This guide offers information and advice if you are moving to China.
Click on the different tabs to find out about anything from tax rules and banking to education and cultural highlights.
You can also read our city guide to Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai.
One wouldn't think that China is only taking measured steps towards capitalism. For expats moving to China, the country represents an opportunity-filled frontier of international business. Skilled expats are swayed to China to be at the forefront of the rapid growth and inherent changes in the country.
While this can make for surprising diversity and a hot pot mix of Chinese cultures, drawbacks of rapid growth (such as pollution and uninspired building developments) can define large parts of the cities. Yet amid the rapid development, expats can experience a Chinese way of life still centred around familiar values and traditional family structures.
Whether moving to China for business opportunity or for novelty, the new culture and settling cities can make unexpected difficulties for newly adjusting expats. Huge and jostling crowds, bureaucracy and tensions of a new culture weigh against luxuries of higher than average incomes and active expat communities. The complex layers of China's cities provide expats and Chinese alike a colourful culture and new way of life.
Shipping and removals
When shipping to China it is advisable to get quotes from several companies. Shipping from the UK takes around seven weeks, and about four to five weeks from the US. Air freight is a popular and much faster way to ship smaller cargo although prices for equivalent sizes are much more expensive than by sea. Sea cargo is charged by the size of the container and can vary from company to company. Air freight on the other hand is often billed by weight. It is a good idea to buy insurance on shipped cargo. China levies various taxes depending on the type of imported goods.
Bringing pets to China
Two certificates are needed to bring pets into China. An international health certificate must be given to the pet's owner by a veterinarian within thirty days before the pets are imported. A vaccination certificate is also needed but may be included in the international health certificate. This ensures all vaccinations are covered and up to date. There is a 30-day quarantine period after arrival although the pet may be allowed to spend this time in the owner's residence.
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Working in China
China has the world's second largest economy which is increasingly opening to foreign investment. Expats are coming to both represent foreign companies that are diving into the Chinese economy and to international companies that have large offices in China. Expats have traditionally taken upper management and senior level jobs in the fields of IT, human resources, finances, accounting, foreign banking and manufacturing. Other fields in need of skilled workers and trying to entice a larger expat workforce are pharmaceuticals, research and development, high-tech and engineering. Still the largest sector of expats within China are low-paid English teachers. Increasingly expats are coming to China to work in middle management positions in large companies.
Relocation packages are smaller than they were a few years ago, but many expats can still expect help with housing costs, airfare, health insurance and some tax payments. Expats hired from within China should expect much lower salaries and fewer benefits.
Almost all expat jobs are found in the major cities which all have large expat business communities. Speaking Mandarin will be a big advantage and often a way to secure a high-paying job. However, many international companies use English in everyday affairs and many expats get by without Mandarin.
Visa and work permits
Work visas must be applied for at an embassy before arriving in China. Residence permits are applied for from within the country. Most expats coming to work in China are employed by a company already. They are typically familiar with the work visa process and, thankfully, much of the paperwork must be completed by the employer.
After the company completes the initial paperwork, including certification ensuring the health of the employee, a visa notification letter is sent to the applicant which must be forwarded to the nearest embassy along with a visa application, passport, photos and birth certificate and the medical examination certificate.
Shortly after arriving, employees have to register with the Public Security Bureau which requires most of the same documents. After 30 days in China expats will apply for a type of residence permit which depends on how long they plan on staying in china. If you are on a travel visa while in China and are offered a job it is often possible to apply for an employment visa from within the country. Family members must go through the same process for visas. This can be a tedious and confusing process and it may be worth hiring an agency to help with the process.
Opening a bank account in China is recommended as withdrawing money from an overseas account via ATMs incurs expensive fees. To open a bank account expats need their visa, proof of residence, passport and patience to stand in long queues for a fairly straightforward application process. Often it is possible to connect with an overseas bank account allowing for money transfers between two accounts.
Information provided by banks is often written in Chinese and it is a good idea to either ask for an English translation or bring along a Chinese reader. While Chinese banks will provide new account holders with a debit card which works at the many ATMs in major cities, paying for goods at stores is usually done with cash only. The withdrawal limits are lower than in Europe or the US. For the big spenders, opening two accounts doubles the withdrawal amount.
Expats living in China between one and five years must pay taxes on income derived from China and on income brought into the country. Those living in the country for less than one year only have to pay taxes on income derived from China.
China taxes expats on their total worldwide income only when they have lived in the country for at least five years. However, if the individual also pays taxes abroad, it can be deducted from the Chinese tax. For many expats, who live in both China and a separate country, the total days spent inside China are used to determine tax status.
Incomes over 4,800 Chinese Yuan (RMB) are taxed at a progressive rate which can reach 45 percent of income for top tax brackets. Tax laws change often and it is important to keep up to date as the country has been increasingly concerned with tracking expat taxes. As in any country the tax laws are complex and may be better dealt with through a tax planner. Companies should help newly hired employees initially register for the tax system.
