Work in China: A Guide to Relocating to the Far East

Shanghai skyline China Shutterstock

For those looking to try a change of scenery in their career, cultures don’t come more storied, colourful or eye-opening to outsiders than China. Containing over five millennia of history and some of the most iconic landmarks in the world, few locations can match its sheer scale and contribution to history.

China isn’t focused on the past, though. It has risen rapidly to prominence in the last 30 years, establishing itself as the second largest economy in the world and one of the major business players on the global stage. As a result, many professionals are drawn to the idea of heading east – and many foreign-owned businesses are keen to follow suit and establish themselves there.

So, if you want to work abroad in China, read on – this is what you should know…

General Info

According to the most recent population census in 2010, there were at least 600,000 expats living in China – a number that has likely doubled in the last decade. Most of these people are based on the east coast of the country, in larger cities such as Shanghai, Guangzhou and the capital, Beijing. They are mostly immigrants from neighbouring Asian countries like South Korea and Japan, with the largest makeup of non-Asian arrivals coming from the US (12%).

Biggest Sectors

The large majority of these expats are employed by international companies, known legally as ‘foreign-invested enterprises’. According to Asian recruitment specialists Hudson, the largest proportion of these workers are based in the following fields:

  • Sales and marketing
  • Banking
  • Financial services
  • Engineering

As China continues to develop its trade links and opens up the playing field to more and more foreign companies, opportunities for jobs will only continue to increase. The professional services sector is predicted to grow massively in the coming years, alongside banking and finance, and the consumer sector in the country is also showing no signs of slowing. As with essentially every economy in the world, IT professionals are also highly sought-after.

Although most of the larger Chinese companies are state-owned and operated (China is, after all, still technically a socialist country), many of them appear regularly on the Fortune 500 list. Prominent industries in the country include:

  • Chemical processing
  • Consumer product manufacturing
  • Food processing
  • Mining
  • Technology
  • Textiles
  • Machine building

Salary Information

Despite numerous misconceptions, average salaries for Chinese workers have increased dramatically since 2002, when China joined the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Indeed, in Shanghai, the median monthly salary of $1,135 (which is about ¥7,400 or £832) actually exceeds that of several European Union member states’, including Croatia, Lithuania and Latvia.

According to SmartIntern, the average entry-level monthly salary for foreigners is around ¥8,000 (£909) which should cover basic living costs, although it is possible to rise quite quickly if you perform well. After a year or two, it’s not unreasonable to expect a salary of around ¥15,000 (£1,705) – more than enough to live comfortably.

For workers hired directly from overseas, though (such as a middle-level manager being seconded by their company), salaries are much higher. Taking into account allowances and bonuses, workers can expect to earn an average of $276,000 per year (about ¥1.83m or £201,890). Indeed, according to HR consultants ECA International, expat salary packages in China are the second best in the region, after Japan.

Cost of Living

Generally speaking, the cost of living in China is drastically lower than the UK or the US, although some patterns are similar. For example, accommodation costs are much higher in the likes of Shanghai and Beijing, and a decent one-bedroom apartment there will set you back around ¥6,500 (£735) a month, according to TransferWise. The good news is it doesn’t get much more expensive than that, though, and due to state subsidies, utility bills are shockingly low.

Public transport costs are very low in China, and in the larger cities, the transit infrastructure is effective and reliable. Bicycles are also a popular method of getting to and from work.

Driving, meanwhile, can be expensive, with car lease and petrol costs both very high. Many international companies may provide you with a driver as part of your allowance package, although you should clarify this before you move.

Working Conditions

Like much of the West, China has a five-day working week between Monday and Friday, with government laws prohibiting workers from exceeding 40 workhours. In reality, though, this doesn’t happen, with unpaid overtime being common. Likewise, holiday entitlement in China is low, with workers receiving anything between 5 and 15 days, depending on their role, as well as 11 paid public holidays.

The workplace culture in China is slightly different to most western businesses, although not completely alien. For example, Chinese companies are seen as being more hierarchical with a strong emphasis on the top-down structure, and decisions are rarely questioned. Punctuality is also important, with tardiness unlikely to win you any friends at all. Dress codes are similar to offices in the UK and the US.

Finally, if you are one of the few expats to land a role at one of China’s state-owned companies, prepare to dust your exercise gear off – twice-a-day exercise is mandatory for public workers under government law. The practice, which entails two separate eight-minute sessions, was reintroduced by the ruling Communist Party in 2010 after a three-year hiatus.

Finding a Job

As a foreigner, the biggest variable in your job search is more than likely to be your understanding of Mandarin, the official language of the country. Although it is possible to actually live in the coastal cities on English alone, it is much easier to find a job if you can speak the local language.

This is reflected in the hiring policies of most companies. According to Hudson, the first preference is to recruit either experienced local candidates or ‘returnees’, Chinese citizens who have been working abroad. For certain niches and skillsets, though, there may be openings for foreigners, especially those who can demonstrate the right mix of experience and abilities. Most of these positions are with international companies, who are responsible for employing around 85% of the expat workforce, and are generally broken down into the following areas:

  • Sales and marketing – 40%
  • Engineering – 20%
  • Management (including accounting and finance – 10%
  • IT – 5%
  • Other – 25%

Realistically, though, the easiest way to relocate is if you work for a multinational company that has offices in China, either through a secondment or an internally advertised vacancy. Typically, most of these roles are more senior and management-oriented, although knowledge of Mandarin may not be so important. Keep an eye out for any advertised positions or programmes.

Finally, don’t underestimate the importance of networking. In China, many vacancies are never formally advertised, and having a good network of reliable contacts can make all the difference in securing a position. Indeed, the concept of networking in China is known as guanxi and is a central idea at the very heart of Chinese business culture. Be prepared to brush up on your Mandarin, and make use of digital networking tools before you go such as Dajie, Tianji and, of course, LinkedIn.


Another option – especially at entry-level – is to teach, either through the English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) programme or as a dedicated teacher in an English-speaking private school. There are several agencies that regularly advertise postings such as Reach to Teach, English First and Teach Away.

Visas and Work Permits

To work legally in China, you will need to obtain a work visa, known as a ‘Z-type visa’. Both you and the organisation that is hiring you must satisfy the eligibility criteria, and your employer must have accreditation from the government. Your company will also send you a government-issued work permit which you need to fill out and submit.

Once you arrive in China, this visa is only valid for 30 days and you will need to apply for a Temporary Residence Permit through your employer; this permit should last for the duration of your work contract.

If you’re considering taking your next career steps in a more exotic locale, then working in China can be an invaluable opportunity to embrace a radically different lifestyle and ethos. Although Chinese culture is steeped in history and tradition, the country is inclusive of modern ideas and obsessed with growth, and it is an exciting time to be a part of the story there.

Have you worked in China? What were your experiences? Let us know in the comments!


Currency conversions are based on rates supplied by on 12 January 2018.