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Popular Expat Destinations in China

One of the world’s oldest civilizations is now one of its economic superpowers. Expatriates moving to China are attracted by the economic opportunities as well as the cultural experience. InterNations prepares you for your move to China with info on visas, expat regions, and more.
Traditional architecture is prevalent all over China.

As mentioned before, expatriates moving to China tend to congregate in specific regions and cities.

Present-day China includes 22 shěng (provinces), 5 zìzhìqū (autonomous regions), 4 shi (municipalities), and 2 tèbié xíngzhèngqū (special administrative regions), i.e. Hong Kong and Macau. However, expat life in China is mainly limited to the “Big Three” of Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou.

Other locations, however, are gradually emerging. Today, there are over 160 Chinese cities with more than a million residents. Foreign investors, managers, and employees will become acquainted with boomtowns like Shenzen, the port city of Tianjin, Chengdu in Sichuan, or the agglomeration of Chongqing near the Yangzi River.


As the nation’s capital, Beijing – sometimes still known as Peking abroad – attracts many diplomats, journalists, and foreign correspondents. Moreover, foreign joint ventures often send a representative to Beijing, even if the main office is located elsewhere, to deal with government bureaucracy directly.

Beijing’s economic influence is enormous: It is home to 98 of the largest companies in China and 52 Fortune 500 companies, which is more than any other city in the world; three Beijing-based companies are even in the top ten.

The host of the 2008 Olympic Games is a sprawling metropolis of 21 million inhabitants, according to the latest statistics from the end of 2013. As such, Beijing has seen rapid population growth and hasty urban renewal during the last few years.

On the one hand, expats tend to grumble about traffic congestions, construction sites, air pollution, and the relatively high cost of living. But they also appreciate Beijing’s many international schools and cultural highlights.


Shanghai – one of China’s most important industrial cities, the busiest cargo port in the world, financial hub, and the main location of the Chinese stock exchange – is even bigger than Beijing. The urban agglomeration beyond the city center housed over 24 million people in 2013.

It is both the most frantic and the most international of mainland China’s cities, a dream for shopping enthusiasts and people who want to throw themselves into the nightlife and have some fun. History buffs may also find Shanghai’s tumultuous and international history fascinating; from warring Chinese lords and rebellions to British attacks and European and Japanese occupation. On the downside, its modern problems are the same as in Beijing. While Shanghai has more sophisticated standards than the capital, living expenses are a bit higher, too.


Guangzhou, which was referred to as Canton during its time as a 19th century trading port under the influence of the British Empire, is another of China’s industrial centers. Due to its traditional reputation as a port city for foreign commerce, its favorable position on the Pearl River, and its proximity to Hong Kong, it has profited a lot from China’s recent economic developments.

Guangzhou has become attractive to foreign investors, e.g. from the automotive industry. It also has a thriving, modern service industry in fields such as trade commission, leasing services, legal services, accounting, and logistics, and regularly hosts the China Import and Export Fair, the largest trade fair in the country.

New Expat Destinations

In addition to these three urban centers, other jīngjì tèqū (special economic regions) like the high-tech hub in Shenzhen, home to FoxConn’s “iPod City”, or relatively quiet Xiamen in southeast China – the host of the China International Fair for Investment and Trade – are starting to attract foreign businesses, expat employees, and self-made expats.

Quite a few expatriates are thus beginning to explore second-tier cities and provincial capitals where life tends to be cheaper, “quieter”, and to some extent of better quality than in the “Big Three”. For instance, Chengdu in Sichuan, at the foothill of the Tibetan Plateau, has benefited from the “Go West Policy” of the Chinese government. This was intended to further industrial and economic growth in the central and western provinces. Chengdu may be slightly off the radar for foreigners, but as an investment location, it has awoken the interest of such companies as Intel and Motorola.

There are various great expat destinations in China you should get ready to explore, such Tianjin, Suzhou, or Guangzhou. Learn more about them from our Extended Guide.


We do our best to keep this article up to date. However, we cannot guarantee that the information provided is always current or complete. 

David Thyne

"At the first Shanghai Get-Together I met several American expats. I am very grateful that they shared their experience with me."

Diana Anhaus-Brey

"It is just so easy to find other international people and global minds with InterNations. I didn´t know there were so many in Shanghai."

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