China: Working and Living
Life as a Foreigner
This page was last updated on 29 July 2019.
Visas must almost always be obtained before arriving in China. Visas can be for single entry or multiple entry, and the most commonly used ones are as follows:
- F Visa: for short-term business visits (but in practice this type of visa has been used by many longer-stay residents due to the ease of issue and relatively laid-back attitude of the authorities, at least until the Beijing Olympics led to some tightening up);
- L Visa: for short-term personal visits;
- X Visa: for students with courses longer than six months;
- Z Visa: for people taking up employment, and their family members;
- D Visa: for long-term foreign residents.
Although there are concentrations of foreigners in some major cities – notably Beijing and Shanghai (which has 300,000 expats) – where you can expect to find a parallel 'Western' life-style and facilities, in most parts of China that is not the case. Few people speak English and you won't get very far without at least an elementary knowledge of Chinese. Western foods and dishes are scarcely available. Fortunately the standard of cuisine in restaurants is generally excellent, even in the most modest establishments.
Of course, if you are employed at a site operated by a Western company, even in a remote region, you may well find some foreigners and Westernised facilities which may dull the shock of a transition to China. Some people, however, may prefer to take on the change in a full frontal way!
'Face' is the key to understanding how to behave socially in China. In countless ways, it is necessary to be sensitive to the nuances of social and family position, in terms of conducting a conversation, your bodily behaviour, and in such matters as paying for things. Chinese people are not rich, with rare exceptions (more and more of these, of course), and Chinese salaries are still so low by Western standards that it may seem impossible for people to live on them. But they manage, and by some miracle will turn themselves out impeccably for social occasions. Don't be fooled: unless you are sure of the financial position of the people you are with, you should assume that you are the richest person present, and therefore expected to pay the bill, although other members of the party may make a show of offering to pay. Women, by the way, never, ever pay in China unless at a hen party.
It is likely that your employer will assist you to find an apartment, something that you will find extremely difficult if you are on your own, except perhaps in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, where there are agencies serving the expat market. Of course, expat salaries are such that in most parts of China you can expect to be able to afford upper-level accommodation.
In Beijing many expats choose to live in one of a number of newly-built high-rise apartment blocks, some with pools and exercise facilities. There is no formal separation between the Chinese and foreign communities, but naturally they tend to cluster. The most popular district is Chaoyang, which has a metro and is home to many of the larger international firms.
Villas in gated communities in Shunyi, near the airport, are a popular choice for families with children, partly because there are two prominent international schools there, although the commute is up to an hour at peak times.
There are international schools in many parts of China, and they often teach the International Baccalaureate.
Cities with international schools include Beijing, Cashan Dongguan, Chaoyang District, Chengdu, Guangzhou, Utahloy, Nanjing, Ningbo, Qingdao, Shanghai, Suzhou, Tianjin and Xi’an. However, tuition fees for such schools can be as high as US$25,000 a year.