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  • David Thyne

    At the first Shanghai Get-Together I met several American expats. I am very grateful that they shared their experience with me.

Most people don’t know much about daily life in China, let alone what it is like to live there as an expat. Learning about life in this country of almost 1.4 billion people can feel overwhelming. How can you live somewhere you can’t read the signs or speak to locals?

Culture shock is a huge drawback for many expats. If knowledgeable guidance is not available to help them adapt with ease, they might return after a few months. Read this guide to feel more prepared for your move. Whether you plan to live in one of the “Big Four” tier one cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, or Guangzhou, or elsewhere, it covers the practicalities you need to know. Learn about emergency numbers, as well as information about public transportation and the risks of driving in China on a foreign license (note: you cannot do this). We begin with the pros and cons of living in China that you should consider.

Please note that this guide talks about Mainland China. If you are interested in living in Hong Kong or Taiwan, please read our guides for these cities.

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Pros and Cons of Living in China

Not everyone can cope with the difficulties of living in China. It is important to do your research and consider the pros and cons before you move there. There are many benefits to living in this country, especially that expats often earn a good wage and can explore Asia with ease. However, living in a culture so utterly different to your own, and in a country where the internet is restricted, can cause misunderstanding and frustration.


  • Great Standard of Living. Expats earn good wages in China. While the era of all-encompassing job perks for mid-level workers is over, foreign employees will have a comfortable standard of living and disposable income.
  • Easily explore Asia. If you live in a medium-to-large Chinese city, you can access cheap flights across Asia year-round. You can even fly to Thailand or Japan for the weekend.
  • Immersive experience of a different culture. While there are many similarities between China and the rest of the world, it stands alone in many aspects. Adventurous expats will love being totally immersed in Chinese culture. Learn more in our culture and social etiquette section.
  • Learn a new language. You will learn at least basic Mandarin reading and listening skills, as many Chinese citizens do not speak English.
  • A safe place to live. China is a relatively safe place for expats to live, even if you do not speak Mandarin. Violent crime against foreigners is well-publicized but rare.


  • The visa process can be confusing. It takes at least three months and a large amount of documentation before your short-term work visa is granted. Plus, everything is conducted in Mandarin.
  • China is difficult to navigate alone. If you do not speak or read Mandarin, you need to make local friends who can help you settle in. Advice from people who have experienced your troubles, in groups such as InterNations, is also useful.
  • Feeling like an outsider. Although Chinese society is welcoming and Chinese people are friendly to foreigners, regularly failing to understand the culture or language can make you feel isolated. 
  • Poor internet connection. Chinese internet restricts access to Western social media and websites, including Google. While you get used to the internet going down without explanation, the restrictions are a constant frustration.
  • Sending money home is hard. It is difficult to send money to bank accounts outside of China. The easiest way is for a Chinese friend to transfer money to your foreign bank account via the Alipay app. Learn more about setting up a Chinese bank account in our Banks and Taxes guide.

Practical Information

Money and Payments

Chinese currency is called Renminbi, which literally translates to “people’s currency.” It is referred to internationally as Chinese Yuan (pronounced “you-an”). This means that the currency code is RMB inside China and CNY outside the country. When you are in China, you may also hear yuan being referred to as “kuai” (pronounced “kwai”).

China is an increasingly cashless society. It is useful to carry 200 yuan (30 USD) for emergencies, but most goods are paid for by scanning a QR code using WeChat and Alipay mobile apps. It may shock you that panhandlers and people selling small items on the street will ask you to scan their QR codes, rather than accept cash. You need a Chinese bank account to use these apps. See our Banks and Taxes in China guide for more details.

Emergency Numbers

Police 110 Fire 119 Ambulance 120 Traffic Accident 122

Emergency operators should speak English or find someone who can. However, be prepared to say your location in Chinese. Please note that, depending on the nature of your emergency, it may be quicker and easier to take a taxi to hospital than to call an ambulance.

China’s dialing code is +86.

Public Holidays

1st January New Years’ Day Mid-January to mid-February (3 days, varies each year) Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) 4th, 5th, or 6th April (1 day, varies each year) Qingming Festival (Tomb Sweeping Day) 1st May Labour Day holiday Late May or June (1 day, varies each year) Dragon Boat Festival September (1 day, varies each year) Mid-Autumn Festival 1st October (followed by 2nd-7th October) National Day (turning to Golden Week)

Foreign employees working in companies that do business with the West may receive Christmas day off, but this entirely up to the company.

