The Complete Guide To Moving Your Life To China

The Complete Guide To Moving Your Life To China

Are you planning to move your life to China for a year or two, teaching English and exploring? Worried about how much is involved and what you need to do? Living and teaching in China will be an experience that changes your life. But it can also be a monumental pain if you don’t know how to prepare and what to do beforehand. If you want to have a trouble-free trip and just enjoy your time, then here’s everything you need to do before you get on the plane.

Teaching Legally in China

You must have a Z Visa to teach legally in China and you shouldn’t believe anyone who says otherwise. Some organisations, usually the less reputable ones, will tell you that you can teach on a tourist visa or promise to get you the Z Visa once you’re already in the country. This is a common scam, so don’t believe them.

If you don’t have the right visa, you don’t have any legal recourse if something goes wrong. Your employer can break your contract or change the terms and there’s nothing you can do about it. And if you’re on the wrong visa you’re always at risk of getting caught and fined or even deported. Worrying about this is the last thing you want when you’re exploring China.

You’ll need to apply for the Z visa before you enter the country. Then, after 30 days, you can register at the local police station, get a Work Certificate, and obtain your Residence Permit. This might sound complicated, and it is, but your school should help you with every step of the process. And if they don’t, find another job.

The Z Visa

So, first you need to get a Z visa before you leave your home country. There are three main requirements for getting this visa:

  • A bachelor’s degree in any subject.
  • A TEFL certificate or two years teaching experience.
  • You must be a native English speaker.

And then, once you’re safely in China and teaching, your school will help you get a Work Certificate and Residence Permit.


Choosing an Apartment

When you decide to move to China to teach, chances are that your accommodation will be included with your teaching contract. This is an often-unexpected bonus. Many schools have apartments for teachers, and you can live in them with another teacher. Some schools even offer solo accommodation if that’s your preference. Obviously, the apartment isn’t free, but the cost is taken out of your wages and you probably won’t even notice.

Taking this offered accommodation can make your first days in China very easy. Someone from your school will probably pick you up from the airport, take you to your apartment, and show you around. This is a nice soft landing when you arrive in China, but it can still cause some worries. Accommodation standards in China are quite different to what you’ll find in most western countries. So, make sure you investigate the accommodation as much as possible before arriving in China by:

  • Asking for photos of your apartment.
  • Talking to previous teachers about where they stayed and what to expect.

And if you have any worries or problems with your apartment, make sure you ask for a change or if there are other options.

Finding your own Apartment

If your school doesn’t offer an apartment, then you’ll have to find your own. Your school will probably provide you with a housing allowance and help you find somewhere convenient and comfortable. Obviously, they can’t help you find an apartment while you’re out of the country, so when you arrive in China you’ll probably have to live in a hotel for a week while you search. Your school should organise and pay for this, so make sure it’s part of the package.

Finding an apartment will be easier than you think. Most schools have a good idea about what teachers expect and can help you find somewhere that suits your needs.

Get a VPN

Yes, you will need a VPN. Not because you’re in the habit of accessing illegal or morally dubious sites, but just because the rules in China are fairly restrictive. You won’t be able to put photos on Facebook, access your Gmail account, use Google, or get on Titter, Pinterest, or Tumblr. And the list goes on from there.

This is actually a fairly frustrating issue. You can find free VPNs that claim to work and won’t. Others will work for a while and then get blocked. A VPN can also slow down older devices. The most effective VPNs for use in China are constantly changing. So basically, before you leave, check on the latest updates and be prepared to change providers at any time if your VPN stops working.


Preparing for the Weather

Newcomers to China seem to think that it’s a small country with one weather system. This couldn’t be further from the truth. China is huge and the temperatures range widely depending on where you’re living. As an example, a town named Huzhong is often named as the coldest city in China. In winter, this town experiences temperatures as low as minus 41.2°C (and that is -42.2 °F). In contrast, Shenzhen in the south has a short winter with average lows in the coldest month around 12 °C (54 °F).

Obviously, if you’re going to teach in Huzhong you will need to prepare very differently then you would for a long stay in Shenzhen. So, make sure you check the weather variation in the city where you’ll be living and bring appropriate clothes. And if you’re travelling around while you’re in the country, don’t expect that the areas you visit will have the same climate range. Always check. This will prevent you from freezing or boiling in a new city because you’re unprepared.

