Famous for its architectural marvels, strong economy and diverse cuisine, China is a popular expat destination. Owing to its endless professional opportunities and vibrant culture, China may seem like an expat paradise, but there are some downsides to living in the Southeast Asian giant.
Here are some of the pros and cons of moving to China.
Working in China
+ PRO: Robust job market
China is the world’s second-largest economy, just behind the US, and therefore offers plenty of job opportunities for skilled expats in a range of sectors, including teaching English as a foreign language, finance, manufacturing and human resources.
+ PRO: High expat salaries
Expats working in China will enjoy an excellent quality of life and with some careful budgeting, may even be able to put some money away for a rainy day, thanks to the profitable employment packages on offer. That said, expat packages may not be as lucrative as they once were, but costs such as housing, airfare, health insurance and some tax payments are still offered by some employers.
- CON: Complicated work permit application processes
Chinese work permit application processes are infamously difficult to navigate as each city has its own immigration and labour processes. Fortunately, employers take care of the bulk of the administration, but expats will typically need to undergo a medical examination and live in the same city as the sponsoring company to secure a Z visa.
Healthcare in China
+ PRO: International wings in public hospitals
Due to the inadequate standards of care at Chinese public healthcare facilities and the country’s growing expat population, public hospitals in Chinese commercial centres have introduced international wings to offer expats quality treatment at a lower cost. Expats will also be able to find English-speaking staff at these facilities.
- CON: Healthcare standards are generally subpar
China’s cities generally have access to hospitals that offer a diverse range of services, while its rural areas have little to no public healthcare facilities. The standard of care at these facilities tends to be inadequate and slow, while expats may be further frustrated by the language barrier.
- CON: Health insurance is expensive
Health insurance premiums in China are typically quite exorbitant, even for the most basic policies. An additional point of contention is that the coverage may not be as comprehensive as expats might be used to.
Cost of living in China
+ PRO: Affordable food, electronics and public transport
An expat’s cost of living in China will largely depend on the lifestyle they prefer. Expats who would like to enjoy Western luxuries and food will find China's cost of living quite steep. Those who embrace the local way of life will find locally produced food and electronics as well as public transport fairly affordable.
- CON: Accommodation in major cities is pricey
Housing in cities such as Beijing and Shanghai is notoriously expensive and is even on par with major European cities. Expats moving to these regions of China will need to budget carefully or negotiate for housing expenses to be included in their relocation package.
Accommodation in China
+ PRO: Lots of affordable housing available
Expats moving to China will be spoilt for choice when it comes to housing. The most common type of accommodation in China is apartments while freestanding houses are few and far between. Expats will find everything from serviced apartments to small flats in enormous complexes to small rooms with Chinese-style ablution facilities.
+ PRO: Luxury accommodation with sought-after amenities is widespread
China’s big cities such as Shanghai and Beijing often offer many luxury accommodation options, including serviced apartments and villa complexes with amenities such as swimming pools, gyms and internet services, although these do come at a high cost.
- CON: Apartment sizes may be small and low in standard
While China may have myriad accommodation types, the standards of housing in the country may be questionable and smaller than what most expats may be used to. It is recommended that new arrivals tour an apartment before committing to a rental agreement.
Safety in China
- CON: Pollution is a serious health hazard
China is one of the world’s biggest manufacturing hubs, and with that level of industrial activity comes pollution. Smog frequently fills the air in China’s major cities and can cause sinus congestion. Expats should be sure to use an air purifier and speak to their healthcare provider if they have a pre-existing medical condition to ensure their safety in China.
- CON: Drinking water is unsafe
Pollution in China has also affected its water quality, making it unsafe for consumption. Expats should rather buy bottled water for drinking and cooking.
Education and schools in China
+ PRO: International schools abound
Expat parents will no trouble finding a suitable international school for their children. Many schools offer the International Baccalaureate programme, while others offer their home country’s curriculum.
- CON: Competition for international schools is stiff
Although there are plenty of international schools in China, competition for places can be tough and the prestigious schools will have long waiting lists. Admission processes are also quite involved and tend to include placement tests, interviews and a mountain of forms for parents to fill out.
- CON: Public schools emphasise rote learning rather than critical thinking
Parents with young children who would like for them to assimilate into the local culture may choose to send them to public schools. Public schools in China place a heavy emphasis on rote learning and cramming, which usually involves children spending most of their day at school and in after-school lessons.
Getting around in China
+ PRO: Plenty of public transport options
Considering China’s huge geographic size, it’s only fitting for the country to have a plethora of public transport options. Buses, ferries, metros and taxis are all available in most of China’s cities. Expats looking for a free and healthy way to commute will also be glad to learn that walking and cycling are also popular ways to travel in much of China.
- CON: Driving is chaotic
Driving in China will most likely be a challenging experience for an expat. As the world’s most populous country, China’s traffic congestion is severe, parking is limited and drivers rarely adhere to road regulations. For those reasons, most expats who choose to own a car in China hire a local driver.
►For an overview of life in the country check out Moving to China
"In some instances my quality of life has improved. Due to the digital convenience, queuing for groceries at a supermarket has become something of the past. I can have anything delivered to my apartment door, anytime I want. Public transport is also very affordable, safe and convenient. I love being able to walk around anywhere (day or night), without having to worry about my safety."
Read our interview with South African expat Melissa to learn more about living 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.
Expat Health Insurance
Cigna Global Health Insurance - 10% off any plans bought in November and December 2023
With Cigna, you won't have to rely on foreign public health care systems, which may not meet your needs. Cigna allows you to speak to a doctor on demand, for consultations or instant advice, wherever you are in the world. They also offer full cancer care across all levels of cover, and settle the cost of treatments directly with the provider. Cigna is currently offering a 10% discount for seniors (over 60) on their Silver package.
International Movers. Get Quotes. Compare Prices.
Sirelo has a network of more than 500 international removal companies that can move your furniture and possessions to your new home. By filling in a form, you’ll get up to 5 quotes from recommended movers. This service is free of charge and will help you select an international moving company that suits your needs and budget.