Moving to China as an American: Full guide (2023)

Adam Rozsa

If you’ve secured a new job in China or want to join relatives there, you’ll need to start planning your move.

But is it difficult for an American to move to China? And what should you do first? To help you get organized, we’ve put together a helpful guide covering everything you need to know about moving to China from the USA.

We’ll also introduce you to the Wise Account, a smart way to cut the costs of international transfers before, during and after your move.


China quick facts

First up, some basic facts you need to know about China:

  • Capital - Beijing
  • Main language - Standard Chinese (Mandarin)
  • Population - Approx 1.4 billion¹
  • Currency - renminbi (RMB), known as Chinese yuan (CNY)
  • Religion - Predominantly Buddhist, with a smaller population of practicing Christians and Muslims.²

Can a US citizen move to China?

Let’s start with the most important question - can you legally move to China as an American citizen?

The short answer is yes, but you’ll need the right paperwork.

There are a few different routes into China as a US national. You can move there for work, study or for other commercial activities. But you’ll need to make sure you get the right visa, especially if you plan to work in China.

But don’t worry, as we’ll cover what you need next.

Immigration and visas

There are a few different types of Chinese visa available for US citizens. If you’re just going for a vacation or to visit family, you’ll need a tourist visa. But for everything else, including working, you’ll need a specialist visa.

Here are a few of the main options:³

Business visa (M or F)

If you need to visit China for a conference, research visit or other non-commercial reasons, you’ll need an F visa.

The China business visa for US citizens lets you stay between 30 and 90 days.

If you’re visiting for commercial activities and trade, you’ll need an M visa. You’ll need an invitation from a business based in China to apply for this visa.

Importantly, while you can conduct business activities in China with this visa, you’re not permitted to work.

Work visa (Z)

To work and earn money in China, you’ll need to apply for a Z visa. A key requirement is to have a job offer in place from a Chinese company, and you can stay for 3 months.

However, you may be able to renew your work visa or apply for a residence permit after that.

Study visa (X1 or X2)

If you’ve been accepted on a university or other study course in China, you’ll need either an X1 or X2 visa. It all depends on the length of your course.

If you’re staying in China to study for less than 180 days, you’ll need an X1 visa. For stays of over 180 days, it’s the X2 visa. You’ll need copies of the admission notice from the educational institution.

China visa requirements and fees for US citizens

The requirements and documents needed vary depending on which visa type you’re applying for. But generally, you’ll need to have:³

  • A valid passport with at least 6 months validity remaining and at least two blank pages
  • A photocopy of the bio page of the passport
  • Round-trip air tickets, or an invitation from a company like a travel agency
  • Proof of residence
  • A completed form relating to where you’ll be staying in China
  • Copy of green card or visa if you’re not a US citizen.

The China tourist visa for US citizens costs $185 USD.⁴

You can also pay an additional $25 for express turnaround, which knocks a day off the average visa processing time.⁴

Living in China: the basics

Moving overseas is a huge decision. You’re likely to experience a culture shock, and there will be lots of new things to get used to.

So, is China a good place to move to? And what can you expect from your new life there?

To help you plan, we’ve put together some useful info that any American moving to China needs to know. This includes things like the cost of living, housing and how money and banks work in China.

Cost of living in China

To give you an idea of how far your money will go in China, it’s useful to look at average prices for everyday expenses.

Here are some examples, compared to prices in the US. For ease, we’ve given these costs in USD.

Cost in China⁵Cost in the US⁵
Three-course meal for two people$27.87$75
Loaf of bread$1.74$3.54
0.5 liter of domestic beer$1.11$6
Monthly public transport pass$27.87$70
Utilities - monthly (basic)$54.12$188
Rent for a 1-bedroom apartment in city center$520.79$1707.31
Price to purchase 1-bed apartment in city center - per sq.m$8,158.11$4,692.35


Of course, prices will vary considerably depending where in this huge country you choose to move to - and whether you’re living in a major city.

But on average, the cost of living in China is around 50% cheaper than the US, which is good to know. The only exception is property, which is much more expensive, as you can see from our table above.⁵

💡 Need a low-cost way to manage your everyday expenses? Get the Wise card, and you can spend in CNY from the moment you arrive in China.

Cost of moving to China

Before you can start thinking about everyday living costs in China, you’ll need to work out how much it’ll cost to actually get there. This includes flights for you and your family (and any pets), as well as costs for shipping your furniture and belongings.

You’ll need to get quotes from shipping companies for your specific departure and arrival destinations, and for how much stuff you have. But on average, you can expect to pay anywhere between $2,500 and $6,300.⁶

Sending your possessions by sea is generally cheaper than by air, but it’s much slower.


Finding somewhere to live will be one of the most urgent tasks on your moving to-do list.

