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Living in China

Prices in 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.

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We have already talked about several aspects of life in China that may require some serious financial commitment, such as accommodation, healthcare, and education. But what about the smaller expenses that come up in day-to-day life? What should you budget for transportation, food, and clothing?

Transport Costs

Public transportation in China is really affordable for the average expatriate. If you want to go on a 10-kilometer ride in one of Beijing’s air-conditioned buses, the fare is a mere 2 CNY. A ticket for the Beijing subway starts at 3 CNY, and there’s the new Yikatong Metro Card with reduced fares for frequent passengers. Even a taxi ride halfway across town is available for about 50 CNY.  

Transportation in Shanghai is somewhat more expensive, but not by much. A one-way ticket for local transport costs CNY 4 CNY – that’s about 0.65 USD at the time of writing (March 2015).

The one obvious drawback is the fact that the public transport networks are very crowded, especially at rush hour. Moreover, the cities keep expanding so fast that the transport systems have a hard time catching up.

However, owning a car in one of China’s big coastal cities isn’t much of an alternative. Due to the congestion, air pollution, and traffic chaos, the municipal governments try to limit the number of newly registered cars on the road.

Therefore you have to purchase your license plates in an auction or via a lottery. So, you’ll either have to wait for a very long time to actually drive your new car, or you have to pay a ridiculous amount of money for the privilege of doing so. Leasing a car, plus hiring a driver, also costs several thousand yuan per month – up to 10,000 CNY indeed.  

Therefore, driving your own car is only an option if you have no difficulties in covering all the related expenses. Otherwise, you might have to hope for a company car (plus driver, to avoid facing the traffic yourself).

If you live in an expat compound, especially one outside the city center, you often have access to a private shuttle service. If none of this is within your reach, though, you should probably look for an apartment with good transport connections and put aside some money for the occasional taxi ride.

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If you’d like to save some money on food, you should have enough time (and the proper equipment) for preparing most meals yourself. Even then, grocery shopping can quickly become pricier than planned. Local vegetables, tofu, rice, and similar staple foods are easy to afford: you can get a kilo of rice for 6 CNY – about one dollar.  

But groceries that are more unusual for Chinese cuisine – such as dairy or imported brands – have the prices to match: for a liter of milk or 100g cheese, you could spend 15 CNY or more. Likewise, international supermarket chains, which cater to the expat population, are more expensive than their Chinese counterparts.

However, some expats, particularly parents, tend to worry about food scandals in China. In terms of consumer safety, the typical expat haunts could be your best bet: you might prefer to shop for baby food there, or to buy body lotions and make-up not aimed at the Asian market. The latter sometimes contain dangerous skin-whitening chemicals.


When it comes to dining out, the range of products and prices is equally wide. You can buy some steamed dumplings from a street vendor for less than a dollar, but a combo meal at Mc Donald’s or a regular cappuccino may cost five or six times as much (up to 30 CNY).  

If you go out for dinner at a Western-style restaurant, you need to bring at least 100-200 CNY per person, but a meal at a mid-range Chinese place costs somewhat less. For instance, in central Beijing, you can enjoy a typical Chinese hotpot for 50 CNY. Peking duck at high-end restaurants, however, is equally expensive, (200 CNY for a whole roasted bird). And if you want to splurge on fine dining, you’ll find plenty of upscale locations as well.  


The good news: you might not spend much on clothing in China. The bad news: this might be due to the fact that you’ll have trouble finding any garments or shoes in your size.

Larger sizes aren’t easily available (and forget about plus sizes in the European and North American sense of the word); proportions and cuts are often different than outside of East Asia, and even chains like Zara or H&M have smaller clothing, but somewhat higher prices, due to import tariffs.

There’s a silver lining, though: It’s fairly cheap to have a couple of clothes custom-made. If you pack wisely and fill your suitcases and shipping crates with sturdy, high-quality wardrobe basics, you can get a few more special items made to fit in China.

For instance, a tall expat woman wearing a US size four or six can get a bespoke day dress from one of Shanghai’s fabric markets for about 300 CNY (about 50 USD). A smart business suit for men, though, is much more of an investment, for a couple of thousand yuan at least.  

Updated on: December 06, 2018
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