China remains a popular choice for many expats to live and work. Whether as a teacher, copywriter, education consultant or any other profession, China is rife with job opportunities.
And when the COVID-19 epidemic is eventually over (it will end at some point!), China will allow expats to enter the country once again. This is your Moving to China Guide for when that time finally arrives. With everything from visas to SIM cards, cost of living to Chinese APPs, we’ve got you covered in this comprehensive guide.
Moving to China: Prior to Arrival
1. Getting a Visa
This is something every expat needs to do in order to work in China legally.
To work full-time in mainland China, you will need a Z-visa. You will need to apply for this at your nearest Chinese visa center. You should take:
- Your passport along with a copy
- Passport photos
- Completed visa application form
- Original authenticated criminal background check
- Authenticated copy of college or university degree certificate
- Documents provided by your employer in China
Be sure to check in advance if any other documents are required. Bear in mind that getting a Z-visa can be a lengthy process. Authentication is required for your criminal background check and undergraduate degree certificate (a minimum requirement for working in China). This involves sending documents to the foreign office and the Chinese consulate or embassy in your home country. This part of the process can be particularly long.
BEWARE of employers that want you to arrive in China without a work visa. Working on anything other than a Z-visa is illegal and you will bear the consequences if you are caught.
Here are a few things almost everyone will need to save for before arriving in China:
- Apartment deposit; normally this is one or two months of your rent. How much you pay in rent will depend on whether you live in the city center or in the suburbs, whether you share or live by yourself and other factors.
- Plane ticket
- Day to day essentials
- Exactly how much you need to save depends on a number of things. Where you choose to live in China will determine how much you pay in rent and on groceries. Living in first-tier cities Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou or Shenzhen will be very different from living elsewhere. For a comprehensive look at the cost of living in China, check out this link.
You should also consider whether anything in the above list is sponsored by your employer. Apartment deposits and plane tickets can be expensive, but many employers will offer remuneration for these expenses as part of their salary package (more on this later).
3. Learning Basic Mandarin
No moving to China guide would be complete without some survival Chinese.
Your job in China may not require you to speak Mandarin. In the case of English teachers, some employees are even told not to speak the students’ native language in order to create an English-speaking environment. Outside of the workplace however, you will almost definitely come across situations in which speaking basic Mandarin will be useful.
To get started, here are a few suggestions of things to learn:
- Directions for finding your way around town and speaking to taxi drivers etc.
- Ordering food and drink
- Self-introduction e.g. name, nationality etc.
And whilst learning Chinese characters can be daunting, you may find places which lack signs in English. This is particularly true in smaller local restaurants. With this in mind, you may want to learn a few basic Chinese characters so you can read things like menus.
Language learning is a pretty simple equation; you get out what you put in. If you’re happy to just learn the basics, that’s fine. But if you are serious about becoming a fluent Chinese speaker, you may want to consider finding a teacher. Whilst there are Mandarin language schools in China, my experience has taught me that you can easily find a Chinese teacher through Facebook and WeChat groups, or simply through friends or colleagues. You could pay your teacher a small fee, or offer them something else in return, such as English lessons. The latter arrangement is usually referred to as a language exchange.
Prior to your arrival in China, there’s a good chance your Chinese level will be very low or non-existent (at least this was the case for me). In this case you may want to download Chinese dictionary APP Pleco as well as translation APPs such as Baidu or Google translate. Note the latter only works with a Virtual Private Network (VPN) (more on downloading one of these later).
Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and many other websites and social media are blocked in mainland China. If you want to access them, you will need to log your IP address in a different location. You can do this via a VPN.
According to Tech Radar, these are the VPNs that work in China as of June 2020:
- Hotspot Shield
- Vypr VPN
Note this situation can change. Personally, I have used Vypr VPN since 2014 and never experienced any major problems. Their customer service has also been pretty good.
It is worth signing up for a paid subscription BEFORE you arrive in China. This is because after you arrive in China, you may find the web page where you register for a paid subscription is blocked.
And beware of free VPNs. They may save you money but cost you in internet security. Put it this way, if you’re going to use one, avoid doing anything sensitive such as banking etc.
5. Unlocking your Phone for China
This may be necessary if you want to use your smartphone with a Chinese SIM card. And let’s face it, you’re going to use a Chinese SIM if you’re living in China (more on this later).
