As an expat, traveler, or tourist, you may have wondered: What is the cost of living in China in 2020? China is a massive country, so it’s practically impossible to definitively answer this question for every city or situation.
However, having some general guidelines for of the cost of living in China can be really beneficial if you are torn on your decision to move to China or cannot choose between several cities to live.
Before we dive in, let me share something that I think is extremely important.
China is country that gives you an opportunity to set your own cost of living.
What do I mean by this?
There are cities (such as Beijing or Shanghai) that can be insanely expensive but offer luxuries you’ll find anywhere else in the world. You could also move inland to a small town and live on less than US$500 per month. It’s entirely up to you.
We’ll dive deeper into this idea, but for now just know that there is a place in China that fits your ideal cost of living situation…you just need to find it.
In this article, we’ll dive into the following topics:
- General China Cost of Living Comparisons
- Location Considerations (which city in China?)
- Lifestyle Considerations (standard of living)
- Housing Allowances in China
In this guide, I’m going to do my best to help you anticipate and plan for the cost of living in China along with other factors that can run up your expenses in the country.
Cost of Living in China Comparison
Below is a table that provides a rough overview on the cost of living for the major urban centers in China as well as a couple second-tier cities.
All numbers represent Renminbi (人民币), which is the official Chinese currency.
|Tomatoes (1 lb)||4||15||12||17||4|
|Apples (1 kg)||13||21||13||12||8|
|Pair of Nike Shoes||650||800||650||650||650|
|2 Tickets to the Movies||140||120||110||85||60|
*Rent is a monthly cost based on a standard 1-bedroom apartment in the city. **Restaurant costs are based on a mid-level restaurant bill for two people.
Continue reading below to also learn more about additional factors to consider to further understand the cost of living in China.
Location Considerations in China (i.e. which city?)
Like anywhere in the world, the cost of living in China will vary greatly from city to city. Where you live will have a significant impact on your projected budget needs.
Chinese cities are unofficially divided into three different tiers: 1, 2 and 3. The rankings cover everything from population, to economy to infrastructure, with Tier 1 being the best.
Just for Fun…
Living in a Chinese Tier 1 City
It may come as little surprise that you can anticipate paying a significant chunk of your salary to live in tier one cities like Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou.
Although expensive, living in these cities affords you the opportunity to enjoy more than just the Chinese culture. You’re also afforded a more luxurious lifestyle than in other cities, which includes:
- Quality nightlife;
- Vibrant music scene;
- Regular sporting events;
- Access to excellent international foods and Western restaurants;
- Advanced infrastructure with extensive public transportation;
- Many other amenities.
Living in a Chinese Tier 2 or 3 City
In contrast to these first-tier cities, China’s second-tier and third-tier cities feature a lower cost of living.
To put things in perspective, sharing a room in a decent area in Beijing or Shanghai can run you at least 2,500 RMB / month whereas you can have your own place in the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi for as low as 1,500 RMB / month.
Yet more affordable cities do come at a cost in that they have less vibrant atmospheres and may not feature many comforts you find in first-tier cities like a Starbucks on every major avenue or luxuries such as the extensive Beijing subway system.
Jobs in second-tier cities also come with lower salaries as well, which is something to also consider as you evaluate the cost of living in China throughout different cities and regions.
Lifestyle Considerations | Cost of Living
Apart from differences in cities, your lifestyle is another large factor to consider when determining the cost of living in China.
If you are someone that lives for Beijing nightlife and looking forward to hitting up bars and nightclubs in China, be prepared to run up an expensive tab with each night out.
Your choice in lifestyle is probably the biggest factor in determining the cost of living in China
There are a few things you can consider when it comes to your lifestyle consideration:
- Do You Enjoy Alcohol? No matter the city, bars in China can be pricey and drinks are similar to Western prices where you can expect paying around 50 RMB (US$7.50) per drink.
- Do You Need Sports/Movies/TV Shows? If you still want to watch your favorite sports while you’re in China, not only will you need to purchase access to those streaming services, you’ll probably also need to budget for a good VPN for streaming content.
- What are Your Eating Habits? Your eating habits can also weigh heavily into your overall cost of living in China. As the typical meal at restaurants in China is comparably cheaper than in Western countries, it is overly tempting to eat out for the majority of your meals.
This is exactly what happened to me when I first moved to China in 2013. For months I frequented typical hole-in-the-wall joints with a meal at a sit-down place here and there until I discovered that I was spending 25% of my monthly income on meals!
Just watch yourself. Eating out appears incredibly affordable, but it can add-up if done in excess.
If you have a specific budget in mind for where you plan to live in China, do your best to cook at home several times a week if not every day to cut down on costs.
If you happen to be teaching English or are a student on a school campus, try eating in the campus dining halls as the cost for food charged in cafeterias is significantly cheaper and cleaner than what you will find at most restaurants.
Housing Allowances in China
If relocating to China for work, apart from your salary, be sure to also factor in your company benefits when calculating your cost of living.
Many jobs offer housing allowances, which can pay a significant portion, if not all, of your monthly rent in China. As an expat renting an apartment in China, this is often your largest expense.
Taking an English teaching job in China near where you live on a school campus may even allow you to eliminate housing and utility costs entirely if it is covered by the school’s budget.
Final Thoughts | Cost of Living in China
Although there are so many factors to consider when calculating the cost of living in China (i.e. will you invest in a good pollution mask or air purifier?), the salary you can anticipate making in China affords you the choice to choose multiple lifestyles.
As foreigners are generally paid higher than the average middle-class worker across China, you can choose to live like royalty if saving money is not a priority for you.
However, even living frugally will generally still allow you to splurge and treat yourself here and there.