Preparing to Live in China: Top Things to Know Before You Go

We make lots of decisions in life. Some are small and insignificant, such as what to watch on TV tonight. Others are huge and could have a lasting impact on our lives; deciding to move abroad is one such decision.

That decision becomes even bigger when one ponders moving to the other side of the world – to a country with an entirely different language, culture, and way of life. Moving from the United States to Canada or the UK is one thing. Moving to China is a different story altogether. If you want to live in China, there are some questions you should ask yourself before making the move.

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China is calling….will you answer?

Why We Wanted to Live in China

After graduating from Michigan State University (go Green!) in 2008, Sasha didn’t have a job lined up and he didn’t want to move back in with his parents and 6 younger siblings. After he saw a friend’s photos of China on Facebook, he inquired as to what he was doing there….

“Teaching English! It’s super easy and lots of fun.”

He was sold.

We met a month before he moved to Beijing. I followed his adventures through email and social media for the next year. In 2010, I followed suit and moved to Beijing to teach English and travel. The decision to live in China is one of the best I ever made.

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My first day in Beijing.

Fast forward to now and we are both full-time nomads thanks to our time in China where it all began. Moving to China gave us a different perspective on life and opened our eyes to a completely different culture.

People move to China for all sorts of reasons. If you’re considering a move to the Middle Kingdom, this post will help you decide if it’s right for you and help you prepare.

Why Do You Want to Live in China?

Are you looking for an experience between graduation and entering the “real world”? Are you trying to escape said “real world” altogether? Do you want to study Chinese language and culture? Do you want to teach English? Are you struggling to find a job at home and need other options? Or do you just want to travel to Asia and need a way to fund your trip?

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Do you want to immerse yourself in Chinese culture?

Through our years living and working in China, we’ve met people who fall under all of those umbrellas, as well as plenty of others with their own, unique reasons for moving to China. Being clear and honest with yourself about your reasons for wanting to live in China will help make this whole process a little easier.

Are You Ready?

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How are your chopstick skills?

This isn’t the same thing as renting a U-Haul and moving your stuff from Detroit to Chicago. We’re talking a big move to the complete opposite side of the world. There are a plethora of things you need to take into consideration before making the call to live in China:

Do You Want to Study or Find a Job?

Are you planning on working or studying? Some people insist on having a school or job lined up before stepping on the plane, while others choose to show up, do some traveling, see if they like it, and then transition into studying or working.

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One of Sasha’s first groups of students.

There are pros and cons to each method, so think carefully. Having a job lined up is great for getting your visa and having some direction upon your arrival. It could also work out terribly, at which point you’re either going off on your own or you’re stuck in a job you hate.

It is 100% possible to go to China on a tourist visa and then change over to a student/business/working visa, so you definitely have options.

Find a City, Find Yourself a City to Live In

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Shanghai is a popular city for expats.

Where exactly are you going to live in China? In one of the mega-cities like Beijing, Shanghai, or Guangzhou? Or maybe in a smaller, less crowded city such as Chengdu or Kunming? Perhaps you would rather experience rural China and skip the cities altogether. Do some research into this massive country before making the choice to move here.


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Make sure you have a place to stay!

Once you’ve made that choice, you have to figure out where you’re going to live. Some schools provide accommodation, but it’s more than likely you’ll be on your own. Should you choose to rent your own apartment, you’ll need 3-6 months rent up front, plus at least another month for a deposit.

Rent is cheaper than in the US or Europe, but this still adds up to a substantial chunk of change. Make sure you’ve got money saved, otherwise you’ll be in a less than desirable situation. This guide on how to find an apartment in China will help you be better prepared.


Applying for a Chinese visa can be a tedious and frustrating process. Make sure you know where you need to go, what time they’re open, and what exactly you need to bring. This differs depending on the type of visa that you’re applying for.

To get a tourist visa, you simply need the application, proof of your flight/hotel, and a passport sized photo. For study or work purposes, this list of necessary documents becomes much longer. Visa regulations and requirements are always changing, but we’ve compiled the basics on Chinese visas for you already.

Culture Shock

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Are you ready to see this for sale in the supermarket?

No matter where you’re coming from, you’re going to experience quite a bit of culture shock in China. From trying to decipher the 10,000+ characters of written Chinese to eating chicken feet with chopsticks, to seeing babies pigs heads for sale in supermarkets, China is sure going to force you out of your comfort zone.

Some people embrace this culture shock, while others run for the hills. What kind of person are you? Are you ready to be immersed in a culture much different than your own? We know a thing or two about culture shock in China and we’re more than happy to share our knowledge and experience on the matter to help you prepare to live in China.

How Long Do You Want to Stay?

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We stayed for over 5 years.

If you’re planning on studying or working here, you basically have to commit at least a year. Those looking to complete some sort of official program in Chinese, actually save money, or do a decent amount of traveling will need to plan for two or more years.

If you can’t see yourself potentially staying here for 1-5 years, you should maybe stop considering moving here entirely and start looking for ideas closer to home.

How Homesick Will You Be?

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Spending Christmas with your friends is fun but it can be hard to be away from your family.

Whether you’re from Europe, Down Under, or the good ole’ USA, a move to China means that your friends and family will be far, far away. So will your favorite restaurant, your sports team, the bands you like, your dog, and everything else you’ve grown up with.

Unless you’re made of money, you will most likely be returning home only once a year – maybe even less. If you’re lucky, family and friends will come visit you, but even that will be once in a blue moon and far too short. People who had a hard time being away from home in college should seriously consider whether or not they can handle living on the other side of the world.


After giving some serious thought to these topics and answering the questions we’ve proposed, hopefully the decision will be a bit easier. If you’d like to read the full story about what motivated us specifically to live in China (we came here at different times and thus have different reasons), check them out here – Sasha and Rachel.

Full disclosure: it’s not always easy to live in China. Their culture and ways of thinking are quite different from that of the western world. Every day presents a different and unique challenge, whether it’s navigating the subway and bus system or just trying to order your lunch.

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The Ice and Snow Festival in Harbin, China.

However, after living in China for 5 years I feel like I can live anywhere. To this day it is the biggest love/hate relationship of my life. Some days were a complete roller-coaster ride of emotions; I would begin the day loving China and everything about it, then by lunchtime I would be asking myself, “What the hell am doing here?!” and then I would fall asleep loving it again. Although we no longer live in China, I would still recommend it to anyone who is considering the move.

Overcoming the challenges that China presented always resulted in a big “HELL YES!” feeling that’s really hard to beat. Given the choice, I would definitely do it all over again, with a few minor changes.

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