Cost of living

The cost of living in China can vary substantially among neighborhoods, cities, and regions.

Beijing and Shanghai, for example, are much more expensive than secondary cities such as Chengdu or Kunming, which in turn are more expensive than smaller cities and countryside and your lifestyle (if you like drinking whiskey and cola in the elegant bars of Shanghai and buy extra virgin olive oil at the City Shop you will spend more than those who shop at Perry’s – a bar for students on Huai Hai Road where a bottle of Tsingtao beer will cost you 10 Yuan – and those who only eat Chinese food).

For example, you may struggle to find a small apartment in the center of Beijing or Shanghai for less than $800 per month.

Expect to pay at least 2,500-3,500 Yuan a month for a room in a shared apartment in Beijing or Shanghai (at least if you don’t want to live in the deep peripheries).

In other cities, the rent is much more economical but it depends on the individual case. You’ll also have to pay for electricity, water gas, and the internet.

According to our data, you shouldn’t spend more than 400-600 Yuan a month.

The expenses are for the entire apartment so if you live with others you should pay just a portion.

You’ll also need a cell phone. In general, 100 Yuan a month should be enough (also counting the internet) but it depends on your use.

A meal could cost you only 10-15 Yuan for a plate of jiaozi (ravioli) or of lamian (noodles). If however, you want to eat meat and fish regularly and visit elegant restaurants, prices rice quickly. It depends on your diet.

The subway and buses are still economical; let’s say 5 yuan a day (or 150 yuan a month). Taxis are becoming expensive, especially in Shanghai and Beijing, but are still much cheaper than those that you’ll find in Europe or the United States.

Let’s review: Rent (at least 3,000 Yuan) + utilities (at least 200 Yuan) + telephone bills (100 Yuan, with internet) + food (at least 2,100 Yuan for a high-quality diet, at least 1,100 Yuan for a diet that includes a lot of rice, pasta, and potatoes) + transportation (at least 150 Yuan) + going shopping (clothes) at least = 4,500-5,500 Yuan a month.

Let’s say, therefore that the starting point is 4,500 Yuan a month in Beijing or Shanghai. Clearly you should add expenses for entertainment (travel, dining out, alcohol, cigarettes, some tea), clothes, health insurance, visas, international flights, and unforeseen expenses.

Keep in mind that in China it is very common to perceive different benefits beyond just salary.

This can go from 5 Kg of rice for the Spring Festival up to total reimbursement for rent, transportation within the interior of the country (even taxis), health insurance, visas and an international flight a year.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • Depending on your lifestyle and where you settle down, it is possible to make a life for yourself in China for around $800 per month.
  • City centers like Shanghai or Beijing will tend to be more expensive than elsewhere.
  • While housing will be free of charge if you teach Engish, you’ll also need to make room for food, utilities, and transportation costs – some of which can be higher than in the United States.
  • Basic healthcare services are provided for free, but you may want to upgrade to privately-insured options.

Below is a table that provides a rough overview of the cost of living for the major urban centers in China as well as a couple of second-tier cities. In smaller cities, prices are even lower.

Transportation

SERVICEAVERAGE PRICE
Taxi Fare (Minimum Fare, First 3 Km)13.00 CNY
Taxi Fare (Fare per Km)2.30 CNY
Taxi Fare (Night Fare per Km)2.76 CNY
Subway Ticket (Minimum Fare)3.00 CNY
Bus Ticket (Minimum Fare)2.00 CNY
Train to the Airport25.00 CNY
Bus to Airport (Minimum Fare)15.00 CNY
Bike (Purchase)324.55 CNY
Electric Motorbike (Purchase)2,229.92 CNY

Utilities (Monthly Cost)

SERVICEAVERAGE PRICE
Internet Home Connection (China Mobile, 20 Mb/s)75.00 CNY
Smartphone Plan (China Mobile, 500 Mb)58.00 CNY
Smartphone Price per Minute (China Mobile, 500 Mb Plan)0.19 CNY
Electricity, Water, Gas, Heating (1 Person)213.20 CNY
VPN Service (For a Yearly Subscription)52.03 CNY

Accommodation (Monthly Rent)

