Part 1 of 1 in the "Being a Nomad Moving Guides" series
Being a Nomad Moving Guides
  • Moving to China: The Essentials

Are you considering moving to China?

Maybe you have a job there, want to get a job when you get there, or simply want to stay there for a while and enjoy some of the lowest living costs in the world.

Whatever your reason for moving to China, it’s important to know what you’re doing. Overlooking something could result in fines, deportation and being banned from the country.

I’ve written this guide as part of the Being a Nomad Moving Guide series, where we’ll cover what you need to know before you make that move to a country.

Read on to learn about the essential things you need to know before moving to China.

If you're considering moving to China because of a job or because you want to live there, you'll need to prepare to make things run smoothly. This post tells you what you need to know including what Chinese visa to get and what to do when you arrive. #movingtochina #livinginchina #chinaexpat #chinesevisas

The most important visa types and how to get them

Before visiting or moving to China , you’ll need to get hold of a visa. The Chinese government issues a lot of different visas for different purposes. However, you will probably need an L, B, X or Z visa.

Tourist visa (L)

It is very easy to get a tourist visa to China for one or two months. You simply need to fill out a visa application which you can do at a Chinese embassy or some consulates.

However, you will need to book hotels and plane tickets (both ways) and add these to your visa application. If you have a friend in China and they are willing to host you, you can attach an invitation letter from them instead of a hotel booking.

Be careful of homestays on sites like Airbnb in China. Although it’s great to have an opportunity to stay with a Chinese family, China often considers homestays as illegal hotels and there are often crackdowns. If you want to do a homestay, I recommend you book a hotel first that has a flexible cancellation policy. That way you can cancel the hotel and sort out your arrangements later. Be aware that there risks involved with this, however.

Hotels you find on hotel sites like booking.com should be safe though, although read the reviews, just in case.

Getting a three-month tourist visa (or longer) is usually more difficult. You will probably have to provide a bank statement showing that you have $100 available in your account for each day you intend to stay in China.

However, in the past few years British and American citizens have found themselves getting two-year tourist visas, or even longer. We know Americans who are on 10-year tourist visas. But you can’t ask for a visa of that length on your application form. It usually just depends on luck.

A Chinese L VIsa in a passport with 10 and 1 yuan notes in the background
China Visa for travel by yourself in this country

Business visa (B)

Theoretically, a business visa is only for people who are moving to China to work on secondment for their international company. However, in practice, a lot of people come to work in China on a business visa.

Note, this is technically illegal. If you want to go through the official channel to work over there, you will need a job that will issue you a Z visa (see below).

However, many officials turn a blind eye to people working on a business visa. Business visas are also preferable to many expats who can’t or don’t want to get a Z visa, for whatever reason. This is because B visas can last longer than tourist visas (unless you’re from a country where they issue long tourist visas).

To apply for a business visa, you need a letter for a company that invites you to China. If you do a Google search, you can find companies that will send you letters online. This is usually illegal, though, so do this at your own risk.

Student visa (X)

To get a student visa you need to be enrolled in a Chinese university or a language school. They are usually quite expensive, so there’s not much point doing that if you’re not planning to study.

If you are moving to China to study, this can be a great way to get an extended stay.

Working visa (Z)

This visa is for people working in China. The company that employs you needs to have a permission to employ foreigners. You (or rather the company that employs you) will need to apply for a residence permit within 30 days after you entered China. Every city has an official office for doing this.

Note, when issuing your residence permit, the office might withhold your passport for up to 30 days. If you wish to travel by train, you’ll need to ask for a slip of paper that explains the situation. Usually, you need to show your passport before boarding the train.

More Advice

You can read more about the visa process, some pitfalls I encountered and how you can avoid them in my blog series about My Chinese Visa Problems.

ATMs and Setting Up a Bank Account

ATMs are prevalent in China and those that belong to the major banks accept international cards. They tend to be within enclosed buildings and you often need a bank card to enter at night. Since there’s no guarantee your card will grant you access to a bank, you may have issues getting money out at night with a foreign card.

Two women taking out cash from a Chinese cash machine, a glass closed door behind the machine
Chinese ATMs are often in enclosed areas and you might have to use a bank card to gain access.

If you’re moving to China for the long-term, you’ll probably want to consider getting a bank account. It’s difficult to set up a bank account unless you have a work permit and banks will often want to take scans of your passport. Usually, however, they can set up a bank account within a day. Note, your Chinese employer might insist you bank with a specific banking company for tax purposes.

It’s also a good idea to ask your bank to set up mobile banking for you. They’ll typically give you some kind of gadget with a code that refreshes every minute. You can use this to check your balance and pay for things online.

International transfers are difficult from bank accounts and you may often need to ask a Chinese friend to transfer money for you (one way of doing it is on Alipay).

Living costs

Living costs in China are incredibly low. Which is great if one reason you have for moving to China is to save money.

If you cook at home using local ingredients, it’s possible to live on around 300-400 RMB a week (around $45-$60/£35 to £45). If you eat in cheap restaurants it can be even cheaper. However, many Westerners can find cheap Chinese meals a little heavy on their stomachs due to the grease content.

You can read more about some more unusual Chinese foods, in our article on 7 Weird Chinese Foods We Learned to Love.

