Where to Live as Expat in Beijing – 5 Things to Consider

Beijing is a sprawling metropolis with over 20 million people and an area of over 6000 square miles. Its sheer size and many distinct neighborhoods can make it daunting when deciding where in Beijing you want to live. Five key factors will help narrow down the areas, but as with most things in life it comes down to personal preferences.

Commute

Beijing apartment housingAs I said, Beijing is an enormous city. Getting from one end to the other can easily take over an hour and much longer with heavy traffic or public transportation. No matter if you take a car, bus, or the subway, rush hour slows traffic down to a crawl and crowds public transportation to (beyond?) its capacity.

So the distance between where you work and where you live in Beijing is important. Also consider the distance to international schools if you have kids.

If you will rely on public transportation, getting close to a subway station is a good idea. Beijing has added numerous new subway extensions just in the last year and is working on even more new stops and entire new lines. Check out the most current Beijing subway map.

Access to Western amenities

Beijing Inner District MapEasy access to Western amenities can make living in Beijing more convenient for expats. This is why you will find most foreigners clustered in areas where the Western shops, restaurants, bars and cafes are.

If you can’t stand the thought that buying some cheese or cream requires a half hour to hour trip (one way) to a Western supermarket (see Shopping in Beijing), you should consider living close to the typical expat areas.

The highest concentration of expats is in the Chaoyang district in the East of the city center and in Shunyi a bit farther outside, closer to the Airport. You will of course find foreigners living in many other parts of Beijing, just the amenities are concentrated in Chaoyang and Shunyi because that is where the most expats are.

If you have kids, these are also the areas where you find international schools. Check out the beijingkids School Guide for profiles on Beijing’s top 62 schools. Since we don’t have kids we are no experts on kids but Beijingkids is a great resource for Expat families.

Price

In general, further outside of the city center can be less expensive but other factors also have a strong impact on the price, e.g., proximity to the subway and how new and well maintained the building complex is. Typical Chinese apartments are generally cheaper than those geared towards foreigners.

Language

I have met expats who have been living in Beijing for a couple years without speaking much Mandarin, so I know it is possible. But you would have to stick closer to the typical expat areas or make friends that speak some Chinese to make it work.

I can only encourage everyone to learn at least some basic Mandarin, it really makes everyday life easier. If you want to or, because of your commute to work, have to live further away from expat land, some basic Chinese is essential.

Immersion

Let’s say you want to keep your commute reasonable and don’t care about easy access to Western things. Hey, you are in China for a reason. You can definitely find nice apartments in neighborhoods that are “more Chinese”. In fact, this can be a great experience. (We are living in such a neighborhood without many foreigners.)

Just don’t expect people in the property management office or others around you to speak much English. And keep in mind that outside of the typical expat areas foreigners are not very common and met with curiosity, especially if you are tall and blond (like me). People may stare at you, especially older folks or people from rural areas, some may even come closer for a better look, because they haven’t seen many foreigners life and close up.

Most days when I venture outside children will point towards me and exclaim Waiguoren or Laowei (Chinese words for foreigner). That is the “price” for immersion, the benefit are insights and experiences that you won’t find that easily in areas crawling with foreigners.

You should also consider the ability to make friends. A more Chinese neighborhood is good if you are looking to make Chinese connections and practice your language skills.

If you (or your stay-at-home spouse) are looking for fellow expats to hang out with, pickings there are slimmer. When most of your friends live in expat areas, “commuting time” for social purposes should be considered.

5 Essential questions to ask yourself (and those moving with you)

  • Where is my/our work located? How much time are we willing to spend on commuting?
  • Will I be happy without easy access to my favorite Western food and brands?
  • What is my budget?
  • Am I willing to learn Chinese?
  • Do I want to be close to people who are like me and speak my language?

Credit: Beijing Inner District Map (CC) Claus Hansen

PS: If you enjoyed this post, you may want to check out my Practical Guide – Newcomer to Beijing. It contains this post and 30+ others, plus additional resources, and follows your steps from planning your move to a new culture to settling into your new expat life in Beijing, all in one easy-to-read pdf.