SERVICEAVERAGE PRICE
Studio, City Center6,700.00 CNY
Room in Shared Apartment, City Center3,141.30 CNY
3 Rooms Apartment, City Center12,513.04 CNY
Studio, Far from City Center3,321.43 CNY
Room in Shared Apartment, Far from City Center2,182.35 CNY
3 Rooms Apartment, Far from City Center6,734.53 CNY

Sport and Leisure

SERVICEAVERAGE PRICE
Massage in a Luxury SPA459.65 CNY
Massage in a Small SPA164.92 CNY
Gym Monthly Fee383.75 CNY
Cinema (International Release)85.75 CNY

Eating and Drinking Out

SERVICEAVERAGE PRICE
Meal Inexpensive Restaurant33.41 CNY
Meal Expensive Chinese Restaurant162.60 CNY
Meal Expat Restaurant174.26 CNY
Meal at McDonald36.07 CNY
Domestic Beer in a “Student” Bar12.74 CNY
Imported Beer in a Night Club / High-End Venue44.78 CNY
Cocktail in a Night Club / High-End Venue70.14 CNY
Cup of Coffee27.41 CNY

Market

SERVICEAVERAGE PRICE
Regular Milk (1 Liter)15.89 CNY
Baguette16.32 CNY
White Rice (500 g)7.66 CNY
Eggs (6)11.68 CNY
Chicken Breasts (500 g)13.86 CNY
Apples (500 g)8.95 CNY
Oranges (500 g)9.60 CNY
Tomatoes (500 g)7.99 CNY
Potatoes (500 g)4.86 CNY
Lettuce (1 Head)3.81 CNY
Water (Bottle of 1.5 Liter)4.38 CNY
Bottle of Wine (Mid-Range)85.47 CNY
Domestic Beer (Bottle of 0.66 Liter)5.70 CNY
Imported Beer (Bottle of 0.33 Liter)13.71 CNY

Clothing

SERVICEAVERAGE PRICE
Jeans (Levi’s or similar)401.39 CNY
Summer Dress (H&M or similar)195.32 CNY
Sport Shoes (Nike or similar)608.00 CNY
Leather Shoes669.56 CNY

Other

SERVICEAVERAGE PRICE
Haircut (Chinese Shop)50.93 CNY
Haircut (International Shop)215.19 CNY
Nanny / Cleaning Lady (Hourly Fee)41.15 CNY

Monthly expenses (according to your profile)

In the table below we’ve listed expenses for three profiles that, even if they’re imaginary, reflect an accurate enough representation of three different lifestyles.

The first profile, which we have called “the Prude”, is the one that tries to save money in all possible ways: he has a room rented in a shared apartment far from the city center, uses only public transport, rarely frequents clubs, and instead of eating in restaurants cooks at home.

The second profile, which we’ve called the “Average ex-pat”, is one who concedes a few “luxuries” without going to extremes. The average ex-pat has a shared apartment in the center of the city, hits the clubs 2-3 times a week, every once in a while (especially at night) takes a taxi and often eats out, even if he often settles for a cheap Chinese restaurant.

The third profile, the so-called “Party animal”, is someone who doesn’t care about expenses: he lives in a studio in the center of the city, without roommates to break his balls, gets around exclusively by taxi, goes out often, eats almost only in “ex-pat” restaurants, indulges in two massages a week, etc.

THE PRUDETHE AVERAGE EXPATTHE PARTY ANIMAL
Beijing5,970 CNY10,937 CNY22,668 CNY
Guangzhou5,621 CNY10,814 CNY24,570 CNY
Shanghai6,431 CNY12,312 CNY27,450 CNY
Shenzhen5,952 CNY11,381 CNY25,241 CNY

Keep in mind that these are the expenses for top populated cities in China, where life is expensive. In 2nd and 3rd tier cities everything is cheaper. 

Is it expensive to live in China?

The cost of living in Shanghai is 5% lower than that of Rome, 6% higher than Madrid, 45% lower than London, 41% lower than New York, 26% lower than Los Angeles, 45% more expensive than Bangkok and 77% more expensive than Hanoi.

Note that the data considers only the costs, not salaries.

Therefore, for example, if you live in New York and earn three times what you could earn in Shanghai, despite the higher prices your quality of life in New York would be higher.

The reasoning also works conversely: it’s useless to decide to live in Hanoi, in Vietnam, just because it’s cheaper if they only pay you a third of what they would pay you in Shanghai.