The Forbidden City: A complete guide to living in China's iconic landmark.

What is it like to live in China? The Complete Guide

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Moving to a new country every two years

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For 3 years, I lived in China, 2 years in Beijing, and 1 year in Shanghai. Honestly, I had the time of my life there.

Still, living in China can also be challenging, especially for people who need to learn more about Chinese culture and customs.

So, what is it like to live in china?

An important thing about living in China is being flexible, super flexible. If you can do that you will love living there.

Things can change fast, change at the last minute, or when you plan something, it might not happen.

This happens all the time. You’ll love it when you perceive it as an adventure; if you don’t, then… you don’t.

China is a fascinating country with a lot of history and culture. The country’s growing economy and unique way of life make it a good choice for people who want to try something new. But there are many questions and things to know about living in China.

In this article, I will share what it was like living in China, such as how much it costs to live there, how good the quality of life is, and things to keep in mind.

Table of Contents

how is life in China?

Life in China is good! It really surprised me how well everything is arranged; from transport, safety to cleanliness on the streets. 

There are many job opportunities as the economy is growing fast, good health care, a low crime rate. But air pollution can be a problem in some cities, and life can move quickly and be stressful in the bigger cities. 

Every time when I would fly back to The Netherlands, things just slowed down. Not much is happening in The Netherlands, things just kind of stay the same. But when I would go back to China, bam! “Hey you want to work here? Do you want to make some money? You have a show next week! You need to meet these people. They are interesting!” I would have meetings with folks I didn’t know or even didn’t know what the meeting was about.

Things move fast in China, and a lot is happening, and I love it.

Living in China pros and cons


  • Trains, airplanes, and taxis. Transport and logistics are just superb in all of China.
  • Safety! It is so safe on the streets. You can just walk around at 4am after going out, and you will not have to be afraid of anything happening.
  • Career opportunities: China’s growing economy gives people a lot of chances for their careers. I’ve had several job proposals in a week!
  • Cultural experiences:  China is proud of its culture, and they preserve it very well, so in every city, you can find cultural sights to see.
  • Overall convenience! When I would go outside, the only thing I would bring was my phone. My house had a fingerprint scan to open the door, I’d pay for everything with WeChat like taxis, transport, and cinema tickets. Credit cards or any cards are not needed. 
  • Living in China can be cheap, especially compared to the U.S. or Europe.


  • The language barrier.
  • Pollution: Some Chinese cities like Beijing have a lot of pollution in the air.
  • Differences in culture: There are big differences between China and the West, and getting used to them may take some time. If you’re flexible and can go with the flow, you’ll have no problem adjusting. 
  • China’s internet is heavily censored, and many popular websites and social media platforms are blocked. You must also be careful of what you say on WeChat, which can be strange to adjust to. 

Something you will regularly see in China; loads of packages that people ordered waiting to be picked up at the entrance of an apartment building.

Can foreigners just live in China?

Yes, people from other countries can live in China. But getting a visa and a place to live can be complicated and take a long time. Foreigners can get several kinds of tickets, such as tourist, student, and work visas. Depending on the type of visa and your situation, there are different requirements and ways to apply. There are also some limits on the kinds of jobs foreigners can do in China. 

If you want to live more in China, you must find a company to arrange a work permit. Work permits have a duration of 6 to 12 months, most of the time. After you’ve received a work permit several times, you might get it for three years. 

This is one of the downsides of living and working in China. If the company decides not to give you a work permit, you must leave the country within 10 days.

Places in China to Live

China is a huge country with many different cities and towns, each with its history, culture, and way of life. Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Chengdu are some of the most popular places for foreigners to live in China.

If you’re considering moving to China, you might wonder where to live. China is a huge country with a lot of history, culture, and beautiful scenery. China has over 1.4 billion people, so there are a lot of cities and towns to choose from. Here are some of China’s most favorable places to live. 

Living in Shanghai

Shanghai has been my home for 1 year.

It is one of China’s most modern and internationally focused cities. It is often called the “Paris of the East” because of its architecture. I always describe it as a mix of Paris and Amsterdam with a taste of China.

It’s a great place to live if you are looking for a busy life with many job opportunities in fields like finance, technology, music, and the media. The expat community is also much more prominent than in other cities in China.

Read my full post about living in the French Concession in Shanghai.

Living in Beijing

Beijing is the capital of China, and more than 21 million people live there! Some of China’s most famous things, like the Great Wall of China, the Forbidden City, and Tiananmen Square, are in the city. Living in Beijing is a unique experience.

Living in Beijing, China can be a bit more expensive, but there are many job opportunities, and the quality of life is super good. It’s incredibly safe, like all cities in China.

The thing about living in Beijing is that you will experience real China. Unlike Shanghai, which is much more international, Beijing is more classic Chinese.

It’s more raw, underground, or undiscovered, if you will. Hidden bars, restaurants in an authentic traditional Chinese environment, the forbidden city, and the streets are all more traditional Chinese, like you might expect. 

Read my full article about living in a classic Chinese Hutong.

Below, the financial district in Beijing, Guomao

Living in Guangzhou

This city is in southern China and has a subtropical climate. It’s a great place to live if you like Cantonese culture and food, and there are many job opportunities in industries like trade and commerce.

Also, it’s a super safe city with many tourist attractions but a humid and warm summer climate. A nice feature of the town is that it’s close to Hainan, an almost tropical island.

