As an East Asian powerhouse that stretches over a landmass almost as large as the entire continent of Europe, a foreigner's experience in China could vary greatly depending on where they end up. Some expats may picture the urban jungles of Chinese megacities, others may imagine its megadiversity, from bamboo forests to tropical rainforests or arid deserts to mountain ranges, rivers and valleys. Whatever the planned destination, moving to China is an opportunity for expats to experience a country that's both rich in history and focused on the future.
Thanks to its immense growth over the past few decades, China has continued to attract foreigners with specialised skills and advanced education to take up employment across various sectors. However, subsequent competition for jobs has increased and relocation packages have been driven down by candidates from elsewhere in Asia who are willing to work for less than most Western expats.
Despite China's immensity, most expats live in a handful of cities that traditionally attracted job hunters from the interior. As they have grown, so has their appeal and what were once medium-sized cities have quickly grown, and continue expanding into sprawling metropolises.
While a way of life that's centred around traditional family structures and values persists amid the rapid development, China's economic growth has come at a price. Its problems with pollution and overpopulation are well documented, but as it enters the next stage of development, the country has moved away from its emphasis on industry to developing its service sector and improving its environmental sustainability.
The most popular places among expats living in China include Beijing, Guangzhou, Shanghai and Shenzhen. Despite the influx of foreign workers, Chinese cities might not seem so diverse to the average Westerner, who often must adapt to a great deal of culture shock. Regional differences are also vast and expats will find variations in how things are done in different cities, from cuisine to housing regulations.
Foreigners sometimes find themselves weighing jostling crowds and tedious bureaucracy against the luxuries of still higher-than-average income and active expat communities. Many Western expats take a while to adjust to the fact that the government is involved in the lives of its citizens and actively censors materials it considers harmful to society. Keeping in touch with friends and family through typical social media platforms is a common hurdle to overcome.
Driving in China also takes getting used to, especially because of almost constant traffic congestion and plenty of aggressive drivers. Many expats prefer the high-quality public transport in China, with its bullet trains, city subway systems and vast bus networks.
As it tries to accommodate the expats in its borders, China has expanded its healthcare system to include facilities aimed at Westerners and its private hospitals are of a high standard. While Chinese schools are generally exclusively taught in Mandarin, expats have access to world-class international and private schools, although these come at a price.
Whether they're moving to China for business or to expand their horizons, expats may find its unfamiliar culture, its high population density and the language barrier can be challenging. However, those who are ultimately able to adjust will enjoy a rewarding expat experience. The complex layers of life in China expose expats to a rich culture, a new way of living and a vast country to explore.
Population: About 1.4 billion
Capital city: Beijing
Neighbouring countries: Covering a vast expanse of the Asian mainland, China's neighbours include Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar to the south; India, Bhutan, Nepal, Afghanistan, and Pakistan to the southwest; Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan to the west, Mongolia to the north, part of Russia to the northeast, North Korea, South Korea and Japan to the east, and Taiwan to the southeast.
Geography: As the world's third-largest country by geographic size, China covers a vast landscape stretching around 3.7 square miles (9.6 square kilometres). Its diverse terrain includes high plateaus, sunken basins, mountains, desert and coastal regions, and China is home to Asia's longest river, the Yangtze.
Political system: Single-party socialist republic
Major religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Chinese folk religions
Main languages: Mandarin Chinese, with hundreds of local dialects
Money: The Renminbi (RMB), also referred to as the Chinese Yuan (CNY), is the official currency. It is divided into 10 jiao.
Time: GMT +8
Electricity: 220V, 50Hz. Chinese Standard three-pin plugs (type I) are most common; plug types A and C are also available.
Internet domain: .cn
International dialling code: +86
Emergency contacts: In most major cities the emergency numbers are 110 (police), 120 (ambulance), and 119 (fire)
Transport and driving: Traffic drives on the right-hand side, except in Hong Kong and Macau. The country has an expansive national railway network which includes high-speed trains. Public transport may be difficult to navigate for non-Mandarin speakers.
►For essential tips on finding a home, check out Accommodation in China
"Beijing is a vibrant international city that retains its Chinese roots while still offering plenty of the amenities that you would expect in a Western country. There’s always something new to explore here in the Chinese hutongs or elsewhere in the city!" Read more about what Greg has to say about expat life in China.
"I love that Shanghai is a place for adventure and there’s always something new to do. As an expat, I’d say the quality of life is quite good." Learn more about Jordan's expat experience in China.
Are you an expat living in China?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to China. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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