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Living in China

What You Should Know About Living Costs and More in China

From its 56 different ethnic groups to its 300 dialects, China is a vast and diverse land steeped in tradition and customs. Learn about culture and religion with our China country facts as well as picking up practical tips on transport, the cost of living, and social etiquette in China.

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While most expats head to one of the five big metropolises of China – Beijing, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Shenzhen, or, Tianjin, the so-called Tier One cities, the cost of living there can be expensive. As well as housing, you’ll need to budget for other practicalities such as private medical insurance and perhaps international schooling.

Luckily, public transportation is cheap, making it a great alternative to the often chaotic experience of driving in China.

Perhaps the most costly thing in China is losing your reputation. Take a look at our social etiquette section to understand the essential concept of losing and giving face.

Practical Information


Chinese currency is now called Renminbi which literally translates to “people’s currency”. In international settings, it is still referred to as Chinese yuan, as yuan is the basic unit of Renminbi. The currency code is CNY outside the country and RMB inside.

Emergency Numbers

China’s country code for phones is +86 for landlines and +861 for mobile phones. The emergency numbers are:

  • 110 – Police
  • 119 – Firefighters
  • 120 – Ambulance
  • 122 – Traffic accident

Power and Voltage

The standard voltage for plug sockets in China is 220V. The plugs are either Type A (two blade plug, common in the US and Canada) or Type I (three blade plug, common in Australia).

Main Embassies

As China is a vast country that is very prominent in today’s world as an economic and political power, many countries have their delegates there that handle the official communication with the country. The main embassies are all situated in Beijing. However, many countries also have one or more consulates in other major cities in China, like Guangzhou and Shanghai.

You can contact the embassy of your home country if you need any information regarding immigration and working in China. The embassies are also able to help you in case of an emergency.

Main Airports

China has over 200 airports scattered all over the country and every year that number is growing. The smaller airports cater mainly to inland travels, while the big international ones can overwhelm you with destination options.

Top 5 biggest airports of the country are located in the biggest cities:

Chinese Festivals and Holidays You Need to Know

Eleven days are celebrated as public holidaysin the People’s Republic of China and employees don’t have to work on these days. These holidays are:

  • New Year’s Day (1 January);
  • The Spring Festival (Chinese New Year celebrated during the first lunar month);
  • Tomb-Sweeping Day (4 or 5 of April)
  • Labor Day (1 May);
  • The Dragon Boat Festival (the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, usually in May-June);
  • The Mid-Autumn Festival (15th day of the 8th lunar month (usually in September);
  • National Day (1–3 October).

The Chinese government decides on the schedule for the next year’s public holidays in December of the preceding year. If possible, public holidays are usually scheduled before or after weekends to create long weekends.

In addition to the eleven official public holidays where all employees have paid time off, there are a few days reserved for certain groups of people. These are:

  • Women’s Day (8 March): women can take off half a day
  • Youth Day: youths above 14 years of age enjoy a half day off
  • Anniversary of the Founding of the People’s Liberation Army (1 August): active military get a half day off

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Cost of Living

In general, the average cost of living in China is low. It is not an expensive country to live in, especially compared to most of the Western world. However, the living expenses vary depending on where in China you live.

The most expensive cities in China are

  • Shanghai
  • Beijing
  • Shenzhen
  • Guangzhou
  • Chengdu

Some of the cheaper cities are located in more rural provinces of China:

  • Langfang
  • Chengde
  • Qinhuangdao
  • Zhangjiakou
  • Chifeng

Cost of Living in China Compared to the Rest of the World

Average Prices in China Compared to Canada
Commodity Price in China Price in Canada
Rent (one-bedroom apartment) 3,500 CNY/700 CAD 6,000 CNY/1,200 CAD
Utilities (electricity, water, heating) 350 CNY/70 CAD 750 CNY/150 CAD
Monthly transportation pass 120 CNY/25 CAD 400 CNY/95 CAD
A meal at an inexpensive restaurant 25 CNY/5 CAD 75 CNY/15 CAD
1kg of rice 7 CNY/1.3 CAD 20 CNY/4 CAD
1kg of apples 10 CNY/2 CAD 20 CNY/4 CAD
A dozen of eggs 10 CNY/2 CAD 17.5 CNY/3.5 CAD
Bottle of wine 70 CNY/ 13 CAD 75 CNY/15 CAD

Chinese prices are comparable to Eastern Europe. However, when it comes to the Western side of the continent the differences between the average cost of living is more noticeable.