Chinese people are punctual and it is therefore considered rude to be late for business meetings. It is customary when meeting someone for the first time to shake hands and say 'ni hao', which means 'how are you'.
When giving or receiving a gift or business card, it is customary to hold it with both hands. It should be noted that the Chinese consider gifts as an important show of courtesy.
Business hours are Monday to Saturday from 8am to 5pm and expats can relax as a five-day week is more normal in larger cities.
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Living and culture
One of the biggest challenges expats report is the indiscreet focus of attention westerners experience in restaurants or walking down streets. Furthermore, there is also an obvious mark-up for products sold to foreigners which can frustrate expats who otherwise try to be part of the community. Others can feel too much part of the community as enormous and dense crowds push and pack into public transportation or crowded sidewalks. Living in densely packed areas is often the largest cultural difference of life in China's cities.
When shopping, it is customary to bargain for goods and the first offered price isn't expected to be accepted. This isn't the case in most shopping malls that are often mirror images of western shopping centres.
Also part of everyday life are long queues and the bureaucracy you face in places such as banks and hospitals.
Many of China's cities have high levels of pollution and it is common to wear a face mask to filter the pollution when walking in the city.
Cost of living
The cost of living in China is much lower than in western countries although certain aspects of life in major cities can be comparable.
Accommodation in the downtown districts of Beijing and Shanghai can be expensive although cheaper smaller accommodation is usually easy to find. Many relocated expats can experience luxuries that are too expensive in their home country, such as maid service or nannies, with some expats even hiring a car and driver.
Female expats in China
Living in China can be a challenge for women because of strong gender stereotypes. Becoming a member of a women's club can ease come of the tension:
Guangzhou Women's International Club:
Expatriate Professional Women Society:
Is my internet censored?
The Chinese have successfully censored internet sites the government deems subversive. Foreign news sites, such as CNN and the New York Times, are often accessible for a short period of time and then blocked again. This is an ongoing controversy and levels of enforcement and effectiveness change often.
Most of the general population can't speak English. This makes a basic Mandarin vocabulary necessary for ordering food, purchasing goods or asking for directions. Knowing Mandarin, even the rudiments of the grammar, is also a large bonus for employment in any company in China.
Mandarin is very different from western languages and therefore difficult to learn. The written characters are separate from the spoken language.
Cantonese is mostly spoken in Hong Kong, Macau and the Guangdong Province.
Expats should note that the Chinese have three names. The first being their surname or family name and as a result expats should prepare themselves for being called by their surnames. For clarity surnames may be underlined when written down and when addressing Chinese people expats should do so beginning with their surname, using official titles.
Foreigners should carry ID at all times as spot checks are common and failure to show ID will result in a fine or detention.
Education and schools
Parents everywhere tend to agonise over their child's education, and those expats moving to China will find the matter is much the same abroad, only, it's further complicated by factors like language and cost. Expats will find a large number of schools in China, and regardless of whether a public, private, international or homeschool curriculum is preferred, one certainty remains - school is a serious matter in this Asian superpower.
International schools in China
Most expats living in China still prefer to send their children to an international school. These institutions are in no short supply, and they tend to be the obvious choice for those searching for a smooth and quick transition for their student.
Most of these schools follow either an International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum or the curriculum taught in their respective country. That said, standard coursework is often coloured with elements of local learning, and many of the schools teach Chinese (Mandarin or Cantonese) to children from even a very young age. The primary teaching language is usually English or the language of the respective home-country.
International schools in China come in many different shapes and sizes and have pupils from all over the world, but one common feature connecting all international institutions is a very high annual tuition fee. Depending on the school and the age of the student, costs can rival that of a US university.
Expats moving to China should make an extra effort to negotiate an education allowance in their package if one is not already included. That said, even if your employer agrees to shoulder the sky-high costs, admissions to these schools can be competitive and the most popular schools may even have waiting lists. Interviews, placement tests and a general application are among admission requirements, so it is best to start correspondence from your home-country if possible.
Chinese private schools and bilingual schools
Some private schools in China may merely be more expensive mirror images of their state-sponsored counterparts, but others may integrate bits and bobs of foreign and IB curriculum and may even offer instruction in English as well as Chinese. Alternative learning schools, like Montessori and Waldorf, also fall into this category.
These schools tend to attract pupils from a diverse, but well-to-do background; as well as many local children who’s standardised test scores did not qualify them for one of the more reputable public schools. Tuition tends to be more costly than that of public schools, but still lower than those of the international schools.
Public schools in China
As the Chinese economy continues to explode and the expat population consequently expands, more and more foreigners are sending their children to public schools in China. Families are slowly becoming more forthcoming about their permanence in the Far East and those pushing down roots want their children to become as well assimilated as possible.