As we’ve seen from our cost of living prices table, rent in China tends to be much cheaper than the US. Although, buying a property is more expensive. So, you’ll need to work out what’s best for your budget.

Renting could be a more flexible option, especially if you’re not staying for very long or need time to scout out suitable properties to purchase.

Most expats in China head for big cities, where large apartment blocks, serviced apartments and more luxurious apartments are the main property types. It’s also common for expat communities to live in villas or townhouses in gated communities on the outskirts of big cities.

The healthcare system in China⁷

As you’d expect from such an enormous country, China’s healthcare system varies considerably in standards of care, facilities, cost and ease of access.

Public healthcare facilities can be a little daunting for foreigners, primarily due to the language barrier. However, you can find some public hospitals in big cities which have ‘international’ wings for foreigners. Standards here tend to be in line with Western standards, and it’s a little cheaper than going private.

Otherwise, expats tend to use private healthcare facilities. These can have high fees, so medical insurance is a must.

Banking and taxation

If you’re moving to a new country, you’re likely to need a local bank account.

You can open a bank account in China as a US citizen, but you may need to wait until you arrive. This is because you’ll need to visit a branch in person to present your documents and verify your identity.

It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to open a bank account online, unless you sign up with an international bank.

If you need a business bank account, read this guide.

ATMs are very easy to come across in China, and most have instructions in English.

Another important thing to read up on before your move is how tax works in China.


China is known for its high standards of schooling, with a disciplined and exam-driven public school system.

As an expat though, the best option for your children could be an international school. Unlike public schools, classes are generally in English. However, these schools often have high fees.

Getting around China

China may be huge, but getting around is surprisingly easy and affordable.

Driving is usually a chaotic and frustrating experience though, so it could be best to make use of the country’s wide-reaching public transport system. Buses are cheap, and the railway network is extensive.

All major cities have taxis (although drivers don’t always speak English) and you can also fly between cities and tourist destinations.

Save on relocation costs and CNY payments with Wise

Before you relocate, you’ll likely need to pay for services in China to cover your initial costs. For example, shipping, rental deposits, real estate fees or other basic charges. You might have things to buy from China in anticipation of your move.

So, it’s good to know you can cut the costs of sending money to China with Wise.

Wise uses mid-market exchange rates along with low, transparent fees. Arrange your payment online for convenience, and track your transfer in the Wise app at a glance.

You can also use the Wise Account to hold and exchange 40+ currencies - all with no minimum balance and no monthly fee.

And so you can spend like a local from the second you land, it’s worth getting yourself a Wise card for a one-time fee of just $9.

Wise is a money service business, offering a multi-currency account, international money transfer services and a debit card.

See how much you can save with Wise:

Please see Terms of Use for your region or visit Wise Fees & Pricing: Only Pay for What You Use for the most up-to-date pricing and fee information.

Is it safe to move to China?

If you’re concerned about your safety when moving to China from America, you needn’t be. Generally speaking, China is as safe to live in as any other country in the world.

You’ll need to take steps to protect your safety, just as you would in the US. Do your research, have your documents in order (and keep them safe) and be aware that foreign tourists are sometimes a target for pickpockets in major cities.

Best cities to live in China as an expat

You may need to move to a particular destination for your job or business, or to be near family.

But if you’re still deciding where to go, here are a few of the most popular cities to live in China as an expat:

  • Beijing
  • Shanghai
  • Hangzhou
  • Shenzhen
  • Chengdu.

Bottom line

We’ve covered a huge amount of information here in this guide, but it should give you an overview of what to expect during your move to China. And, of course, what kind of steps you need to take to prepare.

It’s always going to take time to adjust to life in a new country. But the more research you can do, the better.

You can now get on with applying for a visa, finding somewhere to live and planning how you’ll manage your money in China.

You can’t open a Chinese bank account until you arrive, but you can open a Wise Account online. This gives you a convenient, low-cost way to cover those initial relocation expenses. And with the Wise card, you’ll be able to spend in Chinese yuan as soon as you step off the plane.

Learn more about Wise

Sources used for this article:

  1. Worldometers - China population
  2. U.S. Department of State - 2022 Report on International Religious Freedom: China
  3. Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the United States - Requirements for Chinese Visa Application
  4. Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the United States - Visa Processing Time & Fees
  5. Numbeo - Cost of Living Comparison Between United States and China
  6. MoveHub - Shipping to China
  7. HSBC Expat Guides - Mainland China

Sources checked on 03-Aug-2023.

This publication is provided for general information purposes only and is not intended to cover every aspect of the topics with which it deals. It is not intended to amount to advice on which you should rely. You must obtain professional or specialist advice before taking, or refraining from, any action on the basis of the content in this publication. The information in this publication does not constitute legal, tax or other professional advice from Wise Payments Limited or its affiliates. Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome. We make no representations, warranties or guarantees, whether express or implied, that the content in the publication is accurate, complete or up to date.

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