Be warned: Traveling in China during public holidays can be unpleasant. Public transportation and flights become more expensive during this time. Tickets are sold out months in advance and tourist spots are extremely crowded. Foreigners often prefer to fly to nearby countries or return home for the week.

Make Up Days

If national holidays fall during the week, companies will often give employees the rest of the week off. In this case, the employee will be expected to make up the time at work on a Sunday.

For example, the government gives three days of national holiday for the Spring Festival. Companies will extend this so that employees have a full week (5 working days) off work. It is then mandatory that you work the Sunday before and after the festival, to make up for the two extra days holiday.

Holidays for Individuals

Certain groups of people receive special holidays. These include:

8th March International Women’s Day: women can get half a day holiday from work (at your company’s discretion) 4th May Youth Day: Youths age 14 and above get half a day off 1st June Children’s Day: Children under the age of 14 get a day off 1st August Army Day: Active military get half a day off

Other holidays are celebrated without a day off, such as Teacher’s Day (10th September).

Main Embassies

If your country has an embassy in China, it is located in Beijing. Many consulates are available across the country. For example, though the main British embassy is in Beijing, you can visit British consulates in Chongqing, Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Wuhan.

  • United States Embassy: 55 An Jia Lou Lu, 100600 Beijing
  • Canadian Embassy: 19 Dongzhimenwai Dajie, Chaoyang District, 100600 Beijing
  • British Embassy: 11 Guang Hua Lu, Jian Guo Men Wai, 100600 Beijing
  • German Embassy: 17 Dongzhimenwai Dajie, Chaoyang District, 100600 Beijing 
  • French Embassy: 60 Tianze Lu, 100600 Beijing

Main Airports

There are over 230 airports in China and the number is growing. Many cities in China have their own airports and even their own airline.

The biggest international airports in the country are:

  • Beijing Capital International Airport (PEK)
  • Shanghai Pudong International Airport (PVG)
  • Shenzhen Bao’an International Airport (SZX)
  • Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport (CAN)
  • Chengdu Shuangliu International Airport (CTU)

International flights to more remote areas in China will have a layover in one of these airports.

Culture and Social Etiquette

China has a history steeped in culture and traditions that stretch back 5,000 years. While it isn’t so obvious in cities full of skyscrapers and the latest technology, traditions and customs play an important part in business and daily life. What is interesting for most expats is the ways these customs have been adapted into modern Chinese society.

Do’s and Don’ts

China is often painted as a society with a strict societal code. This is not always the case, and you may find that customs Chinese citizens follow to don’t apply to foreigners. There are certain concepts you should bear in mind, however.

  • Do try to speak Mandarin or a local Chinese dialect. Saying nihao (“hello”) and smiling goes a long way. Asking ni chi fan le ma (literally translated as “have you eaten?”, a caring and personal way to greet someone) will endear you to friends.
  • Do buy small gifts for friends, to show that you are thinking of them. It’s common to regularly buy little gifts for friends, such as fruit, snacks, or beauty products. If you visit a friend or their parents’ home, a small gift is appreciated.
  • Do not discuss politics, particularly among colleagues or whilst drinking. Chinese people are reluctant to discuss politics. The state may get involved if you talk openly about politically contentious issues. 
  • Do not generalize people’s experiences. China is incredibly diverse. Someone from Guangdong will likely not have the same heritage, cultural and life experience, or even taste in food as someone from Hubei.


WeChat is everything social in China. This app is the equivalent of WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, PayPal, and more. Contact friends, send queries to co-workers, post updates about your life, find a new apartment, pay bills, order train and flight tickets—if you can think of it, WeChat is capable of it. You will get used to adding people as contacts immediately and will soon wonder how you used to stay in touch with people back home.


Similar to WhatsApp, you can create and join groups on WeChat. This is important for networking, creating friends, and for finding out important information. For instance, English translations of Chinese newspaper reports, natural disaster warnings, and so on, are found in groups.

You can also join specific groups for hobbies within your city, to advertise your business, and to find out about social gatherings. Ask your contacts to add you into groups they think are relevant to your interests.

