One of the reasons I like living in Beijing is the difference between my income and my cost of living. The great thing about teaching English here is that it doesn’t require a whole lot of effort or experience, but you can still make a pretty good salary. What you make after taxes is anywhere between 4 and 7 times more than the average person (who makes about ¥3,000 – ¥4,000 after taxes). If you’re smart about what you spend and what you save, you can definitely live well.
What does it cost to live in Beijing? Here’s my breakdown:
Everyday + Monthly Expenses
The cost of your room or apartment is probably higher than the entire monthly salary of a coworker. You could find something that cuts costs like crazy. There’s a term for people who move to Beijing without a job offer hoping they’ll be able to make it: 北漂. The first word stands for Beijing, and the second means to drift – in other words, a drifter in Beijing. These people often find rooms that they share with 5+ others in a basement, where they go only to sleep.
For a more reasonable person, you can choose from a single room in a shared apartment or a place of your own. You can expect about:
¥2,500-4,000/month for a single room in a shared apartment. The number of roommates, private/shared bathroom, availability of a kitchen, windows, and the addition of AC/heating determine the price. My first room had central air (controlled by Beijing’s municipal government) and one window that led into the walkway of the next apartment for ¥2,700. My second had AC and heating with a pretty wide window for ¥3,650. Both prices included utilities.
- ¥6,000+/month for a private apartment. Whether it’s a studio and how many bedrooms and bathrooms it includes can drive the price all the way up to ¥30,000+.
If you don’t live within walking distance to your school, workplace, etc., you’ll need to take transport.
- ¥4-6/ride for the subway. If you take a certain path often, you may see occasional discounts of ¥1-2 that represent the “commuter discount”. Do keep in mind that you’ll probably have to connect to different trains often, and walk to/from the station, which could add as much as 30 minutes to your commute.
- ¥1-4/ride for the bus. Having a direct bus is your best bet, but with traffic and unpredictable schedules, you might spend 30 minutes extra on the commute anyways.
- ¥1/ride for bike shares. Once you pay a deposit, you can use apps or WeChat and Alipay to scan bikes in the Mobike and Ofo bike share programs.
- ¥10-15 base fare for taxis, and typically ¥2.3/km. You can get across the city for less than ¥30, which makes taxis a great choice. However, make sure you have your address in Chinese, as you would be hard pressed to find an English-speaking driver.
If you cook, you can save lots of money. However, it might not be ideal if you have a tricky schedule. If you teach English at a training center, you may get off work on weekdays at 8 or 9pm, meaning you won’t be home until 10pm or later. In that case, take advantage of restaurants or food delivery! Some workplaces (especially international schools) include meals during the day, which can save you those costs.
The cost of food has to be low, because most people don’t make much money at all. That means you’ll be able to get food (and even delivery!) for great value.
- ¥15-30 for a typical meal. If you eat Chinese food rather than typical Western meals, especially if you find a canteen-style place to eat, you can get a large portion at great value.
- ¥10-25 for a typical drink. If you’re just going to a regular or student-oriented bar, especially one not targeted at foreigners, you can find ¥15 drinks regularly. Expect to pay more in Sanlitun or at higher-end places.
- ¥50-300/person for a nicer meal. This would be a place you sit down and have service – just manage your expectations of quality service. If your local friend takes you out and orders a bunch of dishes for you to share, you’re probably looking at the higher end of this price range.
What’s the point of being an expat if you don’t travel? Basically, nothing. I budget about ¥2,500/month specifically for travel expenses, but that’s just an average. The breakdown of prices can be categorized into transportation, accommodations, and attractions costs.
This is, by far, the best way to travel close(ish) distances. Train stations are often much closer in the city than airports, and trains are often cheaper and much more reliable. You don’t have to spend as much time going to the airport, going through security, or getting back to the city center when you get to your destination! And, for longer distances, you can even go on an overnight train that’ll leave you plenty of time to explore the city in the morning.
The nice thing about train tickets is that the prices don’t fluctuate nearly as much as plane tickets, and booking through C-Trip, WeChat, or another 3rd-party platform incurs additional costs of less than ¥20/booking, typically. Prices you can expect for one-way are:
- ¥550 for a regular seat to Shanghai (~6 hours)
- ¥50 for a regular seat to Tianjin (~30 minutes)
- ¥450 for a soft bed to Harbin (~10 hours)
- ¥500 for a regular seat to Xi’an (~5.5 hours)
Just make sure that you go to the right train station! Don’t miss your train because you went to Beijing Train Station instead of Beijing South.
While these prices will vary widely, sometimes domestic flights can be both cheaper and quicker than train rides. If it’s a trip to somewhere like Shanghai or Xi’an, where 5-6 hours on a train is too much to go during the day but not enough for a night train, using cheap flights is the answer. Prices will soar during holidays (you could find prices up to ¥10,000 for some days/routes), but normally they’re not too bad.
