The Cost of Living in China – for Travelers & Expats

How much does it cost to go to China? Take a look on the travel forums and it’s one of the most common questions there is, so, let’s break it down.

Just like anywhere, there’s a big difference between holidaying and living for extended periods so let’s tackle it in two parts.

Holidaying in China: The Costs

It is a bit like how long is a piece of string, it depends on the level of comfort your seeking and where you want to go and what you’d like to see. For this example, lets’ focus on Tier One cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou.

1. Accommodation: from 200 RMB to 800 RMB. There are obvious factors at play here, location, level of luxury and time of year. National hotel chains such as Motel 168, 7 Days and Super 8 provide great value offering simple and clean places to stay with prices ranging between 170 to 240. The beds are soft, clean and reasonably new linen and reasonable locations. For something more luxurious you can try local brand four-star hotels, but, sometimes you’ll get amazing value, sometimes you’ll be bitterly disappointed. Five-star you should be safe, but you’ll need to pay a little more, say 400 RMB+. Compare Rates with Booking.com

a typical Motel 168 room
a typical Motel 168 room

2. Food: Eating is something you do a lot of while you’re here! Exploring China’s cuisines is a journey in itself. For a mid-level restaurant expect to pay around 80-100 RMB per person. A latte at Starbucks or other high-end coffee chains costs between 30-40 RMB. At street food and snack stalls you can grab a bowl of noodles/dumplings for between 15-30 RMB. If you must, McDonalds and KFC meal sets are around 30 RMB. High-end restaurants and western style restaurants may set you back much more, you can spend 300 RMB+ easily for a couple. Bottom line, the bare minimum is 100 RMB per day, comfortable is 250 RMB (nice sit-down breakfast, a latte somewhere, some snacks, mid-level restaurant lunch and dinner), eat like a king for 400 RMB+ per person per day.

3. Transport: public transport is so cheap it’s not worth mentioning as a cost, a subway ride will cost between 3-8 RMB, a bus ride between 2-6 RMB. Taxis start at about 10 RMB for a very short trip, 30 RMB will get you from one district to another. Intercity buses usually range between 80 RMB and 200 RMB depending where you’re going.

4. Fun: major attraction tickets cost between 60 – 100 RMB. As for souvenirs, you could spend anything between 15 to hundreds. A movie ticket over the counter can cost between 60-100 RMB, buy them online for 30-50 RMB. At a bar expect to pay 20 RMB and up for local beers, double that and more for imported beers, likewise for spirits. A local beer from the convenience store is about 3 RMB. A foot massage will cost you anything from 30 RMB at the street front shops, to 100 RMB at the spa/leisure centre.

5. Phone/Internet: get yourself a prepaid China Unicom card for about 80 RMB, which should outlast your stay, if not simply recharge it. More about phones and internet here

Living in China

It’s not dissimilar to above, except that you’ll learn where to get what you like for the price you’re happy to pay. The big cost difference comes from the accommodation. Let’s use Shenzhen as an example.

Inner city living, close to CBD, in a comfortable furnished two bedroom 100 sqm apartment renting out from 8000 RMB per month and up. Move out to the outer districts and that can drop to 5000 RMB. You can find some modern, clean single bedroom apartments for 3000 RMB that are within walking distance of the metro. On top of those costs you need to add building management fees, which varies depending on the amenities in the complex and the level of service such as security which can range from 100-300 RMB per month.

typical apartment in central Shenzhen
typical apartment in central Shenzhen

On top of that you need to add electricity and TV/Internet costs, maybe another 200 RMB for electricity and gas. Internet and TV services, usually combined, may cost between 150 and 250 RMB per month.

If you are on a budget, and can cook, you can easily cut down food costs. Fresh vegetable markets are super cheap, the more comfortable you become with Chinese lifestyle the cheaper the cost, and probably more nutritious.

Living outside major cities
So far we have spoken about Tier One cities, to be honest, I find them expensive and not dissimilar to the cost of living in any western country particularly if you have western tastes.

Qingyuan Apartment
Qingyuan Apartment

It’s a whole different story outside of those cities. One of my most favorite places to live was Qingyuan, a quite city near Guangzhou. Here, you can easily rent a very comfortable two bedroom apartment for 1500 RMB per month, adding another 300 RMB per month to cover electricity/gas/tv/internet/building management. Living costs are much cheaper, partly because there’s less rubbish to waste money on, secondly everything is simply cheaper. For example, a superb coffee, just 22 RMB, fresh Chang Fen (rice rolls) just 5 RMB, taxi 6 RMB, bus to anywhere 2 RMB, a huge bag of vegetables just 20 RMB.

If you had a reasonable level of Mandarin skills and were comfortable with the Chinese way of life, the outer cities would be even cheaper still. Not just the fact that you’d be saving money, many of those small cities have very traditional lifestyles, it would be a wonderful journey back in time and into Chinese life.

Other Costs

Gym Membership: it’s something that varies a lot. One small gym in Shenzhen was asking 1000 RMB for 6 months, others ask much more. Depends on location and amenities.

Healthcare: it’s cheap to visit a doctor, but you may face long queues. To see a doctor in most cases cost between 10 RMB and 25 RMB. Medicine costs are not high if it’s locally produced, if it’s imported, it can be really expensive, and you may be better to source it yourself. There are some hospitals with VIP doctors, you can pay 100 RMB + to get speedy service and often English speaking service. Hospital stays are more expensive, but for that you should invest in some form of health cover.

Shopping: clothes can be ridiculously cheap and equally ridiculously expensive. Strangely, a simple plain no brand off-the-shelf t-shirt is cheaper to buy in Australia than in China, even though it’s made in China. I found this same example with hair clippers, for some reason there 10 times cheaper in Australia than in China, where they are made.  Custom made suits are quite cheap, as is all tailoring. There’s loads of value to be found at knock off markets once you learn to pay very little. Malls are ridiculously expensive, but great places to go wandering, meeting and eating. Fresh produce is cheap, imported foods are getting cheaper, especially if you shop through JD.com or Tmall.com.