WeChat Etiquette

  • Ask someone if they are free to talk before you call them.
  • Only post pictures and status updates that you do not mind everyone viewing, including your boss and co-workers.
  • Feel free to ask anyone for their WeChat. An important networking skill, it is perfectly fine to ask to scan a person’s QR code at the start of a conversation.
  • Most businesspeople type in Chinese or English. If you struggle to type or read Chinese, the translate feature helps you speak to others in the language you feel most comfortable in. Write in clear sentences that are easy to translate (i.e., do not write slang).
  • Stickers are common on WeChat, even among business contacts. Always ask a close friend what the Chinese characters on a sticker mean, or the general concept behind the image. It is all too easy to send a sticker that has a rude message by accident.


Chinese food is legendary (or infamous) across the world. It involves many ingredients, animal parts, and recipes not widely used in other cuisines, not all of it pleasant to foreigners. Ever heard of stinky tofu? You will as soon as you step foot in China—and you will always remember the first time you smelled it.

There are two things to note here. First, it is worth trying new dishes as most are delicious. Second, people may not explain exactly what you are eating. You will often receive answers like “pig” or “cow” when asking what meat (and what part of the animal) you are about to consume.

Dining Etiquette

  • Meals are shared in China. Usually, you order a few different dishes that are placed in the middle of the table to be shared.
  • Use chopsticks. The only option in some restaurants, and an easy and pleasant way to eat Chinese dishes.
  • “I’ll get this one!” Chinese people, and men in particular, will often offer to pay for the bill. You can offer to pay for your share but do not press the issue. Instead, make sure you pay next time you eat together.
  • Drinking is encouraged. You can say no to drinking alcohol at your meal, especially strong drinks such as Baijiu (a traditional Chinese distilled spirit). However, it is common to buy big bottles of beer to share between everyone. Try not to get into drinking contests—the people challenging you are probably well-practiced at out-drinking foreigners.


Chinese dishes can be spicy, and locals ask foreigners if they enjoy spicy food before going for a meal. Foreigners are not expected to be able to eat spicy food, so do not hesitate to say “no” or “just a little bit.” Be aware that food from Sichuan province is particularly spicy. Sichuanese recipes often use Sichuan pepper, which makes your tongue feel numb.

Dietary Restrictions

While you will find food for different diets in tier one (and many tier two) cities, including vegan and vegetarian food, you should make it clear to chefs and waiting staff if you don’t eat a certain type of food. The easiest way to do this is to state clearly all of the food that you cannot eat or have a written list to show wait staff. In particular, pork is not thought of in the same way as other meat; a “vegetarian” ramen might be cooked in a pork broth, and pork may be in your fried rice even when you ask for no meat.


The best way to avoid reactions to is to carry around a card that explains in Mandarin exactly what you are allergic to, and the effect on your body if you eat it. Include everything you are allergic to: If you are allergic to peanuts, for instance, peanut oils must be stated on the list. Generally, people will be careful and do everything they can to help you.


If you and your friends are bored, there is only one place to go: Karaoke (known as KTV). In KTV clubs, you pay for a room and sing karaoke until the early hours of the morning. There are supermarkets in the clubs where you buy alcohol and snacks. It is an essential expat experience but be aware that some have a sordid reputation and are best avoided.


Each Chinese festival has its own customs and traditions that differ depending where in China you are living. In general, you can expect the following.

Spring Festival

The most important week in the Chinese calendar, Spring Festival involves one of the largest modern migrations as people return to their hometowns. If you are lucky enough to experience this festival with Chinese hosts, expect to eat lots of food and drink lots of red wine and baijiu.

Try to watch the annual New Years’ Eve celebrations, broadcast on state TV. Dancers, comedians, and Chinese citizens take part in this celebration, which blends traditional Chinese customs (like dragon dances) with modern performance. Many cities also host displays of lantern art. A good place to explore is the old Chinese capital Xi’an, whose city walls are lit with colorful lantern displays.

Dragon Boat Festival

Whilst few cities celebrate with traditional boat races, it is common to receive (and give) gifts of zongzi (st■ rice wrapped in bamboo leaves) during this festival. Zongzi fillings vary across China.

