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Moving to China

Moving to China is an opportunity for expats to experience a country that's both rich in history and focused on the future. Thanks to its immense growth over the past two decades, China has continued to attract foreigners with special skills and advanced education. As a result, competition for jobs has increased and relocation packages have been driven down by candidates from elsewhere in Asia who are willing to work for less than most Western expats.

Despite its immensity, most expats live in a handful of cities that traditionally attracted job hunters from the interior. As they have grown, so has their appeal and what were once medium-sized cities are quickly growing into sprawling metropolises.

While a way of life that's centred around traditional family structures and values persists amid the rapid development, China's economic growth has come at a price. Its problems with pollution and overpopulation are well documented, but as it enters the next stage of development, the country has moved away from its emphasis on industry to developing its service sector and improving its environmental sustainability.

The most popular places among expats living in China include Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai. Despite the influx of foreign workers, Chinese cities might not seem very diverse to the average Westerner, who often has to adjust to a greater extent than in many other international destinations. Regional differences are also vast and expats will find variations in how things are done in different cities, from cuisine to housing regulations.

Foreigners sometimes find themselves weighing jostling crowds and tedious bureaucracy against the luxuries of still higher-than-average income and active expat communities. Many Western expats take a while to adjust to the fact that the government is involved in the lives of its citizens and actively censors materials it considers harmful to society.

Driving in China also takes getting used to, especially because of almost constant traffic congestion and plenty of aggressive drivers. Many expats prefer the high quality of public transport in China, with its bullet trains, city subway systems and vast bus networks.

As it tries to accommodate the expatriates in its borders, China has expanded its healthcare system to include facilities aimed at Westerners and its private hospitals are of a high standard. While Chinese schools are generally exclusively taught in Mandarin, expats have access to world-class international and private schools, although these come at a price.

Whether they're moving to China for business or to expand their horizons, its unfamiliar culture, its high population density and the language barrier can be challenging for new arrivals. However, China is also one of the most satisfying expat destinations in the world for those who make the adjustment.

It's also a country where ancient monuments and the ultra-modern co-exist in harmony, where the culture is as influenced by its 21st-century economic expansion as by its old traditions. The complex layers of life in China expose expats to a rich culture, a new way of living and a vast country to explore.

Note: 28/1/20

There is an ongoing outbreak of the coronavirus in China. The novel virus originated in Wuhan City, Hubei Province but has since spread to other parts of the country. Based on the latest medical information, including reports of person-to-person transmission, travellers should avoid all travel to Hubei Province and should monitor the situation in the rest of China.

Essential Info for China

Population: About 1.4 billion

Capital city: Beijing

Neighbouring countries: Covering a vast expanse of the Asian mainland, China's neighbours include India and Pakistan to the southwest, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan to the west, Mongolia to the north, part of Russia to the northeast, North Korea, South Korea and Japan to the east, and Taiwan to the southeast.

Geography: As the world's third largest country by geographic size, China covers a vast landscape stretching over 3,705,410 square miles (9,596,960 square kilometres). Its diverse terrain includes high plateaus, sunken basins, mountains, desert and coastal regions, and China is home to Asia's longest river, the Yangtze.

Political system: Single-party socialist republic

Major religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Chinese folk religions

Main languages: Mandarin Chinese, with hundreds of local dialects

Money: The Renminbi (RMB), also referred to as the Chinese Yuan (CNY), is the official currency. It is divided into 10 jiao.

Time: GMT +8

Electricity:  220V, 50Hz. Chinese Standard three-pin plugs are most common. 

Internet domain: .cn

International dialling code: +86

Emergency contacts: In most major cities the emergency numbers are 110 (police), 120 (ambulance), and 119 (fire)

Transport and driving: Traffic drives on the right-hand side, except in Hong Kong and Macau. The country has an expansive national railway network which includes high-speed trains. Public transport may be difficult to navigate for non-Mandarin speakers.

Weather in China

Its extensive territory means that the weather in China differs between regions. With the Himalayas in the west, the Gobi Desert in the north and pervasive city smog in a country spanning two major ecozones, it follows that there is a vast degree of variation in China’s climate, which ranges from sub-arctic to tropical.

Roughly speaking, China can be divided into five climatic zones from south to north: tropical, subtropical, temperate, medium temperate and sub-arctic.

South China, with cities such as Guangzhou and Hong Kong, generally has hot and humid summers with frequent rains, and high temperatures of above 86°F (30°C). Winter temperatures range from mild to warm and experience lighter rains and lower levels of humidity.

Cities such as Shanghai in the east are affected by ocean currents and monsoons, experiencing humid and rainy summers, and cold winters with light rain and occasional snow.

Central China is popular with tourists for its natural beauty and the ancient attractions in cities such as Wuhan. It has year-round precipitation, distinctive seasons and relatively warm temperatures throughout the year, with occasional light snow in winter, and summer monsoons.

Western China, spanning a large region ranging from desert plateaus to mountainous Tibet, is known for its geographic diversity. As a whole, winters in the region are dry and cold while some areas experience scorching summers and others are milder.

Northern China, which most notably contains Beijing, is known for winters that are progressively colder the further north one goes, with some of the lowest temperatures in the country. Summers are often warm, with high levels of rainfall and humid conditions.

Embassy Contacts for China

Chinese embassies

  • Chinese Embassy, Washington DC, United States: +1 202 495 2266

  • Chinese Embassy, London, United Kingdom: +44 20 7299 4049

  • Chinese Embassy, Ottawa, Canada: +1 613 789 3434

  • Chinese Embassy, Canberra, Australia: +61 2 6228 3999

  • Chinese Embassy, Pretoria, South Africa: +27 12 431 6500

  • Chinese Embassy, Dublin, Ireland: +353 1 219 6651

  • Chinese Embassy, Wellington, New Zealand: +64 4 473 3514

Foreign embassies in China

  • United States Embassy, Beijing: +86 10 8531 3000

  • British Embassy, Beijing: +86 10 5192 4000

  • Canadian Embassy, Beijing: +86 10 5139 4000

  • Australian Embassy, Beijing: +86 10 5140 4111

  • South African Embassy, Beijing: +86 10 8532 0000

  • Irish Embassy, Beijing: +86 10 8531 6200

  • New Zealand Embassy, Beijing: +86 10 8531 2700

Public Holidays in China




New Year's Day

1 January

1 January

Spring Festival

24- 30 January

11-17 January

Qingming Festival (Tomb-Sweeping Day) 

5 April

5 April

Worker's Day (May Day)

1 May

1 May

Dragon Boat Festival

25-26 June

12-14 June

Mid-Autumn Festival

1 October 

10-12 October

National Day

1-7 October

1-7 October

*Expats may need some time to get used to the unusual public holiday schedule in China. Essentially, the government announces official public holidays which tend to stretch over a few days in December of the previous year as well as whether workers will be required to work part or all of the weekend before or after the public holiday time.

Safety in China

Expats concerned about their safety in China will focus less on the dangers travellers are usually worried about, such as pickpocketing, and more on seemingly innocuous areas such as food and driving.

