What You Should Know Before Becoming a Beijing Expat
Making the move from a Western country to Beijing, a city of over 20 million, is a huge change, even if you have moved to other countries and experienced different cultures before, like we did. Find out what you should know to get ready.
A change like this may teach you things about yourself you weren’t aware of before (it definitely did for us). We all react differently to cultural differences, depending on own individual personality and prior experience.
Will there be a big culture shock? The answer is it all depends on your personal experiences and circumstances. You can make lifestyle choices, like housing, neighborhood, transportation, that keep you closer to your comfort zone or expose you to more immersion.
Everyone also has their own comfort level when it comes to their health and well-being. Personal safety is a common concern in any big city. Especially in China, the potential impact of air pollution is also a hot topic. Understanding the new environment you are moving to beforehand can give you some peace of mind and the right tools to protect yourself.
Practical tips before moving to China
No matter if you plan to come here with just two suitcases or with your entire household, there are some specific things to consider for moving to China.
Some items that you may take for granted at home are difficult to buy here. Some things you were planning on bringing with you may be of little use here due to different standards. Knowing what to bring and what not to bring will free up space in your moving bags for items that count.
You will most likely use the internet to stay in contact with your friends and family. The internet in China can be quite fast and good, when surfing Chinese websites, but has a couple challenges for many Western sites. Most foreign sites are accessed at much slower speed. Some are entirely blocked. A VPN service like StrongVPN or VyprVPN (affiliate links) helps to get around the blockage.
Cost of living
Is coming to China a smart financial move for you? Well, the answer is again: that depends. (Do you sense a pattern here?) The overall cost of living in Beijing is rising and comparable to other capital cities. Cost of living rankings for Beijing vary from one study to the next, depending on what cost items are included.
The reality is, life in Beijing can be very cheap or very expensive. Western standards including housing, food, groceries will cost you Western prices plus a premium. Local stuff often is really cheap. Mixing both, some Western and some local, allows you a decent standard of living without breaking the bank.
More Money Matters
How does banking for expats work in China? Cards are not used as much as in the US. Instead almost everything can be paid with your phone, using WeChat Wallet or AliPay.
You can use your American (or other country) ATM card to withdraw Chinese RMB at many Chinese ATMs. Fees differ between banking alliances, so it is worth paying attention to the logos on the ATM machine and the back of your card. ATMs are at banks, in shopping malls and at other locations. If you get paid in China or want to cut back on foreign ATM fees, you will need to open a Chinese bank account. The Chinese banking system is a bit different but with some initial help of a Chinese friend manageable.
You also need to keep in mind your income tax situation, both in China and at home. Only because you are living and working abroad does not mean that you don’t have to file a tax return at home, at least if home is the US. This may differ for other countries. Please consult your tax adviser.
It is important to understand the tax situation, both at the federal level and for your specific state, to know what you need to keep track of, e.g., what dates and numbers you will need once tax times comes around.
For an easy-to-read compilation of 30+ posts that follow your steps from planning your move to a new culture to settling into your new expat life in Beijing, check out this Practical Guide – Newcomer to Beijing.