Mid-Autumn Festival

A harvest celebration, this festival is celebrated by setting off lanterns and eating mooncakes (pastries filled with a paste usually made from lotus or mung beans). Expensive mooncakes contain salted egg yolk, and Starbucks and Haagen-Dazs have their own famous versions.

Backhanded Compliments

Chinese people show they care by getting personal. You will discuss your marital status, paycheck, and family situation, and prepare to hear that you have put on, or should try to lose, weight. If you are over the age of 25, you will also regularly be asked if you have a spouse. If not, why not? These questions show interest in your health and happiness.

Connect with like-minded expatriates

Discover our welcoming community of expats! You’ll find many ways to network, socialize, and make new friends. Attend online and in-person events that bring global minds together.

Driving in China

Cheap taxis and public transportation mean that not many foreigners try driving in China. If you are brave enough to take on fast paced, gigantic roads, this section explains everything you need to know.

Driving in China with a Foreign License

China does not accept foreign or international driver’s licenses, whether you have a US, UK, or European license. Expats staying long-term must apply for a Chinese driver’s license.

How to Get a Driving License in China

The legal driving age in China is 18. Head to your nearest Department of Motor Vehicle Administration with the following documents:

  • A filled-out application form;
  • ID document(s), including visa and entry stamps, plus copies;
  • Foreign driving permit with copies and certified Chinese translations;
  • Health certificate;
  • Passport photos;
  • Money for fees—each test costs around 50 CNY (7 USD).

Note that the exact application requirements may vary depending on where in China you apply. In most cases, holders of a valid foreign driver’s license only need to take a theory test.

In bigger cities, translations of the test are available in a number of languages, including English. If a translation isn’t available, you can usually bring a translator with you. You need to score 90% to pass the theory test. Driving schools specialized in helping foreigners are available in large cities.

Taking Your Test in China

Learning to drive in China involves taking driving lessons, then passing two theory and two practical tests. Costs total around 8,000 CNY (1,120 USD) depending on the city you are based in, how many lessons you take, and how fluent your instructor is in your preferred language.

Your license is valid for 6 years.

Rules for Driving in China

Common rules you need to know include:

  • Drive on the right-hand side of the road.
  • Don’t use your mobile while driving.
  • Seatbelts (or safety helmets for motorcyclists) must be worn at all times.
  • Don’t drive in bus or cycle lanes.
  • Make way for pedestrians.

Chinese citizens do not always abide by these rules. Don’t follow suit, even if you feel comfortable after a few years of driving. Arguments about bad driving get heated.

Reading Road Signs

Road signs might be in English as well as Mandarin. However, signs may not be a direct translation but “pinyin,” the Roman alphabet version of Mandarin. For example, “East Road” may be written in Chinese characters on the road sign, with “Dong Lu” (the pinyin for these characters) underneath. There will be no direct English translation; e.g. “East Road” would not be written anywhere on the sign. You will therefore need to understand what the pinyin could mean.

Drink Driving

Do not drink and drive in China. Anyone whose blood alcohol level is found to be 0.2-0-8% can be fined and have their license suspended for six months. The maximum blood alcohol level is 0.8%. Anyone testing above this is committing a criminal offence and can lose their permit for at least 5 years.

If you are involved in an accident and have been drinking, you are likely to have to assume the responsibility for the accident, even if it was not directly your fault.

Speed Limits

Expressways are very well-maintained, with a general speed limit of 120 km/h (74 mph). Traffic signs are typically in English and Mandarin.

Express Routes are usually found in cities with a speed limit of 100 km/h (62 mph).

National Highways have a speed limit of 40 km/h (24 mph) in a city and 80 km/h (49 mph) outside of a city.

City Roads and Provincial/Country Highways are often only one lane per direction with speed limits ranging between 30–70 km/h (18-43 mph).


To help finance the continuous expansion of the Chinese road network, a toll is charged on the majority of expressways, express routes, and many national highways. Tolls on major road routes are stopped during extended national holidays, such as Spring Festival.


It is an unwritten law that accidents are the fault of the bigger vehicle, even if fault is admitted on both sides. If you cause injury to another person, you may need to pay for their hospital fees and cover their wages while they are recovering. If someone in the accident dies, there will be a criminal investigation.

Keeping calm is important. A foreigner losing their temper with another driver is not perceived favorably.