As in all countries, some state schools in China are better than others, but overall, the best institutions uphold a high-standard, and are often more competitive and more rigorous than those found in an expat’s home-country. Foreigners who choose this option should be aware that Chinese schools do not have second language programs, all lessons and coursework will be in Chinese; with few concessions made for foreign students. Furthermore, the teaching style tends to centre less around critical thinking and more on teaching by rote.
Tuition costs for these schools vary, but even the most expensive institution will be cheaper than that of an international school.
Home schooling in China
Many expats living in China find their children’s education options constrained by their own financial status. Specifically, couples who have migrated to the East to teach English simply can’t scrape the necessary amount of money together to send their kids to a school that suits their standards.
It follows that homeschooling is both a plausible and popular option for many, and it’s common for the larger cities to have homeschooling groups in place as support systems for parents and students.
Though school is compulsory for Chinese citizens, it is not compulsory for foreigners; thus homeschooling is perfectly legal in China for expat children of any age.
Those who choose this option will need to bring all necessary learning materials and textbooks with them, or will need to purchase them from Amazon and pay the international shipping charge. There is only a very limited selection of English literature in China, and it tends to be costly.
Links to schools
Click on the cities for links to international schools:
Time: GMT + 8 hours.
Currency: The Renminbi (CNY, ¥), meaning “The People’s Currency", is the official currency of China. It is also referred to as yuan. The units are yuan, jiao and fen although Fen has almost disappeared. 1 yuan is equal 10 jiao and to 100 fen. You can check the latest exchange rates here.
Electricity: The electrical current in China is 220 volts, 50Hz. Different types of plugs are used but the two-pin flat blade and oblique three-pin flat blade plugs are common and expats should make sure they have compatible adapters.
Safety: China is safe in terms of violent crime. Expats usually feel safe to walk home at night in major cities, although obvious risks and bad neighbourhoods should be avoided. Expats have to be careful in crowds as they can be victims of petty crimes, such as pick-pocketing and scams. The largest danger to expats is food safety as many people suffer from disease and bacteria resulting from unclean or improperly cooked foods.
Expats should also be aware of the risk of heavy rains and typhoons, which cause hundreds of deaths each year, particularly around the areas bordering the Yangtze River.
Communications: Expats relocating to China should note that the outgoing telephone code is 00 followed by the relevant country code (eg 0027 for South Africa) and the international access code for China is +86. International Direct Dialling is available in most major cities and phone cards are widely available. Expats will find that mobile phone networks are very advanced and mobile phone operators use GSM 900 networks and have roaming agreements with most non-North American international operators. Internet cafes are available in most main towns and high speed broadband ADLS Internet is found in most major cities.
Climate: China covers extensive territory and the weather differs from region to region. The south-east can be very wet with high temperatures all year round. In the central Yangtze and Huaihe River valleys, extreme temperatures can be experienced with hot summers and very cold wet winters. The north is dry with sunny summers and long cold winters, while the coast is humid and entailing a risk of monsoons during summer.
Embassy contact details
- Chinese Embassy, Washington DC, United States: +1 202 328 2500.
- Chinese Embassy, London, United Kingdom: +44 (0)20 7299 4049.
- Chinese Embassy, Ottawa, Canada: +1 613 789 3434.
- Chinese Embassy, Canberra, Australia: +61 (0)2 6273 4780.
- Chinese Embassy, Pretoria, South Africa: +27 (0)12 431 6500.
- Chinese Embassy, Dublin, Ireland: +353 (0)1 260 1119.
- Chinese Embassy, Wellington, New Zealand: +64 (0)4 472 1382.
Foreign Embassies in China
- United States Embassy, Beijing: +86 (0)10 8531 3000.
- British Embassy, Beijing: +86 (0)10 8529 6600.
- Canadian Embassy, Beijing: +86 (0)10 5139 4000.
- Australian Embassy, Beijing: +86 (0)10 5140 4111.
- South African Embassy, Beijing: +86 (0)10 6532 7323.
- Irish Embassy, Beijing: +86 (0)10 6532 2691.
- New Zealand Embassy, Beijing: +86 (0)10 8532 7000.
Wordtravels.com has an extensive travel guide to China: http://wordtravels.com/Travelguide/Countries/China
Banking, Money and Taxes in China:
List of Chinese banks: www.portalino.it/banks/_cn.htm
Taxes in China:
Tax information: www.chinatax.gov.cn/n6669073/index.html
Tax adviser: www.lehmanlaw.com/professionals/tax-advisors.html
Working in China:
Chinese job listings: www.zhaopin.com
Chinese job listings: www.chinahr.com
Recruitment company: www.wang-li.com
Work Permits for China:
Visa agency: www.mychinavisa.com
Visa agency: chinavisaservice.org
Shipping and Removals to China:
Allied Pickfords: www.alliedpickfords.com.cn
Air Freight: www.worldfreight.co.uk/commair.asp
Shipping and removal company: www.kellysuts.com
Pet relocation: www.aemovers.com.hk
Shipping services: http://www.shipping-international.com/