In China, what are the best cities to live, work, and study as a foreigner?
John Lombard, Founder of "The Language of Culture" | Consultant | Speaker
Geez, that's impossible to answer. It depends on your personality, on your reason for being in China, etc.
Personally, Shanghai is my least favorite city in all of China. The reason is simple -- I came to China to experience the culture, the history, etc. And out of all the cities in China, Shanghai is the one that has the least of those things (well, Shenzhen would probably fit that description also). But if you want a place where you can live in China, but still feel the most comfortable, Shanghai is probably the best choice for you.
If, on the other hand, you're looking more to immerse yourself in the history/culture of China, I'd suggest a city like Lijiang, in Yunnan province.
But then there's personality, also. Do you have a gregarious, adventurous personality that thrives on new situations, challenge, and the unknown? If so, go to smaller cities that don't have so many foreigners, where you'll be a more 'real' China experience. Or are you someone who gets more easily stressed in difficult situations, who is shy to meet new people, etc.? If so, go to larger cities like Beijing, Shanghai, etc.
What about language? If you don't speak Chinese, Beijing and Shanghai are much easier cities to live in. But on the other hand, if you want to learn Chinese, those may be the worst cities to live in, simply because there are so many people who speak English, so it's not so necessary to use your Chinese. Whereas if you go to a smaller city where people don't speak much English, you'll be much more immersed in a Chinese language environment, and probably learn much more quickly.
For me, my first city in China was Qingdao. That was back in 1993, when China was very, very different than it is today. Almost nobody spoke English, and I spoke no Chinese. There were daily difficulties and challenges that often were infuriating and frustrating, where I wondered "Why am I putting myself through this?" (for example, I was once quarantined in a hospital for three days because of a sunburn...the doctors thought the blisters were some sort of weird foreigner's disease, and didn't want anyone else catching it). But I learned so much more about China, and Chinese people, and the Chinese language, than I would have if I'd lived in Beijing or Shanghai, surrounded by other foreigners.
There is no absolute answer to this question. Ask different people, and they'll give you different answers.
It's up to you to figure out what kind of city is best for you.
Derek Harkness, Living and working in China since 2006.
The best place to live and work probably won't be the same as the best place to live and study. When you are studying, you want to live somewhere cheap. You want to be able to walk or take public transport everywhere and to enjoy life while on a strict budget. When working, you have money to spend and want to be able to have a good time and play somewhat in your free time.
It also depends on what kind of work you plan to do. To do anything other than teaching English, you have to be in a big city - Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Guangzhou. You might, with good mandarin skills be able to get work in some smaller, but not small, cities such as Qingdao, Xiamen, Dalian, Hangzhou. Of that short list, I'd say Shanghai and Hong Kong have the most to offer.
If you want to teach English, I recommend looking at smaller cities that those mentioned above. Look at places that aren't so popular with foreigners but still big enough to provide the service you need. In these cities, you will be able to find more work and get paid higher wages while enjoying a low cost of living, than you would in a big famous city.
For a student, look for a decent school/university in a smaller city but within easy travel of a big city. This will allow you to keep your living expenses low while still being able to go into the big city to buy the occasional luxury.
Tiffany Brown, studies Chinese at Peking University (2019)
A lot of foreigners make plans in China, but in the “wrong” cities for them. As I was growing up, I knew Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong, and I didn’t even know many differences about them!
Often, foreigners will make plans in these cities I mentioned, and then be disappointed by the air quality, size, difficulty of getting around and competitiveness. These “1st tier” cities are often gateways into China until we find the more attractive and laid-back cities that those in the famous “first tier” cities envy! Living in China should be more than just surviving, and should be enjoyed and savored in a place you love.
Here are five 2nd-tier cities that expats and students seem to enjoy the most:
Visiting Xiamen was so impressive! It’s like the Chinese Mediterranean. Water everywhere, mild winters, friendly locals, fresh fish, huge parks and historic neighborhoods and buildings. What more could you ask for?
Qingdao is another seaside gem that everyone that lives in Beijing seems to prefer! The famous beer, the German heritage, the seaside strolls. Mild winter/cool summer. It’s a very pleasant, yet thriving city.
Dalian has a lovely mountainous and watery landscape and an urban sophistication that so many expats like. The city planning is some of the best in China, or anywhere! Many tree-lined streets give it a bit of a European feeling and charm. It has a healthy economy and friendly population.
Chengdu is famous for spicy food and cute pandas. The city is also known for its laid-back lifestyle and people. Days seem to go by slower here and it’s not as competitive as the eastern Chinese cities.
This “city of eternal spring” is well-known for having a “southeast Asian” feel, with lots of temples, a laid-back population, backpackers, and spectacular nearby scenery of Yunnan Province. The location is a bit out-of-the-way, but you will have plenty of friends visiting to see the nearby towns of Dali and Lijiang.
…so, I hope this helps. Of course, I didn’t mention Hangzhou, Haikou, Changhsa, etc, etc…..there are so many beyond those “first-tier” cities that I can recommend!