Average Prices in China Compared to the UK
Commodity Price in China Price in the UK
Rent (one-bedroom apartment) 3,500 CNY/400 GBP 6,200 CNY/700 GBP
Utilities (electricity, water, heating) 350 CNY/40 GBP 1250 CNY/140 GBP
Monthly transportation pass 120 CNY/14 GBP 530 CNY/60 GBP
A meal at an inexpensive restaurant 25 CNY/3 GBP 105 CNY/12 GBP
1kg of rice 7 CNY/0.8 GBP 12 CNY/1.3 GBP
1kg of apples 10 CNY/1 GBP 16 CNY/1.8 GBP
A dozen of eggs 10 CNY/1 GBP 17.5 CNY/2 GBP
Bottle of wine 70 CNY/8 GBP 60 CNY/7 GBP
Average Prices in China Compared to Australia
Commodity Price in China Price in Australia
Rent (one-bedroom apartment) 3,500 CNY/730 AUD 8,200 CNY/1,700 AUD
Utilities (electricity, water, heating) 350 CNY/73 AUD 950 CNY/200 AUD
Monthly transportation pass 120 CNY/25 AUD 700 CNY/145 AUD
A meal at an inexpensive restaurant 25 CNY/5 AUD 90 CNY/18 AUD
1kg of rice 7 CNY/1.5 AUD 12 CNY/2.5 AUD
1kg of apples 10 CNY/2 AUD 19.5 CNY/4 AUD
A dozen of eggs 10 CNY/2 AUD 19.5 CNY/4 AUD
Bottle of wine 70 CNY/15 AUD 70 CNY/15 AUD
Monthly cost of living in China’s major cities compared to other big cities around the world (single person; includes rent, utilities, food, and additional expenses) 
Shanghai 11,000 CNY
Beijing 10,000 CNY
Shenzhen 8,000 CNY
Berlin 12,000 CNY
New York 26,000 CNY
Paris 16,000 CNY
Sydney 19,000 CNY
Tokyo 14,500 CNY
Toronto 17,000 CNY

Food and Alcohol Prices in China

When it comes to groceries, China offers a wide variety of possibilities. You can go to the local market for fresh produce or choose one of the Chinese or international big chain supermarkets where you will be able to find plenty of world-known brand items. Whatever option you choose, the grocery prices shouldn’t get too high, with milk, bread, and a dozen of eggs averaging around 11 CNY each, and a kilo of tomatoes or potatoes being about 6 CNY each.

Alcohol isn’t too expensive either. A bottle of imported beer at a grocery store can cost you around 15 CNY, and wine is around 20-50 CNY.

Eating out is also affordable. In cheaper places, a full meal for two will cost you about 40 CNY, while costs fora three-course meal at a fancy restaurant can range about 150 to 200 CNY. Note that tipping is not common in China and you are not expected to do so.

Housing Costs in China

If you choose expat housing as your accommodation of choice, you’ll see that the rent prices for those aren’t exactly cheap. For example, a fully furnished 70m² apartment in a fashionable Sanlitun area in Beijing, equipped with one bedroom, one bathroom, and a built-in kitchen, will set you back about 16,500-18,000 CNY per month.

For a large family apartment near the American School of Beijing, you need to pay between 20,000 CNY and 22,000 CNY. For that price, you’ll get about three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and plenty of other expats as your new neighbors. Keep in mind that while these prices include utilities, they are still only the average estimate and the rents can go a lot higher than that.

However, if you want to live in a regular apartment, you find much more affordable options. For instance, you can get a standard one-bedroom accommodation in Shanghai or Beijing for 5,000-6,000 CNY per month. If you spend a bit more, around 7,500 CNY, you can find some good deals, like a relatively spacious two-bedroom place in Haidian, Beijing, the capital’s student neighborhood. However, keep in mind that most of these apartments are not furnished.

For more information on accommodation options, check out the housing section of the guide.

