8 Survival Tips for Newbies Moving to China

8 Survival Tips for Newbies Moving to China
Feb 21, 2020 By Alistair Baker-Brian , eChinacities.com

Moving to China is bound to be a life-changing experience (I don’t use that term lightly), but it can also be pretty tough for the uninitiated. With that in mind, here are eight survival tips for newbies moving to China to help you get off to a flying start and make the most of your time in the Middle Kingdom.

moving to China
Photo:Anete Lūsiņa 

Keep on top of your admin

Without a valid passport, undergraduate degree certificate and criminal record check, working in China legally is impossible. Presuming you’ve already collected all these documents (and more) in order to get your visa, make sure you have a safe place at home to keep everything in an orderly fashion.

For a one-year contract, many employers will ask you around the nine month mark what you plan to do next, i.e. stay on at your current job or look for a new one. Either way, you’ll need to get on top of either renewing or transferring your visa at least a month or two before it is due to expire. It goes without saying that having all the documents you need in one place will make the whole process go a lot more smoothly.

Administration in China can be complicated, so being organised is a must.

Get familiar with the essential Chinese apps

Life in China is hugely aided by the country’s all-encompassing apps. Here are a few of the most important ones:

• WeChat: Without it, living in China will be pretty difficult. This is China’s equivalent of WhatsApp combined with a Facebook-like timeline known as “Moments” and WeChat Pay, a mobile payment system. You will probably use it for communicating at work, paying for pretty much everything and communicating with your China-based friends. With this considered, perhaps apply the following rules: use a professional-looking profile picture; avoid posting anything offensive or controversial on your “Moments”; and use an English and Chinese name. In order to pay for things via WeChat you will need to connect it to a Chinese bank account, so get that set up ASAP. Most banks will require your passport, residential contract and possibly a work permit/contract in order to do this.

• Ali Pay: As the name suggests, Ali Pay is a mobile payment system, also set up by linking to your Chinese bank account. There is now a scaled-down international version of the app that can be linked to a foreign credit card which could come in very useful while you’re getting your life in China set up. In addition to making payments when you’re out shopping, Ali Pay allows you to book plane and train tickets, use China’s largest online shopping website Taobao, pay your utility bills, use bike-sharing schemes and much more.

• Meituan: This app is for ordering takeout food. After paying via AliPay or WeChat, you can have a variety of both Chinese and international cuisines delivered straight to your door. Other popular apps in this sector include ele.me, Dian Ping and the foreigner-friendly Sherpas, all of which also provide a grocery delivery service.

• Didi Chuxing: This is China’s answer to Uber. The ride-hailing app can be used directly via Ali Pay and WeChat Pay. With an English version, it makes getting around a lot easier for those who don’t speak Chinese. At the time of writing, however, (iPhone users at least) need an account connected to a Chinese app store to download the correct version of the app (Didi - Greater China). You can easily change this back and forth in your Apple ID settings, but you will need to provide a Chinese phone number and a Chinese bank card to switch your location to China.

• VPNs: This is the only non-Chinese app on the list. A virtual private network (VPN for short) allows users to access the internet via an IP address outside of mainland China. In short, this means you can access Facebook, Google, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram and any other site blocked in mainland China. A paid subscription is recommended, as free VPNs have a reputation for being insecure. You should also consider having two VPNs on all your devices so you have an alternative when one fails to connect (which it inevitably will from time to time). Naturally, you cannot download a VPN from an account connected to a Chinese app store, so be sure to download what you need before you arrive in China.

• A Chinese-English dictionary/translator: Unless you’re fluent in Chinese, you’re naturally going to need a little help in the language department. If you’re keen to learn, download a popular education app, such as Memrise, Chinese Skill or Chineseasy. The Pleco dictionary is also pretty indispensable and has the option for a in-app purchase of flashcards. On top of this, you’ll want a translation app that can work with both text and photos. Don’t go for Google Translate, as you’ll need to turn on your VPN to get the photo function to work. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

Those are just a few examples of the apps you’ll come to depend on after moving to China. While living in this tech-savvy country, you’re sure to discover many more that you simply cannot live without.

