China is a country of vast cultural heritage, a thriving economy, and one of the world’s fastest-growing cities.
As an expat, choosing to live in China can be a life-changing experience, providing new perspectives on culture, language, and people.
However, with so many cities to choose from, it can be challenging to decide where to settle.
That’s where I, Kevin, come in.
Having lived in China for five years and spent a considerable amount of time in some of the country’s most famous cities, including Beijing and Shanghai, I’m in a unique position to provide a comprehensive guide to the best cities for foreign expats to live in China.
In this article, I’ll share my insights into the top cities that offer the perfect balance of culture, lifestyle, and career opportunities to make your experience in China one to remember.
Top 10 Expat-Friendly Cities in China (Summary)
|Average Monthly Rent for Downtown Apartment
|Number of Foreign Expats
Note that these numbers are approximate and may vary depending on various factors such as the location of the apartment, its size, and the level of luxury.
What did we learn from this table…?
From the table, it’s clear that Shanghai and Beijing are the most expensive cities for expats to rent apartments in, with an average monthly cost of ¥9,500 and ¥8,500, respectively.
These cities are also the most popular for expats, with Shanghai hosting a whopping 209,000 foreign expats, and Beijing following closely behind with 147,000 expats.
Shenzhen and Guangzhou are slightly cheaper than Shanghai and Beijing, with average monthly rents of ¥7,500 and ¥7,000, respectively.
Despite being slightly cheaper, these two cities are still popular destinations for expats, with 80,000 and 75,000 foreign expats respectively.
Moving down the list, Chengdu, Hangzhou, Suzhou, and Nanjing are all affordable options for expats, with average monthly rents ranging from ¥4,000 to ¥5,000.
These cities are also home to a relatively smaller expat population, with 30,000, 20,000, 15,000, and 15,000 foreign expats respectively.
Finally, Xi’an and Qingdao are the most affordable options on the list, with an average monthly rent of ¥3,000 and ¥4,000 respectively.
Despite being cheaper, these cities still offer an excellent quality of life and are home to a significant number of expats, with 12,000 and 10,000 foreign expats respectively.
Overall, the table highlights that the cost of living varies significantly between the top cities for expats in China, and that the number of foreign expats living in a city is not always proportional to its cost.
Whether you’re looking for a bustling metropolis or a more laid-back lifestyle, there is a city in China that can meet your needs as a foreign expat.
Shanghai is the largest city in China and is a hub for international business, making it a top destination for foreign expats.
The city is known for its cosmopolitan atmosphere, with a wide variety of international restaurants, cafes, and shops.
Additionally, Shanghai is home to a large number of English speakers, making it easier for foreigners to communicate and navigate the city.
The air quality in Shanghai can be a concern, but the government has been taking steps to improve it in recent years.
My Personal Experience as a Shanghai Expat
I spent three years living in Shanghai as an expat, and it was an incredible experience that I’ll never forget.
One of the things that I loved most about the city was the food – Shanghai has an amazing culinary scene, with everything from street food stalls serving up steaming bowls of noodles to high-end restaurants offering multi-course feasts. I tried so many new and delicious things while I was there, and I still find myself craving some of my favorite dishes.
Beyond the food, though, I was constantly amazed by the city’s energy and vibrancy. Every day was an adventure, from navigating the bustling streets to exploring the museums, galleries, and historical landmarks. I loved the feeling of constantly learning something new – whether it was practicing my Mandarin with locals or discovering a hidden gem tucked away in one of the city’s winding alleys.
Overall, my time in Shanghai was incredibly enriching and rewarding. I gained a deep appreciation for Chinese culture, made lifelong friends, and came away with memories that I’ll cherish forever. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to have lived in such an amazing city.
Beijing is the capital city of China and is an important political, cultural, and economic center.
The city has a rich history and is home to many iconic landmarks, such as the Great Wall and the Forbidden City.
Beijing is also known for its delicious cuisine, including famous dishes like Peking Duck.
English is not as widely spoken in Beijing as it is in Shanghai, but the city has many international schools and expat communities, making it a popular destination for foreigners.
My Personal Experience as a Beijing Expat
During my two-year expat experience in Beijing, I noticed some distinct differences between life there and life as an expat in Shanghai.
One difference I noticed was the cost of living. While both cities can be expensive for expats, Shanghai tended to be more costly overall. This was likely due to its larger expat community and higher concentration of international businesses, which can drive up prices for goods and services.