Costs of Utilities and Connectivity

If you use gas for cooking only, the gas bill for a two-person household is fairly low, at 50-100 CNY per month. Water is somewhat more expensive, with approximately 80 CNY, but electricity is the largest expense. Since summers can be hot and humid, you’ll need the air-conditioning a lot. For an 80m² apartment, this quickly adds an average 500 CNY a month to your cost of living in China.

Domestic phone calls on the landline tend to come cheaply, 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 choose 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. Also, make sure your phone supports the GSM standard.

The housing section of this guide offers a more detailed description of what to expect from utility providers in China.

Furniture Prices in China

The cheapest way of furnishing your apartment starts with checking the classifieds sections in local expat media. If you, however, prefer new furniture, you should be able to find IKEA in most of China’s major cities.

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

Costs of Housekeeper/Domestic Staff in China

In Beijing, a housekeeper/nanny (ayi) gets a salary of around 5,000 CNY a month. In Shanghai, current hourly wages for a housekeeper is 20-25 CNY. In times of high demand (e.g. during the Chinese New Year), wages rise to 25-30 CNY per hour.

Healthcare Costs in China

As mentioned in the healthcare section of the guide, even when you are insured, you will need to open up your wallet when visiting any sort of hospital in China. An appointment, especially if you go to a private practice, can get fairly pricy. For a consultation with a specialist or a routine dental check-up, you’ll pay about 600 CNY. And this doesn’t include any follow-up tests or further treatment.

The costs of insurance usually depend on your age, overall health, and pre-existing conditions, as well as the insurance company and plan (basic vs. premium).

Education Costs in China

If after reading our guide to education in China you decide to opt for a private school, you should know it 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, and lunch.

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.

Travel and Transportation Costs in China

In general, transport in China is relatively cheap. The prices for buses and urban railway systems vary from one city to another but, in most cases, a one-way ticket should cost you under 5 CNY.

If you wish to travel around the country, you can choose to travel by plane, train, or bus. The communication between the major cities in China is very good with most modes of transportation offering departure times a few times per hour.


For foreigners, driving in China will not come easily. Legally, you are not allowed to drive a car in China with a foreign (the UK, the US, European, etc.) or international driver’s license. As a tourist on a visitor’s visa, you can get a temporary driving permit to join the motorized traffic in China. Those staying for longer have to apply for a Chinese license.

If you get your documents sorted and you do end up driving, you will encounter the following types of roads:

  • Expressways are very well-maintained, with a general speed limit of 120 km/h. Traffic signs are typically in English and Mandarin.
  • Express Routes are usually found in cities with a speed limit of 100 km/h.
  • National Highways have a speed limit of 40 km/h in a city and 80 km/h 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.

To help finance the continuous expansion of the Chinese road network, the toll is charged on the majority of expressways, express routes, and many national highways.

Traffic in China: Rules and Regulations

Traffic in China is chaotic, hectic, and somewhat dangerous. This is partly due to the tendency of many drivers to simply ignore the driving rules and regulations of traffic in China. The most important ones of them are:

  • The legal driving age in China is 18 years old.
  • You must be in possession of a valid (temporary) Chinese driver’s license.
  • Traffic in China is on the right-hand side of the road.
  • Handheld mobile phone use is prohibited while driving.
  • Seatbelts (or safety helmets for motorcyclists) must be worn at all times.
  • Do not drive after drinking alcohol. You may be fined, and your license suspended for six months with a blood alcohol level (BAC) of 0.2–0.8‰. A BAC of over 0.8‰ is considered a criminal offense and leads to at least a five-year loss of your permit.
  • Do not drive your car on lanes for buses or non-motorized vehicles.
  • Make way for crossing pedestrians.

In general, traffic in China is based on a certain mentality of accident avoidance. As such, you may be at least partly to blame when crashing into a car that should have rightly given way.

In case of an accident, do not leave, keep the scene as is, and call 122 for the police branch responsible for traffic in China. If helping an injured person disturbs the scene, make sure to mark any changes. 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 always a good idea to at least take pictures and get contact details, accident statements, etc. in writing. Your insurance company may have further information and conditions on how to behave after a traffic accident in China.

How to Get a Chinese Driver’s License

If the chaotic driving etiquette doesn’t scare you and you still wish to get your license sorted, you have two options: temporary and regular license.

Temporary License

This type of permit is only available to those staying in China for a maximum duration of three months. Consequently, it is also only valid for a maximum of three months, and often less depending on your travel plans.

