Housing options for foreigners in China


For many years, Chinese government policy was to separate foreigners from the local population by making them live in specially designated and segregated (i.e. fenced-off) properties. Today, however, expatriates can live in, rent or even purchase housing in China on the same terms as the Chinese.

Housing options in China include apartments, dormitories, villas (houses), serviced apartments and hotels.

Standard apartments in China

Standard apartments are the most common housing option for both the Chinese and foreigners. They vary greatly in quality, size, cost and type of decoration.

Since Chinese apartments are often purchased individually after they’re built, you will often rent an apartment from an individual person who owns it. In many cases you will only deal with the apartment’s management company who operates as a service provider for the individual who actually owns it.

Rental prices in China vary considerably between different cities. Hong Kong, Macau, Shanghai and Beijing have some of the highest rents in the world. In contrast you can rent a nice flat in smaller cities for as little as $100 to 200 USD per month.

Of course, apartment rents also depend on the quality you’re looking for. Be aware that the term “standard apartment” covers an extremely wide range of flats in China. In the worst case, it means a very old apartment with tiny rooms, a squat hole in the bathroom instead of a toilet, no bathtub or shower curtain, no heating or air-conditioning, exposed pipes and no kitchen appliances except a portable two-burner cook. Of course, these apartments are also very cheap, but if you’re used to Western living standards, you might not last very long in them.

At the other end of the scale, you will find modern luxury apartments with central heating and air conditioning, large garden tubs, Italian marble, and sometimes even broadband DSL wired into the walls. These apartments are often built for foreign tenants, so they include a complete range of equipment such as washing machines, dryers, built-in ovens, dishwashers and lots of storage closets. Some apartment complexes even include local amenities such as beauty salons, swimming pools, tennis courts, restaurants and pubs. Of course, all these amenities are reflected by a rather hefty rental price.

The majority of standard apartments in China will fall somewhere in between these two extremes, with prices to reflect this. Without a doubt it is worthwhile to view an apartment to see what it’s like before committing, although the rental price is generally a good indicator of what you can expect.

In major cities, almost all apartments (even the cheaper ones) will come with western toilets. In more remote areas, you will sometimes be surprised that even upscale flats sometimes only come with a squat pot (although it may be installed in a marble floor).

Serviced apartments in China

Serviced apartments are mostly offered by four and five-star hotels (though there are a few independent chains as well). They are designed for short-term rental and are rather more expensive than standard apartments (you’ll typically pay twice as much as for a standard flat). Many serviced apartments are staffed by English speakers, which can prove quite handy if you’ve just arrived in China and don’t yet speak any Chinese.

Villas and townhouses

Houses (both detached and attached ) are called “villas” in China and are typically the most expensive and luxurious housing options. They are normally built within walled complexes and come in a variety of styles such as Mediterranean, Mid-American, elaborate classical European or minimalist Japanese Zen.

The villa market is relatively new to China, addressing the new group of wealthy Chinese individuals and the growing number of foreigners in China. As with serviced apartments, you will be more isolated from the Chinese community in a villa, but you’ll get to meet neighbours from all around the world.

Further reading

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