an epic guide to expat life in Nanjing, China

Planning a move to the world's second largest country by land area with the largest human population can be as overwhelming as it can be exciting. Actually, though, it's mostly just overwhelming. 

This is a beast of a post created with the hopes that those looking for answers to their questions about expat life in Nanjing are answered in one place-- right here. 

Let's get to it...

 sitting in the gardens behind the Confucian Temple

sitting in the gardens behind the Confucian Temple

ABOUT NANJING

Nanjing is a tier-2 city, which probably means absolutely nothing to most people. China classifies its cities by population, historic importance, and size. For instance, Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen are all tier-1 cities thanks to the alarming amount of people living there and their importance {i.e. Beijing is the capital, sits near the Great Wall, has 22 million people living within its perameter}. Nanjing sits nicely at tier-2 with a population of 10 million and counting. 

Nanjing was once the capital of China. I didn't know this before I arrived, but the small {by Chinese standards}, conservative city was once the most important dot on the Chinese map. This means the city has a heap of history. Unfortunately, the cultural revolution combined with the recent economic boom has caused most of that history to be flattened and buried under skyscrapers. There are still some cool bits and pieces that can be found when you go looking for them. 

Nanjing has multiple universities, as well as an abundance of training centers and language schools meaning there are a fair number of expats here, either working as teachers or studying for themselvesYou'll meet flocks of expats at pub crawls in the 1912 nightclub area {which I never actually made it too...oops} or in the trendy Gulou area eating half-priced tapas on Monday nights. 

 share bikes are plentiful around town

share bikes are plentiful around town

GETTING AROUND THE CITY

BY METRO //

Nanjing has a great metro system. Costs per ride will vary depending on the length of your ride, but it's cheaper to buy a pass rather than a single journey ticket. Getting a metro card will save you money and time having to purchase a ticket from the cash stands. Downloading the MetroMan app is an easy way to see the best routes, closest stations to your intended destination, and the estimated time it takes to get from one station to the other. Be aware that the metro lines close at 11, so a night out almost guarantees you'll need a taxi home. 

Ride prices vary depending on the distance between stops, but typically cost 1.90RMB with a metrocard or 2RMB for a single fare ticket. 

BY BUS //

You can use your metro card as a transport pass, meaning it will work to pay for bus rides too. If you opt not to buy a card, you can pay with cash. Choosing to go this route makes having coins on hand a necessity. 

Ride prices vary depending on the distance between stops, but typically cost the same as a metro ride. 

BY BIKE //

Bikes are my favourite way to see Nanjing. You can stop whenever you find something cool, they're cheap, and you get a bit of exercise-- win, win, win! 

Share bikes are a great way to get around the city since Nanjing is pretty spread out and the bus system can be a bit tedious, though there is recent controversy over the "bike graveyards" that exist. Once you set up your phone and connect your bank card through AliPay, you can set up HelloBike! where for 30RMB a month you have unlimited access to use any HelloBike you stumble across. Just make sure to lock it up again once you're done using it or you might get charged an anti-theft fee. Other Share bike apps include OFO and Mobike. There are fewer HelloBike!s than the others, but I liked that I paid for my pass directly through my AliPay account making it one less account to activate or open. Most share bike apps will ask you to put down a deposit. This is usually around 200RMB, but it's a bit of a pain to get back. Ask a local friend to help you! 

If you decide to buy your own bicycle, there are constantly high-quality bikes for sale on WeChat secondhand buy/sell/trade groupsGiant Bike is a great cycling store for those wanting to invest in a new bike. 

BY MOTORBIKE //

It probably comes as no shock that motorbikes are everywhere and tend to rule the roads of China. By this I mean, of course, there are no rules and motorbikes do whatever they feel like doing. You can buy secondhand motorbikes and electric bikes {scooters} for fairly cheap in WeChat buy/sell/trade groups. 

BY TAXI or DiDi //

DiDi is the Uber of China. Simply download the English version of the app {unless you read Chinese, in which case, bravo to you!}, and set your "Home Address" to make it easy to get back to your flat in case of an emergency. Most of the time, you can type in the name of the place you are heading in English and it will pop up pretty easily. I've also found that if I know the street I need to be on, looking it up and scrolling until I see the business/attraction pop up makes it somewhat easy. DiDi is attached to your banking card, so you don't have to scan a QR code or search for cash once you reach your destination. 

A taxi is sometimes the easiest option, but they can be a pain. My top advice is to take a screenshot of the place you want to go with its Chinese address and show this to the driver rather than attempting to use your Chinese or direct the driver {THIS ALMOST NEVER WORKS!!!}. Taxis accept payment via WeChat and AliPay or cash. 

 buying watermelon from the local watermelon truck outside my flat

buying watermelon from the local watermelon truck outside my flat

WHERE TO BUY GROCERIES

Suguo Supermarkets are the Tesco/Walmart of the mainland. You can find essentials at your nearest Suguo--milk alternatives, a brief selection of imported goods {at a silly high price}, cereals, snack foods, teas and coffees, tortilla wraps, meat selections, etc.