Living in Chengdu

Known for its spicy food and laid-back way of life, Chengdu is a popular place for expats who want to get away from the fast pace of China’s bigger cities. The cost of living isn’t too high, and the city is surrounded by beautiful mountains and natural scenery. You can get a much bigger apartment in Chengdu compared to Beijing and Shanghai.

living in Shenzhen

Just across the border from Hong Kong, Shenzhen is a modern city with a lively startup scene. It’s a great place to live if you like technology and new ideas. There are many jobs in fields like electronics, software, and biotech. 

The city has some crazy buildings with massive LED screens on the facilities where you can see animations of whales just swimming over the buildings.

Living in Hangzhou

Hangzhou is popular with tourists and expats because of its beautiful West Lake and tea culture. It’s a great place to live if you want to slow down and enjoy the beauty of nature. The city is developing fast, it’s crazy how many new buildings they are making.

It’s close to Shanghai but much cheaper to live in.

These are just some of China’s great places to live. Each city has its own culture and way of life, so it’s essential to research and choose the best home that fits your interests and needs. Cities in China can differ a lot.

Living in Beijing or Shanghai is like living in Amsterdam or Madrid, totally different and even different languages! In Beijing, they speak with a Beijing accent. In Shanghai, people have a different accent and even a different language, Shanghainese.

How Much Does It Cost to Live in China?

People often ask if living in China is cheap when considering moving there.

It’s hard to say because it depends on where and how you live. The cost of living in China can be very different depending on the city or region you want to live in.

For example, living in a big city like Shanghai or Beijing can cost more. Still, lesser-known cities like Guangzhou, Shenzhen, or Chengdu are much cheaper.

But overall, living in China with less money than in the U.S. or Europe is possible. 

Housing in China

The housing price in China depends on where you live and what kind of housing you choose. For example, a one-bedroom apartment in the city center of Shanghai costs between $800 and $1,500 per month. 

Costs of electricity, water, internet, and your phone will be way lower in all of China which is a huge advantage. I paid 100 euros for my phone bill with unlimited internet for a whole year. Electricity was like 50 dollars per month in Shanghai.

Landlords are many times flexible. If the place needs some repairs, they will be happy to do so most of the time. My landlord in Shanghai even bought me a new washing machine.

Costs of food in China

It’s usually very cheap to eat out in China, with some meals costing as little as $3–$7 in some places. But if you like to cook at home, groceries can get expensive at the supermarket.

Ordering food is extremely fast. Sometimes within 15 minutes, your food is delivered. Sometimes when I woke up, I ordered Starbucks and some croissants, got up, went to the toilet, and then the doorbell already rang.

Costs of getting around in China

China’s public transportation is fast and cheap. For example, a ride on the subway starts at about $0.30. A train ride from Beijing to Shanghai is 60 dollars (5 hours). A taxi ride in the city will be only a few dollars.

Sometimes I had to take a taxi ride for 2 hours which was still doable.

Health care in China

China has both public and private options for health care, but the quality of care varies a lot. Expats may want to buy private health insurance to ensure access to good care. My experience at hospitals was always good. You won’t have to wait or even make an appointment many times.

Just a pink Rolls Royce parked outside of a hospital.

In China, how many people live there?

As of 2021, more than 1.4 billion people lived in China, making it the country with the most people. Most people live in cities, with Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou is the largest. 

You might think it will be super crowded everywhere, but that’s not the case. The cities, train stations, and airports are so tremendously big that most of the time, it’s not crowded at all. This doesn’t include national holidays; just stay inside…

Final thoughts on what it's like to live in china

As an expat and foreigner, life in China was absolutely amazing.

I bought an electric scooter (like all scooters are in China) and could drive through the city quickly. Traffic is clear and safe, and the police are friendly.

An electric scooter in China costs about 600 euros, unlike in Europe, where the same scooter is 2500 euros.

Although some of my western friends didn’t enjoy their time in China as much as I did, The main reason is flexibility. I was hired at a company, fired a month later, and hired again. So be ready for a rollercoaster. This will only happen with some, but be prepared for changes.

Even in everyday life; for instance, wearing a helmet while driving your scooter was mandatory in Shanghai when there was a new rule. The following week all of Shanghai was wearing a helmet.

I was living right in the middle of the covid era in China, and even then, I had the time of my life there. 

Chinese folks are friendly; if you know a few Chinese words, they will appreciate it and welcome you even more.

Tips for living in China as a foreigner

• Be flexible

• Learn the basics of the language

• Be open to cultural habits

• Don’t depend on one company for your visa. Keep more options open

• Find the expat community to be able to step outside of the ‘China life.’

What is it like to live in china: useful websites

• Check out this website to learn more about housing options in Shanghai: 

• See this article for a summary of the pros and cons of living in China:

• If you want to meet up with other expats in China, the following websites can help: and 

• This website gives a detailed list of living costs in China:

• Check out this website to learn more about how to get a driver’s license in China: 

• This website is helpful if you want to learn about air pollution in China and how to protect your health:

F.A.Q. what is it like to live in china

No, foreign driver’s licenses are not valid in China. Expats who want to drive legally must get a Chinese driver’s license. Although you will not need a car, taxis are cheap, super-efficient, fast, and reliable. 

It’s easy to find services in English in big cities like Shanghai and Beijing, but it can be harder in smaller cities. 

A great way to meet other expats in China is to join an expat group or go to an event. You can also get help from social media and online forums. Or send an email to your embassy to ask for contacts of the expat community of your country.

A man standing on top of a sand dune with his arms outstretched.

About the author

Chris Oberman is the founder and author of Moving Jack and has been traveling the world for over 20 years to 40+ countries.

He lives in a different country every two years which allows him to gain unique in-depth insights and experiences in new places abroad.

Quoted on, NRC Newspaper, Vice,and Feedspot.

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