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A Comprehensive Guide about Living in Beijing

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Life in Beijing

Extreme weather conditions can render Beijing unpleasant on occasion, especially if you are not used to that particular climate. It means coping with cold and windy winters, hot and humid summers, and dust or sand storms from the Mongolian steppe in spring – as well as air year-round pollution.

However, most expats living in Beijing feel comparatively safe in this huge metropolis, with its vast urban sprawl, including six inner and eight metropolitan districts, home to millions of people living almost on top of each other. Violent crime against foreigners does occasionally happen, even in fairly busy, tourist-friendly places and more frequently in popular nightlife districts. Nonetheless, it is rarer in Beijing than in other global cities of a comparable size.

Furthermore, particularly in autumn, when temperatures are moderate and the air is relatively clear (tiāngāo qìshuăng – ‘the sky is high, the air is fresh’, as the Chinese say), life in Beijing is quite pleasant and you have the opportunity to explore this fascinating city.

Famous Sights in Beijing

While the traditional hútòng – Beijing’s narrow alleyways with their courtyard houses – often have to give way to contemporary construction projects, the city still offers its expat and local residents a wealth ofChinese cultural riches. When living in Beijing, make sure you take time for sight-seeing, beyond the obligatory trips to the Forbidden City and the Great Wall.

Highlights from imperial Beijing, like the Temple of Heaven and the Summer Palace, with its landscape gardens, stand in stark contrast to recent edifices from Communist China, such as the “Great Hall of the People” and the Mausoleum of Chairman Mao. Various sites of worship are reminders of the city’s erstwhile religious diversity. While living in Beijing, you will come across countless temples: mostly Buddhist, some Taoist, and one dedicated to Confucianism. You can also visit the oldest Catholic church in Beijing and the largest mosque in the city.

On the Road

Of course, to go sightseeing or to commute to the office, you need to get around in Beijing. Due to the high accident rate and often chaotic traffic conditions in Beijing, driving yourself is not particularly recommended.

Some companies even prohibit their expat employees from taking the wheel while living in Beijing. They fear the likelihood of an accident and the resulting claims for damages. Moreover, at last check in 2014, foreign driver’s licenses, including the International Driving Permit, are not recognized in Beijing or anywhere else in mainland China.

So, living in Beijing, you may prefer using your company car (with driver, of course), your compound’s shuttle bus service, or hail a taxi. Expats can easily recognize licensed taxis by their number plate: It starts with a “B”.

Taxis in Beijing are comparatively cheap (ten yuan for the first three kilometers, then two yuan for every additional kilometer). Just make sure that you have a note with your destination written in Chinese characters, that the meter is running properly, and that you ask the taxi driver for a receipt (fāpiào).

Most expats prefer commuting by taxi for the above-mentioned reasons, especially if they are new in the city and not yet at home with the public transportation infrastructure. However, if living in Beijing has made you more adventurous, you could try taking the bus or the subway as another way of exploring the city.

Public Transport and Education in Beijing

Public Transportation

Buses in Beijing are not usually the preferred mode of transport among foreigners. They often move rather slowly, with a speed of fewer than ten km/h during a bad traffic jam, and most of the signs are in Chinese only. Often, only the name of the bus stop might be transcribed in pīnyīn.

The sheer number of bus lines may also lead to confusion: 1-132 are routes in the city center (within the 3rd ring road); 200-215 are night buses; 300-499 venture past the 3rd ring to the inner suburbs; 500-799 serve both the center and the suburbs; and 800-999 service those commuting to and from the distant suburbs. Altogether, there are just under 900 bus routes in the Beijing metropolitan area.

Even if you don’t want to use overcrowded buses for your daily commute to work, some are useful in your free time: Lines 1 to 8 are more comfortable double-decker buses suitable for sightseeing trips through the inner city.

The Beijing subway system (dìtiĕ), on the other hand, is fast and reliable, albeit still rather crowded, especially during rush hour. The crowds can also attract gropers who sexually harass female passengers.

Every few minutes, there’s a train on all of its 17 lines: 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 13, 14, 15, Batong, Changping, Daxing, Fangshan. Yizhuang, and the Airport Express. However, the subway closes at midnight and doesn’t reopen until after five am. If you don’t know how to use the ticket machine or how to purchase a pre-paid card, the Beijing City Government has a useful online tutorial.

For shorter distances, riding a bike is a viable alternative. However, do avoid the Ring Roads, major thoroughfares, and busy streets without bicycle lanes.

International Schools

For expat children in Beijing, international schools are often a better fit than the Chinese system of education. Older kids in particular would have to surmount a huge language barrier. Moreover, the Chinese curriculum might not provide them with right kind of preparation for international universities in some subjects.

International schools often unite nursery, kindergarten, primary and secondary school under the same roof. They address the needs of all age groups, and they have lots of previous experience with the educational, psychological, and emotional situation of expat kids. These children may suddenly have to change schools in the middle of term or miss their friends back home.

On the downside, international schools are very expensive. Depending on the school and the age of the child, annual tuition fees can amount to tens of thousands of USD per child. On the other hand, many international schools in Beijing offer an outstanding education in a variety of languages, including English and Chinese for non-native speakers. Furthermore, students often leave school with an international university entrance certificate, such as the International Baccalaureate.

