they’ve done since the Mongols invaded centuries ago. To live in the capital is to see where China comes from, and what it has become.
As with any city, though, living in Beijing has its advantages and disadvantages, and expats should think carefully before making the move. Below we’ve listed some pros and cons of expat life in Beijing.
Cost of living in Beijing
Unlike most cities in China, Beijing is about as expensive as many European capitals, particularly for expats who are accustomed to a high degree of comfort and insist on purchasing imported produce. Fortunately, expats tend to earn quite well in Beijing, which usually nullifies the high cost of living.
+ PRO: Inexpensive groceries
Grocery bills are gentler in Beijing than in many major cities around the world. Shoppers in New York, for instance, may pay up to 50 percent more, while groceries in Shanghai are also noticeably more expensive.
Most furnished apartments in Beijing come with a rice cooker, hot plate and wok, so expats who plan to cook their own meals will begin their stay in the capital at least with the basic necessities. Chinese staples such as rice, noodles and vegetables are cheaper than imported produce such as pasta, cereal, cheese and coffee, while basic household items such as soap, toothpaste, detergent and cleaning products often prove slightly cheaper than in the US.
- CON: High rent
Beijing's rent is expensive when compared to other cities in China and expats can expect to pay a fair chunk of their salary for apartments in and around the city centre. Accommodation on the outskirts of the city is substantially cheaper, especially if residents live with roommates to bring costs down even further.
Landlords usually expect a month's deposit before allowing tenants to move in, as well as the first one to three months’ rent in advance. This can be a fair amount of money to shell out upon an expat's arrival, and we recommend they budget accordingly before relocating, or negotiate a housing allowance with their prospective employer.
Healthcare in Beijing
Navigating healthcare in Beijing can be tricky. From finding good quality treatment in English to handling some of the more irksome aspects of insurance and administration, expats may find that the process of acquiring good healthcare can be rather complicated.
+ PRO: Doctors speak English at private clinics
There shouldn't be major language barriers in private healthcare centres. Doctors at private clinics generally speak English well, so expats can rely on being able to communicate clearly with the person treating them, which might not be the case at public facilities.
- CON: Expats may struggle at public hospitals
Public hospitals are less expensive than private clinics, but expats may be better off avoiding them as waiting times are long and the quality of treatment is inconsistent. Along with that, doctors rarely speak English and some doctors may use elements of traditional medicine, which some Western patients may not be used to.
- CON: Payment is expected upfront
Patients are often required to pay for medical services upfront and out of their own pocket in China. Their health insurance provider will reimburse them later on but, to avoid nasty and expensive surprises, expats should carefully familiarise themselves with exactly which costs are covered by their insurance, as not all hospital costs are always provided for.
- CON: Gaps in public health cover
Expats interested in public healthcare cover should note that there are gaps in the public health system. These include its lack of cover for emergency transport, and that all access to private facilities is denied.
Working in Beijing
While Beijing is perhaps better known as China’s cultural and political centre, it has more recently established a reputation for nurturing tech start-ups. In fact, we recommend that expats who work in this space consider Beijing over Hong Kong and Shanghai.
+ PRO: Competitive job market
Beijing has a number of thriving industries and qualified expats may find attractive job opportunities in the capital. The retail, financial and tourism sectors are good places to begin looking. The technology space is particularly strong in the city, with the Haidian district in northwest Beijing ranking among the world’s top incubators of ideas.
Beijing’s many English-language schools are a by-product of its appetite for international business, and these institutions are often among the easiest places to find work in the city for qualified individuals.
- CON: Work culture and structure is hierarchal
Some expats may struggle with certain aspects of the work culture in Beijing, which reflect the Chinese workplace in general. For one, management is hierarchical, meaning that bosses are not accustomed to fielding questions from junior employees. Making suggestions or sharing opinions should be done skilfully and respectfully in this context, to avoid the appearance of criticism. Often, team members may even choose not to reveal problems to clients or managers, so as not to lose face.
This extreme hierarchy, and lack of open lines of communication, may come as a bit of a shock to Westerners.
Getting around in Beijing
Beijing is a large city, and initially it may seem overwhelming to navigate. There are many ways to get around: options range from the subway and commuter trains to buses, trolleybuses, taxis or simply walking. There are both pros and cons to Beijing's transport network.
+ PRO: Excellent public transport
The quality of Beijing’s public transport is a major plus and expats can easily manage to get around without their own cars. Subways are cheap and reliable, bus routes cover just about every area and taxis are affordable.
- CON: Crowded rush hours
Beijing's subway is said to be one of the world's busiest metro systems, as well as one of the longest. It can be confusing for a new arrival to find their way around in the rush-hour chaos – but it's important to stay calm and note that signs, maps and announcements are in both Standard Chinese and English.
Lifestyle in Beijing
Beijing’s wealth of history and culture is fascinating, pleasing to the eye and easily accessible. That said, there are some unpleasant facts about day-to-day life in China’s capital.
+ PRO: Impressive architecture and attractions
Beijing is home to magnificent cultural landmarks that date back hundreds of years. The Forbidden City is situated in the heart of the capital and is perhaps the best-preserved imperial palace in the world. Set amid serene lakes and lush gardens, the Summer Palace is another must-see attraction. The National Stadium is a masterpiece of modern-day architecture and resembles its nickname, the Bird’s Nest, and the Great Wall is only an hour or so outside the city.
+ PRO: Personal safety is not a major concern
The risk of crime is minimal in Beijing, thanks to the widespread presence of police and security personnel. Petty crimes such as pickpocketing occur at a low rate and residents can feel safe navigating the city by themselves – even at night.
- CON: Pollution is an unfortunate reality
Pollution is one of the biggest challenges expats will face in Beijing, and they will have to purchase air filters and 3M masks from convenience stores to get by. Though, after Covid-19, most people should be rather used to wearing masks anyway.
- CON: Cultural shock
Expats often find it difficult to adjust to some commonplace practices in Beijing. Among them, overcrowding, lack of personal space on public transport, what might seem like strange eating habits to Westerners, and the local tendency of smoking almost everywhere are perhaps most challenging.