Pros and cons of moving to Taipei

Taipei strikes a wonderful balance of the pros and cons (mostly pros) of living in East Asia. It’s less polluted and has fewer massive boulevards than Beijing, is friendlier than Hong Kong, cheaper and easier to assimilate into than Tokyo and warmer than Seoul.

Many people who move to Taipei end up staying long-term and cite the ease with which they made friends in Taiwan, its accessibility, the opportunities to learn Chinese, the variety of geography and outdoor activities, the laid-back culture and delicious food as reasons.

On the other hand, if coming from the West, Taipei might seem more intense, dirtier and full of confusing social and business customs. It can be hard to adjust to the weather, the traffic and some elements of business culture, but most foreigners enjoy all of the great things Taipei has to offer for the open-minded expat.

Most people leave Taipei – if they leave at all – with great memories, happy for the time they spent living in Taiwan.

Accommodation in Taipei

+ PRO: Accommodation is often cheaper in Taiwan than in Japan or the West

It's possible to get an apartment in downtown Taipei for about a third of the cost of those in major Western or Japanese cities. Expats stand a realistic chance of finding something centrally located and along convenient transportation routes on a budget. If accommodation in Taipei does seem to be too expensive, the inner suburbs are convenient and have good MRT (subway) access.

- CON: Many apartments are older and don’t have elevators, and foreigners often end up in "illegal" top-floor apartments

If accommodation is not being arranged through a company, expats may find themselves looking at a lot of unregistered fifth-floor walkups. While getting caught is not an option, living on the top floor of an older building means a greater chance of roof leakage or hotter rooms in the summer, and chances are the building materials are not high quality. If the low price and living conditions suit one's needs, this is a good option. Otherwise, don’t be afraid to wait it out until a nicer place with an elevator becomes available.

+ PRO: Apartments in Taiwan aren’t as small as one might imagine

Living spaces are larger than in Japan – bedrooms are often small but living rooms will be on par with apartments in the West. Living conditions generally won’t be rough: utilities are Western-grade, therefore losing power even in the worst storms is not likely, and it’s fairly easy to set up amenities such as air conditioning and wireless Internet. Other luxuries, like an oven or clothes dryer, can be bought fairly cheaply, as most apartments don’t have these amenities.

Expats moving home or moving into nicer apartments frequently help their landlords find new tenants or put out notices for roommates, so finding accommodation without speaking Chinese is fairly easy.

- CON: Apartments in Taipei tend to look "cheap"

Apartments in Taipei are often painted in cheap white paint, and some landlords prohibit painting over. Flooring tends to be cheap tile and the metal bars and textured glass windows are not aesthetically pleasing. 

Lifestyle in Taipei

+ PRO: Convenient! Convenient! Convenient!

Unless moving to the outer suburbs of Taipei (and sometimes even then), expats will be within walking distance of a few convenience stores, one or two supermarkets, a wet market, a couple of coffee shops and cheap and delicious local restaurants. 

Convenience stores are everywhere, and they operate differently to those in the West – one can buy the usual food, stationery and groceries, but also eat or have coffee in seating areas, use Wi-Fi, make copies, print documents, buy tickets, pick up packages, send faxes, pay bills, renew prepaid phone cards, buy rental and other basic contracts, and even pick up underwear and socks. They are always open 24 hours and stay open through typhoons and public holidays.

- CON: Heavy traffic in Taipei

A lot of people are put off by the speeding, the blatant disregard for traffic laws, the congested roads and the lack of buffering space between trafficked roads and businesses. There are limited sidewalks and where they do exist they’re uneven and hard to navigate. Traffic signs tend to be in English but intersections can be congested and confusing. At night there are so many lights that it can be hard to distinguish, let alone obey, traffic lights. Scooter accidents are common, and some expats complain about the noise level near major thoroughfares.

+ PRO: Public transport in Taipei is great

Taipei has some of the best public transport in the world – a clean, safe and on-time MRT system and comprehensive bus system means that, while many foreigners choose to buy scooters and get around as locals often do, it is far from necessary. Expats will never "need" a car or scooter in Taipei.