Your local market will be the best place to find produce. The prices are better and the fruit tends to be fresher. 

Metro and Carrefour offer brands and goods you'll recognize at a bit more of a cost. However, the price is worth it if you want nice cheese, Tim Tams, or pasta and a particular sauce. I would suggest buying baked goods from one of these shops. Chinese bread from Suguo never appealed to me as it has that sugary, preservative taste. 

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SIM CARDS + PHONES 

Having a phone is absolutely everything in China-- your lifeline. Taxis typically only take cash or mobile pay, and international credit and debit cards are not a thing in China. Mobile payments via the WeChat or AliPay apps are the main way of getting by, not to mention the most convenient and most widely accepted. 

SIM cards are a must for travelers as WiFi in public areas almost always requires you to enter a numerical login code that can only be sent to a Chinese telephone number. SIM cards are relatively cheap and data plans cost next to nothing. 

VPNs + THE INTERNET

VPNs are required in mainland China to get through the "Great Chinese Firewall." The firewall keeps people from accessing Google, Gmail, YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, and other free media sites. With a VPN, you are able to get to the internet as you know it. The best VPNs are those you have to pay for, but there are free VPNs available.

For a complete guide to VPNs and the internet in China, read my full, comprehensive post here. 

APPS THAT MAKE LIFE EASIER

Your phone is the gateway to everything in China. There are certain apps you'll simply need to get by with daily life. For a full rundown of phone apps that make life easier and are necessary to life in China, you can read my post here. I would now also add to the list DiDi {not sure how I managed without it for the first 6 months}. 

COMMUNICATING WITH LOCALS

ABOUT THE LANGUAGE //

China is a giant country with over 1 billion people. There are many dialects and colloquialisms that make an already complicated language more complex. 

WAYS TO LEARN //

Rosetta Stone is the leader in language learning software.

Lonely Planet has a Mandarin phrasebook that comes in a small, fits-in-your-pocket version, which is handy enough to keep in your bag for everyday use.

There are a wide variety of apps that allow you to learn Mandarin on your phone including Duolingo, HelloChinese, and Memrise. These are all apps I have downloaded on my phone and used while practicing at one time or another. 

HELPFUL PHRASES //

Hello: 你好 nǐ hǎo  {formal} or wei {informal}

Thank you: 谢谢 xièxiè

I'm sorry: 对不起 duìbùqǐ 

How much?: 多少 duōshǎo

 the entranceway to the Brocade Museum in West Nanjing

the entranceway to the Brocade Museum in West Nanjing

BANKING

This is honestly a pain in the ass. You'll need your passport, work permit, and your work contract to set up your Chinese banking. Bring a Chinese friend or co-worker with you who has fantastic English skills so that you can know what's going on, the terms of your banking, and so that you can ask any questions you might have. 

You need a phone before you set up your bank card to avoid major headaches {like the ones I had}. In China, your bank card must be connected to a phone number. When you buy your phone, write down the number so that you can have it on hand at the bank. 

It's a great idea to check beforehand to see if your Western bank partners with a Chinese bank. For instance, Bank of America is a sister bank of China Bank of Construction. This means transferring money between these two banks costs little to nothing and can be done super easily through phone apps. 

It's also a top idea to grab your banking information before you arrive in China so that transferring is less of a hassle and you have all the information you need. I went to my Western bank before arriving in China to write down my SWIFT code and all the necessary bits so that I didn't have to fumble through websites looking for it. 

Some of the most used banks by expats in China include:

- Bank of China

- CITIC Bank

- ICBC

- China Bank of Construction

GENERAL COSTS + CURRENCY

China operates using the Renminbi 元, or RMB as it's called. You'll also hear currency referred to as "yuan" and "kuai". These are all referring to the same thing.

Exchange rates change all the time but it's worth noting some of the general costs of living in Nanjing. These costs are on average based on my experiences and the experiences of my friends over nearly 10 months. 

Average studio apartment close to the city centre: 3,000-4,000 RMB per month

Room in a multiple bedroom flat: 1,000-2,000 RMB per month

Coffee: 20-32 RMB 

Eating out at a local restaurant: 18 RMB

Eating out at a Western restaurant: 30 - 120 RMB depending on the restaurant

Local beer from a corner shop: 10 RMB 

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HOUSING

HOW TO FIND A FLAT //

Finding a flat in any new place can be daunting. You can read my full guide to finding accommodation in China here. 

There are also WeChat groups that help people find flats or flatmates. These are great resources if you're looking to share a space or don't feel comfortable living alone. 

WHAT TO KNOW BEFORE YOU SIGN A LEASE //

You pay for the first 4 months when you sign your lease: a month's deposit, and the next three months' rent. In China, you pay your rent three months at a time. This makes planning quite easy and will shape up anyone not so good with finances into a master budgeter. Once you sign your lease, you will need to register with the police. A local friend or Chinese co-worker can help you do this. If you're lucky like I was, your employer will have admin staff deal with this for you. 