Serious and violent crime in China is rare, and although expats often fall victim to petty theft, especially in tourist hotspots and crowded marketplaces, it still isn’t commonplace. A little extra precaution needs to be taken when it comes to securing housing. Locking the doors, keeping valuables out of sight and, for women living alone, avoiding ground floor apartments are appropriate safety measures.

At face value, there seems to be little that can be done to avoid these unfortunate realities, but adopting certain defensive behaviours is easy and beneficial. New arrivals should take routine precautions in larger cities by paying attention to their surroundings, being mindful of their belongings in public places, and staying away from poorly lit areas at night, especially if travelling alone.

Expats should also be wary of the high levels of pollution, unregulated additives in food and reckless drivers. 

Pollution in China

The smog in China can be overwhelming, especially in urban centres. Expats living in these areas should make an effort to exercise regularly and use an air purifier at night. Although pollution can cause sinus congestion, itchy eyes and a runny nose, healthy individuals are unlikely to suffer long-term effects.

Food safety in China

As the country’s population continues to grow, so does the number of local food producers attempting to cut costs by using illegal additives and unsafe food practices. "Food scandals" emerge often, and while this should not discourage new arrivals from trying everything from dim sum to thousand-year eggs, caution should be exercised.

Only approach street vendors that always seem to be busy and, until a trusted local can vouch for its safety, avoid the charming but clearly dirty corner restaurant. It is also important to only purchase raw food that, at the very least, looks fresh and appealing.

Driving safety in China

When everyone else on the road seems to be openly breaking laws and violating principles of etiquette, driving defensively in China can easily get frustrating. New residents would do well to use Chinese public transport when it's available, as it's generally fast, safe and economical, and a good way to get to know one’s surroundings. Expats who want to use a car should consider hiring a driver at first, but those who do get behind the wheel must try to stay calm and allow themselves some time to adapt to the Chinese rhythm of driving.

Expats shouldn't be afraid to walk, either – China can be surprisingly pedestrian friendly, although being aware of the unpredictable surrounding traffic is important. 

Terrorism in China

Terrorism is rare and generally doesn't affect expats or the areas they tend to settle in. Minor attacks in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang province in the fairly remote northwest of the country, have been blamed on separatist extremists from the region's Uyghur minority. Historically, incidents such as these rarely have effects outside of the province and expats should remain unaffected.

Working in China

Despite recent economic woes, the People's Republic remains the world’s second-largest economy, and there are still opportunities for expats looking for work in China. Expats have traditionally relocated to China to fill senior positions in international companies based in one of the major cities, have moved there to start up their own business, or go there to teach English.

A Chinese work permit is needed for expats to find work in the country. The process for acquiring a work permit for China can be complicated and is mostly handled by the hiring company.

The job market in China

Expats working in China typically fill upper management and senior level jobs in fields such as IT, human resources, finance, accounting and manufacturing. As economic dynamics have shifted, however, highly skilled expats at all levels of the corporate ladder have been seeking employment in China. As the country continues its shift towards a service and special skills economy, many expats now take jobs in sectors such as sales, marketing, engineering and banking.

The education sector continues to be the country's biggest source of employment for expats, with a significant percentage of its foreign workforce in the teaching profession. While it may once have been a relatively low-paying job, teaching English as a foreign language in China has developed to provide a respectable salary for expats with a tertiary education. It is also a means for many young expats to earn while experiencing a new country and culture.

Finding a job in China

The majority of expat jobs are found in major cities with large expat business communities such as Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou. Speaking Mandarin is an advantage and is often a way to secure a high-paying job. However, many international companies use English in everyday affairs and many expats get by without Mandarin.

To balance this view, however, the majority of expats continue to be hired by international firms, and opportunities at companies that are completely Chinese-owned continue to be limited. Relocation packages are also less lucrative than they used to be, although many companies still subsidise housing costs, airfare, health insurance and some tax payments.

Many local businesses also prefer hiring Chinese candidates with overseas experience. Hiring foreign employees comes with high costs, and many initially have difficulty adjusting to the language and the culture. Furthermore, some businesses have turned to hiring middle-management level employees from places such as Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Not only do these candidates often speak English, they demand lower salaries and can often speak some Mandarin.

One way many young expat professionals have found around this is to take relatively low-paying entry positions, trading income for experience that benefits them later in their careers – in China or elsewhere.

Work culture in China

Chinese business culture is dominated by guanxi, a local concept that is a more intricate take on the Western idea of networking. Much time is devoted to cultivating and maintaining relationships, as local business people rarely do business with those they don't know and trust. 

Related to the concept of guanxi is 'saving face'. It’s important that expats always conduct themselves in a dignified manner and avoid offending or embarrassing their Chinese associates at all costs.

Integrating into Chinese corporate culture can be quite a challenge for Western expats. The language barrier, in particular, may take some adjustment, and expats would do well to at least learn some key phrases in Mandarin.

Despite the challenges, the expats that do manage to successfully find work and integrate into Chinese working life report high levels of satisfaction.

Doing Business in China

One of the world’s largest economies, the People’s Republic brims with history and opportunity. Economics may be a global language, but Western expats doing business in China often find integrating into Chinese culture a big adjustment and many invest in cross-cultural training to ease the process.

Doing business in China is not always easy. A government that is uncomfortably imposing for many Westerners and a sometimes debilitating language barrier are too much for some to cope with, and many expats leave before their contracts expire. A complicated visa process and the high cost of starting a business in China add to the challenges.

These factors contribute to the country's overall ranking of 46th out of 190 countries in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Survey for 2019. Factors for which China scored badly include dealing with construction permits (121st) and paying taxes (114th). China did, however, perform well for enforcing contracts, for which it ranked sixth.

Despite the downsides, the number of foreign workers in the country has been steadily increasing over the past two decades as more expats arrive to chase success in China.

Fast facts

Business language

Mandarin is the official language of business in China. It's considered polite for foreigners to supply their own interpreter at meetings if they don't understand Mandarin.

Business hours

Usually from 8am to 5pm, Monday to Friday, with an occasional break from 12pm to 2pm.

Business dress

Business attire in China needs to be formal and subtle. Bright colours are inappropriate and modesty is key. Flat shoes are the standard for women and are generally a good idea for expat women who are taller than their associates.


Use titles and family names when greeting Chinese businesspeople (this can be confusing as names are traditionally reversed from the Western order). Contrary to popular belief, bowing isn't normally done outside of certain ceremonies and a nod will often suffice. It's also a good idea to wait for the other person to initiate a handshake.


Gift-giving is common practice but traditions are changing. Official policy forbids bribery, so gifts may be declined. A good policy is presenting a symbolic gift to the company, in which case it's presented to the most senior person available. Very expensive gifts are best avoided, as they create the obligation to reciprocate.

Gender equality

Although women have historically been viewed as subordinate, opportunities for them have expanded, with more women visible within executive positions in Chinese business.