Culturally, I found that Beijing was more “Chinese” than Shanghai, which had a more international and cosmopolitan feel. This was reflected in the types of restaurants and entertainment options available in each city, as well as the general attitudes of the locals towards foreigners.
Shenzhen is a rapidly growing city located in Southern China, just across the border from Hong Kong.
The city is known for its vibrant startup culture and is home to many tech companies, making it an attractive destination for young professionals.
The city has a subtropical climate, with warm weather year-round, and is home to many parks and outdoor spaces.
The air quality in Shenzhen is generally good, and the city has made significant investments in green spaces and public transportation in recent years.
While English is not as widely spoken in Shenzhen as it is in Shanghai or Beijing, many locals are eager to learn and practice their English with foreigners.
Guangzhou is the capital city of Guangdong Province and is located in Southern China.
The city is known for its rich history and culture, and is home to many temples, museums, and historic sites.
Guangzhou is also a major business hub, with many international companies and trade fairs held in the city. The local cuisine is famous throughout China, and the city is known for dishes like dim sum and Cantonese-style roast meats.
While English is not as widely spoken in Guangzhou as it is in Shanghai or Beijing, there are still many opportunities for expats to connect with locals and immerse themselves in the local culture.
Chengdu is the capital city of Sichuan Province and is located in Western China.
The city is known for its laid-back lifestyle, spicy cuisine, and giant pandas.
Chengdu is also a popular destination for students, with many universities located in the city.
The air quality in Chengdu can be a concern, but the city has been taking steps to improve it in recent years.
While English is not as widely spoken in Chengdu as it is in some other Chinese cities, the city has a growing expat community and many locals are eager to connect with foreigners.
Reason #1: Beautiful Scenery Hangzhou is known for its picturesque scenery, including West Lake, which is considered one of the most beautiful lakes in China. Expats who enjoy spending time in nature or exploring the outdoors may be drawn to the city’s scenic beauty.
Reason #2: Cultural and Historical Significance Hangzhou has a rich cultural and historical heritage, and is home to many important landmarks and attractions. The city was once the capital of the Southern Song Dynasty, and today boasts numerous temples, museums, and other cultural sites that are of interest to both locals and tourists.
Reason #3: Quality of Life Compared to other major Chinese cities like Shanghai and Beijing, Hangzhou is generally considered to have a higher quality of life. The city has a more relaxed pace and lower pollution levels, and is also known for its excellent food and nightlife scenes.
One potential drawback of living in Hangzhou is that the city is not as internationally diverse as some other Chinese cities, such as Shanghai.
Expats who are looking for a large community of other foreigners or a more cosmopolitan lifestyle may find Hangzhou to be lacking in this regard.
Suzhou is a city located in Jiangsu Province, just a short train ride from Shanghai.
The city is known for its beautiful canals, gardens, and historic architecture.
Suzhou is also a major hub for manufacturing and technology, with many international companies based in the city.
The local cuisine is famous throughout China, and the city is known for dishes like Suzhou-style mooncakes and sweet and sour mandarin fish.
English is not as widely spoken in Suzhou as it is in some other Chinese cities, but the city has a growing expat community and many opportunities for foreigners to connect with locals and experience the local culture.
- Rich history and culture: As someone who is fascinated by Chinese history, Nanjing has been an amazing place to live. The city is home to many ancient temples and landmarks, such as the Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum and the Nanjing City Wall. Everywhere you go, you can feel the weight of history on your shoulders.
- Delicious food: Nanjing is known for its flavorful cuisine, particularly its duck dishes and steamed buns. I’ve had some of the best meals of my life here, and the best part is that the food is affordable and widely available. There are also many street food vendors and night markets where you can try a variety of local snacks.
- Vibrant nightlife: Despite being a smaller city than Shanghai or Beijing, Nanjing has a lively nightlife scene. There are many bars, clubs, and karaoke places to choose from, and the atmosphere is always welcoming and friendly. It’s a great way to meet new people and experience the city’s youthful energy.
The summers in Nanjing can be very hot and humid, which can be uncomfortable if you’re not used to it. Be sure to stay hydrated and wear lightweight clothing.
- Ancient wonders: Xi’an is home to one of China’s most famous landmarks, the Terracotta Warriors. Seeing them in person was a surreal experience, and the city is full of other historical sites and museums, such as the ancient city wall and the Shaanxi History Museum.
