The flag of the People’s Republic of China is red with a yellow five-pointed star surrounded by four smaller stars on the right. It was adopted in 1949 when the Chinese Communist Party and the People’s Liberation Army defeated the Kuomintang in the Chinese Civil War. The flag was raised for the first time when Mao Zedong proclaimed the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949 at Tiananmen Square in Beijing.
Most people don’t know much about daily life in China, let alone what it’s like to live there as an expat. Learning about life in this country of nearly 1.4 billion people can feel overwhelming. How can you live somewhere where you can’t read the signs or talk to the locals?
Culture shock is a major disadvantage for many expats. If knowledgeable guidance is available to help them adjust with ease, may come back after a few months. Read this guide to feel more prepared for your move. Whether you plan to live in one of the ‘Big Four’ cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen or Guangzhou, or elsewhere, we’ve got the practicalities you need to know covered. Learn about emergency numbers, as well as information about public transport and the risks of driving in China on a foreign driver’s license (note: you cannot do this). We’ll start with the pros and cons of living in China that you should consider.
Please note that this guide is about China. If you are interested in living in Hong Kong or Taiwan, read our guides for these cities.
Not everyone can cope with the difficulties of living in China. It is important to do your research and consider the pros and cons before moving there. There are many advantages to living in this country, especially that expats often earn a good salary and can explore Asia with ease. But living in a culture so completely different from your own, and in a country where the internet is limited, can cause misunderstandings and frustration.
The visa process can be confusing. It takes at least three months and a large amount of documentation before your short-term work visa is granted. In addition, everything is done in Mandarin..
To travel there
Most international airports have trips to China.
Chinese currency is called Renminbi, which literally translates to “people’s currency”. It is known internationally as the Chinese Yuan (pronounced “du-an”). This means that the currency code is RMB in China and CNY outside the country. When in China, you may also hear the yuan referred to as “kuai” (pronounced “kwai”).
China is an increasingly cashless society. It’s good to bring 200 yuan ($30) for emergencies, but most items are paid for by scanning a QR code using WeChat and Alipay’s mobile apps. It may shock you that merchants and people selling trinkets on the street will ask you to scan their QR codes instead of accepting cash. You need a Chinese bank account to use these apps.
Do and avoid
China is often portrayed as a society with a strict social code. This is not always the case, and you may find that Chinese citizens follow customs that do not apply to foreigners. However, there are certain concepts you should keep in mind.
Try to speak Mandarin or a local Chinese dialect
Saying nihao (“hello”) and smiling go a long way. Asking ni chi fan le ma (literally translated as “have you eaten?”, a thoughtful and personal way of greeting someone) will win you many friends.
Buy small gifts for friends to show them you’re thinking of them
It is common to regularly buy small gifts for friends, such as fruit, snacks or beauty products. If you are visiting a friend or their parents’ home, a small gift is appreciated.
Don’t discuss politics
The Chinese are reluctant to discuss politics. The state can become involved if you speak openly about politically controversial issues.
Don’t generalize people’s experiences
China is incredibly diverse. Someone from Guangdong is unlikely to have the same heritage, culture and life experience, or even taste for food as someone from Hubei.
The closer your due date in China is, the better you should prepare for what awaits you at birth. If you give birth in China, you may face additional challenges.
The language barrier will be just one of the obstacles to overcome. In addition, cultural attitudes regarding pain management during childbirth, delivery methods, the doctor-patient relationship and the role of spouses may differ greatly from your home country.
For example, caesarean sections are increasingly common among women giving birth in China. Natural births, on the other hand, are not very popular. You may also be expected to share the delivery room with several other patients, and your partner may not be allowed into the room.
Standards of medical care for newborn emergencies vary greatly from clinic to clinic in China. But in general, most babies come more or less smoothly, no matter where you give birth in China.
According to the constitution, there is freedom of religion in China, but this does not correspond to reality. Members of the Communist Party must be atheists, and religious communities are under strict surveillance. In the last decade, control has been tightened and reports have increased of communities being prevented from practicing their religion and of believers being imprisoned or harassed.
The largest religion is Buddhism, and China is also the country in the world with the most Buddhists, 185-250 million followers according to Freedom House. Various Buddhist directions are represented, Lamaism is the Tibetan variant.
There are no major crime problems in the country. Petty crimes such as pickpocketing, bag snatching and theft of mobile phones and computers are common. Foreigners are often particularly vulnerable to petty crime in major cities and in tourist areas, although serious crimes against foreigners are generally uncommon in China.