Business culture in China

In a country where personal relationships are essential for professional advancement, one of the best ways to get ahead is to have an understanding of the business culture in China. Expats wanting to do this will have to become familiar with guanxi, a concept at the centre of commerce in the country.

Functioning both as a noun and a verb, guanxi refers to the relationships that businesspeople form with one another and the process of forming and maintaining those relationships.

A significant portion of preliminary business dealings will often be devoted to building meaningful connections. A central feature of these relationships is that both parties should be able to call upon one another for support or favours. If one does a favour for the other, it’s expected that they'll return the favour at some point.

Guanxi is largely about building trust and, without a meaningful relationship, expats are unlikely to succeed. Guanxi can be maintained through the exchange of gifts, making allowances in negotiations or simply inviting business associates out to dinner.

Expats should also be patient, and avoid rushing decisions and negotiations. This is a vital part of doing business in China, and the long-term benefits usually greatly outweigh any short-term frustrations.

Saving face

“Saving face” is closely associated with guanxi. In Chinese culture, the idea of “face” is divided into two concepts that function together. On the one hand is mien-tzu, which relates to reputation and success, while on the other is lien, which speaks to a person’s integrity and moral character.

Expats should take every precaution not to publicly embarrass anyone. They should also conduct themselves in a dignified manner that's in accordance with what Chinese society would expect of their position. Losing face or causing anyone else to lose face will negatively affect business relations.

Expats will have to try and strike a careful balance between guanxi and saving face, not least for legal reasons. It is easy for close relationships and reciprocity to become unethical, and there's a fine line between giving gifts and bribery.


Hierarchy and seniority are also key elements of Chinese business culture. Elders and senior associates should always be given respect, which is done by avoiding eye contact and showing deference at meetings.

Attitudes toward foreigners in China

Chinese companies are often eager to work with Western businesses. Unfortunately, there is sometimes a degree of distrust, at least partially because of the country’s troubled history with the West and political differences. But foreign businesspeople who make an effort to respect and understand Chinese culture are better regarded than those who expect to be accommodated.

Dos and don’ts of business in China

  • Do acknowledge senior associates first

  • Do make every effort to avoid offending or publically embarrassing Chinese associates

  • Don't be offended by personal questions

  • Do say "maybe" or "let me think about it" rather than a flat "no"

  • Don't make remarks about communism or discuss Chinese politics

  • Don't gesture with your hands when talking

  • Do exchange business cards at every introduction. Ensure cards include business title, as well as a Chinese translation on one side of the card.

Visas for China

The Chinese visa system has undergone some notable changes in recent years and visa regulations can change suddenly and without warning. There is also a degree of inconsistency between consulates and the Public Safety Bureaus (PSB), where expats will have to register after arriving. As such, expats should find out about any specific requirements at their local consulate or PSB.

Expats are advised to be as thorough as possible with their documentation and, where a minimum requirement is stated, to go over and above that. For instance, it's a good idea to ensure that passports are valid for more than the six-month minimum required by Chinese authorities, especially for longer stays.

It should be noted that expats applying for a Chinese visa from somewhere other than their country of origin will have to submit additional documents such as work or residence permits. Fees vary depending on the applicant’s country of origin and where they are applying for their visa.

Tourist visas for China (L visa)

Tourist visas, categorised as L visas, are issued for tourist visits to China. Single-entry visas are generally valid for 90 days, although longer periods can be applied for. Multiple-entry visas can be valid for six, 12 or 24 months. The Chinese government requires proof of itinerary or an invitation letter, as well as proof of funds, a visa application fee and evidence of a return or onward ticket.

Visit visas for China (F visa)

Under the revised visa system, F visas are issued to applicants who intend to visit China for non-commercial purposes such as conferences, cultural exchanges and study tours. Single-entry F visas are usually valid for 30 days, while multiple-entry visas for up to 24 months can also be applied for.

Student visas for China (X visa)

There are two types of student visas for China. The X1 visa is for applicants who intend to study in China for more than 180 days, while X2 visas are for those intending to study for less than 180 days.

In addition to standard visa requirements, applicants for the longer X1 visa need the original and a photocopy of the admission letter submitted by the Chinese institution they will be studying at, as well as an original and photocopy of the Visa Application for Study in China form, which can be obtained from their nearest consulate.

Business visas for China (M visa)

The M visa is issued to applicants going to China for commercial and trade activities. In addition to the standard documentation, applicants will also need a letter of invitation from their host company in China or documents such as an official trade fair invitation.

M visas are generally limited to stays of up to 30 days. Applicants that have obtained an M visa more than twice in two years and have a certificate of investment in China or a business licence are allowed to apply for a multiple-entry M visa that is valid for six or 12 months. Expats in this category will need to submit photocopies of their previous visas.

Work visas for China (Z visa)

The Z visa is issued to expats taking up employment in China for more than six months. Chinese authorities require an original and a photocopy of the Confirmation Letter of Invitation issued by the Chinese company, as well as the original and a copy of a completed Physical Examination Record for Foreigners.

In addition to these and the standard requirements for a Chinese visa, applicants will also have to produce one of the following:

  • Alien Employment Licence

  • Permit for Foreign Experts Working in China

  • Letter of Invitation to Foreign Workers for Offshore Petroleum Operations in China

  • A registration certificate from the regional branch of a representative office of foreign enterprises, issued by the relevant regional department of industry and commerce

The Z visa is applicable for accompanying family members. It's generally valid for three months and one entry, and expats should apply for a residence permit at their local PSB within 30 days of entering China.

Expats should note the difference between a work visa and a work permit for China. Although they are closely related, the former allows the applicant to enter the country for work, while the latter enables them to stay and work in the country.

*Visa regulations are subject to change at short notice and expats should contact their nearest embassy or consulate for the latest information.

Work Permits for China

Chinese visa processes are notoriously difficult to navigate, and the safest option would be to work through an immigration expert. Immigration procedures are largely carried out at a local level, and each locality has a unique structure. This means that expats who apply for a work permit in China will need to fulfil different requirements depending on where they'll be working. 

After entering the country with their Z Visa, expats should apply for work and residence permits for China as soon as possible. 

Work permits for China

Each case is unique and there are differences between each city’s immigration and labour processes. There are, however, a few standard requirements that expat employees will likely have to fulfil:

  • A Z Visa is required prior to arrival

  • The work permit application has to be sponsored by a locally registered company in China

  • Expats will need to live and work in the same location as their sponsoring company

  • A medical examination is required

The employee will go for a medical examination at an authorised hospital either inside or outside of China. A report must be signed by their doctor and stamped with the hospital’s seal. Some cities, such as Beijing, also require foreign employees to have a Certificate of No Criminal Record attested by Chinese authorities. In Shanghai, foreign nationals can have their medical examination after they get their Z Visa and work permit.

The medical report will be attached to an employment licence application, which is often submitted by the Chinese employer to their local labour bureau.