How to Handle an Accident 

In case of an accident, do not leave the scene or move anything. If helping an injured person disturbs the scene, make sure to mark any changes.

Call 122 to speak to the traffic and accident branch of police. If no one was hurt and all parties involved agree on fault and compensation, you are not required by law to call the police.

It is useful to keep your passport, a copy of your residence permit, and other relevant driving documentation on you at all times when driving. If you do crash, you should take pictures of the scene and get contact details and accident statements in writing. Speak to your insurance company for further directions.

Renting a Car

The most economic option for expats in China is driving a rental car. It is expensive to import and buy cars one. Some luxury cars cost double the price in China than in the US thanks to high taxes and companies charging a higher premium.

You can rent a car if you have a Chinese driver’s license and are over the age of 18. Well-known car rental companies that operate in China include:

  • Avis
  • Europcar
  • Hertz

Cycling in China

Katie Melua once sang that there were “nine-million bicycles in Beijing.” True or not, this number sticks with visitors to the capital who see the huge number of bikes and cycle highways around the city. In busy, built up cities, like Shenzhen, you are as likely to see a pile of used and broken bikes at the side of the road as you are to see people cycling.

Foreigners can rent public bikes using Alipay. When you stop using the bike, make sure it is left in a secure location and that it is locked. If you do not do this, others can use the bike and run up a big rental bill in your name.

Is Cycling Dangerous in China?

Cycling is safe as long as you are aware of what is happening around you. Cars do not usually give way to cyclists, and drivers can occasionally veer into cycle lanes.

Similarly, there are a large number of people in the street who can stop dead to check something on their phone or suddenly walk in a different direction. You become used to this flow, but make sure that you are careful when cycling not to hit anyone (or be hit into).

Always check your brakes before you cycle and make sure that your tires are inflated.

Public Transportation in China

The quality and reach of public transportation in China changes based on the area. Different cities have different systems; for example, in the “big four” of Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou, you pay electronically for your tickets at the gate via WeChat.

There is no need to worry about how the public transportation is in general. It is easy to navigate the country. Buses and trains can take you a few blocks away from your home, and also to a totally different province—though some routes involve two full days of traveling. Learn more about how much it costs to take different types of public transport, including buses, trains, and taxis, in our Living Costs in China guide.


If you stick to public transportation in China, basic knowledge of Chinese characters and pronunciation helps. Saying where you want to go and reading station maps are key to a successful journey. Downloading Baidu Maps—China’s equivalent of Google Maps—is a great way to get from A to B and to pick up some basic Mandarin as you navigate.

Urban Railway Systems

China’s urban rail transit systems include metro, light rail, trams, and even monorail. All major cities have extensive underground networks. In Shenzhen, the metro can take you to the border with Hong Kong, or to the ferry port to visit Macau. In some larger cities, like Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen, you have to put your bag through a scanner (like in an airport) before you are allowed to go to the platform.

You are not permitted to eat or drink in most metro systems across China. Guards patrol the networks and you can be fined.

Local Bus Networks

City buses are a popular (and therefore busy and crowded) form of transport, with extensive networks and inexpensive fares. Buses can be significantly delayed during rush hour. In the heat of summer, they also feel stifling.

Information about routes and times is typically listed at bus stops in Mandarin. If you do not read characters, write your destination down so you can ask for assistance. Locals are often willing to help you figure out where you are going.

In many cities, there are two types of buses: Normal and express. Express buses make fewer stops and are more expensive. There are also private buses that follow public bus routes but are typically smaller and less crowded.


Costing around 2–3 CNY (0.3-0.4 USD) per kilometer, cabs are relatively cheap in China. Make sure your driver switches the meter on. Non-Chinese speakers should also have their destination written down in simplified characters, as few drivers understand English.

If you want to hire a taxi for half or a whole day, negotiate the price beforehand. Depending on the distance, you can expect to pay around 300–500 CNY (40-70 USD) a day.

Alternatively, you can hire a car with a driver. International rental providers, such as Avis, and local companies offer these services.

Ride Hailing Apps

Didi is the ride hailing app of choice in China. Uber is not available in the country.

Didi is cheap, but you have to speak and understand Mandarin or the local dialect of your city. Taxi drivers will often call you to find out where you are, or to tell you they are outside. Hailing down taxis can be easier for foreigners but will cost slightly more money.

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