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 2023, Shanghai ranked 12th and Beijing ranked 13th out of 227 cities, and while Shenzhen and Guangzhou have a lower cost of living, they still ranked 20th and 36th respectively.


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, petrol isn't cheap, and it is typically 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 rental 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 groceries in China

The cost of groceries in China can be relatively affordable. While prices can 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 a wide range of 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. 


Cost of entertainment and eating out in China

For expats living in China, entertainment and eating out can be a delightful experience, with a range of 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 a variety of 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 various outdoor activities such as hiking, cycling and water sports.


Cost of living in China chart 

Prices may vary across China, depending on the product and service provider. The list below shows average prices for Shanghai in March 2023.

Accommodation (monthly rent)

Three-bedroom apartment in the city centre

RMB 21,000

Three-bedroom apartment outside the city centre

RMB 10,400

One-bedroom apartment in the city centre

RMB 7,800

One-bedroom apartment outside the city centre

RMB 4,000

Food and drink

Dozen eggs

RMB 22

Milk (1 litre)

RMB 20

Rice (1kg)

RMB 8.96

Loaf of white bread

RMB 18.04

Chicken breasts (1kg)

RMB 34

Pack of cigarettes (Marlboro)

RMB 25

Eating out

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

RMB 290

Big Mac meal

RMB 41

Coca-Cola (330ml)

RMB 3.76

Cappuccino

RMB 28

Bottle of beer (local)

RMB 6

Utilities/household

Mobile call rate (per minute – mobile to mobile)

RMB 0.20

Internet (uncapped ADSL or cable – average per month)

RMB 117

Basic utilities (average per month for a standard household)

RMB 500

Transportation

Taxi rate/km

RMB 3

City-centre public transport fare

RMB 4

Gasoline (per litre)

RMB 9

 

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