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May 8th, 2022 by David O Connor

What is the cost of living for teachers in China?

What is the cost of living for teachers in China?

As you can imagine, the cost of living in China makes a significant impact on the lifestyle of English teachers. It’s even more relevant than their salary.

Interestingly, most ESL teachers looking for a great job in China become near-obsessive about the salary they’d like to earn and only give a passing thought to their living expenses. Yet, in reality, living costs are very adjustable in China, especially for foreign teachers.

When you choose a less-prominent teaching destination in China, you can halve your living costs compared to major cities like Beijing and Shanghai. Yet that salary will probably only be marginally lower. In the end, you will come out ahead financially and can enjoy an excellent standard of living.

It’s a simple enough conclusion.

Granted, a ‘great’ standard of living means something different to everyone. Yet, by and large, you get the idea: as a teacher, your lifestyle in China can be just as enjoyable if you don’t earn the top teaching dollars in the country. As long as you combine that with a more modestly-priced destination, that is.

Are you looking for stats, figures and details? We’ve got you covered!

Your lifestyle can be more important than your salary

GREAT standard of living

In China, BIG cities offer BIG salaries but also HIGHER living costs


Less prominent cities offer LOWER salaries yet MUCH LOWER living costs

China by Teaching

How will my living costs compare with the West?

China is an inexpensive country for most Western foreigners. Especially when you consider what you get for your yuan. You can dine at a delicious local joint for just USD 2 and splurge on a ‘taste of home’ dinner like New York-style pan pizza and beer for just USD 15. That’s cheap, no matter which way you look at it!

Overall, the option to spend big (or small) means you can live well even on a newbie teacher’s salary in China.

This is one of the many things that make China an appealing destination for English teachers.

What does life in China look like for the average international teacher? They usually have a housekeeper, travel somewhere fun about once a month, eat out six times a week, enjoy massages and hairdresser visits, alongside plenty of nights out, and update their wardrobes with tailor-made clothing.

What costs will I find expensive living in China?

Keeping all things relative in mind, let’s start with the painful expenses, the ones that are likely to pinch your wallet more than any other.

Anything imported from the West

We’re talking branded clothing, food and (unfortunately) wine and cheese. Import tariffs are massive in China for these ‘Western luxuries’. Locals pay top dollar to feast on aged gorgonzola and sip prosecco. And you will too.

At an upmarket international restaurant, dinners cost between three and five times as much as in a local, family-run place, no matter where you are. By the way, even Pizza Hut is considered upmarket in China (and Asia, in general), so, to be brutally honest, you can still spend big on extremely average Western food.

The budget fix

Every expat wants to indulge in ‘home’ tastes when living abroad. The trick to lowering your living costs in China? Don’t indulge too often!

Anything that’s simply not consumed in abundance by locals

Although the Chinese are starting to appreciate good cheese, the consumption of this dairy is not yet prevalent throughout the country. This kind of stuff costs a bomb: products that locals don’t consume, so you don’t even find a locally-made version. Sigh.

**Some Chinese provinces, like Yunnan and Fujian, actually boast outstanding traditional cheeses. Check these Chinese cheese varieties!

The budget fix

There really isn’t one for cheese, we’re afraid. Except to say that, knowing how much you’ll have to pay for it, that rare piece of cheese will taste infinitely yummier!

Gyms/personal trainers

The whole ‘gym-junkie, big-pecs and bubble-butt’ obsession has not yet reached China which means gym classes, weightlifting and having a personal trainer are not things locals routinely enjoy. This means it’s very much a luxury, one that’s charged at top yuan.

The budget fix

Keeping fit and active is important so, if you normally go to the gym a few times a week, then look for an affordable (not too glam) option near home. You can definitely do without a personal trainer though, right?

Travel at Chinese holiday times

Flights and accommodation are super affordable in China, except during those times when the entire country gets on the move. Chinese New Year is the #1 peak travel period in the country, a time when big-city dwellers head back to their villages to spend time with family. This is when flights and accommodation prices skyrocket.