Once an employment licence is approved and granted, the company requests a Z Visa invitation from their local Foreign Economic and Trade Commission. These are forwarded to the employee, who applies for a Z Visa at the Chinese embassy or consulate in their home country. After the employee arrives in China, they need to apply for a work permit at their local labour bureau.

Residence permits for China

Within 24 hours of arriving in China, expats have to complete a Temporary Residence Registration Form and produce their passport at the nearest Public Security Bureau (PSB). Expats staying in a hotel may be able to register there, but those staying with a Chinese resident will have to register at the local PSB. Some cities require expats to do this after every trip they make out of the country.

In addition to applying for a work permit and registering their temporary residence, expats need to apply for a Working Foreigner’s Residence Permit at their local PSB within 30 days of arriving in the country.

The Chinese residence permit is an expat’s proof that they're legally living in the country. These are valid for up to a year and can be renewed for a year at a time, usually when a work permit extension is applied for.

If someone wants to move to a different region of China, they'll have to get permission from their local PSB and apply for a new residence permit at the PSB in their new destination.

If any changes need to be made to the residence permit, such as a change of address, they have to be applied for within less than 10 days after the change takes place.

The following may be required when applying for a residence permit for China:

  • Passport, photos and other supporting personal documentation

  • Fingerprints and other biometric information

  • A health certificate that is valid for more than a year

  • Work permit and other relevant supporting materials issued by Chinese authorities

*Visa and work permit regulations can change at short notice and expats should contact their nearest Chinese embassy or consulate for the latest information.

Cost of Living in China

Many expats are lured abroad to China by lucrative salary packages that allow them to live a far more luxurious life than many locals. However, most don't realise that a Western lifestyle comes at a price and expats should carefully evaluate their level of comfort, research the associated cost of living and negotiate their contract accordingly.

An expat's cost of living in China will depend on their lifestyle, how much luxury they want and how far they'll go to recreate the life they had back home.

Imported, Western-style brands and goods are significantly more expensive than locally made items, which are widely available and very affordable. Prices associated with products that aren't typically Chinese, like dairy and wine, will also be higher. Fresh produce and foods, clothing, entertainment and domestically manufactured electronics are all reasonably priced in China.

As in most destinations, the cost of living in the larger urban centres will far exceed that of the rural villages. Beijing and Shanghai, in particular, claim cost of living levels on par with many major European capitals.

Cost of transport in China

Transportation costs can be kept to a minimum for someone based in a big city like Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou, which have reliable and affordable public transit systems. Many people choose to cycle or ride scooters, which is often the easiest and cheapest way to travel short distances in China.

By contrast, driving in China can be very expensive, as well as dangerous. A leased vehicle can cost nearly as much as accommodation rental, petrol isn't cheap, and it is often necessary to hire a driver.

Cost of accommodation in China

Most expats will find their largest expense to be accommodation in China, especially if they're based in Beijing or Shanghai. Expats tend to congregate in the suburbs near the city centre that have higher-than-average accommodation prices.

Cost of schooling in China

Expats who relocate with children will find the costs attached to international schools in China can be astronomical. This cost increases as the child ages. As a result of this, expats should try and negotiate an education allowance into their contract.

Cost of living in China chart 

Prices may vary across China, depending on product and service provider. The list below shows average prices for Beijing in March 2020. 

Accommodation (monthly rent)

One-bedroom apartment in city centre

RMB 7,400

One-bedroom apartment outside of city centre

RMB 4,400

Three-bedroom apartment in city centre

RMB 15,700

Three-bedroom apartment outside of city centre

RMB 10,000


Milk (1 litre)

RMB 13

Dozen eggs

RMB 13

Loaf of white bread 

RMB 14

Rice (1kg)


Packet of cigarettes

RMB 20

Public transportation

City centre bus/train fare


Taxi rate per km

RMB 2.30

Eating out

Big Mac Meal

RMB 35

Coca-Cola (330ml)   



RMB 31

Bottle of beer

RMB 25

Three-course meal for two at a mid-range restaurant

RMB 200


Uncapped ADSL internet per month

RMB 100

Utilities (average per month for a standard household)

RMB 450

Culture Shock in China

Many expats don’t know what to expect before they arrive in China, and it isn't unusual to experience some level of culture shock. The country is famed for its unique culture, and expats will have no shortage of new things to explore and learn about. That being said, China's fast development is likely to make the adjustment more comfortable for most new arrivals.  

Meeting and greeting in China

When it comes to greeting, people usually say “ni hao”, which means “hi”. If they want to show extra respect, they use the phrase “nin hao”. Expats should keep in mind that Chinese people don't usually shake hands as this isn't part of their greeting ritual, although they may greet a foreigner with a handshake to show an understanding of Western culture. Chinese people are generally friendly and very hospitable.

Language barrier in China

The language barrier in China is a big challenge for expats. There are a few reasons for this. Apart from Chinese Mandarin, which is the country’s official language, hundreds of other dialects exist. Learning Chinese Mandarin is hard enough, but in some rural areas, and especially the older generation, people can't even speak Mandarin.

The second reason is that even though young people learn English nowadays, the education system doesn't give them many opportunities to use it. This means that while many people can understand easy phrases, they're often quite shy when it comes to speaking.

People generally don’t bother translating things into English outside of the big cities, where the biggest numbers of foreigners are found. As such, it's a good idea for expats to learn a few useful phrases in Chinese before arriving in the country.

Time in China

There's only one official time zone in China: GMT+8, which is also called Beijing Time. In reality, China stretches over several time zones and in some provinces far away from Beijing two versions of time are said to exist. One is the official one and the second is the local one.

Urban Chinese people are generally punctual, although huge traffic jams and conditions on the road are often difficult to predict and expats should keep this in mind when making appointments. On the other hand, time is much more flexible in smaller cities and rural areas. For example, people won’t say, “Let’s meet at 6pm". Instead, they will often arrange to meet in the evening.

Religion in China

Religion isn't very popular in China and it's more common to find religious people in rural areas than in the cities. Those who are religious are mostly Buddhist or Muslim, although there are small groups of Christians in bigger cities. Although Chinese society is not very religious, many locals go to Buddhist temples to pray for the happiness of their families during celebrations such as the Spring Festival.

Women in China

Although perceptions of a woman’s role in society have changed, an ancient concept still exists in many Chinese minds. Women nowadays play a significant role in the management of Chinese companies, but they're also still usually expected to fulfil traditional roles when it comes to the home and children.

Politeness in China

Expats may come across certain behaviours in China which would be considered rude in their own home countries. This is particularly true of social pleasantries like 'please', 'thank you' and 'excuse me', which are not used nearly as frequently in Chinese societies as they are in many Western societies. 

These behaviours may seem impolite to foreigners but are generally not considered rude in the local culture. While China's unique form of politeness may take some time to get used to, expats should keep this cultural difference in mind and try to avoid being offended by local customs.

Cultural dos and don’ts in China

Chinese culture is so diverse that only the most essential and crucial cultural dos and don'ts are listed below:

  • Don't be surprised if a stranger asks about your age, marital status and your parents’ jobs

  • Don't refuse an invitation when you're asked to lunch or dinner as this will cause your host to lose face. Rather reschedule if you have to.

