China is a global powerhouse and home to the world’s second largest economy.
It’s a fast-paced country that can lead to high levels of culture shock, but it remains an attractive expat destination, with employees of large international companies often lured by attractive packages, and English teachers and students moving there in search of an exciting cultural experience. A strong and disciplined education system, a reliable healthcare sector and efficient public transport also make it attractive to families.
Chinese people value honor, respect and dignity, which influences everything from everyday interactions to business meetings and gift giving.
This guide will cover all the basics that expats need to know about making the most of their new life in China, including information on visas, business and social etiquette, accommodation, education and healthcare.
China has a visa waiver program for nationals of some countries. Citizens of countries not on this list must apply for a travel visa before arrival. Although they can be extended, regular tourist visas are valid for 90 days.
Multiple entry visas are valid for six, 12 or 24 months. But visa requirements and regulations are constantly changing, so it’s vital for expats to contact their nearest Chinese consulate to clarify exactly what is needed.
Expats planning on working in China for more than six months are required to have a work visa. A work permit must then be applied for, which will allow a person not only to enter the country, but to also actively work there. This application must be sponsored by a registered company in China.
People who plan on going to Tibet will need a special Tibet Entry Permit.
There’s a vast range of accommodation options in China, with the most affordable options being the fairly small yet functional units in large apartment blocks.
Apartments in China vary greatly, from tiny holes-in-the-wall to large, spacious living quarters with plush décor and beautiful tiled floors. They come both furnished and unfurnished.
Finding property can be hard work due to the language barrier and expats can enlist the help of Chinese estate agents. They usually expect commission of around 35% of a month’s rent, which is paid by the tenant. Alternatively, there are English-language property portals on the Internet.
Restrictions on foreigners purchasing property in China have relaxed in recent years. But most still choose to rent. When doing so, tenants are expected to pay for their utilities and methods of payment differ from city to city. Rental agreements are usually valid for a year, with a two-month security deposit expected. This is in addition to an upfront cash payment of one month’s rent on signing the lease. Expats should review in detail any proposal around an extended period of residence in China.
Schooling in China is known for its high quality, due to the importance society places on education. There is an intense focus on discipline and high test scores.
Expat parents will have a choice of three schooling options in China: public schools, international schools and private schools. Those planning a long-term stay may wish to assimilate their children into society by sending them to public school, but it’s worth noting that public schooling is not bilingual and classes are taught in Chinese.
In China, school is compulsory for nine years, with public education funded by the state. This includes six years of primary school followed by three years of secondary education. While the general setup is the same, regulations may vary from province to province. Learning by rote is the main priority, as opposed to a more Westernised focus on critical thinking.
International schools provide an easier transition for expat children. Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou contain the most concentrated groups of international schools. The medium-sized cities will have at least two or three in close proximity. Most of these institutions follow the International Baccalaureate curriculum, but there are various other options, predominantly the British or American curricula. Coursework normally contains sections on local culture, as well as Mandarin or Cantonese language courses.
Because China has such a vast geographic territory, the weather can vary dramatically across different regions. The Himalayas lie to the west, the Gobi Desert stretches to the north, and smog lies thick over city skylines, contributing to a myriad of climate shifts.
Temperatures can drop to subarctic or rise to high levels of tropical humidity. South China has hot summers, typically with frequent rainfall, which normally eases off in the winter months. This is mirrored in the east, with cities like Shanghai experiencing snow during colder periods.
Central China is warm all year round, with monsoons in the summer and light winter snowfall. Western China sees dry and cold winters, with the weather sweeping over deserts towards the region of Tibet. Northern China, including the city of Beijing, gets colder and colder as one moves to the northern border.
Tradition, honor and family are integral in Chinese society. Most social interactions and etiquette are based on respecting these qualities and furthering the capacity to be humble and dutiful. China has its roots set deeply in the past, traditions and cultural dynamics remaining unchanged for hundreds of years.
There are a number of languages spoken in China. Standard Mandarin is the most common language on the mainland. In fact, it is the most popular language on Earth. Cantonese and English are encountered in Hong Kong and Macau. Interestingly, the latter also contains speakers of Portuguese.
Mandarin can be extremely challenging for foreigners to learn, but getting to grips with the language can be beneficial, especially in the business setting.
There are four major cooking styles in China, derived from eight regional cuisines. Chuan cuisine involves a heavy amount of spices, garlic and chili, as well as peanuts and ginger. Yue cuisine, from the south, focuses on balanced and fresh flavors in stir fries and stews.
Lu cuisine, from the north, is seen as the most influential and excels in thick soups and seafood dishes. But Su cuisine is the most well-known when it comes to its use of aquatic ingredients and rice.
While cuisine differs greatly across the country, there are a few staples which expats should come to expect. Rice is eaten nearly every day; mainly grown in the southern regions, it is by far the most popular food in China. Noodles are served in soup or stir fry, while tofu is a high protein bean curd with local origins.
Those wanting a taste of home can take comfort in the fact that there are plenty of Western-style chain restaurants, with massive fast-food brands found throughout the big cities. International cuisine abounds, and expats should be able to find familiar ingredients. Keeping a Western lifestyle may prove to be expensive though, so newcomers might have to keep an eye on their budget.
The drinking culture is a complex one that places the person above the drink. Importance is placed on the company, with toasts made to show direct respect to others. “Ganbei” is the equivalent to “cheers” and it is expected to finish the drink. If a person is toasted, it is rude not to drink, and the amount one drinks in return shows the level of reciprocated respect. When clinking glasses, the Chinese always hold their drinks lower than senior figures. Popular alcoholic drinks include beer, red wine and sorghum wine (baijiu).
