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Shanghai, China

Moving to China

By Joshua Wood, LPC

Last updated on Feb 04, 2023

Summary: Many expats and digital nomads move to China for the opportunity to experience a new culture, explore the country, and take advantage of the low cost of living. People can find a place to live in China by searching online for rental properties, using a real estate agent, or asking friends and colleagues for recommendations. The most popular cities for expats and digital nomads in China are Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen. These cities offer a wide range of amenities, job opportunities, and cultural attractions.

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What do I need to know before moving to China?

When we asked people what advice they would give someone preparing to move to China, they said:

"Look at many places and use a checklist to make sure that everything works BEFORE signing any lease. Landlords move slowly after they have your deposit," said another expat in Shanghai.

"Be patient and have a lot of cash on hand! Apartments in north China require an initial payment of 3 months and 1-month deposit. That is a lot of money to spend at the beginning. Everyone should arrive in Beijing with at least a minimum of $5,000 USD for start-up costs. The best way to find an apartment is to ask a colleague which realtors they used," remarked another expat who made the move to Beijing .

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How do I find a place to live in China?

We asked expats how they chose their neighborhood and found a place to live. They answered:

"We lived in Shanghai before and wanted to start living in a familiar place, so we picked a neighborhood that we used to go to a lot," explained one expat living in Shanghai, China.

"Beijing is a HUGE city and you want to live near where you work. You'll hate life if you have to commute a long time on the subways - which is insanely crowded during rush hours. I work in the CBD so I got an apartment that is about a 30-minute walk from home or a 5-minute ride on the bus," said another expat in Beijing .

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What is a typical expat home or apartment like in China?

"Apartment in Chinese apartment building that is 6 floors tall. Yes, there are many embassies in this neighborhood so there are many expats and geopats here," added another expat who made the move to Shanghai.

"Pretty much everyone here lives in apartments in big buildings. Some families may choose to live in villas in the Shunyi area, but everyone else is in apartments. Apartments in Beijing tend to be older but they are all furnished and safe. Decorations can be a bit underwhelming so you'll want to invest in some plants, paintings and other things to make your home warm," explained one expat living in Beijing , China.

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What is the average cost of housing in China?

If you are thinking about moving to China, cost of living in probably a key consideration. Expats commented about the cost of housing:

"Higher with less quality BUT the wages are much, much higher than the same job back home. One bedroom apartments can range from 5-14, 000 rmb per month, depending on location, type of building, furnishings, etc," replied a member in Shanghai.

"Housing in Beijing is expensive. I would estimate that most expats are spending at least $1,000 USD a month on their housing. The further from the city center, the cheaper. Roommates are also an option to cut costs," commented one expat who made the move to Beijing .

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Should I buy or rent a home in China?

If you have not spent a lot of time in China, you should rent before even thinking about buying. We asked expats there about the buy vs. rent decision:

"As I mentioned earlier I rented an apartment. Wasn't hard but I needed some friends to help me. Took me all of one afternoon to find a place. As I mentioned earlier, it was fully furnished, also had three air-conditioner, refrigerator, clothes washer and big screen TV," explained one expat living in Nanning, Guangxi Provence, China.

"My wife owns a condo which is basically what many Chinese own in liu of Americans buying a house. Many more rent apts/condos from others," said another expat in Xi'an.

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What should I pack when moving to China?

We asked people living in China to list three things they wish they had brought and three they wish they had left behind. They responded:

"I would have brought more walking shoes, more over the counter medicines and more winter socks," remarked another expat who made the move to Shanghai.

"Men's Shoes in China: If you are a size 11 or larger you'll find it difficult to find quality men's shoes here. Over the counter medications in China: It's difficult to find simple brands that you know in Chinese shops like Pepto-Bismol, Nyquil, etc. If you have some brands that you rely on, bring those. I also recommend bringing a First Aid Kit as it is just a good idea to have on hand! VPN: Most Western Internet sites are blocked here. You want to pre-install a VPN on your computer and phone before you arrive in China. If you don't, the initial days here will be confusing," explained one expat living in Beijing , China.

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What cultural faux pas should I try to avoid making in China?

We asked people in China if they could share any humorous cultural blunders they commited. For new expats, keep in mind that these incidents are an inevitable part of expat life. Learning to laugh about them is the key!:

"Hmm, well, in most Chinese cultural settings, they drink a lot. I have been on many University interviews & invariably, it involves a lunch, a dinner or both with 4 or 5 professors, the dean of the English department & maybe a wife or two. Well, they begin toasting early about everything. One glass of beer & one glass of Biju, the local name for liqueur. Well, it was lunchtime, I was getting drunk & the main interview was that afternoon. After the 3rd or 4th slurred answer, my wife (well fiance then) took the cue & (we had planned before & my slurs were partly intentional) said in Chinese "Please forgive my husband as he has a kidnew condition. I will continue the toasts, but, he must begin to drink water & not Biju. They were a bit shocked, but, our plan worked & I was later offered a great position," replied a member in Beihai.

"Thankfully, I'm somewhat insulated from severe blunders by being in the company of English speaking Chinese friends in most social situations. The word for beer is frightfully similar to the word for buttocks and I must confess I did once order a cold butt when trying to order a cold beer," commented one expat who made the move to Qingdao.

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About the Author

Joshua Wood Joshua Wood, LPC joined Expat Exchange in 2000 and serves as one of its Co-Presidents. He is also one of the Founders of Digital Nomad Exchange. Prior to Expat Exchange, Joshua worked for NBC Cable (MSNBC and CNBC Primetime). Joshua has a BA from Syracuse and a Master's in Clinical and Counseling Psychology from Fairleigh Dickinson University. Mr. Wood is also a licensed counselor and psychotherapist.

Some of Joshua's articles include Pros and Cons of Living in Portugal, 10 Best Places to Live in Ireland and Pros and Cons of Living in Uruguay. Connect with Joshua on LinkedIn.

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