The 6 Best Cities for Expats to Live in China (2023)
If you've wound up here that most likely means you're contemplating a life-changing move to the captivating, and at times mysterious, country of China. Trust me, I understand the swirling thoughts as well as the weight of the decision you face. As someone who has once been in your shoes, I can tell you that your impending adventure in China will leave an indelible mark on your life. While living abroad presents its own set of challenges, the rewards and opportunities it brings are simply unparalleled.
So, whether you've already made up your mind and seek reassurance or you're still on the fence, you're here for one reason and one reason only: to find out where are the best cities to live in China. Well the answer to your question is simple - in China! I kid I kid.
In actuality, the answer is of course that it depends! Everyone's wants and needs are completely different, so your ideal cities to live in China could be completely different from mine.
However, that being said, China tends to have something for everybody! This list of the best places in China aims to highlight the pros and cons of some of the most livable cities in China for expats so you can determine which of these China cities is for you. Once you've pinpointed the right city for you, take a look at my guide to living as an expat in China for a more in-depth peek at life in the Middle Kingdom.
Please note that this list didn't take into consideration cities that are not part of mainland China (think Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macau) even though I love all of those places and think they're pretty dope. Without further ado, here are my picks for the most expat-friendly cities in China:
Shanghai: A Mesmerizing Symphony of Old and New
Come on...are we shocked? Once a city girl, always a city girl. I've lived in this bustling metropolis for nearly 5 years so of course it makes the list! In fact, it is the best city to live in in my humble opinion.
Shanghai pulsates with energy and offers a unique blend of tradition and modernity that isn't quite found anywhere else in China. The iconic Bund, lined with colonial-era buildings, evokes a sense of nostalgia, while the futuristic skyline of Pudong ignites the imagination. Shanghai's international flair, vibrant culinary scene, and bustling markets make it a melting pot of cultures and a hub of endless possibilities.
Pros: Shanghai is perfect for those looking for a more international and fast-paced kind of lifestyle. As one of China's first-tier cities Shanghai is extremely easy to get around as an expat even if you don't know much Mandarin Chinese - there are English signs in just about every popular place. There's also just more resources to help you get around (look up SmartShanghai) and you'll be able to find some of the creature comforts of home a lot easier than you might be able to in some of the smaller cities. There are also job opportunities galore here and the average salary is higher than in other parts of China.
Cons: It's expensive. There's no way around it. Cost of living adjustments make Shanghai the most expensive city to live in in China. While it is a great place to live, you won't get much of a taste of Chinese culture here - honestly in some parts of the city you can forget you're even in China! And honestly forget about learning Mandarin Chinese here - of all the cities in China, Shanghai has the biggest reputation for snubbing foreigners attempting to learn the language. Obviously if you are determined to learn it, you will, but you'll find a lot fewer opportunities to practice speaking than in other parts of China.
Chongqing: Where Urban Adventure Meets Mother Nature
Chongqing is like no other city on earth and in my opinion it's the only real contender against Shanghai in terms of the best places to live in this large country. Nestled along the banks of the mighty Yangtze River, China's largest city boasts a unique charm. Immerse yourself in the bustling streets, ride the famous cable cars, and savor the fiery flavors of Chongqing's legendary hotpot (spicy food lovers - this is your spot). But that's not all—Chongqing's natural beauty captivates with its soaring mountains, breathtaking gorges, and the ethereal Yangtze River, which offer a tranquil escape from the vibrant cityscape.
Pros: Chongqing has all of the scale and grandeur of the first-tier cities with none of the cost. It is extremely cheap to live here and the perfect place for both city and nature lovers. Even though it has the feel of the more bustling cities, vibes in CQ are actually quite laid back and those wanting to learn Chinese will have a better time of it here as locals have far more patience and willingness to practice with foreigners.
Cons: Chongqing. Is. HUGE. If large cities aren't your thing, steer clear of CQ! It's also super mountainous (it's not called the city in a mountain for nothing) and you'll find yourself entering buildings from the fourth floor and getting turned around when you exit at the "ground level." All the layers certainly add to the city's charm, but also make for a headache when it comes to navigation.
Shenzhen: The Innovation Hub of the Future
Calling all tech enthusiasts and visionaries! Shenzhen, the futuristic city of China, welcomes you with open arms. Located in eastern China, Shenzhen is renowned as the breeding ground for technological marvels. This bustling metropolis is a playground for innovators and entrepreneurs. The city's start-up culture, cutting-edge advancements, and entrepreneurial spirit create an environment brimming with opportunities. Shenzhen is an ideal place for young people and expats (and young expats) alike.
Pros: Shenzhen is a port city and well connected to the rest of the world. Additionally, it has easy access to Hong Kong and it's not unheard of for residents to pop over for a weekend trip. It is a great place to ease your way into living in China as there are plenty of other expats living there. And the weather! The year-round sunshine just might be the best thing about Shenzhen.