  • Don't criticise Chinese food and culture when eating out with local people. Rather focus on the good points.

  • Don't be too individualistic. China has a collective culture that values society over the individual.

  • Do realise that Chinese concepts of personal space and privacy are different. The local shop assistant will follow their customers around and teachers sometimes look at their students’ notes. Not to mention the massive crowds in some cities.

  • Do be tolerant when people spit in public places. Foreigners might be shocked or disgusted when they first notice it, but this is a Chinese cultural habit.

  • Do spend time in parks. Chinese people spend a lot of their time in city parks, singing or dancing together. 

Accommodation in China

Initially, expats are often overwhelmed by the variety of accommodation in China, but soon realise that small units in huge apartment buildings are the most affordable option. These often feel cramped at first, especially for Westerners who are accustomed to larger properties. But most expats adjust and end up being perfectly comfortable – they even find that everything they need can be stored with a bit of creative organisation.

Expats should also note that they're required by law to register their address at the local Public Service Bureau (PSB) as soon as they move in.

Types of accommodation in China

Expats should be warned that a “standard apartment” in China could be anything from a tiny, dark room with squat toilets to a spacious apartment with internet facilities and marble floors. Of course, most apartments are somewhere in between. As a result, potential tenants should conduct thorough market research when they first arrive to ensure that they find a place they could reasonably occupy for an extended period of time.

The price of accommodation varies widely according to size, amenities and location. Apartments in China can be furnished or unfurnished, which also affects their price. Before sending a large shipment of belongings overseas, expats should keep in mind that there is an impressive assortment of home accessory and furniture stores in China.

The most expensive real estate is usually found in the big cities – Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. Within these, the priciest rentals include serviced luxury apartments that are often reserved for short-term rentals, and villa complexes aimed at China’s nouveau rich and foreign executives.

Expats looking to cut costs could consider house-sharing, a form of accommodation that's popular among younger foreigners in particular. This can be arranged via online couch-surfing portals, internet forums and word of mouth. It is sometimes easier for a few expats to get together to hire an agent and rent an entire apartment than it is to find a single room for rent.

Aside from the standard roommate arrangement, some adventurous expats choose to rent a room with a Chinese family, known as “homestaying". This is often done through specialised websites, but it can be risky. While some people enjoy the experience, many report problems with agencies and families who expect tenants to tutor their children. 

Finding accommodation in China

Foreigners who don’t speak Mandarin usually enlist the services of a Chinese real estate agent to help them find a place to stay. Estate agencies are widely available and easily identifiable by the pictures of houses and apartments in their windows. While some agencies in the larger cities may be able to help customers in English, it's often necessary to hire a translator to help with negotiations as well.

Commission for real estate agents in China is usually around 35 percent of a month’s rent and is paid by the tenant. After settling on a property, it's common for a set amount to be paid to the landlord to reserve it during the contract negotiation process.

Rental contracts are generally valid for one year and require a refundable two-month security deposit. Upon signing the lease, the tenant is expected to pay one month’s rent up front, often in cash.

Unless both parties are comfortable with one language, a contract in both English and Chinese should be signed. It's advisable to have the contract checked by a Chinese speaker to make sure that the translations are the same. While both documents are binding, the Chinese contract is often favoured when a dispute arises.

Rent is expected to be paid in cash a month in advance. Expats with a Chinese bank account might be able to set up a direct debit or a standing order to cover their monthly rental expenses.

Utilities in China

In most instances, the tenant is expected to pay utility bills in China. Payment methods can vary between cities and expats should check this with their relevant local authorities.

Electricity payments are regulated by the state and tariffs are the same across the country. Bills have to be paid to the local provider within 10 days of receiving an account, which will be sent after a meter reader visits the property.

Many people use prepaid electric meters. First-time buyers apply for an IC card at an authorised outlet, such as a branch of the power supply company or certain banks, depending on the city. Units can then be loaded onto the IC card, which is inserted into their meter.

Tenants in apartments with access to a natural gas line will usually receive a payment notice shortly after a meter reader visits their property. The bill will indicate a fixed period of time within which to pay, and payments can be made at gas company outlets and certain banks. In some cities, expats may be able to use an IC card for their gas supply as well. Gas is billed at a fixed rate per cubic metre.

Much the same as gas and electricity, a meter reader comes to measure the household’s water consumption and the local water company sends a payment notice that gives the tenant 15 days in which to pay their bill at certain banks and water company outlets.

Some services may require proof of certification, such as the Certificate for Residential Power Consumption, especially for first-time purchases. Expats should ask their estate agent about this in the contract negotiation stage.

As the government still closely controls the internet in China, not just in terms of censorship but also access, expats without access to the internet will have to apply for their property to be connected via the regional telecom company or China Telecom, the state-owned telecommunications provider. Bills are usually sent on a monthly basis. These companies also provide phone lines. 

It's also fairly common for expats to hire a housekeeper in China. Informally called "ayi" (Chinese for “aunt”), they provide services that many expats wouldn't be able to afford at home. 

Healthcare in China

Healthcare in China is a significant point of contention for many expats. Treatment is available in public hospitals, international clinics within them, or at private facilities that cater to expats. The Chinese healthcare system is hospital-centred, so expats often forego the search for a general practitioner.

As can be expected from such a vast country, the quality of care, the ease of access and the associated costs vary tremendously between different places and institutions. Most expats in China do, however, take out private health insurance and seek treatment at private facilities.

Public healthcare in China

China's public healthcare system is best described as inconsistent. Many cities have direct access to hospitals and a range of medical services, whereas rural areas can be hours and even days away from the nearest clinic. China’s public healthcare system is generally considered to be substandard. While this may not be the case with every facility, the language barrier, slow service and long queues dissuade most Westerners from seeking treatment in a public hospital.

Despite their appearance, however, the quality of treatment in many hospitals is up to Western standards, even if their methods are different. Expats using China’s government hospitals should expect a few quirks. Patients may be expected to keep their own medical records, hospitals charge very little for consultations, and some doctors get a commission from prescriptions.

International wings in public hospitals

In an attempt to bridge the gap between the quality of care at costly private hospitals and the bad service at public facilities, some public clinics have opened international wings. These exist as partnerships between the state and the private sector, and aim to provide access to public healthcare with Western standards of healthcare.

Many of these share doctors with public facilities, but don't have the long waiting times. They also have a greater focus on customer care and treatments cost less than at private hospitals. International wings are a relatively new phenomenon, however, and are only found in China's largest commercial centres.

Private healthcare in China

International hospitals are well represented in larger cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, but will be absent in most smaller cities and rural communities. While these private facilities often offer access to English-speaking medical staff with Western training, the high standards and service-orientated treatment come at a price and fees are sometimes more than twice those at Chinese public hospitals.

Health insurance in China

Though 95 percent of the Chinese population has at least basic health insurance, coverage isn't as comprehensive as perhaps expected. Public health insurance, for instance, generally only contributes half of the medical bills. Furthermore, premiums tend to be high, even for the most basic insurance plans. 

