Your Cost of Living Guide to China (2019)

Whether you are planning to move to China or to visit on holiday, you are probably wondering how much everything costs here. The truth is, it is often difficult to find accurate or realistic information online about things like cost of living. Even on comprehensive databases like Numbeo, sometimes people misreport numbers or the numbers are outdated (inflation in China’s top-tier cities are close to 10% per year!).

Fear not, I am here to give you an accurate and up-to-date list of what everything costs in China’s top-tier cities. Note that “top tier city” refers to Shanghai, Beijing, and Shenzhen.

“Second tier city” refers to the likes of Guangzhou, Chengdu, Chongqing, Hangzhou, and Tianjin. I won’t list data for these cities but they are generally 20-50% cheaper (rent/food/transit) in comparison to SH/BJ/SZ. All other cities are third tier or below and are generally much cheaper. But, of course, special touristy towns can be more expensive than nearby provincial capitals (for example the scenic town of Lijiang in Yunnan can be more pricey than Kunming, the provincial capital).

Here are the typical expat/traveler needs and what they cost in Beijing/Shanghai/Shenzhen:

Rent/Accommodation

DescriptionCost Range (CNY)
Mid-range hotel (per night)500 – 1,200
Rent, studio apartment in centre (per month)6,500 – 9,500
Rent, studio apartment in suburbs (per month)2,500 – 6,000
Rent, 2-bedroom apartment in centre (per month)9,000 – 18,000
Rent, 2-bedroom apartment in suburbs (per month)3,500 – 9,000
Rent, a bedroom in a shared 4/5-student apartment in centre (per month)2,500 – 4,000

Note that the ranges are fairly wide as the price depends on the size of the apartment, the quality (renovation and equipment), as well as your bargain skills. A studio apartment in the centre of Shanghai can be old and basic (7,000 CNY/month) or it can be freshly renovated with high quality appliances and wall heating (9,500 CNY/month) — you get the idea.

If you are a student then your best bet is to live with other students in those big 3 to 5 bedroom shared apartments — a room can cost as low as 2,500 CNY/month or you can get the master bedroom with your private bathroom for 3,500-4,000 CNY/month. There are many of these shared apartments in high-rises in the city centres of Shanghai, Beijing, and Shenzhen.

Food

Description (Meal for 1 Person with 1 Drink)Cost Range (CNY)
Local Chinese meal in hole-in-the-wall restaurant (e.g. Muslim Lanzhou noodles)15 – 35
Local Chinese meal in modern flagship/brandname restaurant (e.g. a Cantonese dim sum place or hotpot)50 – 150
Local Chinese street snack (e.g. jianbing or baozi)2 – 10
Fast food chain (e.g. McDonald’s)25 – 40
Standard Western restaurant (e.g. Western burger or pizza joint)80 – 150
High-end Western dining (e.g. restaurants on the Bund in Shanghai)250 – 600

Food has rapidly gotten very expensive in the top tier Chinese cities in recent years, especially with the boom of chic or high-end Western restaurants and bars. The rapid inflation also means even the basic hole-in-the-wall local food places can no longer afford to sell you a bowl of noodles for less than 10 CNY. Gone are the days of China being a place for cheap food, unless you go to 2nd or 3rd tier cities — where you can still find local food at Southeast Asia prices.

Some ranges are wide because depending on the type of restaurant and type of food, the difference can be drastic. For example hotpot is best eaten with a group — you need to start with a high base cost for the broth, etc., so it makes sense to share with others. On the other hand, if you are at a restaurant where you can just order one or two dishes for yourself, then it won’t really matter how many friends you are sharing the meal with.

For any proper Western restaurant, you are looking at about 80-90 CNY at least for a burger or pizza. An alcoholic beverage will set you back another 40 to 70 CNY in a mid-range Western restaurant.

Drink & Nightlife

DescriptionCost Range (CNY)
Beer (550 mL) from convenience store7 – 15
Beer from basic local bar15 – 35
Drink in average Western bar or restaurant30 – 80
Beer in nightclub40 – 90
Cocktail or highball in nightclub70 – 120
Nightclub coverfree – 100
Cocktail in high-end bar (e.g. rooftop/bund)90 – 200
Table and bottle service in nightclub3,000 and up

Drinking in China’s top tier cities is probably the most expensive thing you can do. If you come from Continental Europe or North America, you are looking at $10-15 USD for a drink at the club… not cheap! For those of you who are Scandinavian ballers or from Down Under, I guess the prices are normal for you.