Learn how to get around

If you want to travel around China, you’re well advised to buy all your flight and  train tickets via Trip.com (the English-language site/app of Chinese travel company Ctrip). It’s by far the quickest and easiest way to get tickets and also the best way to book hotels. Bookings from other online services seem to miraculously disappear in China!

If you’re taking the train, you’re in for quite an experience. A noticeable difference between train stations in China and those in my native United Kingdom, is the time it takes to actually get on the train itself. When you arrive at a Chinese train station, there may be several different ticket booths. While some stations have recently implemented a mobile phone scanning system for tickets purchased online, at others you’ll have to wait in line (possibly for up to an hour) to either buy or collect your tickets. Following this, you’ll need to go through security before finally navigating the ticket barriers, which usually close about five minutes prior to departure. With all this in mind, make sure you give yourself plenty of time when you’re getting a train in China. Also remember that ID is required to purchase train tickets and to get on the train. For expats, only your passport will suffice.

Within your city, you’ll likely have a few options for getting around. If you can read Chinese characters, download Baidu Maps for the best information about public transport (bus and subway routes). For an English equivalent, try “Lost Laowai” or look for specific bus and metro apps for your city.

As already mentioned, Didi Chuxing is a very useful ride-hailing app that’s available all over China. Failing that, you can always flag down a regular taxi. Just make sure it’s legitimate, i.e. a licensed taxi company with the driver’s ID visible on the dashboard, using a meter so you don’t get overcharged. You’ll want to learn your address in Chinese or have the Chinese characters stored somewhere in your phone, as most taxi drivers will not speak English.

Most major Chinese cities are also home to bike-sharing schemes. With several companies having recently been forced out of the market, the main ones are now Hello Bike (part of the Alibaba group) and Mobike (part of the Meituan group). On a day-to-day basis, picking up one of these bikes is as easy as scanning a QR code and paying a small fee via WeChat Pay or AliPay. You will have to upload a photo of yourself and your passport and in some cases pay a small deposit in order to get set up on the apps, however. If you struggle with this, as I did at first, ask a Chinese colleague or friend for help.

Learn some key Chinese characters and phrases

Although you may only be required to use English at work, learning some basic Chinese will obviously be useful when living in China.

Here are a few key topics you may want to start with:

• Restaurants and eating out

• Shopping

• Directions

• Emergencies

• Introducing yourself

With some exceptions, spoken levels of English are still relatively low in mainland China. Signage in public places tends to include English, but many local restaurants will only have menus written in Chinese characters. Unless you’re willing to only frequent restaurants with picture menus, therefore, you may want to learn some basic characters for food stuffs and dishes along with some simple spoken phrases to make living in China that little bit easier.

Get familiar with workplace culture

Workplace culture in China is probably very different to that of your home country. First of all, your boss, at some point, may want to take you out for dinner and/or drinks after work. Perhaps a little different from a Western workplace where those in managerial roles tend to keep themselves to themselves, Chinese bosses are more likely to see the workforce as a family. They will, therefore, want to get to know you better and welcome you into the fold. Just go along with it, but don’t be afraid to refuse any alcohol (particularly baijiu) if you don’t want to drop your professional guard too much.

Secondly, get yourself acquainted with the word “guanxi”. In English, it literally translates to “relationship”, or some synonym thereof. But guanxi’s significance in China stretches far beyond just a word. Your guanxi with certain people can make or break your business in China. Your boss may need to maintain guanxi with key figures, such as business leaders or local government officials. So if someone comes into your office one day and you’re told they’re important, guanxi is the reason. Understanding this, and working hard at developing your own guanxi, is an important part of life in China.

Lastly, be mindful of how colleagues communicate with each other in the Chinese workplace. Other than any language barriers, note that certain words may carry more or less meaning in a Chinese setting. I learned very quickly while working in China that when a colleague responds with “yes” or “okay”, this merely means that person has heard me. They are not literally answering my question in the affirmative, saying the work I presented them with was okay or even that they understood what I just told them. This, and a whole host of other communicative nuances, will become clear as time goes by.

Workplace culture in China can take some getting used to. Be open-minded and willing to learn, and with time it may start to make more sense.

Keep in touch with family   

Moving to China usually means you’ll be away from your family and friends back home for the semi- to long-term (at least for the duration of your work contract — likely one year). That may mean spending Christmas, birthdays and other special events away from home.

