Life in China

Tiers and Cost of Living

Central to understanding the cost of living you can expect in China is the Tier system of Chinese cities, which can also determine the degree of comfort you may live in, along with the level of teaching opportunities available to you. The tier system, unique to China, is a classification of cities grouped according to population size, economic prosperity and other factors. Essentially, the higher the tier, the larger and more developed a city will be.

Tier 1

The first tier of most developed and prosperous Chinese cities represents the most immediately attractive draw to new teachers, with the highest salaries on offer here and the reassurance and excitement of working in an internationally renowned city. However, relocation to a city such as Shanghai or Beijing brings with it significantly higher living costs than you can expect in cities of the lower tiers. Accommodation is the biggest cost, ranging from about 3,000 RMB for a room in a shared apartment to around 5,500 RMB for a reasonably priced one bedroom apartment. This typically represents up to half of a new teacher's salary. Utilities bills usually add another 500 RMB per month. On the other hand, you will benefit from having access to far lower food and travel costs than in the UK. You will also be in the company of a great number of expat workers and will be able enjoy the kind of social life which comes with their presence. For teachers seeking the familiarity of western brands and dining outlets, these will be found in abundance.

Tiers 2 and 3

In second and third tier cities, you will experience far more of local Chinese life and will benefit from greatly reduced living costs as compared with Tier 1. If however you are seeking a destination where there is a large English-speaking expat community, Tiers 2 and 3 may not be for you, and it is a distinct benefit to have some level of Mandarin language skills before you arrive in one of these cities. 

Accommodation costs are dramatically lower in the second and third tiers. Food costs are also, to a slightly lesser degree, lower than Tier 1 and the overall cost of living will allow English teachers who are so inclined to save significant sums during their stay. A private apartment will cost, on average, around 2,000 RMB per month, with utilities also lower at around 300 RMB per month.

Teachers in Tier 2 and 3 cities will find the presence and influence of western culture and businesses greatly reduced, although the lower living costs will enable them to explore and enjoy all the local culture, cuisine and night life that the area has to offer.


The vastness of China means that weather conditions vary enormously from one region to another. Provisions made for these climatic differences vary accordingly. For example, Shanghai and other cities in the south have relatively mild winters and very hot summers and the majority of living areas are equipped with air conditioning but no central heating, which can lead to chilly conditions during cold spells. By contrast, Beijing and cities in the north have bitterly cold winters but most residences have central heating installed.

Travelling in China

Once you have settled into your new job you may want to explore some of the enormous diversity China has to offer, from the internationally famous landmarks such as the Bund in Shanghai and the Forbidden City in Beijing to its many areas of stunning natural beauty. While you may have specific travel destinations in mind already, you might prefer to start by visiting other cities in the local area – for example, within a few hours of Shanghai are the beautiful cities of Hangzhou and Suzhou.

Whatever approach you decide to take, the good news is that travelling in China is relatively inexpensive compared to western standards. A comfortable hotel room can be booked for 100 – 200 RMB, and hostels are cheaper still. Travelling by train is a particularly economical way to travel – you can use Ctrip on the web or via an app to book train tickets in addition to hotels and flights. It is surprisingly easy to navigate your way around China without much knowledge of Mandarin, as airports and stations have signs in both Chinese and English, and the Chinese are usually very welcoming of foreigners, particularly those who show an interest in their country and culture. Travelling in China is also generally quite safe, although you should still take the normal precautions when travelling overseas.