Living as an Expat in China: Guide to Moving
Updated: Oct 11
So you're thinking about moving to China. Or maybe you've already made the big move and you've got some questions. Either way, you've come to the right place! In this post I'll cover all the big-ticket items from visas, to cost of living, to culture shock, and of course - what it's like living here since covid hit. I left the United States to come to China in 2018 and have had my fair share of I wish I knew that before moving here moments. Hopefully, this helps get you up to speed so you have fewer of those moments!
First up is probably the most essential considering that having one is a prerequisite for coming here - your visa! Foreign nationals coming to China with the purpose of living here are typically coming here for either work or study. In my time here, I have had both a work permit and a student visa, so I'll cover both of those.
Disclaimer: This only applies to mainland China and not regions like Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan. Their visa application processes will differ.
Work Permit/Work Visa
You'll often hear the terms work permit and work visa used interchangeably, but it is important to note that they are not the same thing. The Z-visa (work visa) can only be obtained after your work permit is approved. You must have a job lined up to apply for the work permit, as your Chinese employers will be the ones applying for the work permit for you. This process takes up to 30 business days and once complete, you will receive something called a work permit letter (WPL). Note that the Chinese government requires foreign workers to have a bachelor's degree plus *at least 2 years of work experience in the field they plan on working in.
Once you receive your WPL from the Chinese authorities, you can apply for the Z visa from the Chinese consulate or embassy nearest to you. This process takes 3-7 business days. When you get your Z-visa, you can officially move to China! But alas the process is not over. The Z-visa is just a single-entry visa which still needs to be canceled and converted to a residence permit (for purpose of work). The residence permit will be stamped into your passport and can be thought of as your actual work visa. It takes roughly 7-10 business days to convert the Z-visa to a residence permit.
Now that you are in China, make sure you ask your company for your physical work permit (remember the thing they applied for that took 30 days?). The WPL does not count as an official work permit. Many companies will tell you that they are holding it for safe keeping, but this is illegal.
Stand your ground and make sure you get it as you will need your work permit card if you plan on changing jobs. It is very common for companies to withhold your work permit card, making it extremely difficult to change jobs legally. One tip I have if you don't want to rock the boat - tell them you need your work permit card to bring to the bank so you can transfer money to a bank in your home country. HR will usually give it to you without thinking twice since transferring to foreign banks does actually require a lot of documentation.
You may come across a company that insists you can apply for a tourist visa and convert to a work visa later down the line. If you hear this RUN. It is illegal to work on a tourist visa (and these aren't even being issued at the moment due to covid regulations).
The other common visa that will let you move to China is the student visa. At the time of writing, borders are only partially open. So while applications for the student visa are open, only returning students are being allowed back. However, the process for future applications is unlikely to change, so keep this in mind for later down the road.
There are actually two categories of student visa - X1 and X2. The X1 visa is for those intending to study for longer than 6 months, while the X2 visa is designed for those studying 6 months or less. Only the X1 visa allows for multiple entries.
To apply for either visa, you will need a letter of acceptance from your school in China as well as one of two documents: JW201 or JW202, depending on which student visa you are applying for. Your school will help apply for these documents. The process is pretty quick and takes around a week or less.
Once you have all your documents in order, you can apply for the X visa which takes 4 business days to process. X1 visas are similar to Z visas in that they require you to convert them to a residence permit, although this one will say "for purpose of study."
Do not attempt to work on a student visa as this is illegal and can result in fines and/or deportation.
*The Point System
The point system tallies up points using various categories. If you can manage to get 60 points based on this criteria, you can qualify for a work visa.
*Working as an English Teacher
Another exception to the 2 years related experience rule is if you work as an English teacher. All you need is a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certificate which technically qualifies you as an "expert" so you can skirt around this related work experience requirement. You still need a bachelor's degree to go this route.
Ok now you're all settled with visas and have arrived in China. Time to tackle culture shock. If you're coming from a western country like I did, chances are that Chinese culture might be completely different from what you're used to. Fret not! If you prepare for it ahead of time, you can conquer the beast that is culture shock and better adjust to your new home.
One of the most stressful things about moving here can be the language barrier. To prepare yourself before coming, it is helpful to learn a few basic phrases related to areas you will use them frequently. For example, when I first got here, I could only say words related to my taxi rides, super basic food requests, and eventually my regular bubble tea order. One of the most useful phrases to know is 听不懂 (tīng bù dǒng) - I don't understand (literally, I hear but don't understand). If it doesn't work the first time, usually they'll get it by the second or third go and leave you alone.
Major cities like Shanghai, Beijing, and Shenzhen are comparatively easier to get around in for someone who doesn't speak the Chinese language as they tend to have many long-term expats and therefore many more signs and menus offered in both Chinese and English. The younger locals also often do speak English as well. However, the flip side of this is that it is easy to get comfortable in the larger Chinese cities and if you are looking to work on your language skills, you might want to push yourself to more "rural areas" (when I say rural, I'm still talking about cities of around 10 million+ people believe it or not).
There are a lot and I mean a lot of cultural differences between Western countries and China. You're bound to come across more than a few things that might make you scratch your head at the best of times or want to bang your head against a wall at the worst.
