China is one of the most dynamic countries in the world and home to one of the oldest civilizations. After many decades of China being spent closed off to foreign commerce and culture in the 20th century, expatriates can now be found living in destinations across the Chinese landscape, from the gleaming megacities of Beijing and Shanghai in the east to the quaint mountain cities of Dali and Lijiang in the south.
The cost of living in China can vary substantially among neighborhoods, cities and regions. Beijing, Shanghai and other cities that serve as international business centers and financial hubs are quite expensive and present a challenge for budget-conscious expatriates. For example, you may struggle to find a small apartment in the center of Beijing or Shanghai for less than $1,000 per month.
On the other hand, apartments in outlying suburbs are substantially cheaper. Looking deeper into the Chinese landscape, there are numerous interesting and dynamic cities that offer a very comfortable lifestyle at less than $1,000 per month. Some favorite expatriate destinations include Qingdao, Suzhou, Chongqing, Dalian and Kunming, among many others.
Housing and Utilities
Most sizable cities in China have undergone substantial redevelopment. While decades-old apartment blocks still punctuate most cityscapes, shiny new residential high rises have come to dominate the central districts of many cities. In outlying areas, whole new communities have risen, block by block, from what was once farmland. Apartments in centrally located residential high rises are relatively expensive in major cities throughout China. Outlying apartments are typically much cheaper, even though the accommodations are often just as new and modern as those in the center.
According to the international price comparison website Numbeo.com, the national average price for a quality one-bedroom apartment in a downtown area is just less than $650 per month. An equivalent apartment in an outlying area costs a little more than $350 on average, which is a very reasonable price for someone living alone on a $1,000 monthly budget. If you are sharing housing costs with a spouse or roommate, a three-bedroom condominium in an outlying area costs about $680 on average. Similar accommodations in the city center are substantially higher at more than $1,400 per month.
City-level pricing information shows there are plenty of Chinese cities with affordable apartments in and out of the city centers. A one-bedroom apartment in the warm southern city of Kunming costs about $340 per month in the city center and about $250 in an outlying neighborhood. A three-bedroom unit outside the center is only $430 per month. In the northwestern coastal city of Qingdao, home to the global beer brand Tsingtao, a centrally located three-bedroom apartment costs less than $400. In Suzhou, a tourist mecca famed for its classical gardens and city canals, a one-bedroom apartment outside the city center averages $220 per month. A nice three-bedroom unit in the center costs less than $750, a great value if you have someone with whom you can share costs. A one-bedroom unit in the city center is about $500.
Utilities are generally quite inexpensive in China. Electricity, water and garbage service average less than $55 per month. Unlimited broadband Internet service costs less than $20. Prepaid cell phone service costs about 3 cents per minute. Cellphone plans are also available that can help you cut costs further. In some cases, you can use your current cellphone by purchasing a SIM card in China.
Food and Household Expenses
Inexpensive food options are plentiful in Chinese cities. Large grocery stores, including domestic grocery chains and international chains such as Walmart and Carrefour, are located in virtually every neighborhood. Many staple foods familiar to the American diet are widely available, as are favorite packaged foods, from tortilla chips to canned soup. The national average price for a loaf of bread is less than $1.50; a dozen eggs is $1.90; rice costs less than 50 cents per pound; and boneless, skinless chicken breast is, on average, less than $1.90 per pound.
Many neighborhoods, especially those in outlying areas, have an open-air produce market within walking distance. In these markets, you can find locally grown fruits and vegetables, fresh tofu, eggs, local specialty foods and much more. Prices at local markets are typically lower than those at grocery stores. Most expatriates who cook at home should be able to eat very well on less than $200 per month. Expatriate reports suggest a frugal shopper can eat a healthy, varied and exciting diet on only about $150 per month without much trouble.
Busy neighborhood restaurants, outdoor food stalls and indoor food courts are easy to find and cheap. A fast, hearty meal from one of these establishments costs $3 or less. For a nice three-course meal at a mid-range restaurant, expect to pay under $20 for two people, excluding alcoholic beverages. Fast food restaurants are another good option. While plenty of homegrown chains operate in China, KFC is the largest fast food brand in the country. A typical combo meal at a fast food restaurant costs $4 to $5.
Personal hygiene items, household cleaning products and other such goods are quite cheap in China. Many international brands, from Crest toothpaste to Tide laundry detergent, are widely available in grocery stores, and they are often just as cheap as quality offerings from local brands. Most expatriates should have no trouble meeting a $50 budget for basic purchases in this category. That said, spending may be higher if you make regular purchases of contact lenses, cosmetics, clothing items, souvenirs and the like.
World-class health care in China is widely available in the country's biggest, most developed cities. Private clinics offering very good care are available in virtually all sizable cities throughout the country. Ubiquitous public hospitals and clinics offer varying levels of care and are often underequipped. While very inexpensive care is available to expatriates who are able to navigate the public health system, many rely on private facilities with highly trained staff and modern equipment. Prices at these facilities are generally quite high, sometimes rivaling prices in the United States. Consequently, it is generally not a good idea to self-insure in China because an illness or injury could quickly exhaust an emergency fund. Health insurance policies are available from domestic and international insurers.
Efficient public transportation is widespread in Chinese cities and generally very cheap. While some cities have comprehensive subway systems, most cities operate light-rail train systems. Public bus systems reach virtually every neighborhood in most cities. A one-way ride on public transit costs about 30 cents on average. Taxis ply the city streets constantly and are not terribly expensive, starting at about $1.60 plus 60 cents per mile.
A Final Budget
To live comfortably in a Chinese city, your monthly budget might look something like $350 for a nice one-bedroom apartment; $200 for groceries; $100 for utilities, Internet and cellphone service; $60 for household and personal items; and $40 for transportation. This budget leaves $250 to spend on health insurance and healthcare services, dining out, entertainment or perhaps an upgraded apartment.