WeChat is everything social in China. This app is the equivalent of WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, PayPal and more. Contact friends, send questions to coworkers, post updates about your life, find a new apartment, pay bills, order train and plane tickets—if you can imagine it, WeChat can do it. You’ll get used to adding people as contacts instantly and will soon wonder how you used to keep in touch with people back home.
- Ask someone if they are free to talk before you call them.
- Only post pictures and status updates that you don’t mind everyone seeing, including your boss and coworkers.
- Feel free to ask anyone for their WeChat. An important networking skill, asking to scan a person’s QR code at the start of a conversation is perfectly fine.
- Most business people write in Chinese or English. If you struggle to write or read Chinese, the translation feature helps you talk to others in the language you feel most comfortable with.
- Write in clear sentences that are easy to translate (ie don’t write slang).
- e-mojs are common on WeChat, even among business contacts.
- Always ask a close friend what the Chinese characters on a sticker mean, or the general concept behind the image. It’s all too easy to accidentally send a sticker that has a rude message on it.
Chinese food is legendary or infamous all over the world. It involves many ingredients, animal parts and recipes that are not widely used in other cuisines, all of which are not pleasant for foreigners. Have you ever heard of smelly tofu? You will as soon as you set foot in China – and you will always remember the first time you smelled it.
There are two things to note here. Firstly, it is worth trying new dishes because most of them are delicious. Second, people may not explain exactly what you are eating. You will often get answers like “pig” or “cow” when you ask what meat (and what part of the animal) to eat.
Meals are shared in China
Usually, you order a few different dishes that are placed in the middle of the table to share.
Use chopsticks. The only option in some restaurants, and a simple and nice way to eat Chinese dishes.
I’ll take this!
Chinese people, and especially men, will often offer to foot the bill. You can offer to pay for your share but don’t press the issue. Instead, make sure to pay the next time you eat together.
Drinking is encouraged. You can say no to drinking alcohol with your meal, especially strong drinks like Baijiu (a traditional Chinese distilled spirit). However, it is common to buy large bottles of beer to share between everyone. Try not to enter drinking contests – those who challenge you are probably well-practiced at drinking foreigners under the table.
Chinese dishes can be spicy, and locals ask foreigners if they enjoy spicy food before eating. Foreigners are not expected to be able to eat spicy food, so don’t hesitate to say “no” or “just a little.” Be aware that food from the Sichuan province is particularly spicy. Sichuanese recipes often use Sichuan pepper, which makes your tongue feel them.
Chinese people show they care by getting personal. You’ll discuss your marital status, paycheck and family situation, and prepare to hear that you’ve put on weight or should try to lose weight. If you are over 25, you will also regularly be asked if you have a spouse. If not, why not? These questions show interest in your health and happiness.
Driving in China
Cheap taxis and public transport mean that not many foreigners try to drive in China. If you’re brave enough to hit the fast, giant roads, this section explains everything you need to know.
Driving in China with a foreign driver’s license
China does not accept foreign or international driver’s licenses, regardless of whether you have an American, British or European driver’s license. Long-term expats must apply for a Chinese driver’s license.
How to get a driver’s license in China
The legal driving license age in China is 18. Go to your nearest Motor Vehicle Administration Department with the following documents:
A completed application form;
- ID documents, including visas and entry stamps, plus copies;
- Foreign driving license with copies and certified Chinese translations;
- Health certificate;
- Passport photos;
- Money for fees – each test costs about 50 CNY (7 USD).
Driving license test in China
Learning to drive in China involves taking driving lessons and then passing two theory tests and two practical tests. Costs about 8,000 CNY (1,120 USD) in total depending on the city you are based in, how many lessons you take and how proficient your instructor is in English.
Your Chinese driving license is valid for 6 years.
Rules for driving in China
Common rules you need to know include:
- Drive on the right side of the road.
- Do not use your mobile phone while driving.
- Seat belts (or helmets for motorcyclists) must always be worn.
- Do not ride in bus lanes or on bike lanes.
- Make room for pedestrians.
Interpret road signs
Road signs can be in English as well as Mandarin. However, characters may not be directly translatable but “pinyin”, the Roman alphabet version of Mandarin. For example, “East Road” may be written in Chinese characters on the road sign, with “Dong Lu” (pinyin for these characters) underneath. There will be no direct English translation; for example “East Road” would not appear anywhere on the sign. You therefore need to understand what pinyin can mean.
Driving under the influence of alcohol
Do not drink before driving in China. Anyone whose blood alcohol level is found to be 0.2-0-8% can be sentenced to a fine and have their driver’s license suspended for six months. The maximum blood alcohol level is 0.8%. Anyone who tests above this commits a crime and can lose their driving license for at least 5 years.