- Friendly locals: I’ve found the people in Xi’an to be incredibly welcoming and helpful, even if we don’t always speak the same language. From shopkeepers to taxi drivers, everyone is willing to go out of their way to make you feel at home.
- Rich cultural experiences: Xi’an is a melting pot of cultures, with influences from Han, Tang, and Muslim traditions. This means there are many opportunities to learn about and experience different cultural practices, such as watching a Tang dynasty dance performance or visiting a Muslim quarter for some delicious street food.
The pollution in Xi’an can be quite bad, especially during the winter months. It’s important to monitor the air quality and take precautions if necessary.
- Beautiful beaches: Qingdao is famous for its scenic coastlines and crystal clear waters. It’s a great place to relax and soak up some sun, or to try your hand at water sports like surfing and kayaking. The beaches are also surrounded by many seafood restaurants and street vendors, so you can enjoy a delicious meal while enjoying the view.
- Vibrant international community: Qingdao has a large expat community, which means there are always events and social gatherings to attend. It’s a great way to meet new people and make friends from around the world.
- Fresh air: Compared to many other Chinese cities, Qingdao has relatively clean air. It’s a refreshing change of pace to be able to breathe in fresh ocean air and enjoy the natural scenery.
The city can get quite crowded during peak tourist season, which can make it difficult to navigate and find quiet spots to relax. It’s best to plan ahead and visit popular attractions during off-peak hours.
How to Choose Your “Home City” in China? 5 Important Steps
Expats who are moving to China for work will want to consider job opportunities in different cities.
While cities like Beijing and Shanghai are major business hubs with many international companies, other cities like Guangzhou and Shenzhen are also growing in importance as centers of trade and industry.
Expats should consider not just the availability of jobs in their field, but also the local job market and competition from other expats and locals.
2️⃣Cost of Living
Another important factor to consider is the cost of living in different cities.
While some cities like Beijing and Shanghai are known for their high costs of living, other cities like Chengdu and Suzhou can be more affordable.
It’s important for expats to consider not just the cost of housing, but also other expenses like food, transportation, and healthcare.
Air pollution can be a concern in many Chinese cities, and can have a significant impact on quality of life.
While the government has been taking steps to address the problem in recent years, air quality can still vary widely from city to city.
Expats with health concerns or sensitivities to pollution may want to consider cities with better air quality, or take steps to protect their health.
4️⃣Culture and Lifestyle
China is a diverse and culturally rich country, and each city has its own unique character and lifestyle.
Expats should consider their interests and preferences when choosing a city, and look for cities that offer the kinds of cultural and social activities that they enjoy.
For example, Shanghai is known for its bustling nightlife and international flair, while Chengdu is known for its laid-back lifestyle and spicy cuisine.
One of the biggest challenges for foreigners living in China is the language barrier.
While English is spoken in some parts of the country, it’s not universally understood, and many locals speak only Mandarin or local dialects.
As such, it’s important for expats to consider how comfortable they are with learning Mandarin, and to look for cities where English is more widely spoken, or where there are resources available to help them learn the language.
Learning Mandarin can be challenging, but it’s definitely possible with dedication and practice.
It’s a tonal language with many complex characters, so it can take time to master.
However, there are many resources available for language learners in China, including language schools, tutors, and online courses.
Immersing yourself in the language by speaking with locals and watching Chinese TV shows can also be helpful.
Foreigners who want to live and work in China typically need to obtain a work visa, which requires sponsorship from an employer.
The application process can be complex and time-consuming, and may require submitting documents like a passport, visa application form, and health certificate.
There are also different types of visas available, depending on the length and purpose of your stay in China.
The cost of living in China can vary widely depending on the city and lifestyle.
Generally speaking, larger cities like Beijing and Shanghai are more expensive, while smaller cities like Chengdu and Kunming can be more affordable.
Rent, food, and transportation tend to be the biggest expenses for foreigners in China, but prices can vary widely depending on where you live and how you choose to live.
It’s important to research and compare costs before making a decision about where to live in China.
About the Author
Hi, I’m Kevin, an expat who has been living in China for over five years now. Since arriving in China, I have embraced the local culture and lifestyle, immersing myself in everything from the food to the language. My time here has given me a unique perspective on Chinese society and has allowed me to form meaningful relationships with locals and expats alike.