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Thinking About Teaching in China? What it’s Going to Cost You

A wallet, pen and budget written on paper, by a teacher who is trying to understand the cost of coming to China to teach

China may be renowned as a profitable teaching destination yet it’s not unusual for prospective expats to totally underestimate how much it will cost to settle into their lives in the first place. Yes, you’ll probably be well-paid as an ESL teacher in China eventually but you will need some funds before you arrive. The #1 piece of advice you ought to know is that you should start saving from the moment you consider heading over to teach in China. Save, save, save. We’ve been there, spent that, and know that the initial costs can be surprisingly substantial. Even if you’re an excellent negotiator and score a job with a great salary that includes flight reimbursement and housing allowance, it could be a whole two months before you see any money at all so you are going to have to shell out the cash in advance. And you can’t shell out what you don’t have. So save you must.

While it’s impossible to give a precise cost without knowing your specific details (where you’re from and where, in China, you wish to teach) we can offer a ballpark figure of about USD 5,000, give or take a few bucks and being rather liberal (because saving too much is preferable to not saving enough, obvs).

The biggest chunk of this expense will arise once you arrive (about two-thirds) whilst one-third will be spent prior.

Here’s a quick breakdown of the costs you are likely to incur when heading to teach in China:

Pre-Arrival Costs

Passport

Considering you can’t go anywhere near China without a valid passport, we’re putting this pricey document first on the list – a brand new passport will set you back about USD 100 if you’re from the UK, Ireland and the US, USD 160 if you’re from Canada and a whopping USD300 if you’re Australian. It’s a good idea to renew your passport before moving to China, especially if you have barely 12 months validity left – the last hassle you’ll want is to have to renew your passport abroad which is both costly and time-consuming.

Z Visa

A Chinese working visa is the main requirement to teach in China and the application fee alone will set you back between USD 90 or USD 140, depending on which passport you hold. For this visa application, however, you’ll need to have all your qualifications notarised and this alone can cost between USD 300 – USD 500, depending on where you live.

Criminal Background Certificate

In most countries, you’ll be able to get a copy of your (hopefully clear) criminal record at your local police station, at a cost of about USD 40.

Medical check

Your Z Visa Application may also require you to hand in a medical clearance form although the costs of this will depend highly on your home country and medical insurance cover so we’ll leave you to figure this one out on your own, just remember to include it to the final tally.

Flight to China

There are too many variables here depending on your country of origin and your destination, so we’ll throw in a ballpark figure of about USD 700 for your flight to China and, if you score a good flight deal, you can leave the balance in your piggy bank. You’ll need it when you arrive!

VPN for your laptop and smartphone

As they say, don’t leave home without it! A VPN, in this case, as you’ll surely want to circumvent China’s internet ban on all things Google-related (including most social media) and you won’t be able to download it once you arrive. About USD 100 will buy you a year’s worth of interwebs protection.

Stocking up on ‘essentials’

It’s arguably wise to arrive with new clothes and a stock-up of your favourite toiletries (especially feminine ones) as China will inevitably either lack your favourite brand or, if it stocks it, it’ll sell it at a much higher price. Clothing is very difficult for Westerners to buy here (nothing ever seems to fit) so it’s a great idea to really use up your entire baggage allowance to bring as much as you can. We’ll throw in about USD 150 for these essentials.

A teacher calculates the cost of moving to China to teach english

Post-Arrival Costs

So, you’ve already burned a huge hole in your pockets…and you haven’t even reached China yet 😊

If you’ve negotiated a great teaching contract, you may see the biggest pre-arrival expense (flight) reimbursed. However, don’t stress if you haven’t – given the good wages for teachers in China, you’ll be making that up in no time at all.

Here are the expenses you ought to budget for, during your initial settling-in period:

Housing

This is going to be, by far, your biggest post-arrival expense and although you can ‘almost’ take or leave a flight reimbursement from your employer (it’s always worth asking, of course) you should definitely negotiate for a housing allowance included in your salary package. The flight is bought once, the rent is ongoing.

Depending on where you wish to live and how (shared flat or by your lonesome) you should budget about USD 700 a month for a Tier 1 city central apartment – and a lot less if outside the city or in Tier 2 cities. When negotiating a rental in China, you will need to fork out three month’s rent and, if you use an agent (which you really should) you need to pay their fee as well. All of that means that you’ll need to part with about USD 2500 the moment you find a suitable place, which in all likelihood will happen within the first 5-6 days of your arrival (everything happens really fast here). Now, do note that no matter how ‘nice’ your new boss is, no-one’s just going to throw allowances your way so you need to learn to negotiate for what you want. It’s not uncommon for the school to pay for your hotel for the few days after you arrive, to offer the service of a staff-member to help you find suitable accommodation and to either offer you subsidised living OR an allowance, paid on top of your salary, to help cover the rent. Housing expenses are certainly the ones you’ll want to have coming back into that piggy bank of yours.

Home internet

Most expats teaching in China will not get internet at home, preferring to live off their phone data instead. If you do want Wi-Fi at home, however, be ready to fork out between USD 200 and USD 300 for a year’s connection, up front.

Housing needs

Apartments do come fully-furnished in China but you will need some basics, like bedding, towels, dining and cooking sets. None of these items will be expensive on their own but everything adds up, right? So throw in another USD100 to the pot for your own house-warming present and remember that, in China, IKEA is your new BFF.

Chinese SIM card

As you will have hopefully brought an unlocked smartphone with you (the one with the VPN installed) you’ll need to get a local SIM card. Pre-paid plans are quite cheap and you’ll find an abundance of choice for high-gig use, costing about USD 50 a month.

Living expenses

Public transportation, food and entertainment costs are probably going to amount to anywhere between USD 300 and USD 600 a month, depending on how flush you want to live. Your teaching life in China can be ridiculously cheap or insanely expensive, depending on your choices and do keep in mind that, as stated at the start, it could be a month (or more) until that first bodycheck comes in.

Once that happens, you can finally breathe a sigh of relief. You’ve done it. You’ve somehow managed to spend five thousand bucks but guess what? You’re now in China, in your new apartment, with your gorgeous IKEA towels, a local SIM card that works and a brand-new teaching job to look forward to!

David O Connor

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 lover of craft beers, book clubs and super long road trips.

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