If you are involved in an accident and have been drinking, you will likely have to take responsibility for the accident, even if it was not directly your fault.
Motorways are very well maintained, with a general speed limit of 120 km/h (74 mph). Traffic signs are usually in English and Mandarin.
Express routes are usually found in cities with a speed limit of 100 km/h (62 mph).
National Highways have a speed limit of 40 km/h (24 mph) in a city and 80 km/h (49 mph) outside a city.
City roads and country roads often have only one lane in each direction with speed limits between 30–70 km/h (18–43 mph).
To help finance the continuous expansion of China’s road network, a toll is charged on most expressways, express routes, and many national highways. Tolls on major road routes are suspended during extended national holidays, such as Spring Festival.
It is an unwritten law that accidents are the fault of the larger vehicle, even if fault is admitted on both sides. If you cause injury to another person, you may have to pay for their hospital fees and cover their wages while they recover. If someone dies in the accident, there will be a criminal investigation.
Keeping calm is important. A foreigner who loses his temper with another driver is not perceived favorably.
How to deal with an accident
In the event of an accident, do not leave the scene or move anything. If helping an injured person disturbs the location, be sure to highlight any changes.
Call 122 to speak to the police’s traffic and accident department. If no one was injured and all parties involved agree on fault and compensation, you are not required by law to call the police.
It is useful to always have your passport, a copy of your residence permit and other relevant driving documentation with you when you drive. If you crash, you should take pictures of the scene and get contact details and accident reports in writing. Talk to your insurance company for further instructions.
The most economical option for expats in China is to drive a rental car. It is expensive to import and buy a car. Some luxury cars cost twice as much in China as in the US thanks to high taxes and companies charging a higher premium.
You can rent a car if you have a Chinese driver’s license and are over 18 years old. Notable car rental companies operating in China include:
Public transport in China
The quality and range of public transport in China varies by area. Different cities have different systems; for example, in the “big four” of Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Guangzhou, you pay electronically for your tickets at the gate via WeChat.
There is no need to worry about how public transport is in general. It is easy to navigate the country. Buses and trains can take you a few blocks from your home, and even to a completely different province – although some routes involve two full days of travel.
They cost around 2-3 CNY (0.3-0.4 USD) per kilometer and are relatively cheap in China. Make sure your driver turns on the meter. Non-Chinese speakers should also have their destination written down in simplified characters, as few drivers understand English.
If you want to hire a taxi for half or a full day, negotiate the price in advance. Depending on the distance, expect to pay around CNY 300-500 (USD 40-70) per day.
Alternatively, you can rent a car with a driver. International rental providers, such as Avis, and local companies offer these services.
Ride Hailing Apps
Didi is the alternative app for riders in China. Uber is not available in the country.
Didi is cheap, but you need to speak and understand Mandarin or the local dialect of your city. Taxi drivers will often call you to find out where you are, or to tell you they are outside. Taking taxis may be easier for foreigners but will cost a bit more money.
Places to visit
Great Wall of China
“No one can be a true hero unless he has been on the Great Wall” goes the popular Chinese saying, a saying that clearly shows the importance of this unique ancient monument.
The Forbidden City and the Imperial Palace, Beijing
China’s largest and most important building, the Forbidden City (Zǐjìnchéng) – also known as the Imperial Palace – is located in the heart of Beijing and is a must-see when visiting the country. Begun during the Yuan Dynasty between 1271-1368, much of the complex seen today was built between 1406 and 1420. Truly many magnificent palaces in one, this sprawling complex was the residence of 24 Ming and Qing emperors, whose presence prohibited entry for anyone else than the imperial family and their courtesans.
Terracotta Army, Xi’an
It was while digging wells on the outskirts of Xi’an in the 1970s that farmers stumbled upon what would become China’s most important archaeological find: the Terracotta Army. Spread over three large underground pits and built to guard the tomb of the First Emperor, the find included more than 8,000 life-sized warriors, some 520 horses and more than 100 chariots, along with many other non-military characters from around 280 BC .
Although some were seriously damaged by the passage of time, many of the statues excavated have been painstakingly reassembled and stand as a testament to the importance attached to the emperor and the afterlife. The site – part of Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s Mausoleum Site Park – is one of China’s most important tourist destinations and offers the unforgettable experience of standing before this assembly of soldiers and horses as if inspecting a centuries-old parade. English guided tours are available.
Summer Palace, Beijing
An easy 15-kilometer commute from Beijing, the opulent Imperial Summer Palace (Yíhé Yuán) is set amidst more than 700 hectares of beautiful parkland and is one of China’s most visited attractions. While the palace itself was built in 1153, its Great Lake was added in the 14th century to enhance the Imperial Gardens.