- ¥500-800 to major cities (including Shanghai, Xi’an, Chengdu, etc.)
Note that most flights will go through PEK, or Beijing Capital International Airport because it’s one of the busiest airports in the world. However, Beijing does have the smaller Nanyuan Airport.
China does have its own budget airlines and search engines, and the results you get using them can have drastic effects on the prices you see. Check out this awesome post from Travel China Cheaper on how to buy cheap China flights!
Prices for these vary greatly, depending on where you’re going. Just don’t forget to check China’s trip aggregators, including Trip.com (rebranding of Ctrip.com), WeChat, and Qunar.
Hostels and Guesthouses
The cheapest way to travel, of course, is by staying in hostels and guesthouses. China has plenty of them, in any place imaginable. The only catch is that some of them can only formally accept locals – meaning if you’re not a Chinese citizen, you won’t be able to stay in it. If you are booking through some international accommodations website (Booking.com or Agoda, for example) they will probably specify. Just be aware of this, but know that the majority of places will disclose that on their description.
For shared or private rooms, you can find places that are pretty cheap. If you find a place on a website like Airbnb, where you’re communicating with an individual, just know that they will almost always try to contact you through WeChat. If you’re fine with sharing your information with them, go for it!
- ¥50-100/night for a shared room
- ¥100-200/night for a private room
For the people who like to save money but can’t stand a hostel, you can choose the 3-star hotel. These are typically pretty nice/clean, but lack some of the nicer things that 5-star hotels have. Still, they’re perfect for you if you’re looking to have a nice experience without needing room service, a tub, etc.
- ¥300-500/night for a private room
If you spend any time traveling in Asia at all, you’ll know Chinese people live it up if they have the money to spend. People who are high in the Communist Party or business world like luxury and high-quality service. You won’t find a better example of this than 5-star hotels in China.
These places will often go all out, with several full-scale buffets, full gyms, movie theaters, pools, classy bathrooms, room service and mini bars that cost an arm and a leg, and anything you can think of. The staff will treat you like a celebrity because they expect you to be.Trust me, it’s super nice, considering what typical service is like.
Even better is the fact that you won’t have to break the bank to do it. Most 5-star places cost ¥900/night or less. If you have hotel points for one of the international chains, you can stay for pennies. I stayed at the Westin Tianjin for just $35! Even if you don’t normally do it, stay in a nice hotel just once!
- ¥800-1200/night for a private room
Extras + Splurges
Gotta leave room in the budget for extras, right?
Phone service in China is dominated by China Mobile and China Telecom. I highly recommend you choose one of these, as some services will not work if you don’t have one. For example, being able to connect to the Starbucks free Wi-Fi requires you to have a China Mobile number for some reason.
The plans may confuse you, but you should be able to recognize 4G and “minutes” in everything.
- ¥50-100/month for a plan that includes at least 2GB of data and enough minutes and texts for special situations (expect to use WeChat for all types of text and voice communication 99% of the time)
If you rent, most of the time you can ask your landlord or landlady to take care of utilities for you. You can have them included in your rent or as a separate variable or fixed payment. This is the ideal situation, because trying to set them up yourself requires a good amount of work! This is especially the case if you share your place with several other people or you are there only short-term. Otherwise, you’ll probably have to ask a friend or coworker to help you out!
Keep in mind that most of the time, you should not expect to drink water directly from the faucet. It should be okay as long as you boil it, but it may taste weird still. The majority of people buy water from specified dispensers/bottled water. If you’re at school or work, you should have access to drinking water there. At home, you’ll have to supply your own!
- ¥100-300/month for Wi-Fi, water (sink/shower), electricity
- ¥50/month for drinking water
If you make enough to support yourself and your family, you might look towards luxury services, including getting a cleaner and/or someone to help with your children. These people, typically women, are called a-yis. You can hire them to do whatever you like for you, including cook, clean, take care of your children and put them to bed, etc. Depending on how much work you give them, you may be their only source of income. That means you should expect to spend up to ¥4,000/month, depending on your needs. That could lessen if you have an extra room for them to live with you.
- Up to ¥4,000/month for cooking, cleaning, care taking services, sometimes including live-in compensation
What I Spend in Beijing: Cost of Living
My monthly expenses vary, but I have no dependents. I have high savings goals, and other than saving a lot, traveling is my only big luxury expense. Even then, I’m still living on a backpacker mindset, so I’m okay with having my own room in a shared apartment, public transport instead of taxis or cars, etc. My typical monthly breakdown is this:
- ¥3650 for rent and utilities
- ¥1000 for food and transportation
- ¥2350 for travel
- ¥500 for extraneous expenses
That comes to a total of about ¥7,500/month. I know people who live on far more than that, and those who spend far less. Some months I have more expenses, but it usually is pretty stable at that. I’m pretty happy, and all the rest of the money goes into a rainy day fund! That’s Why I Teach English in China.
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