As a result, it's essential for expats to negotiate private health insurance as part of their package. If this isn't possible, they may want to consider opening a policy on their own. Western companies have been increasing their presence in the country for a number of years, and are a popular source of insurance for expats. Local providers are another option, although expats should always check whether they are licensed to sell insurance in China, since many are not.

Policies and premiums vary tremendously, and the best option is directly connected to individual circumstances.

Medicines and pharmacies in China

Expats in Chinese cities will have access to the kinds of prescription medicines they're used to, as well as a range of traditional Chinese medicines. Some pharmacists have expertise in both areas and those that do make for a valuable resource. Foreign patients may, however, want to make sure of what they are being instructed to ingest.

Pharmacies are widely available in urban areas and are conveniently organised into different departments. However, most labels are in Chinese, so some assistance from a local friend, colleague or bilingual pharmacist may be necessary.

Health hazards in China

Pollution is a concern in many Chinese cities, and may be an issue for any expats with pre-existing respiratory problems. Expats living in urban areas should make an effort to exercise regularly and use an air purifier at night.

The safety of drinking water in China is another health concern. It's best to avoid drinking tap water and rather consume bottled water.

Emergency services in China

Emergency services in China are provided by the state’s emergency medical services. These are widespread and efficient in urban areas, but are less reliable or absent in rural regions. Ambulances often have a physician on board, but keep a lookout for so-called "black ambulances" – unlicensed, private ambulances that could charge you a fortune.

  • 120 – Ambulance services

  • 119 – Fire department

  • 110 – Public Security Bureau

Education and Schools in China

Expat parents are faced with a difficult decision when choosing a school in China. Language and cultural barriers are two of the biggest considerations they'll have to deal with.

There is a variety of options when it comes to education in China, and expats can send their children to schools in the public, private or international sectors. Homeschooling is another popular choice for expats, as well as some locals.

Known for its rigid, exam-driven public system and an educational philosophy that emphasises results and discipline, China is serious about schooling.

International schools in China

Most expats in China send their children to an international school. In no short supply, these institutions are often the obvious choice for parents that want a smooth and quick transition for their children.

Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou boast the largest concentrations of international schools, but many medium-sized cities will have at least two or three in close proximity. Most follow the International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum or the curriculum from the country they represent. That said, standard coursework often features local culture and many schools teach Mandarin or Cantonese. Classes are usually in English or the primary language of the school's home country.

International schools in China come in different forms and cater to all kinds of students. Admission to these schools is competitive and the most popular often have long waiting lists. Admission can be a long process involving forms, interviews, placement tests and application fees, and it's often best for parents to start corresponding from their home country. One thing that connects all of these schools is the high cost of tuition. Costs at some schools rival international university tuition. Expats moving to China should try to negotiate an education allowance into their package if one isn't already included. 

Public schools in China

Foreigners occasionally choose to send their children to public schools in China, particularly in the early preschool years. Western families are becoming more comfortable with the idea of permanence in the Far East, and some want their children to become as well assimilated as possible.

As is often the case, some state schools in China are better than others. Overall, the best schools offer a high standard of education and, in many cases, are more competitive and more rigorous than the public options in an expat’s home country.

Foreigners who choose this option should be aware that Chinese schools don't have second language programmes. All lessons and coursework are in Chinese, with few concessions made for foreign students. Furthermore, the teaching style tends to centre less around critical thinking and more on teaching by rote.

Private schools in China

Some Chinese private schools are better-funded equivalents of state-sponsored education, while others integrate aspects of international curricula and may offer instruction in English as well as Chinese. Alternative learning schools, such as Montessori and Waldorf, also fall into this category. 

They often boast better infrastructure, state-of-the-art facilities and a larger selection of extra-curricular activities than state alternatives. Tuition costs more than in public schools, but a lot less than international schools.

Private schools in China tend to attract students from diverse but well-to-do backgrounds.

Homeschooling in China

Homeschooling has been growing in popularity among foreigners and locals alike in recent years and larger cities often have homeschooling support groups for parents and students, which provide opportunities for families to interact with one another.

However, homeschooling is frowned upon by the government, and is essentially illegal. Chinese law stipulates that all children are to receive nine years of compulsory education at a registered school. Although the government has not yet fully implemented this law, it has become increasingly vocal about its disapproval of the practice in recent years and has reiterated in numerous statements that homeschooling is not acceptable in the People's Republic.

Expat parents intending to homeschool their children should consider their options carefully.

Transport and Driving in China

Fittingly for a country of its enormity, there is are a variety of options when it comes to transport in China. Expats in the People’s Republic have access to buses, trains, subways, trams and taxis in many cities, and there are also several options for long-distance travel, including high-speed trains, buses and domestic flights.

Walking and cycling are also popular in much of China, being the cheapest and healthiest ways of getting around short distances. Some cities have public bicycle hiring programmes as part of their public transport infrastructure.

Driving in China, on the other hand, is a challenge for most expats and is often characterised by chaos and congestion. It may be a good idea for foreigners to get to know their surroundings through public transport before getting behind the wheel.

Public transport in China

Standards vary from city to city, but the wider network of public transport in China is fairly comprehensive. Its train and long-distance bus services make it possible to travel large distances with relative ease.


The national railway network in China is extensive and covers the entire country. Expansions and improvements are constantly being made to the country’s rail infrastructure, especially with regards to its high-speed trains. Most of China’s infrastructure is owned and administrated by the state-owned China Railway Corporation.

The different types of trains in China operate on different routes and at varying speeds. High-speed trains operate between the major cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen. Expats who have the option to travel by high-speed train should do so as it makes for a more comfortable experience than other trains.

Various travel classes are available on different train services. Long-distance trains generally offer sleeper compartments, allowing passengers to get some rest while travelling. Soft sleepers are most comfortable, followed by hard sleepers, and then there are soft seats and hard seats, the cheapest option.

Tickets can be bought in advance at stations and, because they aren't transferrable, passengers will need to provide proof of ID when travelling by train in China. There are often local railway ticket agencies allowing passengers to purchase tickets in advance, but at a higher cost.

Most railway staff don't speak English, so it may be best for expats to enlist the help of a local acquaintance when buying tickets. Expats should also take note that tickets sell out rapidly during national holidays and festivals such as the Chinese New Year. At these times, it's often worth getting tickets through an agent to avoid long station queues.


Travelling by bus in China is another inexpensive way to get around, although service standards vary widely between relative luxury and incredible discomfort. 

Air-conditioned buses with comfortable seating and onboard entertainment frequently travel from the major cities but could cost more than an equivalent train ride. Rural buses, on the other hand, are likely to be a challenging experience. Personnel rarely speak English, signs are usually in Chinese, buses are poorly maintained and delays are common.

Buying bus tickets in China isn't easy for new arrivals to get the hang of. While the large transport terminals in major cities have dedicated ticket counters, expats may find that at smaller stations destinations are simply shouted out while passengers are directed to the relevant bus and pay while boarding.