The first time I came here, I was shocked at how boldly local people would stare. Granted, I am a black woman in a place where we are few and far between, so I was expecting a few stares. However, I thought once I met their eyes they would look away. I was dead wrong.
Being from New York, where staring at someone for too long on the subway could start a fight, I was especially unsettled. It's important to remember that staring in China isn't rude at its core and usually the person doing the staring doesn't mean anything by it! In fact, once I started getting a better understanding of Chinese, I actually found that more often than not, people were complimenting my unique (to them) features.
It is super, SUPER common to hear someone hacking up phlegm and spitting quite far away. No, you don't ever get used to it. Just make sure you're out of the splash zone.
You also will see people picking their nose, digging in their ears, and even sometimes clipping finger/toenails in open spaces like public transport. Consider yourself warned.
Perhaps the biggest shock to me was the toilet situation. Like a lot of Asia, Chinese restrooms typically use what I refer to as a squatty potty. It's actually better to do your business in a squat toilet for science reasons (don't ask me what they are), but I have bad knees and enjoy nights out at bars. A recipe for disaster on a late night bathroom break.
Luckily I live in Shanghai where there are a lot of Western toilets, however if you're living in a small city which isn't as international, you'd be hard-pressed to find one unless it's in your own apartment.
On another bathroom-related note, make sure you always walk around with a packet of tissues! Public restrooms usually do not have toilet paper, and you never know when the urge to go will strike ya.
China, being the vast country that it is, has a wide array of foods to choose from. There isn't just one "Chinese food," rather each region has its own specialty and flavor. So do a little research into what kind of food your region specializes in. For a long time I was unaware that Shanghai was known as a "sweet" city, so you can imagine my surprise when I bit into meat on several occasions to find that it was sweet instead of savory. So if you ever spot me taking the tiniest of nibbles before committing to eating a meat dish, now you know why.
Something I was shocked to find out was that soy sauce is not common to be placed on tables at restaurants! Believe me, I learned the hard way that those bottles of dark liquid in are actually black vinegar... Anyhow, you can pretty much always get a small side of soy sauce if you ask, but you may get met with a funny look every now and again.
For some, Chinese food is an acquired taste, but haven't been able to stop chowing down since I got here! The options are endless and while there are plenty of things I'll likely never try, there are equally as many that I'll probably still be dreaming of long after my time in China is up.
If you are vegan or vegetarian, you'll definitely want to aim for the bigger cities as they are starting to implement more vegan options into their restaurant menus. Shanghai in particular has seen a spike in plant-based meat products showing up on menus over the last year or two. The three big ones you'll see are Z-rou, Omnipork, and Beyond Meat. This is a big change from 4 years ago when you'd get blank stares for asking for a vegetarian option.
That being said, still double check everything! A lot of times you'll ask for something with no meat and they will turn up with a dish that has just a little bit of meat because they find your request strange. Just be firm, but polite.
Cost of Living
A big question on your mind is probably how affordable is China? Let's take a closer look!
For me, housing is considerably cheaper than back home. Probably the most shocking thing to find out was that nearly all apartments come fully furnished!! Including a TV. And if your apartment doesn't have something that you want? Ask for it, before signing the contract and your landlord will most likely give it to you! For example, I was disappointed by the lack of counter space in my current apartment, so I asked for a small counter that doubles as a cabinet and he ordered me one. I've also had friends ask for TVs in their apartment. So remember: ask and you shall receive.
Different cities have different housing costs, and Shanghai is the most expensive city in the whole country so my numbers are not going to look like the rest of the country's. That being said, in my time as a China expat, I have lived in 3 different apartment types in Shanghai and 2 in Chongqing so this will at least give you some variety to manage expectations. The rent shown is what I paid for my bedroom only. All multi-bedroom apartments split the rent evenly per room.
1. Five-Bedroom Apartment, Downtown Shanghai (4400rmb/$612usd)
roughly 180 square meters
living room and dining room space
large walk-in storage area
very central location, close to the super touristy areas
washer and dryer in-unit
10 minute walk to nearest metro
2. Two-Bedroom Apartment, Downtown Shanghai (5650rmb, 6000rmb after rent increase/$786usd, $835usd after rent increase)
roughly 120 square meters
living room and dining room space
downtown, but more western than central
10 minute walk to nearest metro
3. Studio Apartment, Downtown Chongqing (3000rmb, $418usd)
roughly 60 square meters
10 minute walk to nearest metro
4. Two-Bedroom Apartment, Downtown Chongqing (4000rmb, $557usd)
same building as above
roughly 110 square meters
10 minute walk to nearest metro
5. Two-Bedroom Apartment, Chongqing (1100rmb, $153usd)
technically downtown, but Chongqing is massive, so it's around a 20 minute subway ride from what I would consider true downtown
roughly 100 square meters
6. One-Bedroom Apartment, Downtown Shanghai (7400rmb, $1,030usd)
roughly 65 square meters
washer and dryer in-unit
very large open-air grassy terrace shared with building residents
less than one minute walk to nearest metro station
Note the very big price difference in Shanghai and Chongqing apartments. Alas, I love living in large cities and Shanghai has my heart. My brief stint in Chongqing was solely due to Shanghai's lockdown, but that's a story for another day...
