Many expats are lured abroad to China by lucrative salary packages that allow them to live a far more luxurious life than many locals. What a lot of expats don't realise, though, is that a Western lifestyle 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.

Imported, Western-style brands and goods are significantly more expensive than locally made items, which are widely available and affordable. Prices associated with products that aren't typically Chinese, like dairy and wine, will also be higher. Fresh produce and foods, clothing, entertainment and domestically manufactured electronics are all reasonably priced in China.

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 2020, Shanghai ranked seventh and Beijing 10th out of 209 cities, and while Guangzhou has a lower cost of living, it was still ranked as 20th.


Cost of transport in China

Transport costs can be kept to a minimum for someone based in a big city such as Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou, which have reliable and affordable public transit systems. Many people choose to 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, plus petrol isn't cheap, and it is often necessary to hire a driver.


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 that have higher-than-average accommodation prices. Most accommodation comes with furnishings, which add to the rent, and initial real-estate agent fees are an additional expense when house hunting.


Cost of education in China

Expats who relocate with children will find the costs attached to international schools in China can be astronomical. This cost increases as the child ages, though is high even at nursery and primary school levels. Expats should therefore always try and negotiate an education allowance into their contract.


Cost of living in China chart 

Prices may vary across China, depending on product and service provider. The list below shows average prices for Beijing in March 2021. 

Accommodation (monthly rent)

One-bedroom apartment in city centre

RMB 7,300

One-bedroom apartment outside of city centre

RMB 4,200

Three-bedroom apartment in city centre

RMB 15,500

Three-bedroom apartment outside of city centre

RMB 9,800

Groceries

Milk (1 litre)

RMB 13

Dozen eggs

RMB 14

Loaf of white bread 

RMB 11.30

Rice (1kg)

RMB 7.50

Packet of cigarettes

RMB 20

Public transport

City centre bus/train fare

RMB 4

Taxi rate per km

RMB 2.30

Eating out

Big Mac Meal

RMB 35

Coca-Cola (330ml)   

RMB 3.50

Cappuccino

RMB 30

Bottle of beer

RMB 10

Three-course meal for two at a mid-range restaurant

RMB 200

Utilities

Uncapped ADSL internet per month

RMB 110

Utilities (average per month for a standard household)

RMB 395

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