THE BEST AREAS TO LIVE IN //

I met my friend, Adam, on my first day in China completely by coincidence. His advice after living in Nanjing for a year already was to live near metro lines 2 or 4. I took that to heart and now can say he was soooo right.  I lived in a flat 10 minutes from line 2 to the South and line 4 to the North and it worked out great for me. I could easily get to the hip Gulou district or Sanshanjie for shopping or Xinjiekou to explore the city center. 

Ultimately, the best area to live in will depend on where you work or study, what you'd like to be near { the city center? bars or nightclubs? shopping?}, and how much you want to spend. 

WHERE TO FIND HOME GOODS + FURNISHINGS //

Walmart is a thing in Nanjing. While it's a little different than what you'd find in America, they do have a selection of duvets, pillows, lamps, and other necessary home goods like hangers, rubbish bins, and kitchenware. 

IKEA can also, strangely, be found in Nanjing. You can find everything you want at the IKEA in Nanjing in all its Swedish glory, as well as a food court upstairs that serves mashed potatoes {I find this a necessary fact to throw in}. 

TaoBao is a popular phone app that sells everything ever. Including but in no way limited to: star lamps, feet warmers, duvets, and car-eared headphones. Anything you need for a flat you can find on TaoBao. 

Suguo also has a selection of home goods, particularly kitchenware, standing fans, and clothing hangers and hampers. 

MUST-HAVE-ON-HAND ITEMS

Like most places in Asia, you should carry tissues with you at all times, since public toilets are a pretty common thing but they don't come with toilet roll.

Your phone acts as your wallet and your main form of communication, so bringing it with you to pay for things is important.

Bring your metro card or change for the metro with you if you're heading out. 

Recyclable shopping bags will help you avoid getting charged for a plastic bag if you pop into the supermarket {save the sea turtles}. 

It's recommended to have a copy of your passport's picture page on you but I didn't take this advice and never had any issues. Still, I technically had a photo of the page in my phone's camera roll. Either way this doesn't count as a true "must have with you always" item on my list, but it seemed worth mentioning. 

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WEATHER

Being totally honest, the weather in Nanjing felt pretty mild to me-- until the summer hit. Somehow, while in Nanjing, I once again found myself living in a city where the summer temps hit me at 40C {104F} nearly every day. One particular day the temperature hit 44C {111F} and, according to my phone, "felt like 47C" {117F}. 

Nanjing winter came with snow, but after living in Montana it felt less like wonderland and more like heavy slush that turned into brown piles of roadside ice. The low in December never even dipped below freezing. Bring a jacket and hat but rest assured, Nanjing isn't anything compared to Beijing winters you've probably heard about. 

POLLUTION

Pollution is a common topic of conversation amongst expats in Nanjing, and China in general. First, it's important we realize that the pollution in China is the direct result of the world's rampant consumerism. Anyone who buys from fast fashion brands, cheap online shops, or chain retailers has contributed to the Chinese air quality problem. What I'm saying? When I talk about the pollution problem in China, I don't consider it solely China's responsibility to find a solution.

The air quality is much worse in the winter time and improves in the summer. Seeing blue skies was rare and, over time, I realized how trapping that felt. Visiting home in New Zealand made me pine for fresh air after only three months of Chinese life. Even visiting South Korea in February had me inhaling the "fresh" air every chance I could {spoiler alert: South Korea does not have clean air, but by comparison, it was pristine}.

Air quality definitely messed with my health while in China. I was sick more often than not. The symptoms of pollution sickness I felt strongest were congestion, a sore throat, and nasty coughing. As someone who likes living an athletic lifestyle, I found it hard to give up running outside. You can buy specialty running masks, but my doctors said that my lungs and heart were in poor enough condition making it better not to risk it. Check with a medical professional if you're in doubt! Your cardiovascular system will thank you for it.

Bottom line: get an AQI {Air Quality Index} app so you can anticipate really bad air days and plan how to spend the least amount of time outside. 

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OTHER RESOURCES 

If this giant rundown wasn't exactly what you were looking for {sorry!}, I've found a few other sites that will hopefully be helpful.

- Lauren Without Fear

- Lauren Without Fear vlogs

- Where's Poppy vlogs 


If any of you reading this feel nervous about moving to China, don't hesitate to shoot me an email! I'm here to help in any way that I can. Being nervous is a good thing. One of my oldest friends used to constantly tell me, "Being nervous is good, it means it's important to you." I still carry that nugget of wisdom with me every day. There is a learning curve in China. You won't nail it every day and it's important you allow yourself some grace while you transition from rookie to Nanjinger {locals of Nanjing}. Just remember that laughing about every struggle or illogical situation you find yourself in is the best way to deal with it all. And take life in Nanjing for what it is...

...a wild, wild ride.

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