Cons: Shenzhen is one of the most expensive cities in China, coming in below only Shanghai and Beijing. Oh and the downside to sunshine year-round? Unbearably hot summers.
Chengdu: A Haven of Culture and Cuisine
In the heart of Sichuan province lies Chengdu, a city that exudes a laid-back charm amidst a flurry of activity. Famous for its adorable giant pandas, Chengdu offers a respite from the fast-paced world with its teahouse culture and leisurely lifestyle. Savor the fiery delights of Sichuan cuisine, immerse yourself in the historical wonders of Jinli Ancient Street, and rejuvenate your soul in the tranquil beauty of the Dujiangyan Irrigation System. Chengdu's balance between ancient traditions and modern development creates a harmonious living environment.
Of course the capital of Sichuan province is known for being the hometown of giant pandas. And if you didn't know - you'd realize it almost immediately as you look around: there are panda images everywhere from the public buses, to taxis, to statues on the street! You'll be hard pressed to go a couple of feet without seeing some form of panda art. While pandas are definitely a valid reason for choosing Chengdu, there are other reasons it makes it on this list of the best cities to live in China.
Pros: Chengdu is a culinary paradise! Some of the most iconic Chinese dishes like mapo tofu, kung pao chicken, and hotpot originate from this region. On top of the mouthwatering cuisine and street food that'll make your taste buds sing, Chengdu is an ideal location for foreign students since there are many Chinese universities located here. Though Chengdu is one of China's major cities, cost of living remains much lower than the first-tier cities.
Cons: Chengdu is located in an earthquake-prone region. Most buildings are constructed specifically with this in mind, however, it can still be a scary experience. Additionally, even though there are plenty of international students, the expat community is pretty small which could be seen as a con if you were looking to live in a more international setting. In the same vein, while Chengdu is an incredible place to live, it has fewer job opportunities in certain industries when compared to its tier-one counterparts.
Xiamen: Where Coastal Beauty and Cultural Heritage Merge
Prepare to fall in love with the allure of this coastal city. With its crystal-clear waters, palm-fringed beaches, and pleasant subtropical climate, Xiamen is a paradise for nature lovers and beach enthusiasts. Explore the charming lanes of Gulangyu Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and witness the fusion of Eastern and Western architectural influences. Xiamen's relaxed pace of life, vibrant food scene, and welcoming locals make it an idyllic place to call home.
Once a part of the silk road and nicknamed the "Garden City," Xiamen is a port city with a mix of cultural influences. As its moniker implies, Xiamen is known for its stunning coastal landscapes, and lush parks, and clean beaches.
Pros: Xiamen has what I like to call the perfect climate, with mild winters and warm comfortable summers that don't get excessively hot. Xiamen is also known for its cleanliness and green spaces, making it a good place for those who value a healthy environment. Moreover, Xiamen is home to several prestigious universities and educational institutions, making it another great place to live for foreign students and academics.
Cons: Since Xiamen isn't as well known compared to some larger cities, there is a bit of a limited international community. Additionally since it is one of few places in mainland China that is ideal for going to the beach, it can get quite crowded during peak tourist season.
Beijing: China's Historic Capital and Cultural Hub
Of course the full list of the best cities to live in China would be incomplete without mentioning Beijing! Nestled at the heart of China's bustling landscape, Beijing stands as a vibrant metropolis where ancient traditions seamlessly blend with modernity. As the capital of China, this city of over 20 million people embodies the very essence of China's rich history and promising future. From awe-inspiring architectural wonders like the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace to the tantalizing aromas of street food vendors, Beijing beckons explorers, history buffs, and urban adventurers alike.
Pros: Beijing is rich in Chinese history and culture, and you'll be in close proximity to iconic landmarks such as the Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, and the Great Wall of China. In addition to its rich history, Beijing is China's political and economic center - there are tons of job opportunities across various industries, especially finance, technology, and education.
Cons: Like the others, Beijing comes with its fair share of cons. The winters here are harsh and air pollution during this time is particularly rough. Being one of China's larger cities, Beijing is densely populated meaning extremely crowded public spaces. Tourist attractions can be sold out months in advance during peak times and you definitely don't want to get caught in the massive crowds in these areas during the peak season.
The decision to move to a new country is undoubtedly life-changing, and it's natural to feel a mix of excitement and uncertainty. As someone who has walked this path, I can attest that China is a land of boundless opportunities and rewards waiting to be uncovered!
Remember that the "best" city in China depends on your individual preferences, aspirations, and priorities. Each city has its pros and cons, making it essential to assess which one aligns most closely with your lifestyle and goals.
As you contemplate your next steps, I hope this guide has provided valuable insights into the diverse tapestry of cities that China has to offer. Whichever city you choose to call home, embrace the journey with an open heart and a spirit of adventure, because your life in China is sure to be a captivating odyssey filled with discovery, wonder, and (if you're anything like me) tons of mishaps!