- CON: Public transport is great only in Taipei

…and even in Taipei, it stops at midnight. Outside Taipei expats will need a car or scooter – buses are less frequent and only Kaohsiung in the south has another MRT system. It can be very difficult to get around the rest of Taiwan without one's own car; trains and buses go to most destinations, but it can be hard to get out to the countryside from the bus or train station. Expats may want to get an international driver’s permit before moving to Taipei and rent cars for trips to other parts of Taiwan, or budget for chartering taxis – fortunately this is fairly easy to do.

+ PRO: Proximity to great destinations for vacations

From Taiwan it is cheap and easy to take short trips to Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea and most of Southeast Asia. India is even within affordable reach. Guam and Palau are popular vacation spots with locals and expats alike. With the advent of direct flights between China and Taiwan, visiting China is also easier than ever (although getting a visa is not). Plenty of budget airlines operate out of Taiwan and once in the main hub of the country of one's choice, it’s easy to catch onward flights.

- CON: Lack of direct flights to Taiwan

For all destinations outside of this corner of Asia, one generally needs to catch connecting flights. Direct flights to major cities such as New York and London exist, but are expensive and usually involve a transfer in Hong Kong or Tokyo.

+ PRO: Outdoor sports

Hiking (including trails that can be reached by public transport), biking, river tracing, camping, paragliding, surfing and other outdoor sports are extremely popular in Taiwan. Taiwan has scenic natural geography with a varied coastline, a few beaches, towering mountains, paddy-covered plains, rivers and high waterfalls, gorges and cliffs, and plenty of opportunities to get out into nature. It’s far easier to get out of the city than in most major Western cities – buses may come infrequently outside the city but there is almost always a bus of some sort to the trailhead. Northern Taipei has hills and mountains, and some hikes can be done within the city limits.

- CON: Wet weather in Taiwan

It rains a lot in Taipei; from late November to early April one can expect very few sunny days. Autumn (mid-September to mid-November) is beautiful, often clear and sunny, punctuated by the occasional late-season typhoon. Winter is a never-ending procession of grey clouds that cover the sky. Spring is hot, steamy sun interspersed with frequent, sudden downpours and thunderstorms known as “plum rains”. Summer is steamy and hot with typhoons and thunderstorms on many afternoons – and then the cycle repeats. Many expats take vacations mid-winter just to escape the incessant grey.

+ PRO: Cafés and nightlife options abound

Whatever expats like – quiet cafés with high-end libations, swanky see-and-be-seen lounges, neighbourhood bars, student dives, expat hangouts, pool halls or thumping nightclubs, Taipei has it all. It’s a little spread out, and even the liveliest nightlife streets don’t feel that lively outside of the bars themselves, but it’s all there. There are also bistros, cafés and shopping streets. Taiwan is famous for its lively night markets, which stay open until about midnight, even on weekdays, and feature better shopping and eating – as well as crushing crowds – than one might find in the liveliest city centres elsewhere.

- CON: Not a lot of al fresco options

A few restaurants have started popping up in the quieter lanes featuring front and back porches with outdoor seating but, generally speaking, it’s hard to score an al fresco table on a sunny day. The crowded streets, high property prices, loud and snarled traffic and uncooperative weather have all but forced proprietors to offer seating indoors rather than out.

+ PRO: Foreign food and English language books, among other amenities

One can generally find a variety of cuisine options in Taipei. Indian, Thai, Mainland Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, German and French food are also popular, and many American chain restaurants have established themselves in Taipei.

There are three major bookstores offering English books, including travel guides, and a few used bookstores with fair selections.

+ PRO: Lots of countryside to explore

Just outside of Taipei, if heading south and east, is an impressive collection of mountains, with winding roads and breathtaking views. Head straight south and one will hit the cultural heartland of Taiwan, with towns and cities like Sanxia, Daxi, Beipu, Sanyi, Lugang, Tainan, Meinong and Donggang preserving elements of traditional Taiwanese arts and lifestyle. Up north is the Yangmingshan National Park and the splendid northeast coast, and further east is Yilan, a popular vacation spot, and then Hualien with its cliffs and famous gorge, and then the gorgeous East Rift Valley. National parks dot Taiwan, as do farms and small towns (many of which are famous for one particular food or craft). There is plenty to do outside of Taipei.

