Five key factors will help narrow down the areas, but as with most things in life it comes down to personal preferences.
As I said, Beijing is an enormous city. Getting from one end to the other can easily take over an hour and much longer with heavy traffic or public transportation. No matter if you take a car, bus, or the subway, rush hour slows traffic down to a crawl and crowds public transportation to (beyond?) its capacity.
So the distance between where you work and where you live in Beijing is important. Also consider the distance to international schools if you have kids.
If you will rely on public transportation, getting close to a subway station is a good idea. Beijing has added numerous new subway extensions just in the last year and is working on even more new stops and entire new lines. Check out the most current Beijing subway map.
Access to Western amenities
Easy access to Western amenities can make living in Beijing more convenient for expats. This is why you will find most foreigners clustered in areas where the Western shops, restaurants, bars and cafes are.
If you can’t stand the thought that buying some cheese or cream requires a half hour to hour trip (one way) to a Western supermarket (see Shopping in Beijing), you should consider living close to the typical expat areas.
The highest concentration of expats is in the Chaoyang district in the East of the city center and in Shunyi a bit farther outside, closer to the Airport. You will of course find foreigners living in many other parts of Beijing, just the amenities are concentrated in Chaoyang and Shunyi because that is where the most expats are.
If you have kids, these are also the areas where you find international schools. Check out the beijingkids School Guide for profiles on Beijing’s top 62 schools. Since we don’t have kids we are no experts on kids but Beijingkids is a great resource for Expat families.
In general, further outside of the city center can be less expensive but other factors also have a strong impact on the price, e.g., proximity to the subway and how new and well maintained the building complex is. Typical Chinese apartments are generally cheaper than those geared towards foreigners.
I have met expats who have been living in Beijing for a couple years without speaking much Mandarin, so I know it is possible. But you would have to stick closer to the typical expat areas or make friends that speak some Chinese to make it work.
I can only encourage everyone to learn at least some basic Mandarin, it really makes everyday life easier. If you want to or, because of your commute to work, have to live further away from expat land, some basic Chinese is essential.
Let’s say you want to keep your commute reasonable and don’t care about easy access to Western things. Hey, you are in China for a reason. You can definitely find nice apartments in neighborhoods that are “more Chinese”. In fact, this can be a great experience. (We are living in such a neighborhood without many foreigners.)
Just don’t expect people in the property management office or others around you to speak much English. And keep in mind that outside of the typical expat areas foreigners are not very common and met with curiosity, especially if you are tall and blond (like me). People may stare at you, especially older folks or people from rural areas, some may even come closer for a better look, because they haven’t seen many foreigners life and close up.
Most days when I venture outside children will point towards me and exclaim Waiguoren or Laowai (Chinese words for foreigner). That is the “price” for immersion, the benefit are insights and experiences that you won’t find that easily in areas crawling with foreigners.
You should also consider the ability to make friends. A more Chinese neighborhood is good if you are looking to make Chinese connections and practice your language skills.
If you (or your stay-at-home spouse) are looking for fellow expats to hang out with, pickings there are slimmer. When most of your friends live in expat areas, “commuting time” for social purposes should be considered.
5 Essential questions to ask yourself (and those moving with you)
- Where is my/our work located? How much time are we willing to spend on commuting?
- Will I be happy without easy access to my favorite Western food and brands?
- What is my budget?
- Am I willing to learn Chinese?
- Do I want to be close to people who are like me and speak my language?
PS: If you enjoyed this post, you may want to check out my Practical Guide – Newcomer to Beijing. It contains this post and 30+ others, plus additional resources, and follows your steps from planning your move to a new culture to settling into your new expat life in Beijing, all in one easy-to-read pdf.