Taxis in China

Taxis are readily available in all major cities and are reasonably priced. Rates increase for travelling at night, and finding a taxi during peak hours or bad weather can be difficult.

Taxi drivers in China are usually reluctant to accept tips, as it may be seen as a form of corruption, but there are drivers that will take advantage of foreigners by travelling longer routes. However, even in these instances, the fare difference is minimal. It's always best to use metered taxis – unofficial taxis commonly approach foreigners at airports and tourist attractions and usually overcharge.

Expats should note that even drivers in cities such as Beijing and Shanghai rarely speak English, so it's best to have the destination written down in Chinese.

Domestic air travel in China

Given the country’s size, travellers in a hurry often prefer to take a domestic flight to get to their destination. But because flight delays are common, it may be better for passengers travelling shorter distances to use ground-based transport.

A number of airlines, including Air China, China Southern, China Eastern, Shenzhen Airlines and Shanghai Airlines, operate between the major cities and tourist destinations.

Services from mainland Chinese cities to Hong Kong or Macau are considered international flights and are more expensive than other destinations. It's usually cheaper to fly to or from a nearby city such as Shenzhen and cross the border by land.

Prices for domestic flights within mainland China are set at standard rates, but discounts are often available on the busiest routes. Buying online via a Chinese website or travel agency is generally cheaper than on international channels.

Perhaps unexpectedly, this also means that tickets bought in advance aren't cheaper. Instead, there's usually a lower fare for remaining seats closer to the date of departure. Planes are usually full during peak periods, so it's still best to book well ahead of time in these instances.

Cycling in China

Cycling is a cheap and convenient way of getting around Chinese cities. Thousands of bicycles take to the roads during rush hour, but given the erratic nature of Chinese traffic, cyclists have to ride defensively, so it may be best for inexperienced cyclists to give it some time before attempting to take to the road.

Bicycle theft is common throughout China. Locks are a deterrent more than anything else and it's best to park in designated areas where a guard can look after the bike for a small fee.

Driving in China

Chinese roads are frantic and defensive driving is a necessity. Lanes aren't always adhered to, hooters are constantly used and it sometimes seems like there's no concept of right of way. Congestion can also be severe and parking is often impossible to find. On the other hand, there are some English road signs in major tourist destinations.

International Driving Permits aren't recognised in the People's Republic, so expats wanting to drive in China will need to get a local licence. Even expats who pass the theoretical and practical test for this might want to reconsider taking to the wheel. The safest way of getting around on four wheels is perhaps to rent a car with a driver who understands local driving etiquette.

Keeping in Touch in China

China has a sophisticated communications and telephone infrastructure and keeping in touch with friends and family will be easy. Landline telephone calls are free, and the internet is fast and affordable, but it's essential to know about some of the peculiarities of living in China before making the move.

Internet in China

In major cities such as Beijing, internet access is widely available through home connections, internet cafés and free WiFi at many hotels, airports, restaurants and cafes. 

Home users can choose between 4G connections or DSL connections through one of the three largest internet providers in China, which are Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent. There are plans to have all major cities equipped with 5G connectivity by 2020 and leading Chinese smartphone makers are already starting to release phone models with 5G capabilities.

Anyone can take out an internet subscription by visiting one of a China Mobile, China Telecom or China Unicom outlet. Alternatively, ask a Chinese-speaking colleague to call the provider's office and schedule a home visit. The technician will need to see your passport and Chinese bank card. Installation is generally fast, although the price will depend on the location, broadband speed and the duration of the contract. 

The Great Firewall

Chinese media infrastructure and telecommunications are largely controlled by three state-run enterprises – China Mobile, China Telecom and China Unicom. The result is that censorship is a reality, and expats may not be able to access services that they have taken for granted back home such as Gmail, Skype, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Expats will need to download VPN software if they want to access these sites, and if they'd like to watch streaming services like Netflix or BBC iPlayer.


While Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram might be all the rage in the US, UK and other Western countries, China's most popular instant messaging app is WeChat. It's similar to WhatsApp, but can also be used to make payments. With over 1 billion users, having WeChat app is essential if you want to communicate with other expats in China. Businesses often use it for internal communication too.

Mobile phones in China

China Mobile, China Telecom and China Unicom are also the biggest mobile phone operators in the country. Long-term contracts are a rarity and the majority of new arrivals get a pay-as-you-go package. Applicants will need to supply their passport and visa in order to buy a SIM card.

Some mobile packages are designed for specific cities. For instance, a Beijing SIM card might charge less for calls inside the city. Some packages may also charge for receiving calls, so it is important that expats make sure they understand the package they are applying for.

Landline telephones in China

China’s state telecoms providers are also the main landline telephone providers. Expats who sign up for a DSL connection with one of the three companies may also get a free landline connection, and having a landline and an internet connection installed at the same time is a common practice. Local landline-to-landline calls are usually free.

China's country code is +86. 

English media in China

English-language media in China is easily accessible, if limited. The CCTV news channel provides around the clock coverage in English and is known to be more liberal than most Chinese channels.

There are also several options in print media such as China Daily and China Times, as well as regional newspapers such as Shanghai Daily.

Expats will need a VPN network to be able to access Western newspaper websites. 

Shipping and Removals in China

Expats considering shipping furniture to China should get quotes from several companies and carefully research those organisations that come recommended. Large international companies may have offices in both one's home country and China, while other companies may outsource one end of the shipping process to local companies.

Because many apartments can be rented furnished in China and there are plenty of furniture and appliance shopping options, it may be worth leaving household belongings in storage in one's home country if planning to return.

Shipping times vary depending on where in the world one is shipping from, though most companies will be able to provide an accurate estimated arrival time. Use expat forums and online testimonials to confirm this estimate if feeling sceptical.

Air freight is a popular method and a much faster way to ship smaller cargo, although costs can be much higher than if shipping by sea – air freight is typically billed by weight while sea freight is billed according to the size of the container. That said, some expats prefer to spend a little more on the cost of excess baggage to have their belongings arrive immediately.

It is a good idea to insure any belongings being shipped to China.

Expats should also note that China levies various taxes depending on the type of imported goods. Electrical goods are always taxed, and books, CDs and DVDs may be confiscated by customs, depending on the material.

Be meticulous about making copies and keeping the paperwork that must be completed, as these will be needed when exporting the items from China back to one's home country.

Frequently Asked Questions about China

China is a vast country steeped in history and tradition. Expats will likely need to make many adjustments when moving there, so it's best to gather as much information as possible before the big move. Here are answers to some of the most common questions expats have about moving to China.

Is it worth learning Mandarin? What about Cantonese?

Most of the general population cannot speak English, making a basic Mandarin vocabulary necessary for ordering food, purchasing goods or asking for directions. Mandarin is very different from Western languages in structure, thus it can prove complicated to learn.

The written characters are separate from the spoken language. But if expats work hard to jump this hurdle, learning the language is hugely beneficial for both social reasons and in business settings.

