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Living in mainland China

Your guide to expat life in mainland China

Want to live in mainland China?

Most expats enjoy a high standard of living in mainland China, with bigger salaries and a better work-life balance than they’d have back home.

Living here does have its drawbacks. Air pollution is particularly bad, so you’ll probably spend a lot of time indoors. Public spaces can also be very crowded, which you may find overwhelming. But these aspects of Chinese life shouldn’t stop you from exploring this diverse country, from its culture and cuisine to its dramatic landscapes and historic temples.

Accommodation in mainland China

The standard of rental accommodation in mainland China varies greatly, especially in its cities. While a lot of the housing consists of small run-down apartments, most Western expats live in comfortable apartments or villa complexes. Apartments are the most common type of accommodation in mainland China’s cities. A ‘standard’ apartment can be anything from a small room with a squat toilet to a spacious flat with marble floors – so have a good look around before you decide on a place to live. The better-quality apartments are mostly in modern high-rise buildings, many of which have gym and pool facilities.

Most expat families live in townhouses or villas within gated communities on the outskirts of major cities. While pricier than apartments, these complexes often have clubhouse facilities with swimming pools, gyms and playgrounds, as well as shuttle services to the city centre and to local schools.

After you’ve settled on a property, you’ll need to pay the landlord a reservation fee. Rental contracts are usually valid for one year with a two-month refundable security deposit. When you sign the lease, you’ll have to pay one month’s rent up front, often in cash. You’ll also need to register your address at the local Public Service Bureau as soon as you move in.

Local culture in mainland China

Many cultural aspects of mainland China take some getting used to, especially if you haven’t travelled much outside Western countries. One of the biggest challenges you’ll face is the language barrier. Historically, mainland China has been isolated from outside influences, and although Western media has made a mark on the modern Chinese landscape, very few locals are fluent in English.

Chinese people are friendly and welcoming, so don’t be surprised if someone asks you out for lunch or dinner. Equally, don’t be offended if a stranger asks about your age, marital status or parents’ jobs. These topics aren’t considered private and are common points of discussion. The concept of mianzi (‘face’) is very important in Chinese culture and locals will go out of their way to maintain appearances. For example, if you ask someone for directions, they may give false information rather than admit ignorance.

Chinese concepts of personal space and privacy are different to many Western countries, so expect shop assistants to follow you around and public transport to be particularly cramped.

Education in mainland China

Mainland China is known for its rigid, exam-driven public-school system and an educational philosophy that emphasises results and discipline.

Public schools

Mainland China’s best public schools offer a high standard of education, and an increasing number of expats are sending their children to these, even though they don’t have second language programmes. All lessons are in Chinese, with few concessions made for foreign students, and the teaching style focuses more on rote learning than critical thinking.

International schools

An international school is the obvious choice if you want a smooth and quick transition for your children. Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou have the largest number of international schools, but most medium-sized cities will have at least two or three in close proximity. Most schools follow the International Baccalaureate, and coursework often includes local culture. Classes are in English or the main language of the country the school represents, with Mandarin or Cantonese taught as a second language.

International schools have very high fees, sometimes rivalling university tuition, so try to negotiate an education allowance into your employment package.

Keeping in touch in mainland China

Mainland China’s communications technology is among the most sophisticated in the world. Its media infrastructure and telecommunications are largely controlled by three state-run enterprises: China Mobile, China Telecom and China Unicom. They’re also the main landline and mobile phone providers.

Long-term mobile contracts are rare, and most expats opt to use pay-as-you-go instead. You’ll need your passport to buy a SIM card at any of the three major mobile phone service providers.

Internet access is widely available in major cities through home connections and free WiFi hotspots at hotels, airports and restaurants. It’s fast and affordable, but the government restricts access to certain websites, including many foreign social media websites. You can access instant messaging services such as Google Talk and Skype, although government agencies do monitor activity. Local social media sites, such as QQ, Sina Weibo, Youku and iQiyi, are the most popular online platforms.

The China Central Television (CCTV) news channel provides 24-hour coverage in English and is more liberal than most Chinese channels. There are also several English newspapers, such as China Daily and China Times, and various regional publications. Some international news websites are blocked by the government.

Healthcare in mainland China

Mainland China’s healthcare services include public hospitals and private facilities that cater almost exclusively for expats. As you’d expect from such a vast country, the quality of care, ease of access and costs vary tremendously.

Mainland China’s public healthcare system is considered substandard by most expats. While this may not be the case with every facility, the language barrier, slow service and long queues deter many foreigners. Some public hospitals have ‘international’ wings for non-Chinese patients. These aim to meet Western standards, with treatments costing less than at private hospitals. A relatively new concept, they’re only found in the biggest cities.

Private healthcare facilities have English-speaking medical staff with Western training, but fees are much higher than at public hospitals. Most expats negotiate medical insurance as part of their employment package so they can be treated privately.

Pharmacies are numerous in urban areas and are conveniently organised into different departments. Most labels are in Chinese, so you may need help translating them.

China’s state-run emergency services are widespread and efficient in urban areas, but are less reliable or completely absent in rural regions. Ambulances often have a doctor on board.

Getting around in mainland China

Getting around one of the largest countries in the world is surprisingly easy, thanks to a far-reaching and affordable public transport system. Driving in mainland China is characterised by chaos and congestion, while walking and cycling are the cheapest ways to cover short distances. Most cities have designated cycle lanes that make it easy to avoid traffic.

Travelling by bus is inexpensive, although comfort levels vary. The national railway network is extensive and covers the entire country. Ask a local friend to help you buy tickets, as most station employees don’t speak English.

You’ll find taxis in all major cities. Drivers rarely speak English – so have your destination written down in Chinese. Ride-hailing services are also available.

Many airlines operate flights between major cities and tourist destinations. These include Air China, China Southern, China Eastern, Shenzhen Airlines and Shanghai Airlines.

Cost of living in mainland China

The cost of living is much higher in mainland China’s large urban centres than its small rural villages. Food and utilities are cheaper than in most Western countries, so you’re likely to have a more luxurious lifestyle and greater financial freedom than you did back home.

Accommodation will be your biggest expense. Most expats choose to live near the central business district in areas with higher than average housing costs. Transport costs are low if you’re based in Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou, which have reliable public transport systems. Taxis are cheap, but be wary of illegal ‘black’ taxis that are infamous for overcharging. Scooters and bicycles are popular ways to get through congested traffic quickly.

Fresh produce, clothing, entertainment and electronics are all reasonably priced, but imported brands are expensive, as are goods that aren’t typically Chinese, such as cheese and wine. Restaurant prices vary a lot, with international cuisine costing more than local dishes.

Top tips for mainland China

See what people responding to our Expat Explorer Survey think about living in mainland China.

Learn some Chinese, a little goes a long way.

All Expat Explorer survey data and all tips (in quotation marks) are provided by HSBC.

All other content is provided by, Globe Media Ltd and was last updated in September 2021. HSBC accepts no responsibility for the accuracy of this information.

This information is purely for orientation and to inspire further research, it does not constitute advice and no liability is accepted to recipients acting independently on its contents. The views expressed are subject to change.

Always remember to ensure you're aware of and comply with any laws in your host country or country of origin that apply to gift giving and bribery.

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