Chinese sichuan hotpot -- one of the delicacies you'll discover when moving to China.
Sichuan Hotpot is just one example of food you’ll find over in China

Of course, if you eat out in more expensive restaurants you will need to spend more money. Also, Western food is much more expensive in China. Things like cheese or cream can only be bought in some shops and are quite pricey. A good way to save money on Western food is to order it in bulk on Taobao (see below).

The apartment’s cost depends on a location. In cities like Shanghai or Beijing, you might need to pay 10000 RMB ($1500/£1,150) or more for a two-bedroom apartment in the city centre. Outside of centre you can expect to pay half that. In smaller cities, it’s possible to find a two-bedroom apartment for less than 2000 RMB ($300/£230).

Electricity is not very expensive, however, if you live in South China you can end up spending quite a lot because of air conditioning in summer and heating in winter. Generally, it costs around 8 to 9 US cents per kilowatt hour.

Medical cover

There’s no free medical care in China. If you are ill you go to the hospital to see a doctor there. The visits are not expensive, but unless you live in a big city the doctor is unlikely to speak English, so it might be good to bring a translator with you.

Medicines are also not that expensive, but it’s difficult to get many Western medicines (like any flu relief tablets). Fortunately, again, you can buy them on Taobao.

China also has some excellent international hospitals, which can be much cheaper than private medical institutions back home.

I talk a lot about my experience with hospitals in China, in my blog series about my thyroid cancer when I was an expat over there.

Fuzhou general hospital from below
Fuzhou General Hospital

Phone

You’ll probably need to buy a sim card after moving to China as roaming on home networks doesn’t tend to work there. Again, it’s not too expensive, but you need to bring your passport to the mobile phone shop to get one.

China has an incredibly fast mobile phone network and the apps you can use on it makes it too useful not to have. China Telecom and China Unicom are the major phone providers and I recommend going with one of them.

Also note that the Chinese mobile network uses specific frequency bands that many mobile phones don’t support. If you’re taking a phone to China, you might want to do some Googling on your phone model to check it will work over there.

Firewall

As you probably know, because of the Chinese Firewall you can’t use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp or any Google services in China.

But you can do it if you use VPN. but firstly, it will always be slower, and secondly, you need to pay for any decent VPN. But even the best VPN has worse days sometimes, due to crackdowns by the Chinese government. This is just something you get used to while living in China.

We used Express VPN during our time living in China which has been voted numerous times as the best VPN provider. Most days, we could use this to stream movies.

We’ve also used Pure VPN, which also worked well for us.

Useful apps/web pages

WeChat (微信)

This app is similar to WhatsApp, but it has more functions, making it incredibly useful when you first move to China. One of the most useful of these is Wechat wallet. You can connect your WeChat wallet to your bank account and used it pay for almost everything (a bit like Google or Apple pay).

Using WeChat, you can order food, book train tickets or order a taxi. And many more things… We’ve even used it to get orange juice from a vending machine. You can also use it to transfer money to friends.

A quick warning: if you opened you Wechat account with a non-Chinese phone number you won’t be able to use Wechat wallet.

WeChat screenshot
WeChat Wallet Screenshot

Alipay (支付)

Alipay is similar to WeChat wallet, with the added functionality that it can be connected to your bank account and used to pay for almost everything. Chinese people generally prefer to pay via Alipay, but unfortunately they don’t offer an English interface. Once you learn a little Chinese, however, you’re likely to start using Alipay more than WeChat wallet.

Baidu Maps (百度地图)

As Google Maps doesn’t work in China, you can use Baidu Maps as an alternative. Everything’s in Chinese, so you’ll need to learn the Chinese symbols for the places you want to go to.

If you’re moving to China to save money, Baidu maps can be your best friend as you can use it to navigate local buses. It takes a little working out, but once you get the hang of it, Baidu Maps is just as useful as Google Maps back home.

Baidu maps screenshot
Baidu Maps Screenshot

Baidu translate (百度翻译)

Again, Baidu Translate is an alternative to Google. One very useful function is that you can scan writing and it will translate the characters for you. You can also hold up your phone camera to a menu and the app will translate the characters in real-time. You’ll need a 4G sim card for this, however.

Taobao (淘宝)

Taobao is a bit like eBay. You can buy virtually everything there and the delivery time is often very short. Of course, often cheap things will be lower quality, but they’re also easy to replace. You can pay on Taobao using Alipay or your mobile banking service.

Note: China’s equivalent of Black Friday occurs on the 11th November, with another smaller event on the 12th December. Delivery times are much longer around these dates, and it can take up to a month to get your item.

Taobao screenshot
Taobao screen shot. Taobao is also the word you can use in a restaurant if you want to take something away to eat later.

Thank you for reading my article about moving to China. If you have any question, or there’s anything you want to see added to this article, feel free to reach out in the comments below.

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If you're considering moving to China because of a job or because you want to live there, you'll need to prepare to make things run smoothly. This post tells you what you need to know including what Chinese visa to get and what to do when you arrive. #movingtochina #livinginchina #chinaexpat #chinesevisas
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About Ola Jagielska

Ola Jagielska is an ESL teacher (you can find her on http://englishforthebusy.com), language enthusiast and co-author of this blog. She speaks seven languages and is striving for more. She loves travelling, reading and drinking good coffee.

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