Requirements may differ slightly depending on your smartphone and or network provider. But generally speaking, you may have to get in touch with your network provider before you go to China. Or you may be able to unlock your phone with an unlock code from a specialist.
Either way, just be sure to research how you can unlock your phone before you arrive in China.
6. Packing for China
Without mentioning all the obvious things of course.
If it’s your first time moving abroad for the long-term, remember to pack for all four seasons, something I didn’t consider until my mother reminded me (I promise she didn’t do all my packing). Winter woolies as well as shorts and t-shirts. Even if you work somewhere hot and humid like Guangdong, you may fancy a winter trip to China’s northeast. A vast country with a varied climate means you should be prepared for all types of weather.
If you’re going to miss your favorite brand of coffee or chocolate or whatever, you can always take some with you (remember to check that anything you take with you meets customs regulations). In China’s first and second-tier cities, you will find plenty of imported supermarkets. Although if you need something specific, you may want to check in advance if it is available nearby where you’re going to live. Asking via local expat groups on Facebook and WeChat may be one way to do this.
Bring some passport photos (as well as your actual passport) as these will be used after arrival to apply for your residency permit. And be sure to bring original copies of your degree certificate, criminal background check as well as any other documents required for your residency and work permits.
Being old-fashioned and making a packing checklist is probably not a bad policy.
Moving to China: After Arrival
7. Getting a Chinese SIM
If you haven’t yet read the part of the Moving to China Guide about unlocking your phone, read that first.
You have a choice of three mobile operators: China Mobile/China Telecom/China Unicom. You can go to a store to sign up for a Chinese SIM. Staff may speak a little English, but to be sure you get a good deal, you may want to go with a Chinese-speaker to help you.
You will need your passport. And since December 2019, all users have been required to provide a full facial scan. If providing such sensitive biometric data troubles you, I’m afraid there’s little you can do about it if you want the convenience of using mobile data whilst in China.
Note too that Chinese SIMs will expire after a long period of non-use. Something you may want to bear in mind if you leave China for a long time before returning.
8. Looking for an Apartment
You probably won’t find your dream home, but you may be able to find a comfortable place to live during your time in China with monthly rent that won’t break the bank. Like anywhere else in the world, if you want to live by yourself in the city center, you will pay more than if you live in shared accommodation in the suburbs.
Ziroom, known as zìrú in Chinese, is by far the most convenient option for finding a place to rent. Paying rent, deposit and utility bills, as well as signing a contract can all be done through the Ziroom APP. There are a few catches however. The APP’s English-language service is limited; apartment listings are available in English but otherwise most information is in Chinese only. And to make payments, you need a Chinese bank card as payments are made through either WeChat Pay, Ali Pay, or yīwǎngtōng yínháng kǎ (a form of mobile payment compatible with numerous Chinese bank cards). It is perhaps a good option for those already settled in China and with some Chinese language skills.
Otherwise, your best option may be to get help from colleagues or friends to put you in touch with an agent. As mentioned earlier in this guide, you will need to have some savings ready to pay for a deposit. Before you sign a contract, make sure you get someone to read over the Chinese copy as this will be referred to in case of any legal disputes.
In some Chinese cities, you may be able to get a discount on your rent if you submit a rental fapiao (a kind of receipt) each month via your employer. Ask your landlord or housing agent to prepare this for you if necessary.
9. Banking in China
Because we all need to get paid.
Opening an account in a branch is not especially difficult. And any responsible employer will likely have someone take you there to give you a hand. Remember to bring your passport. The bank employees will likely check your working visa and ask about where you work.
Sending money to your bank account back home is where things can get a little more complicated. In order to do it by yourself, you will need to fill out forms which prove you have paid the necessary taxes in China. However, in my experience, sending money back home is less hassle when you let a Chinese person you trust do it for you. On two occasions, I received this advice from bank employees themselves. So make sure you make some close Chinese friends or get a Chinese partner. Your limit is 50,000 USD per year. Let’s be honest, you’ll be lucky to earn that much.
To make life a little easier, you can also link your Chinese bank card to China’s mobile payment systems, namely WeChat Pay and Ali Pay (more on these later).
10. Downloading Chinese APPs
The era of smart technology has well and truly taken China by storm. To make life that little bit easier, here are a few suggested APPs you can use whilst in China:
Without it, life in China will be very difficult. Think of WhatsApp and Facebook rolled into one. When it comes to messaging, this is what the vast majority of those in China use. The APP also has its own mobile payment system.
