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Your Expat Budget for China

For expats, the cost of living in China can vary wildly. On the one hand, it’s easy to "go local" and make do with a tight budget. On the other hand, most shops, services, or housing options aimed at the expat market are on the expensive side. Our guide provides helpful budgeting advice.
Plenty of expat apartments in China come fully furnished for you to feel at home right away.

You’ve already found a place to live after relocating to China? Congratulations! However, if you can’t afford a fancy, fully-furnished, all-inclusive apartment in an expat neighborhood, there are a few more things to budget for.

Furniture and Household Equipment

You’ll need to buy some furniture and household appliances first. The cheapest way of furnishing your apartment starts with checking the classifieds sections in local expat media. Lots of people who are preparing to leave China will sell their used wardrobe or fridge for a fair price.

If you prefer new furniture, it might be good to know that IKEA has expanded to China’s major cities, too. You can purchase a cheap bedframe for 400 CNY, a mattress for 1,000 CNY, or a basic cookware set for 50 CNY.

With household appliances and consumer electronics, it’s probably better to avoid brand names and imported items. These are often more expensive than abroad. If you go to the nearest regular department store (rather than an upscale shopping mall) and choose a washing machine or smartphone produced for the Chinese market, prices will seem pretty reasonable, though.

Phone and Internet

Domestic phone calls on the landline tend to come pretty cheap, too, for as little as 30 CNY per month. You usually pay extra for a monthly flat rate tariff at Chinese-style housing, whereas the phone bill is often included in the rent for expat apartments.

Internet access – uncapped, without a set data limit – requires spending up to another 150 CNY per month. For your mobile communication needs, you can buy a local cell phone from a Chinese GSM carrier.

It comes either with a pre-paid card and a minimum amount of 100 CNY, or you can choose a cell phone plan according to your personal specifications, e.g. 60 CNY for several hours of voice calls, 0.1 CNY per text message, etc.

Domestic Staff

Last but not least, you may suddenly be able to afford household help in China. Lots of families – expats and Chinese residents alike – employ an ayi to clean, cook, or look after their children. But not everyone might be able to afford a skilled full-time ayi who takes care of the kids. In Beijing, such a housekeeper/nanny gets a salary of around 5,000 CNY a month.

However, it’s easy to hire someone who comes in once a week and helps you keep the clutter and chaos at bay. In Shanghai, current hourly wages for an ayi are 20-25 CNY. In times of high demand (e.g. during the Chinese New Year when many ayis go on leave to see their families), wages rise to 25-30 CNY an hour.

Healthcare

Healthcare expenses are another non-negotiable part of your expat budget. Just like rental costs, they can be pretty steep. There’s a sharp divide between public healthcare facilities in China and private clinics that cater to foreign patients and China’s more affluent citizens.

If you consult a doctor at a private hospital, you won’t have to deal with the language barrier, culture shock, or the long queues and lack of privacy. However, for a consultation with a specialist or a routine dental check-up, you’ll pay about 600 CNY. This doesn’t include any follow-up tests or further treatment. Paying these costs out of your own pocket isn’t something you want to be saddled with in case of an accident or prolonged illness. 

Most expats thus take out private medical insurance from an international provider, but that can be expensive, too. It’s difficult to cite an exact quote here: it depends on your age, overall health, and pre-existing conditions, as well as the insurance company and kind of plan (basic vs. premium) you choose.

However, even if you decide to do without extra spending on dental care or outpatient treatment, you should make sure your plan covers emergency evacuation and repatriation costs. Chinese ambulances are notoriously unreliable, so having a private transportation option may be a literal life-saver. And if you should end up falling seriously ill or needing major surgery, you might feel more comfortable to return home early.

Education

Unfortunately, education for expat kids is far from being a bargain, and here it’s very hard to stint on expenses. Due to the language barrier, private international schools (where the language in the classroom is English or another foreign language) are the only option for families who don’t want to settle down in China. If one parent is Chinese and the child is bilingual anyway, it’s a different matter.

Private education comes at a hefty price. For example, the Shanghai American School requires between 148,000 CNY and 226,000 CNY in annual tuition fees, depending on the student’s age. For the British North Anglia School of Guangzhou, you should budget between 125,000 CNY and 195,000 CNY per year.

The German School of Beijing is pretty low-cost in comparison: their annual tuition fee is up to 10,800 EUR (less than 75,000 CNY) per year, a 2,600 EUR admission fee and 130 EUR membership fee not included. Please be aware that most international schools charge extra for their school bus service, extracurricular activities, after-school care, or lunch. You need to consider these additional costs as well.

In this case, it’s highly recommended to check with your employer if they are willing to meet at least part of the education-related expenses. Otherwise, it could be difficult to make ends meet.

 

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