Cost of Living for ESL Teachers in China


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As is the case for almost any country in the world, the cost of living for ESL teachers in China will mostly depend on location rather than salary. Whilst Tier 1 cities like Beijing and Shanghai traditionally offer the highest salaries for foreign teachers, they usually also boast the highest cost of living. Conversely, smaller or less prominent teaching destinations like Xi’an, Yangzhou or Ningbo may well offer lower salaries yet when complemented by a much lower cost of living, usually equate to an identical (if not better) standard of living.

Wondering how much it’ll cost you to move to China and work as an ESL teacher? Here’s a general overview of pre and post move costs, together with a general idea of everyday living costs in China – no matter where you are.

Moving to China to teach – the pre-departure costs

If there’s one thing all potential teachers have in common when contemplating a move to China, is that they all have to fork out a neat little bundle of cash, initially. Even if you negotiate the most genius teaching contract in history, and have it all paid back by your employer, the fact remains: you’re going to have to pay all the moving expenses (including your visa costs, flights, accommodation and settling in expenses) out of your own pocket first.

We estimate this cost to be in the ballpark of USD 4,000-5,000 and although it may seem like an overestimated down payment (weren’t you coming to China to make money, we hear you ask?!) it does include everything from the initial visa application to every living expense we can think of, for the first two months in the country. 

When heading to China to teach, it is always better to overestimate how much you’ll need, initially. It can easily take two months for your first salary cheque to arrive and the last thing you’ll want to stress over is whether you’ll have to survive on instant noodles once you arrive. Trust us on this.

Check out the detailed breakdown of moving to China costs, right here.

Everyday life – the cost of living for teachers in China

There’s certainly a lot more to teaching in China than financial gain but many potential teachers do want to ensure they’re not left out of pocket or worse, in debt, to gain this priceless professional and personal experience. Knowing the general living costs also helps when negotiating salary packages with potential teaching institutions and although each destination in China does have its unique costs, they are fairly similar in comparably prominent cities. Here’s a general overview of your monthly expenses.

Apartment rental

Your monthly rent will be the single biggest expense you’ll face in China and, as you can imagine, this can depend on a number of factors: not only the most obvious (location) but also by whether or not you choose to co-share your place, living in a brand-new building or even a fully-serviced one. In prominent cities like Shanghai and Beijing, you can easily spend USD 500 + in a shared flat near the city centre (count on USD 800 or $1,000 if you want to live alone in a new apartment) whilst in smaller cities like Chengdu and Guangzhou, you’ll spend just over half of that.

Even less if you choose to live in a slightly older building or one that’s just 15 minutes from the centre of the action.  Generally speaking, foreign teachers in China will set themselves a limit of between $300 and $600 per month for rent, depending on whether they’ve bagged an average or above-average salary package. Where in the country you end up living will determine the kind of apartment you’ll find in that price range. You should also budget between an average of USD 50 for your monthly utilities and about USD 50 for a local SIM card with internet connection.

All of this, of course, assumes that your teaching contract does not include living arrangements and/or allowance. If you manage to negotiate a rental allowance, you’ll obviously be free to spend more on a more modern apartment if that’s a priority for you.

Transport costs – everyday commutes and weekends away

Public transport in China is on the ball and inexpensive and aside from a few teachers who choose to purchase a small scooter, the great majority rely on buses and the Metro (or taxis) to get out and about. The average single-ride ticket on the Metro in China costs between 30 and 60 US cents whilst short bus-rides cost about 30 cents as well, the equivalent short taxi ride costing around $3.

Your monthly transport costs will likely be almost negligible in China, especially if you live within a half-hour walk to your place of employment.  Transport is also inexpensive if you want to travel within your province or reach the nearest major city, with most train rides of 4-5 hours’ duration costing about USD 20 on the slow train and around $50/70 for the high-speed option, which halves your travel time. 

Dining out & food shopping

Just about every city in China will offer you two living-cost options when it comes to food: either local (the cheapest) or international (the most expensive). No matter where you’re living and teaching in China, your food choices will invariably either make or break your monthly savings plan. As long as you frequent family-run local eateries, you can spend between USD 2 and USD 4 per hearty meal. Compare this with an international restaurant, where meals range between USD 7 and USD 15 per meal, and it’s easy to see how quickly your salary will disappear. Even in a place like Pizza Hut – which is actually considered a high-end joint in China – dinner can end up costing you four times what it would in a local eatery. 

Now, we understand this all sounds rather inexpensive, right? A USD 10-15 meal is probably what you spend back home. Yet in China, you will have the option to feast well for much, much less and given you may not want to compromise on the quality of apartment you rent, being savvy about your everyday food choices is about the best way to save your hard-earned salary and put it towards your travel goals. You can always indulge in home-food comforts, say, once a week, but if you eat like a local in China, most of the time, you will enjoy a much more comfortable standard of living, overall.

The same argument also works for grocery shopping: choose only imported goods and your weekly grocery bill will easily skyrocket although there are always plenty of local options (except for cheese, perhaps) so you’ll always have a choice. China is also renowned for its wonderful farmer’s markets and, no matter what you hear on the news or social media, trust that you’ll find a wealth of deliciously fresh fruit and vegetables in nearby local markets. Meat, fish and alcohol are also inexpensive, especially if you develop a liking for the excellent local beer varieties.

Entertainment and activities

Going out for a meal with friends is China’s #1 form of entertainment and considering the inexpensive prices, you’re likely to indulge most nights of the week. Many expat groups also organize group gym outings or Saturday ladies’ meet at a spa. A monthly fitness club membership costs around USD 30/40 whilst a day out at a fancy spa will cost you about USD 50 – or just USD 5 for a rejuvenating massage.

The overview of monthly living costs for teachers in China

By and large, most expat teachers will enjoy a very comfortable and enjoyable life in China for just under USD 1,000 a month, including rent and all incidentals. Choose to live and teach in a Tier 2 or Tier 3 city and you’ll find your living costs will exponentially decrease. Want to know more? Head on over to China by Teaching and discover the amazing teaching options available in this most fascinating country.

David O Connor David is China by Teaching’s chief contributor. When not offering sage advice about teaching in China, David is a headmaster of a Bilingual kindergarten in Beijing. David is a lover of craft beers, bookclubs and super long road trips. About China by Teaching China By Teaching is the brainchild of a group of expat teachers living and working in China, who arrived with an abundance of enthusiasm and a willingness to learn everything there was to know about teaching in this enigmatic country. Nowadays, we’re in the fortunate position of being able to offer guidance and support to those who wish to follow our path, one that wasn’t all that easy to navigate.


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