The most likely way of getting a temporary license is at the Vehicle Management Service Station in Terminal 3 of the Beijing International Airport. Here, you can get everything done, from your health check to translations and passport pictures, and even a short introductory handbook on the traffic in China.

If you are not arriving via plane in Beijing, head to your nearest office of the Department of Motor Vehicle Administration. For your application, you typically need the same documents as when applying for a regular license.

Regular Permit

If you do not fall under the category of temporary visitor, you have to apply for a regular Chinese driver’s license in order to be allowed to drive in China. Head to your nearest Department of Motor Vehicle Administration and take along the following:

  • a filled out application form
  • ID document(s), including visa and entry stamps, plus copies
  • foreign driving permit with copies and certified Chinese translation thereof
  • health certificate
  • passport photos
  • money for fees

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 need not complete a practical driving test before joining the traffic in China. However, the theoretical test is necessary.

In bigger cities, translations of the written test are available in a number of languages, including English. However, the exact translations can at times be challenging. Should there be none available, you can typically bring a translator. However, as most traffic signs are in Chinese only, a certain familiarity with Mandarin and its characters is highly recommended.

In order to be able to correctly answer the necessary minimum of 90% for passing, make sure to study the rules and regulations of traffic in China. For additional help, driving instructors or schools specialized on foreigners can be found in a number of large cities.

Driving a Rental Car in China

As car importation is very expensive in China, you might be considering to opt for rental car services instead. However, the option is only available to you if you have all the above-mentioned documents sorted. In order to rent a car in China, you need to be at least 18 years old and hold a valid driving license.

Companies that offer car rental services in China:

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The state of public transportation in China varies depending on the area. The way how the public transportation is operating in the major cities differs a lot from the rural areas of China. Still, in general, the connectivity inside the cities and around the whole country itself is really good. Buses and trains can take you not only a few blocks away from your home, but also to the opposite end of the country.

If you choose to stick to public transportation while staying in China, one thing is for sure –– basic knowledge of Chinese will help you out a lot. Whether it’s a bus or train, being able to say where exactly you want to go is the key to a successful journey.

Urban Railway Systems

China’s urban rail transit systems include metro, light rail, trams, or even monorail. Costs for this kind of public transportation vary from city to city and depend on the distance traveled. In Beijing, for example, ticket prices start at 3 CNY for the first six kilometers.

Local Bus Networks

City buses are a popular form of transport in China, with extensive networks and inexpensive fares. Due to this, however, they are also often very full. As part of regular road traffic, buses can also be quite slow, something to keep in mind when planning a journey.

Bus stops represent a further difficulty, as information on routes and times is typically only listed in Chinese. If you do not speak Mandarin, make sure to at least have your destination with you, written down in Chinese characters.

In many cities, there are two different types of buses: normal and express. The latter make fewer stops and are more expensive. Furthermore, you may encounter private bus operations. These usually follow the public bus routes but are typically smaller, more expensive, and consequently less crowded.

Taxis and Car Hires

With around 2–3 CNY per kilometer, cabs are a relatively cheap mode of transport in China. Expats should make sure their taxi driver switches the meter on in order to not get scammed. Non-Chinese speakers should also have their destination written down in Chinese, as few drivers understand English.

If you are looking to hire a taxi for more than just a quick trip, for e.g. half a day or a whole day, make sure to communicate where you want to go and negotiate the price beforehand. Depending on the distances of your proposed travels, you can expect to pay around 300–500 CNY a day for this mode of transport in China.

Alternatively, you can hire a car with a driver. There are numerous such services offered in many Chinese cities, by both international rental providers, such as Avis, as well as local companies.

Further Options for Urban Transport in China

Motored or pedal-powered tricycles and rickshaws are one alternative to the modes of urban transport in China mentioned above. Prices are comparable to taxi fares. Keep in mind, however, that they offer you less space and less protection in case of an accident.

Alternatively, you might want to join in on one of the most common forms of transport in China by cycling around your city. There are many shops where you can buy bikes and equipment, so make sure to invest in a proper lock and at least a good helmet for your protection. On China’s busy roads, bicycling is, after all, not without its dangers due to heavy traffic and bad driving.

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Updated on: April 15, 2020

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