Best Cities for Expats in China (2023)
January 30, 2023
If you’ve decided to move to China but don’t know where you want to settle, you may be overwhelmed. After all, this large nation offers a variety of cities with differing environments and job opportunities for expats who want to move here.
No matter your reason for moving to China, this guide is here to help you figure out the best cities for expats to live in China.
Here are the five best cities for expats in China.
Best Cities for Expats in China: Beijing (北京)
Best Cities for Expats in China: Shanghai (上海)
Best Cities for Expats in China: Shenzhen (深圳)
Best Cities for Expats in China：Chengdu (成都)
Best Cities for Expats in China：Hangzhou (杭州)
1. Beijing (北京)
What better place to begin than the capital city of China!
Even though Beijing has been subjected to a lot of negative press in recent years, expats still flock to the city, and you can’t fault them for doing so.
According to Expatistan.com, the cost of living in Beijing is cheaper than in London by 51%, Bangkok by 11%, and Tokyo by 34%. When you combine such a low cost of living with plenty of well-paying jobs, expats can enjoy a very comfortable life even if they are a party animal who lives paycheck to paycheck.
Although Beijing is a large city, it is easy enough to get around thanks to (arguably) the best subway system in the world. Not only that, but public transportation is also very affordable.
In a city full of amazing things to do and see, being able to commute for a minimal price is one of the many advantages. Especially if you want to see any of the seven UNESCO world heritage sights scattered around Beijing, such as the Great Wall of China, Summer Palace, and Forbidden City.
Life in China’s capital does come with its difficulties, but, bypassing those, it is a city that you will find very difficult to leave.
- Population: Just over 21.5 million
- Average rent for a 2-bed apartment: RMB 11,000
- Where most foreigners are located: Sanlitun (三里屯) and Wangjing (望京)
- Pros: Plenty of job opportunities; cheap public transport; amazing tourist attractions
- Cons: Long-lasting humid summers and cold winters; relatively strict laws; low English proficiency amongst locals
2. Shanghai (上海)
It is no surprise that Shanghai makes the list of the most livable cities in China.
The cosmopolitan city is the perfect example of the economic boom China has experienced over the last few decades.
Thanks to its advantageous location, Shanghai is a major international hub which allows business to prosper and attracts some of the top businesspeople and companies from around the world as well as domestically.
The arrival of such companies brought with it plenty of jobs and a massive influx of people. As a result, Shanghai currently has the largest and densest population of all Chinese cities, and it feels like it when you are there.
Based on data collected by Statista, in 2020, Shanghai had an average population density of just under 4,000 people per square kilometer–three times more than Beijing, which ranked second.
Despite the drawbacks of living in Shanghai, many people declare "it the best city to reside in China".
- Population: Around 28.5 million
- Average rent for a 2-bed apartment: RMB 13,000
- Where most foreigners are located: Puxi District (浦西区)
- Pros: Perfect for travel to other cities and neighboring nations; full of western restaurants, bars, and cafes; high level of English proficiency amongst locals
- Cons: Most expensive city in China; humid summer and chilly winters; overcrowded in all areas
3. Shenzhen (深圳)
Shenzhen is the most southern city on this list and another haven for expats.
Since being made a Special Economic Zone in the 1980s, the local government has gained the right to accept investment without oversight from the central government, which has helped boost development.
This boost continues to attract to what is now one of China’s financial centers many expats who hope to get high-paying jobs while living in a much more affordable city.
In addition, Shenzhen is connected to Hong Kong via a bridge over the South China Sea and via metro.
Being able to enter HK has plenty of advantages:
• Expats who want to fly internationally can consider direct flights from the semi-autonomous region as it is much cheaper on average than Mainland China.
• Easy access to western restaurants, foreign products, and a feeling of being abroad.
• Luxury items or technology for much cheaper (China places taxes on foreign products while HK does not).
Given its location, Shenzhen has a very hot and humid wet season and a high typhoon risk. However, the dry season is very comfortable.
Although the southern city has many positives, it does fall short in a few areas.