In Beijing, there are international schools catering to the American, British, French, German, Japanese, Korean, and Scandinavian expat communities. Your child might also attend a small embassy school or be admitted to any international school, regardless of your family’s nationality.


For obvious reasons, smaller grocery stores mainly stock Chinese brands and food products. However, there are a number of department stores and store chains that sell imported (often Western) food products from abroad. Naturally, these are more expensive than local products. Non-Western imports are often found in residential areas popular among a particular expat community. For instance, there are quite a few Korean shops in Wanjing, Beijing’s “Koreatown”.

“Expat-friendly” shops with several branches across the city include Walmart (Wò’ěrmǎ), Carrefour (Jiālèfú), and Jenny Lou. You can furnish your new place at IKEA Beijing in Chaoyang and go shopping for books in the university district of Haidian. Another tip for literature-loving expats in Beijing is The Bookworm in Nan Sanlitun Road, an English-language bookshop, lending library, bar, restaurant, and event venue.

Unlike Beijing’s smaller shops, where cash remains king, bigger stores accept payments by debit card or credit card. At the so-called Friendship Stores, which target tourists and expats, payment methods are flexible. The products, however, are overpriced, and the service is less than stellar. Nevertheless, the stores are invaluable for purchases such as foreign books, magazines, wine, and food.

Healthcare and Hospitals in Beijing

Health Precautions

Firstly, you should know the importance of good medical insurance for a healthy life in China. The government introduced a general healthcare system for all urban workers and employees in the late 1990s. It has since expanded to include more of the general population, but suffers from some rather critical shortages and inadequacies.

As of October 15, 2011, foreign employees are officially included in the Chinese government’s health insurance plan as well. However, public healthcare does not necessarily meet expat needs. As such, if your employer does not already provide you with coverage, you should either purchase an international health insurance policy or private health insurance from a Chinese insurance provider.

Also, check your embassy’s health tips for more information on diseases common to the Beijing area, and familiarize yourself with their symptoms. At the moment, these include especially hand-foot-mouth-disease among babies and kids, hepatitis, rabies, and the rare case of avian influenza or Japanese encephalitis.

When preparing for a long-term stay in China, get the recommended vaccinations for tetanus-diphtheria-pertussis (DTP), measles-mumps-rubella (MMR), polio, hepatitis A and B, rabies, typhus, and Japanese encephalitis. You should also take a first-aid kit, a supply of prescription medication, and the necessary contraceptiveswith you before leaving for Beijing. Malaria, however, is only an issue in some provinces of southern China. In Beijing, no precautions against malaria or dengue fever are required.

Hospitals and Doctors

If you are looking for a doctor or dentist in Beijing, be aware that it is customary in China to go and see a doctor at a clinic. Your embassy may have a list of hospitals as well as dental clinics with Western standards and medical staff fluent in English or your mother tongue. If your child attends an international school, they often have a small healthcare center or a school nurse who watches out for common children’s illnesses.

Recommended medical care providers include, among others:

  • Raffles Medical (Sanyuanqiao, Suite 105, Wing 1, Kunsha Building, 16 Xinyuanli, Chaoyang District);
  • Elite Dental Clinic (Rm 205, Tower A, Boya International Center, 1 Lize Zhongyi Lu, Wangjing, Chaoyang District); as well as
  • Beijing United Family Hospital (2 Jiangtai Lu, Chaoyang District).

If you have to attend a hospital, you often need to pay for your treatment on the spot; bigger international clinics may accept credit cards or debit cards as a method of payment. Your health insurance provider will reimburse you later. Since private clinics in China can be very expensive, make sure that your healthcare plan really covers the costs or that you have repatriation insurance to return home for a hospital stay, childbirth, etc.

Health Risks and Emergencies

As far as keeping healthy is concerned, both respiratory diseases and diarrhea are common ailments among foreigners living in Beijing. The former is due to the air pollution in the municipal area. To give you an idea of how bad it is, at the time of writing, Beijing had a concentration of fine particles of 460 micrograms per cubic meter, São Paulo 150, Moscow 70, Tokyo 60, London 50, and Sydney 25.

Please check the daily air quality with the US Embassy. If the rating is 100 or higher, little children, elderly people, and patients with respiratory or cardiovascular diseases should take particular care. Data released in 2014 show that in 2013, Beijing experienced 60 days of air pollution (smog) above emergency levels.

To avoid diarrhea, use only bottled mineral water for drinking, brushing your teeth, and doing the dishes. Boiled, filtered, and disinfected tap water might also do. Make liberal use of soap, disinfectant, and paper towels as well, and wash your hands as often as possible.

In case of emergency, call 110 (police), 119 (fire), 120 (ambulance), or 122 (traffic police). If your health insurance plan covers treatment at an international private clinic, you can also phone their alarm center or emergency department directly. Just in case, ask at your embassy for an emergency form with Chinese translations of important stock phrases useful in such situations, e.g. “Qing Bang Bang Wo!” – pronounced Ching Bang Bang Woh – means “please help me!”

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