China Expat Guide

China is a country of many contradictions and expats considering living in the country for any amount of time surely have quite a few questions and obstacles to overcome before you apply for your visa, pack your bags, and get on an airplane. China is generally a country where you need to be doing something to live in the country…they do not encourage idle expats to casually live in the country so most expats work in China, teach, or have a specific reason for living there.

We also have various stories and advice on the China section of our expat blog.

What Visas are Needed to Live in China?

This is a very complicated area to explain with certainty, so use this as a starting point for your visa application process; Chinese immigration laws (along with the enforcement of these laws) changes regularly, so always double check and have your employer help you navigate the muddy waters of Chinese visas.

The quick and dirty though looks like this:

  • There are several “classes’ of visas and all Westerners need a visa to visit and travel through China; tourist L visas are relatively easy to get though the country requires plane ticket information and a very general outline of your planned route and last about three months before you must cross a border out of China.
  • To work in China and receive a salary you must possess a Z visa with a proper residence permit; without a Z visa specifically it is illegal to work in China. This visa can also be obtained for family members of a foreigner with a legal job in the country.
  • Visitors and business travelers  invited to conduct business in China for less than six months are issued an F class visa; this is valid for six months and has a wide range of uses for student interns, guest lecturers, and foreign business owners.
  • Student Study Visas, visa class X, are issued to anyone registered to study the language or at a Uninversity for more than six months at a time.
  • You generally cannot change your visa type within China, you must leave the country and change your visa status at an outside consulate or embassy no matter what a future employer tells you.

Expat Healthcare in China

Medical insurance for expats is not a necessity for entering China, but it is recommended anytime you leave your home country and home insurance policies. But do consider that Chinese embassies demand proof of health before issuing a visa to students specifically, executives are exempted from the policy. With that in mind, most expats opt for international medical coverage instead of relying on the local Chinese policies.

There are many international health insurance providers in China, one option is Now Health International, which  specializes in international health insurance and offers access to healthcare for expats around the world.

Where Should You Live in China?

You know, in a country the size of China this is going to vary wildly on what type of experience you seek, as well as just exactly which type of job you seek, your qualifications, and the ideal pace of life. China has several major bustling cities and then a whole lot that scales down from that size! Teaching English is very popular in the city and there are opportunities in smaller towns for this type of work.


If you are looking for the cultural capital of China then you will choose well by living in Beijing. The city is ripe with international business opportunities and the pace of life is exactly as you would expect from a large Asian capital. This is to say, wide-laned highways with towering buildings, street foods and huge markets. This is a definite city feel and there is a great metro system throughout the city center that makes a car unnecessary; cabs are affordable for the places not serviced by the metro. Beijing’s cost of living reaches some of the highest in the world and you’ll need a competitive salary to live comfortably.


The pretty older sister to Beijing, Shanghai glitters with new for every amount that Beijing is steeped in ancient history and culture. The glittering buildings tower across the skyline, occasionally obscured through a haze of smog, but generally the city is bustling and sunny. Much like New York City, there is a trendy shopping area with electronic billboards and pricey boutiques. The neighborhoods around Shanghai are certainly more low-key and a thorough metro system means it is quite easy for Shanghai expats to live a bit outside of the city center but still commute for work. The cost of living in Shanghai is also some of the highest in the world, so most expats demand a competitive salary.


A wonderfully sized city and popular with expats who don’t need to be in the major cities for international business. Hangzhou provides a pretty balanced quality of life enough of a city feel to have Western amenities and things to do, but easy to navigate and affordable housing and cost of living. Many expats in the city are teaching English at a local school, although there are also other opportunities for expatriates too.

What’s the Climate Like?

In a country the size of China you can literally choose any type of weather you love most!

In the North: Short summers and very cold winters, with weather dropping well below freezing and  snow and dark skies for many months on end.

In the Center: High humidity throughout the long summers with freezing temperatures and quite cold weather the further north of Central you travel, especially in mountain regions.

In the South: Very warm weather overall; long and hot summers give way to a moderately cold winter.

What Language do they Speak in China?

There are definitely regional differences to decide which language is more useful, but a good 70% of China’s population speaks Mandarin (with the Beijing dialect, Putonghua, the most prominent within Madarin). The other 30% are divided between Cantonese (Yue),  Shanghaiese (Wu), and a handful of other smaller languages and dialects. That being said, English is ever more important in the international business and financial centers of China.

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