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A Practical Guide to the Way of Life in Taiwan

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Life in Taiwan

At a Glance:

  • Basic knowledge of the Taiwan’s official language, Mandarin, is recommended — many, but not all Taiwanese speak English.
  • Expats in Taiwan are generally safe, though seismic activities and typhoons pose some danger.
  • Healthcare facilities and medical equipment are of very good quality, with the National Health Insurance (NHI) covering expat employees from day one.
  • International driver’s licenses may only be used for a limited time. While some nationals can exchange a foreign license, other expats will have to take the Taiwanese driving exam.
  • Public transportation is well developed and safe to use, though information on local buses is not always translated or written in Roman script.

Getting to Know the Taiwanese Population

With more than 23.5 million inhabitants, Taiwan, a comparatively small island roughly the size of Switzerland, is one of the more densely populated countries worldwide. Roughly 98% of the country’s inhabitants belong to the ethnic group of Han Chinese. The remaining percentage are made up of about 2% of aboriginal Taiwanese peoples, as well as a sizeable expat population.

The most numerously represented subgroup of Han Chinese are the Hoklo and Hakka people. Approximately 14% of the population living in Taiwan today is known as waishengren, a term that denotes immigrants from mainland China that came to Taiwan after 1945, as well as their descendants.

Making Daily Life Easy — Learn Some Mandarin

If you have not had any experience with Chinese before moving to Taiwan, the language barrier will be one of the main obstacles for you. While large parts of the nation’s educated workforce are fluent in English (a compulsory school subject in Taiwan) and/or other foreign languages, you should not expect your daily life to be easy without knowing any of Taiwan’s languages. There are English resources catering to the growing international community, such as Taiwan News or the Taipei Times, but if you can, prepare for your new life in Taiwan by acquiring at least some basic language skills.

The language you will hear the most often is Mandarin Chinese, the main language of media as well as the native tongue of the majority of the population. Since its introduction as the official language after 1945, it has also been the lingua franca of the different demographic groups in Taiwan. Like in Hong Kong, for example, traditional Chinese characters are used in Taiwan, as opposed to the simplified Chinese characters used in mainland China.

The second most significant language among the people living in Taiwan, and one that has gained more widespread use and popularity in the media, is Taiwanese Hokkien, or Taiwanese for short. You will quickly find out that Mandarin and Taiwanese are two distinct entities and mutually unintelligible, though the debate on whether or not Taiwanese is a dialect of Chinese or a language of its own is usually a politically charged one.

The Taiwanese Identity — A Big Question Mark

Similarly, the question of whether or not there is a Taiwanese identity distinct from a general Chinese one is still a matter of debate among the population. The island’s disputed legal status and the related issue of relations with the PRC are the dominant political topics that you will not be able to escape while living in Taiwan.

Many surveys have been conducted on this topic over the years, and more often than not, the results have been somewhat contradictory — it appears as if context and wording of the questions influence the outcome drastically. More recent numbers seem to suggest that particularly the younger generation is predominantly identifying as Taiwanese, though, rather than Chinese or a combination of the two. The question regarding Taiwanese identity will surely continue to be a matter of much discussion in the years to come. As with most such sensitive matters, expats should probably try to steer clear of the topic in everyday conversation.

Stay Safe — Keep an Eye Out

You are very unlikely to witness or fall victim to major crime while in Taiwan. In fact, it ranked 4th out of 65 countries and territories for personal safety in the Expat Insider 2017 survey. Keep in mind that theft and purse-snatching can occur, though, particularly in crowded public spaces, so make sure to keep copies of your important documents in a safe place. Barbershops or massage parlors which do not openly advertise their services may also be a sign for criminal activity, including illicit prostitution, in the neighborhood. In case of an emergency, dial 110 for the police or 119 for an ambulance or the fire department.

Taiwan is located in one of the most seismically active areas in the world, and earthquakes occur on a regular basis. Not all of them are strong enough to be felt, though. If your new life in Taiwan is your first time in an earthquake area, please take the information on earthquake preparedness and response provided by the Central Weather Bureau to heart.

Similarly, be aware that heavy storms can occur during typhoon season from April to October. They can lead to flooding, mud slides, and road closures in rural or mountainous areas. For current forecasts and advisories regarding extreme weather and earthquakes, please check the website of the Central Weather Bureau.

Healthcare and Transportation in Taiwan

Healthcare Facilities of Outstanding Quality

In Taiwan, healthcare facilities and medical equipment are of outstanding quality. Since 1995, Taiwan has had a socialized healthcare plan, the National Health Insurance (NHI), which covers nearly all citizens; we have taken a closer look at this insurance scheme below. With the ever-improving standard of healthcare came a steadily rising life expectancy. Together with a sinking birth rate, this means Taiwan’s population is rapidly aging.

Hospitals and clinics abound in all main metro regions; however, doctors can be pressed for time. Medical practitioners and other personnel are highly trained, and as many of them have studied abroad, English is widely spoken in the Taiwanese healthcare sector. Particularly the expat-heavy regions and cities such as Taipei, Taichung, or Kaohsiung, to name a few, have many excellent Western-style clinics and hospitals with English-speaking staff. The American Institute in Taiwan offers a comprehensive overview of such clinics on their website.