+ CON: Pollution, ugly architecture and dirt

Although it’s noticeably less polluted than China (one can drink the water, but locals generally don’t) and far cleaner than it was even ten or 20 years ago, Taipei is not known for its crisp, clean air. There is smog, there is haze, and there are exhaust fumes. Occasionally the dust of a sandstorm or a gust of pollution from China blows down to Taiwan, and occasionally the smog is home-grown. It’s nothing like the industrial smokescape that many foreigners picture – on some days the sky is so clear that one can see the nearby mountain peaks or even clear out to Danshui on the coast. This extends to the rest of Taiwan, especially the heavily settled west coast – the east coast tends to be clearer, but also rainier.

Most – though not all – buildings are old, grey, made of concrete and thoroughly unattractive. Don’t expect to find the Asian equivalent of Old Prague.

+ PRO: Lively street life

Taipei has a very vibrant street-level culture, with streets lined with shops (not walls, as in Beijing), narrow lanes that can be full of light and excitement, markets and squares. Despite the ugly architecture, some attractive old buildings can be found – especially 1890s-1940s brick or ornate cement structures and old shophouses built during the Japanese Colonial era, as well as several heritage temples.

- CON: Shopping for women

It can be difficult to buy clothing or shoes in Taiwan as an expat. A solution to this is ordering online or going home to shop once a year. What is considered average size in the West is "big" here, and therefore one may be relegated to shops specialising in clothing for larger women. Shoes are also an issue as not many stores offer sizes for women with larger feet. Men will have an easier time finding clothing and shoes that fit.

Education and schools in Taipei

- CON: “Cram schools”

Students get an overwhelming amount of homework and learning tends to be “rote” rather than “critical-thinking” based. Many parents will say that these schools are fantastic – they help children learn more, review more and understand more, and help them score more highly on Taiwan’s important placement tests. However, most Westerners would feel that the amount of time Taiwanese students spend in class just to compete at the most basic level is too much. It is not unusual for students to come home at 9 or 10pm every weekday or attend weekend classes, and the learning is more of the same “rote memorisation”. 

+ PRO: Taipei has excellent schools

Taiwan has a developed world school system which is competitive and holds students to high standards. The international schools are very good, although there aren’t many of them. There is a European school, an American school and a Japanese school, not to mention other private school options. These are generally excellent and provide a Western-style education in Taipei.

- CON: International schools in Taiwan are expensive

The cost of international school tuition is very expensive, and therefore it is advised that one negotiates a schooling allowance into a contract. Tuition rivals or surpasses high-end tuition at private schools in the West, so if receiving a local salary and not a company package, school fees could take up most of a salary. 

Healthcare in Taipei

+PRO: Taiwan has National Health Insurance

Healthcare in Taiwan is excellent, free and accessible, and if working or studying here one is eligible for it.

Taiwan’s National Health Insurance doesn’t cover checkups but it does make treatment, medication, dental and vision care and hospitalisation affordable. If an expat passes the health check required to get a long-term visa in Taiwan and gets an Alien Resident Card, they will be covered.

- CON: National Health Insurance in Taiwan is concerned with survival and treatment and not quality of life.

Often the most comfortable, easiest treatments are not covered (or not covered initially) because they improve quality of life but not survival rates. 

If one is sick and needs a certain medication, there are regulations as to what can be prescribed first – and what can be given after that if the first drug doesn’t work. Doctors are not always free to just prescribe the medication they feel will be most effective.

+ PRO: Expats with National Health Insurance won’t have to worry about the costs of big-ticket medical issues

Hospital visits are covered (shared room only), major medications are covered and most surgeries and all emergency care is covered.

- CON: Certain things are covered but hard to find

One can technically get some treatments or medications on National Health Insurance, but will have to travel to where they’re offered. For example, migraine medication is covered but not every clinic offers it.

+ PRO: Plenty of options and little to no waiting time – and some surprising things are covered

One may have to wait 20 minutes at a clinic or up to an hour at a hospital, but walk-ins are common and booking doesn't have to happen in advance. Offices are often open on Saturday mornings, and while most elective procedures or medications are not covered (for example plastic surgery), one might be surprised what is (dermatology, but not every medication).