The infrastructure in place is not good enough to deal with the number of people that have settled there, and the roads in some areas are a veritable death trap that one needs to navigate with care.
Also, there isn’t that much to do in Shenzhen.
When you type “things to do in Shenzhen” on TripAdvisor, the ninth “top attraction” is the Shenzhen metro, which doesn’t fill tourists with a lot of excitement.
Luckily, there are plenty of parks spread around the city and Shenzhen has its own “Window of the World”—a theme park featuring miniature-scale famous global landmarks.
If your idea of fun is to enjoy some food and a drink with your friends and/or family, then you can head to COCO Park or one of the many shopping malls.
- Population: Almost 13 million
- Average rent for a 2-bed apartment: RMB 9,000
- Where most foreigners are located: Nanshan District (南山区)
- Pros: Easy access to Hong Kong; expat-friendly city; modern
- Cons: Expensive; lack of things to do
4. Chengdu (成都)
If you prefer a more relaxed life surrounded by nature, then Chengdu is the place for you.
This city, capital of Sichuan Province, allows for the perfect work-life balance.
Residents can enjoy tea at one of the many teahouses, visit beautifully kept parks and (most excitingly) visit the (Giant Panda Breeding Research Base 熊猫基地).
If you are a hiker, then not too far away are Emei Mountain (峨眉山) and Leshan Giant Buddha (乐山大佛)—be sure to get there early for the latter.
Do take note that in Chengdu you will not earn as high a salary as in the major cities, and it is tough to find many English speakers or western areas. However, this can provide the perfect opportunity to save money, learn Mandarin Chinese, and improve your cooking skills.
Bear in mind that you may need to cook at home regularly, especially if you don’t like spicy food.
One important thing to note is that Sichuan Province is a high-risk area for earthquakes (something that kept me up at night in my panda-themed hotel).
So, if this thought is also going to keep you up at night, you may want to go elsewhere or look for a modern apartment building.
- Population: Around 11 million
- Average rent for a 2-bed apartment: RMB 5,000
- Where most foreigners are located: Just south of the second ring road in the Tong Zi Lin (桐梓林) area
- Pros: Great for saving money and learning Mandarin; incredible environment and scenery
- Cons: Prone to earthquakes; smaller expat community
5. Hangzhou (杭州)
There is a famous saying in Mandarin, “There is heaven above, and Suzhou and Hangzhou below” (上有天堂，下有苏杭). With Hangzhou’s historical relics and natural scenery, it is easy to understand why the saying exists.
Hangzhou’s most well-known attraction is West Lake, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The lake has inspired some of China’s most famous poets and artists and was once described as “the most beautiful place in the world” by Marco Polo.
Despite being subjected to a lot of modern development, Hangzhou has maintained its historical identity. Similar to Chengdu, there is not a huge expat community, and a language barrier may be an issue. However, unlike in Chengdu, you are very close to major cities such as Shanghai.
The high-speed rail (高铁) to Shanghai takes 45 minutes and costs RMB 73 (approximately £9 or $11).
Similarly, the other “heaven” mentioned in the Chinese saying, Suzhou, is only around twice the time and cost of going to Shanghai.
- Population: Over 8 million
- Average rent for a 2-bed apartment: RMB 5,000
- Where most foreigners are located: European Financial Centre (EFC)
- Pros: Amazing natural scenery; very cheap; easy access to Shanghai
- Cons: Small expat community; lack of English
Even though we have limited ourselves to the top five cities to live in in China for expats, no matter where you choose to go, you will not be disappointed.
China has many options depending on whether you like the hustle and bustle of the big cities, or the relaxed life surrounded by nature.
The majority of the major Chinese cities will have job opportunities and locals who want to talk to you and take photos with you.
Most importantly, in each of these cities, you will feel extremely safe, which will only improve the quality of your life.
About the Author
Mehmet has been a struggler, learner, and maybe one day a solid grasper of the Chinese language and country thanks to his decade plus spent in the Middle Kingdom.