Most expats are lured to China by lucrative salary packages that allow them to live a far more luxurious life than many locals. What many expats don't realise, though, is that living a Western lifestyle in China comes at a price. Those thinking of relocating to China should therefore carefully evaluate their desired level of comfort and luxury, research the associated cost of living, and negotiate their employment contract accordingly.

An expat's cost of living in China will depend on their lifestyle, how much luxury they want and how far they'll go to recreate the life they had back home. As in most destinations, the cost of living in the larger urban centres will far exceed that of the rural villages.

Beijing and Shanghai, in particular, claim cost of living levels on par with many major European capitals. According to Mercer's Cost of Living Survey for 2024, Shanghai ranked 23rd and Beijing ranked 25th out of 226 cities worldwide. While Shenzhen and Guangzhou have a lower cost of living, they still ranked 34th and 71st respectively.

Cost of transport in China

Transport costs can be minimal for someone based in a big city such as Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou, which have reliable and affordable public transit systems. Many people cycle or ride scooters, which is often the easiest and cheapest way to travel short distances in China.

By contrast, driving in China can prove quite costly and dangerous. A leased vehicle can cost nearly as much as accommodation, petrol isn't cheap, and it is typically necessary to hire a driver who is familiar with local driving regulations and practices. 

Cost of accommodation in China

Most expats will find their largest expense to be accommodation in China, especially if they're based in Beijing or Shanghai. Expats tend to congregate in the suburbs near the city centre, which have higher-than-average rental prices. 

Most accommodation comes furnished, which adds to the rent, and initial real-estate agent fees are an additional expense when house hunting. Expats must also account for the cost of utilities such as electricity, gas, and internet, which are typically not included in the rental fee. 

Cost of groceries in China

The cost of groceries in China can be relatively affordable. While prices vary depending on the location, expats can typically find a wide range of fresh produce, meat, and dairy products at local markets and supermarkets. China also offers a variety of packaged and canned goods, as well as snacks and desserts. Home cooking enthusiasts can find many spices, sauces, and other ingredients to experiment with.

When shopping for groceries in China, expats may notice that certain imported items can be pricier than their domestic counterparts. That said, there are often many locally produced alternatives that can be just as tasty and affordable.

Cost of education in China

Expats who relocate with children will find that while the costs attached to international schools in China can be steep, most of these institutions offer excellent facilities and teaching standards. This cost increases as the child moves to higher grade levels, so expat parents are encouraged to negotiate an education allowance into their employment contract. 

Expats whose children are academically gifted can also consider applying for scholarships at several international schools to reduce the cost of educating their children. Some expat employees will offer an education allowance to help make the transition smooth for their employees. 

Cost of healthcare in China

The standard of healthcare in China varies significantly, leading to most expats choosing to access private healthcare. It's essential that expats secure private health insurance, which will make private healthcare more affordable and accessible to them. Most expat employers will offer private health insurance as part of the employment package. 

For expats who have to secure their own coverage, the cost of private health insurance will vary depending on how comprehensive their coverage is, how many people are covered, and their age. Other factors that are considered include their pre-existing medical conditions and lifestyle habits, such as smoking. 

Cost of entertainment and eating out in China

For expats living in China, entertainment and eating out can be a delightful experience, with various options to suit all budgets. From street food stalls to high-end restaurants, the culinary scene in China offers something for everyone. Eating out at local restaurants can be very affordable, especially when compared to Western countries.

For those on a tight budget, street food vendors offer many cheap and tasty options. Expats looking for a more upscale dining experience can choose from a wide range of options, including regional Chinese cuisine, international fusion, and Western-style restaurants.

In terms of entertainment, there is no shortage of options in China. The country boasts a rich cultural heritage, and there are many opportunities to explore it through music, dance, and theatre performances. China also has a vibrant nightlife scene, with plenty of bars and clubs to pick from. Expats can also take advantage of outdoor activities such as hiking, cycling and water sports, which are typically free or low-cost. 

Cost of living in China chart 

Prices may vary across China, depending on the product and service provider. The list below shows the average prices for Shanghai in April 2024.

Accommodation (monthly rent)
Three-bedroom apartment in the city centreRMB 20,700
Three-bedroom apartment outside the city centreRMB 10,000
One-bedroom apartment in the city centreRMB 7,300
One-bedroom apartment outside the city centreRMB 3,800
Food and drink
Dozen eggsRMB 14
Milk (1 litre)RMB 18
Rice (1kg)RMB 8
Loaf of white breadRMB 14
Chicken breasts (1kg)RMB 26
Pack of cigarettes (Marlboro)RMB 25
Eating out
Three-course meal for two at a mid-range restaurantRMB 240
Big Mac MealRMB 38
Coca-Cola (330ml)RMB 4
CappuccinoRMB 26
Bottle of beer (local)RMB 10
Mobile phone monthly plan with calls and dataRMB 94
Internet (uncapped ADSL or cable – average per month)RMB 137
Basic utilities (average per month for a standard household)RMB 430
Taxi rate/kmRMB 3
City-centre public transport fareRMB 4
Gasoline (per litre)RMB 9

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