It’s easy to feel isolated and like you’re losing touch with loved ones after moving to China, so aim to talk regularly with your family. WhatsApp (and also intermittently Skype) requires a VPN to use, and even if you can connect, the line can sometimes be patchy to say the least. I would therefore recommend telling your family members to download WeChat. It might be a bit of a fiddle to set up from overseas (you may have to verify their account from your own), but it will ultimately make your regular family chats easier and, in turn, allow you to feel a little more settled in China.

Be social

Maintaining an active social life can be easily forgotten in amongst the stress of work, paying bills and keeping on top of your general life admin for China.

For many Chinese cities large and small, the first port of call for finding expat groups is Facebook. From here on it’s plain-sailing. Just get chatting to people in the group for your city, add them on WeChat and arrange a meetup. There’s also no doubt a bunch of WeChat groups for foreigners in your area, some of which may be for general information or chatting, and some of which may be for specific interests or hobbies. You’ll need to be added by someone already in that group to gain access, hence why Facebook is a good starting point.

Making friends with Chinese people takes a little more work, but it’s totally worth it if you’re willing to put in the effort. Whether you find a friend who wants to practice their English or you use it as a way to get good at Chinese, you’ll learn a whole lot more about China and its people if you form some bonds with locals. Failing all that, you can always hang out with your colleagues. Either way, just remember to keep an active social life after moving to China. You’ll need friends to help you deal with the inevitable Bad China Days.

Make the most of your weekends

This is particularly important while living in China because most Chinese employers offer little in the way of annual leave. If you live in one of China’s big cities where air quality is sometimes poor, you may want to consider getting out into the sticks every so often. Here are a few ways I made the most of my weekends in China:

• While living in Shenzhen, I often made my way to the New Territories in the north of Hong Kong. I went hiking and discovered some of Hong Kong’s oldest villages and most secluded beaches.

• While living in Urumqi, the capital of China’s Xinjiang province, I frequently took a bus to the nearby Nanshan area. As well as getting some fresh air, I was able to see traditional Kazakh villages, try Kazakh cuisine and experience horse riding.

• While living in Beijing, I’ve visited the Fragrant Hills, known as Xiāngshān in Chinese. The area west of the city is popular with hikers and nature enthusiasts.

Or you may choose to stay in the city. In that case, the internet and social media will be awash with suggestions regarding parks, bars, cafes, restaurants, events and more in your area. Whatever you choose to do with your weekends, make sure you get some time to yourself.

Those then, are eight survival tips for newbies moving to China. Moving to China can be tough, but it also brings with it many rewarding experiences and opportunities. Ultimately, your time here is whatever you make of it.

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Keywords: moving to China


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let me guess - you want to work as an English teacher in China.

Nov 22, 2020 19:44 Report Abuse



For a moment I thought it was about survival tips in times of Coronavirus. Then, again I remembered the propaganda that not only everything is going under control, but Coronavirus it never happened in China. So is this article, as though nothing it happened.

Feb 25, 2020 02:05 Report Abuse




Feb 23, 2020 13:37 Report Abuse



Don't eat bats! Or other wildlife

Feb 22, 2020 21:10 Report Abuse



Thank you for accepting me on this site

Feb 21, 2020 23:50 Report Abuse



Should also add: 9 ) bring your own medical supplies, especially if you require a prescription. The quality of local medication is questionable and a lot of it is probably fake. This would also include bringing a basic First Aid kit, because in an emergency you don't want to have to waste time looking for bandages or anti-septic wipes/creams. And also take care of any contraceptive concerns before you travel (an IUD if you are a woman). Abortion is still the preferred form of contraception in China. 10) bring your own moisturisers / face creams / soaps. Local Chinese brands tend to have skin-whitening chemicals in them. You can find familiar brands in the likes of Watsons or Carrefour, but you might not have access to either of these. 11) bring vitamin supplements. see previous references to quality of local products. Local brands are most likely fake. purchasing anything that is not in a supermarket - where the price is on display - leaves you open to being charged the 'foreigner tax' price. 12) DO YOUR RESEARCH BEFORE YOU TRAVEL. be aware of all the scams aimed at newbies to China. 13) don't accept being BSed. 14 ) Enjoy your time.

Feb 21, 2020 19:38 Report Abuse