China has seven official holidays, five of which are three-day long celebrations. The Chinese New Year, centuries old, is a celebration of spring, while National Day heralds the country’s formation. Both last for a week. Foreigners will probably need time to adjust to the use of the lunar calendar, with three of the holidays determined by the moon.
New Year’s Day – 1 January
Chinese New Year – Subject to lunar calendar
Qingming Festival – 4 or 5 April
May Day – 1 May
Dragon Boat Festival – 5th day of 5th lunar month
Mid-Autumn Day – Subject to lunar calendar
National Day – 1 October
Communication systems in China are fairly sophisticated, but government censorship is prevalent and some major social networking sites, like YouTube, Facebook and Instagram, are blocked in China.
Most of the Chinese population has mobile phones and services have expanded rapidly in recent years. China Mobile, China Unicom and China Telecom are the three main service providers. It’s possible to purchase mobile phones at most major airports. This may be the easiest option for expats as there will be less of a language barrier. With the correct phones, expats can talk via Viber, WeChat and WhatsApp, provided they are on one of the state-owned networks.
There are two main Internet service providers: China Unicom and China Telecom. The Internet is heavily regulated and censored, with material deemed harmful towards the state being banned. In fact, according to Freedom House, China is considered last in the world in terms of Internet freedom. The state even monitors many individuals’ online movements.
Wifi is often available at restaurants and cafés, and service quality is considered standard compared to the rest of the world.
China Post is the official postal service of China. Most choose to use it when sending official documents, as well as valuable products. It’s also possible to send and receive packages from the various post offices across the country. However, most people choose to use private delivery companies such as STO Express, Shunfeng Express and YTO Express.
China’s GDP is the second largest in the world, continuing its drive to become a more service-oriented economy. The job market for expats generally consists of senior positions in international organizations or vacancies in human resources, finance, accounting or manufacturing. Positions are filled via online job portals or an internal transfer within a multinational company.
Many foreigners are employed as English teachers in big cities like Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou. Generally speaking, it may be tough to break through the job market. This is because businesses may have reservations to hiring expats who don’t speak the language and are unaware of Chinese work culture.
Income tax in China, especially with the added status of being a foreigner, can be overwhelming. The tax laws in China are constantly changing and there is a myriad of rates, scales and exceptions. It’s best to hire a tax professional when sorting out payments and deductions.
In determining the tax rate, the most important factors are one’s income and the length of stay in the country. Additionally, tax payers are liable for paying tax on any income earned outside of the country. However, there may be a double taxation agreement in place depending on which other country a person has worked in.
China is not particularly popular as a retirement destination for expats and there are no special retirement visas available. Those who do wish to spend their retirement in China will need to have invested in the country for at least three years. The investment thresholds vary depending on the region. Candidates will also need to show a good tax record.
Understanding the nuances and subtleties of Chinese business culture is essential. The cultivation of guanxi, a concept similar to networking, can be the difference between losing and sealing a deal. Related to this is mianzi, an integral facet of Chinese society. It is based on the values of respect, humility and reputation.
Age and experience are vital components of business dynamics. Status must always be respected and acknowledged. Exchanges are less direct, with outright refusal considered to be aggressive and rude. The language barrier may also prove difficult to overcome, so expats should try to learn at least a few basic phrases of Mandarin.
Gift giving, especially at the beginning or end of official business meetings, is expected. Again, there is certain etiquette to be adhered to: always give the gift with two hands; if in a delegation, the gift must be on behalf of the group; the gift must be appropriate and not cause the receiver shame due to their inability to reciprocate the gesture.
There is a myriad of options when it comes to transport in China. There is easy access to buses, trains, subways, trams and taxis. Transport networks are particularly well-established in the larger cities, with options for long-distance travel, including high speed trains, buses and domestic flights.
While there is a significant pollution problem, many residents choose to walk or cycle and in a progressive move, bicycle hire schemes are booming. Driving or taking a taxi might not be the best idea due to high levels of pedestrian traffic and congestion. Chinese drivers also have a reputation for being reckless and driving dangerously.
While many of the road signs and signals are similar to other parts of the world, there are a number of reasons why it isn’t common for expats to drive in China. Firstly, most of the signage won’t be written in English. Secondly, expats are required to pass a local licence test as international driving permits are not accepted in China.
The official currency is the Renminbi (CNY), which is divided into 100 fen or 10 jiao.
Money is available in the following denominations:
There are a number of local and international banks in China. While many expats prefer the latter due to existing accounts, it’s important to note that there may be a lack of appropriate ATMs, particularly outside the major cities.
Opening a bank account in China is fairly straightforward. While there is potential for a language barrier, many services have English language options. In order to open an account, expats will need their passport and a small deposit.
While it is often the large salaries that lure expats to China, they should be aware that retaining a Western lifestyle can be expensive. Local brands, for example, are extremely affordable, but imported goods have significantly higher prices.
Living in the main cities obviously comes with many benefits. However, as is generally the case around the world, urban living is far more expensive than life in smaller towns and villages. In fact, accommodation will prove to be the biggest expense.
The school fees at international schools, the favored choice for expat parents, can be incredibly high. Private healthcare will also impact one’s budget significantly, while money can be saved by using the reliable public transport system to get around.
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