Bills here won't eat up your paycheck like they would back home (or at least in the US). My electricity bill for one person comes out to around 500rmb ($70usd) on a heavy month and 250rmb ($35usd) on a normal month.
My water bill is so negligible I don't even know what I pay on a normal month vs a heavy month, but the average is probably somewhere around 50rmb a month ($7usd).
Cellphone data was packaged together with my home Wi-Fi and this comes out to 200rmb ($28usd) each month. Included in the package is 80GB of 5G cell data, 800 talking minutes, and unlimited texting. As an American living in China, I shudder to think about the insane rates I paid for a phone plan back home.
Food is so cheap here, you could honestly eat out or order takeout every day and still live comfortably. The delivery fee on a typical order ranges from free to around 10rmb ($1.39usd) depending on your distance to the restaurant. Eating out can be super cheap if you're eating Chinese food as a meal could usually go for around 30rmb ($4usd), whereas western restaurants tend to be on the pricier end with meals winding up around the 100rmb ($14usd) mark.
If you prefer to save money and eat out less, you'll probably be cooking often. I usually do groceries once or twice a month and it last me 3-4 weeks. Each round of grocery shopping typically runs me around 300rmb ($41usd). For reference, my grocery cart normally has 3 or 4 different kinds of meats, a couple of vegetables, cheese, bread, margarine (butter is weirdly expensive here), a 4-pack of 4.5L water, and a couple different pastas. Going this route will definitely save you a lot of money in the long run!
Life in China Post-Covid
Not many people can say they've experienced China during covid, but I've been here for the whole thing and am still here at the time of writing. Covid has had a huge impact on life here, as it has in various countries around the world. Most notably, China's zero-covid policy continues to affect our way of living to this day. This policy reflects the country's zero-tolerance stance regarding covid. So what does this mean for us?
Since March 2020, anyone coming into China from a foreign country has to undergo centralized quarantine at a government-operated facility. This is typically a hotel that has been converted to a quarantine site. You do not have a choice in which quarantine hotel you go to and you have to pay for it yourself. Previously the quarantine period was a whopping 14 days, but it has been reduced in recent months to 7 days plus 3 days of self monitoring at home. In the self monitoring period you are able to go outdoors, but must submit your temperature daily as well as covid test results.
Health and Travel Codes
Let's start with the travel code as it's a little simpler to explain. Your travel code shows every city in China you have been to in the last 14 days. If you travel to a new city and they see on your travel code that you have been to a high risk area in the last 14 days, you might be subjected to quarantine depending on that city's rules.
Health codes vary from city to city in terms of how they look, but ultimately they all convey the same message -- that you don't have covid and have not been a close contact of someone who has covid. The health code uses a three color system; red, yellow, and green.
You need to show a green code to enter government buildings, airports, and train stations. Depending on the city you will also need to show a green code to enter the metro, various restaurants, shopping malls and more. Due to an outbreak in Shanghai this year, Shanghai is one of those cities where you'll need to show a health code for most buildings you enter. On the Shanghai version of the health code, there is a time stamp that updates in real time so you can't use screenshots.
This year, for the first time since 2020, many cities have had an outbreak of covid. This has led to rounds of lockdowns in a handful of cities. Shanghai went into a period of lockdown from April 1 to sometime in June. During this lockdown, no one was permitted to leave their homes even for groceries. Some compounds are stricter than others and would not even let you leave your apartment to go into the hallway, but others would allow you to walk around the compound if there was a communal space available.
Even though the strict lockdown period is over, there are still mini lockdowns of individual housing complexes. These lockdowns can range from 2-7 days and are triggered when a resident of the compound has been confirmed through contact tracing as a close contact of a case. Just last week, my own compound went into lockdown twice! Luckily it was only for two days each time.
Following this year's outbreaks, many cities have implemented regular covid testing. Mind you, 2022 was the first time I had ever taken a covid test, but now I take one every 2-3days! In Shanghai, your health code will turn yellow if you haven't had a test done in 7 days. However, most places (including the metro) require a negative test result within 72 hours for you to be allowed in. The health code will show how long it's been since you've last had a test.
Fortunately, it is extremely convenient to get these tests done as there are numerous testing booths throughout the cities where regular testing is required. I have 3 testing sites within a 5 minute walk of each other right outside my home, for example.
Unfortunately, the tables have been turned here as covid has been framed as a problem being driven by foreigners coming into the country. As a result, many Chinese people (not all or even most, but enough that you will notice) have begun avoiding foreigners. You will often see locals cross to the other side of the street or put their masks on/cover their faces as soon as they see a foreigner. It sometimes works out in your favor though - riding the metro as a foreigner means that there will be some times when nobody wants to sit next to you and who doesn't love a bit of personal space on a crowded subway?
Ready to be a China Expat?
I don't mean to end the post being Ms. Doom & Gloom, but I do want to provide the realities of living here at the moment. If I missed anything, or if you have any burning questions about China life that weren't covered here, let me know in the comments below!