Living in China – A Guide for PhD Students
Written by Ben Taylor
China combines innovation and tradition like few other countries on the planet. Ancient temples, soaring skyscrapers, stunning countryside – PhD students living here certainly won’t be short of places to visit and things to do during their studies.
This page will give you a guide to everything you should know about moving to China for a doctorate, from culture and travel to visas and accommodation.
China is a huge country and chances are you’ll barely scratch the surface of everything there is to experience during your PhD. Don’t let that put you off exploring, though! Chinese culture is a unique fusion of hi-tech gadgetry and ancient traditions.
From the Great Wall and Beijing’s Forbidden City to the pristine bamboo forests of the Chinese wilderness, studying a PhD in China will be an unforgettable opportunity to experience a place like no other.
Culture and tourism
Beijing and Shanghai are China’s two biggest cities and its primary tourist hubs. Visitors to Beijing can explore the aforementioned Forbidden City, a UNESCO-listed palace complex that was home to generations of emperors. The Temple of Heaven is another architectural highlight, a group of sacred buildings surrounded by tranquil gardens.
In Shanghai, you can visit the world’s second tallest building or stroll along the vibrant waterfront Bund district.
Outside of China’s bustling metropolises, the Chinese countryside is endlessly varied, encompassing desert, jungle, snow-capped mountains and sandy beaches. Remember to pack your hiking boots for when you want a break from the lab / library!
Sport and leisure
The 2008 Beijing Olympics left a strong legacy in China – not least the striking Bird’s Nest stadium. Athletics, gymnastics and martial arts are among the most popular sporting activities in the country.
In recent years, the Chinese Super League has made waves in the world of football, attracting plenty of star players and managers.
Food and drink
China’s food markets are a feast for the senses. Whether you want to try out Peking duck in Beijing or some sizzling Szechuan cuisine in the south-west of the country, you’ll find plenty of familiar (and unfamiliar!) things to eat.
PhD students at Chinese universities have plenty of accommodation to choose from, from on-campus dormitories and studios to off-campus flats in the heart of the city.
Most universities have dedicated on-campus accommodation for students, with rooms costing between 25 RMB and 150 RMB (USD $3.70 to $21.50) per day. The price depends on things like whether you’re sharing your flat with a roommate or whether you have an en-suite bathroom. Some universities may even have accommodation pitched at international students in particular, or aimed at postgraduates.
CUCAS, the official Chinese university application portal, can help international students book university dormitories.
Living off-campus is also an option for international PhD students in China. Check expat websites for English-language listings. In Beijing, expect to pay between 1,500 RMB and 3,000 RMB (USD $205 to $410) per month for a room.
China is an affordable place to live and study by Western standards. As with most countries, you’ll find that the major cities like Beijing and Shanghai are markedly more expensive than elsewhere in China, especially in terms of rent.
Prices in China
This table should give you a rough idea of what you’ll pay for various student essentials in China.
Student Cost of Living in China - 2023
||25.00 RMB (USD $3.70)
||50 RMB (USD $7.20)
|Monthly Travel Pass
||176 RMB (USD $25.25)
||369.60 RMB (USD $52.90)
|Based on crowdsourced data published by Numbeo.
The Chinese Government has relaxed restrictions on international students working during their studies in recent years, allowing students in Beijing and Shanghai to undertake part-time work as long as they have permission from their university and the relevant administrative authorities.
Common examples of part-time work in China include teaching English and internships. For more information on the regulations, please check with your university’s international office.
It’s fairly simple to open a bank account in China. Just visit the local branch of the bank you want to join with the following documents:
- A valid passport
- Your student visa
- A deposit
- Proof of residence
ATMs are plentiful in large cities and towns, but make sure that you always carry some cash with you. Mobile apps are becoming increasingly popular as a way of paying for good and services – WeChat and Alipay are the most common examples. Apple Pay can also be used in some stores.
As the third-largest country in the world, travel in China can seem a daunting prospect. However, China has invested heavily in high-speed travel between its major cities, so making the most of your time here shouldn’t be too difficult.
China has an extensive rail network populated by state-of-the-art, high speed trains. You can travel between Beijing and Shanghai in a little over four hours by taking the world’s fastest passenger train, clocking in at 350 km/h. Tickets are reasonably priced but can sell out – you should book as far in advance as you can.
If you want to travel to the far reaches of China, the country is serviced by plenty of domestic flights, with every major city having its own airport. Bear in mind that delays can be fairly frequent, while trains are almost always on time.
When getting around Chinese cities, driving a car is best left to all but the bravest – or most foolhardy – PhD students.
Many cities have their own underground or metro networks, while taxis are cheap and plentiful. Alternatively, try out one of the countless bike-sharing apps operating in Chinese cities.