Owned by Ali Baba, this is the other of China’s mobile payment systems alongside WeChat Pay. Shop on online Chinese retail website Tao Bao, book a taxi, book a hotel, transfer money to friends and more.
This is mainly used for ordering takeout food although there are many other functions too. Great for getting dinner to your door on a lazy night in.
This is China’s answer to Uber. The ride-hailing APP is available in almost all big cities in mainland China. A quick, safe, and relatively inexpensive way to get from A to B.
You’ll probably come across many other APPs during your time in China. I’ve heard Dou Yin (known as Tik Tok in Western countries) is great fun although it’s never really been for me.
11. Salary and Taxes
Many expats who work in China are surprised at how much money they can save whilst living a decent lifestyle.
As with anywhere else in the world, salaries in China vary depending on what industry you work in, as well as your level of experience and qualifications. You will be expected to pay income tax in China assuming you earn above the tax threshold. Your employer should take care of this for you. As of recently, your employer should also take you to the local tax office once per year to check you are paying the right amount of tax. I did this recently in Beijing and got a nice surprise in the form of a tax rebate (whoever said the taxman couldn’t be kind?).
With this in mind, you should check with your employer before you start work how much you will earn after tax. Salaries advertised may only show the amount you earn monthly before any tax is deducted. You may also find that some employers will offer you certain benefits to help supplement your income. Flight allowances, accommodation expenses, free meals and more are commonly offered to expat employees. This can make a huge difference to your income whilst working in China.
And remember, despite working in China, you may still be required to pay tax in your home country. It is your responsibility to check you are paying the right amount and avoid any issues when you travel back home.
12. Health Insurance
A key part of any Moving to China Guide. Because you never know when an accident, injury or illness might strike.
As a minimum, your employer in China is legally obliged to provide you with Chinese social insurance, something to which you will have to contribute a small amount of your monthly salary. You will receive a social insurance card which you can use at any public hospital in China.
Otherwise, your employer may provide you with private health insurance. Check here for more information.
Regardless of whether you use Chinese social insurance or private health insurance, check with your employer that you are covered in some form. A stay in any Chinese hospital can result in eye-watering amounts of money without any form of insurance. Accidents, injury or illness can strike at any time. Don’t get caught out.
13. Cost of Living
Wherever you are, it is possible to live on a budget. Eat in local eateries, live in shared accommodation away from the city center, travel via public transport etc., and you’ll find yourself with a lot of cash leftover at the end of the month. Regularly eat out at fancy Western restaurants, drink in cafes, drink in bars, take taxis everywhere etc., and you’ll find yourself spending a lot of your monthly salary.
At the end of the day, how you budget is up to you. If you are intent on saving money during your time in China, you may want to do some research of the city you are moving to. Facebook and WeChat groups can be useful resources in finding good value places to eat, drink, shop and do whatever else.
14. Travelling around China
During your time in the Middle Kingdom, you may feel the urge to get out and explore. From the metropolises of Shanghai and Hong Kong, to the greenery of Yunnan and Guangxi. From the ice and snow of the northeast, to the desert of the northwest. China is a vast land with plenty of intriguing places to travel.
Getting around is surprisingly easy presuming you have your passport handy. Train and plane tickets can be booked through Trip.com. Travelling by train in China is surprisingly cheap. The high-speed rail network is particularly extensive, reaching almost all provinces within the country. Even more extensive is the older railway network, although journey times are excessively long if you’re travelling long distance.
Be aware that you will need to book tickets early during Chinese public holidays. Whether flying or taking the train, be sure to get to the airport or railway station early as collecting your tickets and getting through security can take a long time.
Remember too that you cannot leave mainland China before you receive your residency permit. If you do so, you will not be able to re-enter on the Z-visa in your passport.
When Life gets back to normal
Although it may not feel like it right now, COVID-19 will one day be a distant memory and Corona will just be something you drink in a bar.
When that time arrives, China will no doubt begin to open its borders to expats once again. And expats will be able to take advantage of the fantastic work opportunities China has to offer.
Your Moving to China Guide won’t be a silver bullet to solve all your problems, but will certainly help you settle down in the Middle Kingdom.