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What You Need to Know When You’re Moving to Beijing

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Relocating to Beijing

Moving to Beijing is probably the first choice for a considerable number of foreigners coming to live in mainland China. On the one hand, this location evidences the wealth of China’s cultural heritage to tourists and expatriates, but it also demonstrates the disadvantages of living and working in a contemporary Chinese mega-city: crowds, traffic congestions, air pollution, the occasional power shortage, and sometimes extreme weather conditions, with sweltering summers, freezing winters, and sandstorms in spring.

Nonetheless, expat life in the capital of the People’s Republic of China can be a fascinating opportunity. Below, you’ll find a few practical tips for moving to Beijing as an expat.

A Short History of Beijing

After being destroyed by Genghis Khan’s Mongolian army, Beijing was rebuilt in the late 13th century under Kublai Khan, and became the capital of the Great Mongolian Empire. The major enhancement in its status resulted in more people moving to Beijing; many came from the country to the city to work, live, and make a new home for themselves and a better life – much like today, though they were to face many more difficulties at such a feudal time. The 13th century was also the time when the travels of Marco Polo captured the European imagination. In his manuscripts, the Italian merchant described how he met the Great Khan himself.

Meanwhile, after the end of the rather short-lived Yuan Dynasty, many wars, and a lot of destruction, the historical city largely became what is recognized as the old town today. The Ming emperors decided to move to Beijing’s Forbidden City, and representatives from other East Asian nations came to Beijing in order to pay tribute to the influential and powerful regime.

Several centuries later, during the Second Opium War (1856-1860), Anglo-French forces invaded the city. They forced the imperial government to grant the British, French, Russians, and US-Americans the right to establish a permanent diplomatic presence in the previously closed city of Beijing, as well as opening ports and the Yangtze River to international trade, and allowing foreigners to travel within China. Subsequently, the first diplomatic staff members from Western powers started moving to Beijing.

From the late 19th century until the mid-20th century, war was in the air, and the city went through several of them: a nationalist rebellion, revolutionary upheavals, more invasions by foreign powers, and a full-blown civil war. Eventually, it became the capital of contemporary China in 1949.

Ever since then, migrant workers (míngōng), industrial laborers, employees, government officials, and expats have arrived in Beijing in a seemingly endless stream. At last count in 2014, the metropolitan population stood at approximately 21 million inhabitants.

Contemporary Beijing

In Maoist China, living in or even moving to Beijing from abroad was impossible due to the country’s isolationist politics. Even after the beginning of DengXiaoping’s more liberal rule, it was mostly expats from diplomatic circles who were moving to Beijing. They had to live in designated foreigners’ quarters. Today, expats come to Beijing for a variety of reasons.

The universities and colleges in Haidian District attract visiting students, guest lecturers, and English as a Foreign Language teachers. Many foreign-invested enterprises and Chinese companies have a branch office with a permanent representative in Beijing, by which they seek to maintain their ties with Chinese government bureaucracy.

The city also has a flourishing “post-industrial” international business climate, so many new expats moving to Beijing work in finance, real estate, or in science and high-tech start-ups. Last but not least, its status as the home of China’s national institutions means that numerous foreign correspondents report about the latest developments in Chinese politics and in the Chinese economy from Beijing.

Visas and Permits for Expats in Beijing

Visa Requirements

Unless you are a tourist (L visa), an international student (X visa), or on a shorter academic visit/business trip to China (F visa), you probably need a Z visa for Beijing: Only Z visa holders are granted a work permit.

No matter what anybody might tell you: Do not come to China with the intention of taking up gainful employment without a Z visa.

Self-made expats who would like to teach English as a Foreign Language and then travel through China are prone to making this mistake. There’s sometimes misinformation floating about TEFL bulletin boards or spouted by shady recruiting agencies that exploit gullible young globetrotters.

Applying for a Visa 

Usually, your future employer will take care of obtaining an Employment License from the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Labor and Social Security for you. For this purpose, they usually need the following documents:

  • a copy of your passport
  • copies of your educational degree(s) and professional qualifications
  • your CV and professional references
  • proof of a clean criminal record
  • a health certificate from a medical check-up examination

Ask them exactly which documents they require. The copies might have to be officially certified or notarized, and you may have to enclose Chinese translations of some documents.

As soon as the HR staff has been issued your Employment License, they will use it to get you an official invite to China. Once you have received these two documents, you are ready to go to the nearest Chinese Embassy or Consulate. Start your visa application process as soon as possible.

With your new Z visa, you can legally enter China. However, there’s still quite a bit of red tape ahead of you.

Alien Registration and Work Permits

Within 24 hours after your arrival in Beijing, you must register as a foreign national with the local police. If you are staying at a hotel, the administrative staff normally does this for you. Now you can go about getting your Alien Employment Permit.

However, you will first need to get a health certificate! You can get it from the Beijing Entry-Exit Inspection and Quarantine Bureau. Normally, it’s enough to bring along certified translations of your medical records from a previous check-up at home. This includes a chest x-ray and negative testing for HIV and other STDs.