Beware of the clubs or promoters advertising “free drinks” for foreigners — yes the drinks will be free at these Chinese-style clubs, but they are all fake booze served in recycled Grey Goose and Ballantine’s bottles. You will have a blasting headache the next morning and probably smelly urine. Better to stick to the top clubs with foreign clientele and pay for proper drinks, especially if you are older and not coming here as a student.

Again, pretty wide range for each category, depends on which brand (imported from Japan or Europe?) and what type of alcohol. In general, beer is cheaper than liquor. Nightclubs are typically either free or charge a 100 CNY cover, but it’s usually easy to get on the guest list and as long as you go before a certain time you can get in for free.

Bottle service is popular among the rich locals who frequent the nightclubs, but you’ll occasionally see some wealthy foreigners also getting tables (e.g. at Bar Rouge in Shanghai). Typically a private table with 1 bottle of whiskey or vodka (e.g. JD or Goose) or champagne starts around 2,000 or 3,000 CNY for foreigners. YMMV.

Transportation

DescriptionCost Range (CNY)
Individual subway ride (depending on # of stops)3 – 7
Individual city bus ride1 – 2
Regular taxi, 5 km trip16 – 25
Regular taxi, 45 km trip (e.g. airport)180 – 220
High speed rail for intercity travel, 2nd Class50-100 CNY per 1 h trip time, depending on region and route (e.g. high frequency route such as SH-BJ is more expensive per mileage)

As you can see, public transportation is cheap in China and very efficient. Beijing and Shanghai have well-developed subway networks and it is very easy to get around using the subway. If you figure out how to ride the city bus then it could be a very cheap and convenient option for you depending on where you live (e.g. not too close to a subway station). Subway coverage in Shenzhen is a bit lacking since the city is so long and spread out, so you might need to catch a bus or taxi more often to reach certain places.

High speed rail is undoubtedly the best way to travel around China for short-to-medium distances. It is very reasonably priced and the trains are fast and comfortable. For any trip under 5-6 hours I would highly recommend taking the high speed train over flying — the train gets you from city centre to city centre, whereas airports are often located an hour outside the city. Also, Chinese domestic flights can be rather uncomfortable if you are flying in and out of smaller cities.

Communication

DescriptionCost Range (CNY)
Mobile data plan, unlimited GBs (per month)100 – 200
Internet plan, 200 mbps (per month)160 – 180

Mobile data is reasonably priced in China, although as you know, you will need a VPN installed on your devices in order to access many Western sites and apps. Telecom providers often have promotions and therefore you can often get a monthly unlimited data plan for only 100 CNY per month instead of the 150+ standard pricing.

Internet plans usually start at 1 year minimum. 2 or more years will get you a lower annual price.


I will leave you with these main expenses that you will encounter when you travel to or move to China’s major cities. For other less common things you can check Numbeo (link in first paragraph) for some user-submitted data.

A few notes on groceries:

  • Groceries in China’s top tier cities are getting quite expensive now, especially any sort of good quality protein will cost you a fortune.
  • Local produce (green vegetables and fruits) is quite cheap in local supermarkets, and reasonable even in Carrefour.
  • If you want high quality protein you will have to stick with imported meat and fish, which will be expensive (e.g. 200 g piece of imported Aussie raw ribeye steak will probably cost 40-60 CNY).
  • A 1L carton of imported milk will be around 15 CNY.
  • Rice, noodles, grains, etc. standard local fare are cheap.
  • Imported items such as cheese and olive oil are very expensive.

In terms of shopping for clothing, etc., there is no price advantage in China. Chances are, as a foreigner, you are looking to only buy recognized Western brands (e.g. H&M), which have about the same price as they would in the USA or Canada. If you need some threads to wear, I would highly recommend Uniqlo — the “Japanese H&M” with similar styles and price range, but better quality than H&M. Uniqlo stores are very common in Beijing/Shanghai/Shenzhen but I haven’t seen too many of them in Europe/NA last time I checked.


Final note — as you can see, life in China’s top cities are no longer as cheap as you would expect. Inflation has been high in the past 5 years and prices are rapidly reaching Western levels or even beyond. If you are a single foreign person living in your own bachelor studio in Shanghai, for example, you will probably need about 12,000-15,000 CNY per month (around 2,000 USD) for a comfortable lifestyle with entertainment/activities, etc. If you live the student lifestyle in a shared apartment with frugal spending, then you can certainly get by with 7,000-9,000 CNY per month (around 1,200 USD).

If you are interested in traveling around China, you will find great value in the smaller cities or more remote places. Prices in some second or third tier Chinese cities remain quite similar to what you would find in Thailand or Vietnam.


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