Knowing Mandarin, even the rudiments of the grammar, is a large bonus for employment in any company in China. Cantonese is mostly spoken in Hong Kong, Macau and the Guangdong Province.

How is life in China for female expats?

There can be strong gender stereotypes in China and often it is difficult for women in managerial positions. A bad dating scene for women is usually a popular topic of discussion on expat forums.

Is my internet censored?

The Chinese government stringently and successfully polices internet use. Sites that include subject matter about Falung Gong, the Dalai Lama and even the English word "freedom" are among the many that are censored. That said, most sites are still accessible, including foreign news sites. Illicit sites are often censored as well. This is an ongoing controversy and levels of enforcement and effectiveness change often.

Restrictions on many of the popular Western social networking sites also exist, including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Many expats use VPNs (virtual private networks) to access blocked material, but lately, even these services have been ineffective in circumventing the "iron curtain".

Is China safe?

Most expats report feeling safe in China. While it’s usually safe to walk home at night in major cities, obvious risks and bad neighbourhoods should be avoided. Expats do have to be careful in crowds as they are often the victims of petty crimes such as pickpocketing and scams. The largest danger to expats is food safety, as many people suffer from disease and bacteria resulting from unclean or improperly cooked foods. Pollution is another safety hazard that can affect expats, especially those with underlying respiratory issues.

Articles about China

Banking, Money and Taxes in China

Banking in China is generally very straightforward and various local and international options are available.

The language barrier may present challenges, but many organisations have service options in English. It's also easy to employ the expertise of a translator or enlist a Chinese friend if things become complicated.

Money in China

The official currency of China is the Renminbi (RMB or CNY). It’s often referred to as the Yuan or Kuài, an informal word for money. One renminbi is equal to 100 fen or 10 jiao. 

  • Notes: 1 RMB, 2 RMB, 5 RMB, 10 RMB, 20 RMB, 50 RMB, 100 RMB

  • Coins: 1 jiao, 5 jiao, and 1 RMB

Banking in China

With many local and international banks to choose from, expats have a variety of options when it comes to banking in China. The most popular local banks include Bank of China, the China Construction Bank (CBC), Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) and the Agricultural Bank of China (AgBank), while international offerings include HSBC, Citibank and Standard and Chartered Bank, amongst others.

Some expats, especially those who only plan on staying in China for a short while, prefer offshore accounts, even though these carry hefty transaction fees.

Opening a bank account in China

Opening a bank account in China is relatively hassle-free. Familiar international brands and a number of local institutions are available. Both options have pros and cons, and the best choice depends on individual circumstances.

Many expats prefer using an international bank, especially if they have an existing account with one of these institutions. But international banks require a sizeable minimum balance or maintenance deposit, and ATMs may be limited in certain locations, especially outside large cities.

Expats generally only need their passport and a small amount of currency to open a basic account, although some branches may require a copy of the applicant's visa or proof of residence.

As with many bureaucratic processes in China, the language barrier can present a problem. Information provided by banks is often written in Chinese, and asking for an English translation or enlisting the help of someone who speaks the language may be necessary.

Otherwise, many expats identify a branch where employees can speak English and in close proximity to their home or workplace, and use this outlet for complicated queries.

Certain Chinese banks are well known among expats for their user-friendly and reliable English internet banking systems, chief among these are ICBC and CBC.


Local banks have ample ATMs across the country, while international services may be limited. ATM withdrawal limits are lower than in Europe or the US, so if a large amount of cash needs to be withdrawn it may have to be done over a few days.

Credit cards

Although cash is still a popular means of paying for goods and services, credit cards are widely accepted across China.

Taxes in China

Expats who have lived in the country for between one and five years must pay tax in China based on their local income and on income brought into the country. After five years, residents must pay tax on their worldwide income, although deductions are often applicable if tax is also paid to their home country.

For expats who live in China as well as another country, the total number of days spent inside China is used to determine tax status.

Chinese taxes are calculated on a progressive scale from three to 45 percent. Tax laws often change and keeping up to date is important as the penalties can be harsh.

As in any country, tax laws for expatriates in China can be complex and may be better dealt with through a tax professional. Companies should help new employees register for the tax system and often deduct personal income tax automatically.

Expat Experiences in China

When considering a move to a new city, there is nothing more useful than hearing real-life stories and experiences from other expats who have lived there. We'd love to hear about your expat experiences. Please contact us if you live or have lived in China and would like to share your story.

Melissa is an expat from South Africa who moved to Yiwu in 2018. She currently works as an ESL teacher in an international kindergarten, and is enjoying life in China with her fiancé. Read more about her life as an expat in Yiwu.


Julia is a Scottish expat who moved to China to teach English on her gap year. Read about her experiences as a young expat in the Henan Province, as she describes what she likes and has found challenging in her Expat Arrivals interview about life in China

American expat Greg relocated to China in 2009. In his interview, he shares his incredibly useful insight into life in China, how it compares to back home, and everything in between. Read about his experiences of expat life in Beijing

Rachel is an American expat who moved to China when her husband got a job in the nuclear industry. While she sometimes feels frustrated not being able to work, she’s been able to spend some time learning Mandarin and discovered her inner writer. Read more about her expat life in China.

Rachel - An American expat living in China

Alessandra, an Italian expat living in Beijing, moved to China in 2010 as a trailing spouse along with her child and her husband, who accepted a job offer in the city. Read more about her expat experience in Beijing

Paul, a British expat living in China, moved to Jinan, the capital of China’s eastern Shandong province, to immerse himself in a different culture and learn a new language. Read more about his expat life in Jinan.

Phil Robinson - A British Expat Living in China

Ben, an American expat in Zhuhai, decided to get some experience out in the world before settling into an entry-level job back home. Eight years later he's still living and working in China, and loving it. Read about his experiences living in China.

Georgia, a British expat in Shanghai, fell in love with the city after completing an internship and stayed on. She has made loads of new friends in her time here. Read her advice on the best areas to live, public transport, and meeting people while enjoying expat life in Shanghai.

Jordan, an American expat in Shanghai, is a student who moved to Shanghai with her parents when her dad was relocated by his company. She misses being able to get around easily and having friends close by like it was back home, but loves the fact that there's always something new and exciting to see or do while living in Shanghai.

Jordan an American expat in China

Kara, an American expat in China, is a self-proclaimed member of the kingdom of Geekdom. She moved to the big, bustling metropolis of Beijing with her husband in 2008, and now spends her time writing, blogging, studying to become a pilot and assisting the expat youth associated with a Christian church in Beijing. She shares her expat experience in China

an American expat in China

Paz, an expat in Guangzhou, moved with husband and dual infants in order to spice up life and give her children an international upbringing. She and her husband sold their belongings, jumped on a jet and traded up to a fascinating life abroad. Get her take on expat life in China.

Seth is an American expat living in Guangzhou. His passion is playing basketball at the universities and, with his wife, hanging out with students and helping with English corners in the evenings. Read more about Seth's expat life in Guangzhou.