The budget fix

Plan your travels outside public holidays, if you can. You will enjoy a much cheaper trip and a far quieter and more relaxing time. Stay put when everyone makes their exodus and move when they’re all back at work.

Fancy, upmarket, central apartments

You know how we said China was generally inexpensive? Well, it’s not when it comes to super-central, super-glam apartments. Rent one of those in a Tier 1 city and you’re looking at NYC 5th Avenue rental prices. No joke.

The budget fix

Luckily, you need only move 15min outside the immediate CBD to see accommodation prices fall dramatically. Plus, if you swap that penthouse with a modest 2-bedroom apartment that’s still clean and comfy, you will save an absolute fortune.

Considering your accommodation costs will be the biggest expense you will incur as a teacher in China, this is where it pays to rent smart. Public transport is excellent and cheap, so living just outside the centre is really not a big deal and what teachers in China do to keep their living costs down.

What costs will I find cheap living in China?

Public Transport & taxis

As stated above, you can get around effortlessly in China, and it won’t cost you much at all. No expat who values their life will have a car, although quite a few invest in an e-bike if they live close to their school. This makes renting a suburban apartment all the more ingenious: you can save hundreds on rent every month but spend just USD 60 to get around in taxis and metro/buses (or just USD 30 if you never take a taxi). It’s a no-brainer!

Delicious local food

FYI: expats barely cook at home in China, and when they do, it’s to cook something like mum’s lasagne. Now, the grocery bill for that one dish will likely buy them a week’s worth of dinners out at a local joint. Just sayin’! Eating out is so ingrained in the Chinese culture that you will likely do that six nights a week. Never fear. Local eateries are fabulous, so this is a gratifying and delicious way to look after your budget.

Fresh produce & farmer’s markets

China has some great fresh produce markets: you should find your nearest local market when you first settle in! Locally sourced meat, fish, vegetables and fruits are delectable and inexpensive. Discovering new and exceptional tastes is one of the most delightful experiences for new teachers in China. Doing the bulk of your fresh food shopping at a local market will also help keep your living costs down in China.

Local beer

Have you ever heard of Chinese beer? Well, you soon will. The best beer in China is Tsingtao, yet every province has its distinct local brewery you ought to discover. If you live in a major city, you will likely find all the top brands on sale there too. Local brews are a fantastic way to counteract the expensive imported wine conundrum. Win-win!


YES! Keep yourself at home during CNY and travel at off-peak times, and you’ll be amazed at the travel deals you’ll find in China. Both domestic and international. That long weekend getaway with the girls in Bangkok or Seoul will just cost you a few hundred dollars, so it’s something you can indulge in often. Moreover, all those yuan you’re saving by eating local and going without a personal trainer? Spend them on travel! China enjoys a stellar central location in Asia – this is the time to indulge in inexpensive travel!

Living costs for teachers in China – Expense Chart

Now it’s time to get down to the nitty-gritty details. Take a look at our Tier 1 VS Tier 2 City comparison to get a better idea of what you’ll need to earn in order to break even.

Now it’s time to get down to the nitty-gritty details. Take a look at our Tier 1 VS Tier 2 City comparison to understand better what you’ll need to earn to break even.

Generally speaking, do note that you can enjoy a good standard of living, anywhere in China, on or just under USD 1,000 a month.

For easier reference, we’ll display all costs in USD as well.

Our Complete Guide to Teaching in China answers the most commonly-asked questions we’re asked here at China by Teaching. Only once you see the broader and more precise picture will you truly understand how variable the living costs for teachers in China can be. But of course, these are all general ideas that don’t consider your personal qualifications and eligibility to teach here.

Can you be a top earner as a teacher in China? Only one way to find out!

Submit your CV to us today, and we’ll contact you for a chat.

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

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