Comments

Where to Live as Expat in Beijing – 5 Things to Consider — 13 Comments

  1. I lived for many years in China, but never in Beijing. This summer I am planning to go there with my dog, and would have to live outside the 5th ring due to the dog’s size. Could please recommend a good place to live, in the north-west part of Beijing, closer to Tsinghua University, but still, outside the 5th ring? Thanks!

    • Many people with bigger dogs have them registered with a friend, who lives outside the 5th ring road, but keep the dog “visiting” at their home inside the city.
      But Tsinghua University is already close to the 5th, so if you go further North to Qinghe, there is a new shopping mall that opened just a few years ago called Wu Cai Cheng. The residential area around the mall looks nice and new.

  2. Hi,
    firstly thanks for this great guide, really hepful!
    I would like to ask here for advice. Me (European) and my wife (Taiwanese) are possibly moving from USA to China, because a job in Baoding. The offer includes an apartment in that city, known as the most polluted in China… but I plan to stay there strictly the minimun needed time. I know that there is a 41 min fast train between Beijing West and Baoding East train stations. So we will rent an apartment in Beijing as our main home.
    Thanks a lot for your help! Any advice and comment will be welcome! Luis

    • Thank you for your nice feedback.
      I understand that you don’t want to stay in a polluted city. Baoding as a third-tier city with few expats will be a very different experience from Beijing Just be aware that rents in Beijing are very high. Beijing West railway station is not close to the typical expat area, which is in the Northeast of the city center, so if you want to live close to expats, there is added commuting time. Also be aware that public transit can be really crowded during rush hour. You can avoid some of the masses by going very early. Or just commute between the cities for the weekends. Hope this helps.

      • Thanks Gina.
        In case I want to will commutate daily (West train station) and we decide to do not go to live in the typical expat area, where would be a good location? We would like to be in a nice area and not too far from the city center for shopping, restaurants, etc.
        And in case I decide to commutate only the weekends?

        • I don’t know the residential areas close to Beijing West as I only went to the railway station but there are big shopping malls with restaurants all over Beijing. You just won’t find many foreigners, import markets, or other stores and restaurants geared towards expats there. The typical expat areas are in Chaoyang, so east and northeast of the second ring road. I would suggest to spend a few days in Beijing and explore neighborhoods, and then decide.

  3. Hi, Need a real estate person or advice to find an apartment ASAP. My daughter just arrived in Beijing and will be Teaching English as a second language there. Her and a fellow teacher need an apartment ASAP and 9000 would be the absolute maximum. They want to be in the Chaoyang area or the Dongzhimen area or other safe fun areas for other young English speaking ex-pats. They are hoping to stay around 6000 rmb, as they only get 3000 rmb a month each for rent allowance. They can share a one bedroom or even a studio if it is in a really good building

    • Even in the popular areas you mentioned your daughter should be able to find a room in a shared flat for around 3500 RMB. With luck you can also find 1 bedroom apartments for 6000 RMB. But those options will be in older Chinese buildings, often in 6 story buildings without an elevator and with small Chinese style bathrooms, meaning the shower is not separated from the rest of the bathroom. Check out my latest post on finding an apartment for more resources.

  4. Hi everyone,
    New to this website. not sure if this is the right place to post this …..Anyway I am looking for some decent furniture and or accessories for living room, dinning room, bedroom, or study. If you or if you know someone got something to sell, or if you know where to find those second hand stuff, please let me know. Thanks

    • Hi Caroline, welcome!
      Check out the classifieds on The Beijinger website, sometimes people are selling furniture there, mostly second hand IKEA. You can also find nice inexpensive decorative items at the small flower market on Maizidian Xi Lu in Liangmaqiao area.

  5. There are also many laowai in Dongcheng. [You need to update your map; Xuanwu and Chongwen were folded into Xicheng and Dongcheng, respectively, in 2010]
    Especially noteworthy are the many Russians near Ritan Park and Dongzhimen, especially as you approach the Russian embassy near the NE corner of
    Line 2. And as you noted elsewhere, there are many laowai students, and some teachers, near the Haidian university areas.

    As for other areas, whenever I see another laowai in my district, I look at them to see if they’re lost or just exploring.

    • You are right about the map, Scott. I’ll try to find an updated one. In the meantime, here is a link to a map and info on the districts on Wikipedia.

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