Emergency services can be reached by dialing 119. For general questions regarding healthcare and insurance, as well as other relevant topics ranging from visas and taxation to safety and interpretation services, you can contact the hotline for foreigners in Taiwan under +886 (0)800 024111. English-, Chinese-, and Japanese-language services are available 24/7, with further Asian-language services provided at specific times only.

National Health Insurance for Expats

If you are going to come to Taiwan on a resident visa, you are required to sign up for the National Health Insurance (NHI). This can be undertaken in two ways: either your employer registers you with the insurance system starting the day you take up employment, or, if you do not have a steady employer, you can enroll yourself after six months of obtaining legal residence in Taiwan.

Enrolment is possible at one of the many local administrative office all over the country. For a comprehensive overview of offices, please see the website of the National Health Insurance Administration. Expats without a steady employer should look into signing up for an international health insurance plan to ensure coverage for the first six months.

The NHI is a premium-financed healthcare scheme. The premiums for your healthcare coverage are automatically deducted from your monthly paycheck. Personally, you only need to pay 30% of the current rate of 4.69% of your gross earnings. The rest is contributed by your employer and by government subsidies.

Affiliation with the NHI will cover the vast majority of your healthcare expenses, including traditional Chinese medicine and non-cosmetic dental services. Patients typically only have to cover a registration fee of around 100 TWD (less than 4 USD) and small co-payments. For a visit to the doctor or dentist, for example, contributions start at 50 TWD, while co-payments for prescription medicine range from 0 to 200 TWD depending on its costs. There are also maximum caps for co-payments in relation to hospital stays that are adjusted annually.

If you are not thinking of taking up residency in Taiwan (i.e. only traveling to the country on a short-term basis), you can expect to pay in cash for any medical services required. In case you have an international health insurance plan with coverage in Taiwan, you may be reimbursed for your expenses upon return but will still have to pay cash up front. Taiwanese hospitals — over four in five of them private — generally only accept insurance coverage by the NHI. Please also note that checks are never and credit cards only rarely accepted.

Getting a Taiwanese Driver’s License

If you have an international driver’s license, you may use it for the first 30 days after your arrival in Taiwan. If you wish to use a car beyond that period, you have two options: You can get the validity of your international driver’s license extended until your visa or Alien Resident Certificate (ARC) expires, though this is only possible for up to one year. Alternatively, you can exchange your original license for a Taiwanese one (for ARCs valid for more than one year). Both procedures need to be done at your nearest Motor Vehicles Office. For details, please see the requirements for the driver’s license exchange on the website of the Taipei City Motor Vehicles Office.

Unfortunately, the list of countries with reciprocal license agreements (i.e. countries whose nationals can have their driver’s licenses simply transferred to a Taiwanese one) is rather short. If you hail from a country that is not on this list, there is currently no other way than to take a Taiwanese driving test. At the time of writing, English-language driving tests were only available in Taipei.

Drive Cautiously in Taiwan

Roads are generally in good condition but can occasionally be closed due to damages caused by typhoons or earthquakes, particularly in rural and mountainous areas. Some general rules to keep in mind: Traffic is on the right side of the road, the legal blood-alcohol level is 0.05%, and seatbelts are mandatory for everyone in the car. The use of mobile phones without a hands-free device is also prohibited. Road signs are often — but not always! — bilingual.

If you are hoping to drive in Taiwan, be prepared for busy roads and potentially chaotic traffic in urban areas. Scooter drivers — omnipresent on Taiwanese roads — have a particularly bad reputation of not following traffic rules, so expats should drive cautiously. The better monitored and tolled freeways are typically less chaotic. You can find real-time updates on highway traffic as well as road closure information on the website of the Taiwan Area National Freeway Bureau.

Getting from A to B by Using Public Transportation

Covering the Distance by Train or Bus

The railway network in Taiwan is well developed and connects all major cities on both coasts. However, barring a few exceptions, there are no routes into the central mountains. You can look up information on routes and times as well as book tickets online on the website of the Taiwan Railways Administration. In addition to regular trains, expats can also travel with the Taiwan High Speed Rail (THSR), a high-speed train service between Taipei in the north and Kaohsiung in the south. The THSR travels the over 300 kilometers between the two cities in about two hours, with stops along the west coast.

There are also a range of inter-city coach services available, particularly on the west coast. Called highway buses, they are operated by various private companies, including UBus and Kuo-Kuang Bus. For an English-language overview of services, head to the Taiwan Bus website. For journeys to tourist hotspots, you may also take the Taiwan Tourist Shuttle service.

Exploring Local Transportation in Towns and Cities

Local buses are available except in some rural areas. Depending on the city, they might be operated by a range of smaller, private services. This also means they are less standardized, particularly when it comes to providing information in anything but Chinese script. For this reason, best keep a note with you that details your destination — as well as your return address — in Mandarin.

Even without local language skills, expats should not have any problems navigating the comprehensive MRT metro systems found in Taipei and Kaohsiung. At the time of writing in late 2017, the Taichung Metro was still under construction and due to be opened in 2018.

Taxis are also readily available in cities, though drivers do not necessarily speak English — again, better keep written instructions with you. Fares are metered, unless you are going on a long inter-city journey; you should agree on a price prior to setting off then.

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  • Frederik Sørensen

    As I mainly use InterNations for business, it was just overwhelming to get so many international contacts working in Taipei as well.

  • Maggy Roswick

    When a friend invited me to InterNations my first thought was: This is exactly what I as an expat woman was searching for.

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