If you are lucky, your employer will settle the Employment Permit for you. Otherwise, you have to make an appointment with the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Labor and Social Security yourself. Generally, you need to bring these papers:

  • Employment License
  • health certificate
  • two copies of your employer’s business license
  • original and copy of your job contract (plus an official Chinese translation)
  • original and copy of your passport
  • completed Employment Registration Form
  • several passport photographs

Residence Permits

Once you have your Employment Permit, you are still short of a proper Residence Permit. Even a Z visa is valid for 30 days only. In this time, you need to exchange it for the one-year Residence Permit. It is basically a visa in anything but name and has to be renewed on a regular basis.

Go to the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau to change the Z visa into a Residence Permit. With this new permit, re-register with the local police to inform them of your changed residence status.

Journalists and Foreign Correspondents

Please note that the application process for a visa, a work permit, and a residence permit may be different if you go to Beijing on a J1 or J2 visa for journalists. Please ask both the nearest Chinese Embassy or Consulate and the Chinese office of your employer for detailed information on the latest requirements for foreign media representatives in China.

Beijing: Residential Areas and Housing

Mapping the City

The municipality of Beijing covers a surface of nearly 17,000 km². It is divided into six urban or inner districts, eight metropolitan or outer districts, and two rural counties. Moreover, Beijing’s denizens measure the distance of any place from the city center by describing its location relative to the concentric ring roads.

It might be confusing for strangers that there is no first ring road at all. It is a purely imaginary line that includes the historical core of Beijing, i.e. the Forbidden City and Tiananmen, the Gate of Heavenly Peace. The 2nd Ring Road circumscribes the city limits of 1949, while Beijing’s urban sprawl is now spilling beyond Ring Road No 6. A 7th Ring Road, official known as the Great Beijing Outer Ring Road, will total almost 1000km in length when (and if) construction is completed in 2017. Mostly, it will connect Beijing to its neighboring provinces.

Residential Areas

According to the most recent official census, in 2010, there were about 92,000 foreign residents living in Beijing. Other sources, however, estimate the number of foreigners in Beijing at closer to 180,000 in 2011/2012, which is actually less than 1% of the city’s population. In comparison, about a third of New York’s residents are foreign, and about a quarter of London’s.

Many expats live somewhere in Chaoyang District. Cháoyángqū covers a large area to the east of the city center, which stretches from the 2nd to the 5th Ring Road. It includes the Central Business District, the embassy area, international schools, the expressway to the international airport,andexpat shopping favorites such asMetro, Carrefour, and IKEA. Within Chaoyang, lots of expatriates settle in the CBD, in Sanlitun, or Wanjing, home to Beijing’s sizable South Korean community.

Shunyi, the district to the northeast of Chaoyang and far beyond the 5th Ring Road, is already quite far from the city center. However, it’s close to the airport, and many expats appreciate it for its quiet, suburban atmosphere and its amenities, like villa complexes, international schools, and shopping malls. International students mainly opt for the Wudaokou neighborhood in Heidian District due to its good public transportation links and proximity to many universities and research institutes.

Expat Housing

Unless they are provided with company housing or went house hunting during a prior fact-finding trip, well-to-do expatriates often stay in hotel suites or serviced apartments for the first few weeks. If you have a financial cushion or a generous allowance, this might be a good opportunity to explore the real estate market in Beijing.

Most restrictions on foreigners freely choosing their own accommodation in Beijing have been lifted, though buying property is still quite difficult. Thus, many expats still find it most convenient to rent a place in developments catering to the international community. Diplomats and journalists often reside in officially designated living quarters anyway.

These residential communities or compounds include high-rise buildings, low-rise apartment blocks, or in the more suburban areas of Chaoyang and Shunyi, free-standing family villas. The great advantages of these residential developments, with mellifluous names such as Dragon Villas, River Garden, Beijing Riviera, or Leman Lake, are their numerous amenities: Many offer on-site English-speaking management staff, security, furnished rooms, facilities for shopping, dining, and sports, and a shuttle service to international schools or nearby transport hubs.

Nowadays, some foreign nationals also move into Beijing’s traditional courtyard houses. However, be aware that the property management staff is unlikely to speak English. The standard of living in such a house will also be more modest than in Western-style properties.

Cost of Accommodation

Expat housing in Beijing may be more expensive than what you expect or are used to. The city didn’t rank 11th in the Mercer International Cost of Living Study 2014 for nothing.

Prices can rise sharply depending on the location, the living standards, and the size of your new place. For instance, a three-bedroom villa in a mid-tier expatriate compound might cost at least 28,000 CNY per month. Also take into consideration that your real estate agent expects a commission of one or two months’ rent.

Alien Registration  

One last reminder: After moving into your new place, don’t forget to re-register with the Beijing police – again! If you previously stayed in a hotel, then the staff will have taken care of this for you beforehand. The building management of an expat compound may also help you with such administrative matters.

As a normal tenant, though, you have to go to the nearest police station within 24 hours of your change of address. Bring along the following:

  • your valid passport and visa
  • your rental agreement
  • your landlord’s proof of ownership

Taking along a bit of patience and a Chinese-speaking friend will also help the process go as smoothly as possible.

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