Air Pollution

If you’re staying in a larger city like Shanghai or Beijing, you will also need to keep an eye on air pollution warnings. The smog in large cities can be extremely dangerous. In fact, if you live in these cities, you’ll probably find that you get sick a lot or have a chronic, annoying cough just from breathing the air. The air in China can be deadly, and is often blamed for shortening people’s life expectancy, so take this issue seriously.

Some days have worse air pollution then others. On these days, the government usually suggests that people stay indoors to avoid health problems. You’ll need to know when these warnings are issued. There are some good apps that you can install on your phone so you can track the air pollution levels and take the appropriate precautions. Some of the most popular and accurate are:

Make sure you save these websites before you leave and get used to using them because they all have different features.

items to bring

What to Bring to China

When you’re packing for China, it might be tempting to bring your whole wardrobe. Don’t do this, if only to save your back. Otherwise, you might find yourself trying to get your huge suitcase up five flights of stairs to your apartment because your building doesn’t have an elevator However, there are some essentials that you absolutely must take for your trip including:

  • Comfortable walking shoes (absolutely non-negotiable).
  • Emergency cash, so you aren’t reliant on your school and have an exit strategy just in case.
  • Tissues, both for your nose and for any bathrooms you encounter that are lacking this seemingly essential equipment.
  • Pollution masks to protect you during your first few days in the city.
  • A universal power adaptor that will fit in China’s non-standardised sockets.
  • Bug repellent to protect you from malaria and dengue fever.
  • A lightweight travel towel just in case your hotel doesn’t have one.

What Not to Bring to China

Sometimes people arrive in China with a huge mountain of clothes, toiletries, and other belongings. This really isn’t necessary. China is a modern city, and most of the things you need you can buy there. Just remember that there’s no way you can bring enough clothes for a two-year trip and accept that you will need to update your wardrobe while in the country. With that in mind, here are some things you definitely shouldn’t bring with you:

  • A really expensive camera (unless you’re a photographer).
  • Anything illegal or prohibited in China.
  • A money belt, because China is fairly safe for foreigners and as long as you don’t flash lots of money around you won’t need the belt.
  • Delicate clothes that you will have to wash in China’s rough washing machines and possibly dry in polluted air.

Your First Days in China

Your first days in China will probably be a blur of strange sights, smells, and places. You’ll be trying to remember where you live, how to get there, where to have breakfast, and work out where to shop. Everything is different in China, from what they eat for breakfast to how to buy fruit, and you will have to get used to all of it. You may find yourself overwhelmed, missing home, and convinced that you won’t make it. But this will all pass if you give it time. Here’s how to survive your first days in China:

  • Lean on your school’s support and let them show you where to eat and how to get around.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask other teachers and the head teacher questions.
  • Focus on learning how to get home and finding easy and tasty things to eat that are sold close to your apartment.
  • Get plenty of sleep and allow your body to recover from the long flight and all the changes.
  • Eat where the locals eat; if there’s a long line at a local food vendor then join it.
  • Don’t expect everyone to speak English and use body language and single words to communicate where necessary.
  • Stay in contact with people back home but be open to making new friends.
  • Be kind to your stomach as it adjusts to the new foods and find familiar dishes to keep your system calm and happy.
  • Savour the experience, even the bad parts.
China Adventure

The Takeaway

When you move to China for a couple of years to teach English, it will be a frustrating, exciting, and strange time. You will encounter amazing people, frustrating paperwork and bureaucracy, and cultural quirks that seem to make no sense at all. Prepare to be patient. The biggest and best lesson you will learn in China is how to stay calm and just accept the things you don’t understand. And once you can do that, you’ll have an amazing time teaching English in China.

About the Author

Gayle Aggiss an ESL teacher and a dedicated traveller. She has taught in Fuzhou, China, and Hanoi and much prefers smaller cities to the larger options. When she’s not on the road, she lives in Perth, Australia.  She writes about education, ESL teaching specifically, and you can view more examples of her work at