Becoming an expat in Hangzhou, China: Everything you need to know

Dec 12, 2019 | Asia, China, Global travel, Uncategorized

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(Last updated on: 01/04/2020)

When I found out I was soon to become an expat in Hangzhou, China, I had soooo many questions! Would there be a suitable nursery for my daughter to attend? What is the food like? Does anybody speak English? Would I be able to buy my favourite wine?

I searched online and I did find some helpful information, but most of this was targeted either at tourists visiting Hangzhou or expats moving elsewhere in China. I found that there was very little information on becoming an expat in Hangzhou specifically. Whilst it turns out that moving to Hangzhou, was for us, a great move, it would have been nice to have had a little more information online to reassure me during those stressful months of expatriation planning.

So in light of this, I have put together this blog post to help anybody else who might be considering moving to Hangzhou, China. After all, with the new international schools, expat accommodation being built and shopping malls filling up with international stores, I’m guessing somebody somewhere thinks there might be a few more of us expats around Hangzhou in the near future!

So, here is my guide to becoming an expat in Hangzhou, China!

Should I become an expat in Hangzhou, China?

You’ve probably come across this blog post because you are asking yourself whether you should become an expat in Hangzhou, China? Perhaps you are familiar with the expat life and are considering a relocation to Hangzhou. Or perhaps you are completely new to the concept of expatriation (like I was). What ever your situation, I hope to answer your questions below. BUT if there is something that I haven’t covered, feel free to ask away! There is a comments section at the bottom or you can reach me by email or social media….

Anyway, without further ado, here is my complete guide to becoming an expat in Hangzhou, China!

Expat community in Hangzhou

Whilst it might not compare to the likes of Shanghai and Beijing, Hangzhou does have a growing expat community. Although you probably won’t see many non-Chinese faces walking the streets of Hangzhou, fellow expats are out there- I promise!

Fortunately there are some great WeChat groups for expats to keep you in the loop with what’s going on (not familiar with WeChat yet? Take a look at the YouTube video below!).

There are many different social groups that you can get involved in by joining the relevant WeChat group. There is a walking group that goes out hiking every Tuesday. There is a buy and sell group. There is a women rugby group, a chat for expat parents and a Hangzhou social group that promotes nights out and events in and around the city.

There are literally hundreds of groups like this. All you need is to be invited by another group members and you’re in!

A really useful summary of what WeChat does and why you can’t live without it in China!

You might be wondering how you get into this WeChat community in the first place? Well, in the first instance, I recommend that you download the WeChat app BEFORE coming to China. This way you can get a feel for the app and how it works and you can start joining some relevant WeChat groups.

I recommend that you start by joining the Hangzhou Expats facebook group. From here, you can ask people on Facebook to add you to the relevant groups on WeChat.

The expat community in Hangzhou is generally very supportive. People are very quick to help you out and give advice, which is great.

Many people who become an expat in Hangzhou stay here for a long time. It’s a desirable Chinese city to live in and most people have positive things to say about living here.

Things to do for the expat in Hangzhou

When living as an expat in Hangzhou, there is a lot to keep you occupied!

When you Google ‘things to do in Hangzhou’, it will come up with all of the main tourist attractions. Visiting the Longjing Tea Plantation, Leifling Pagoda and the famous West Lake area are all brilliant, BUT this is probably not what you will be doing every weekend when you live in Hangzhou as an expat!

Tourist map of Hangzhou

What I really wanted to know before becoming an expat in Hangzhou was whether there were soft play areas for the kids, if there were Western clothes shops and whether I could go out for a decent cocktail on a Saturday night! This information was seriously lacking online (hence I have written this blog post to help other people who are considering becoming an expat in Hangzhou).

People often spend all day in malls in China and it is no surprise why. Malls are far more than shopping. Malls have supermarkets. Malls have gyms. Malls have beauty salons. Malls have cinemas. Malls have trampoline parks, ice skating rinks, arcades, race tracks, playgrounds and much more!

If you’re an expat in Hangzhou with kids, there are endless opportunities to keep the children entertained. We like to go swimming or trampolining most weekends. There are plenty of soft play areas (at least one in every mall, I’d say) and lots of kids clubs organised by the expat community too such as football teams or ballet classes.

If you’re a trailing spouse or stay at home mum there are a couple of great WeChat parent groups. The mums organise get togethers sometimes and there is a mother and baby yoga class hosted once a week.

Tip: Join relevant WeChat groups to enhance your social life!

If sports is your thing then you can find a WeChat group for pretty much any sporting activity. There are many sports teams throughout the city that you can join. I’ve heard of football, rugby, hiking, swimming, badminton, tennis, running and lots of other sports clubs.

If you’re into nights out, there is a thriving nightlife scene in Hangzhou. Whilst I am yet to sample this myself (I am generally in bed by 9.30pm with the baby….), I have heard that the bars and clubs are great. Drinks can be a bit pricey, think outer London prices, but I guess that’s to be expected given that it’s all imported. I regularly see flyers for comedy nights, themed parties, music events and much more.

What Hangzhou lacks is outside activities. Yes, you can take a walk around the beautiful West Lake area, but you must stick to the marked pathways. I am yet to see an outdoor playground for kids to play in or a grass area for people to sit or play games in Hangzhou.

Cost of living for the expat in Hangzhou

What is the cost of living for an expat in Hangzhou? This was probably my biggest question before moving to China!

The cost of living here overall is not cheap.

Some things are cheap. Like, REALLY cheap. I can buy a HUGE bag of rice and vegetables for just a couple of Pounds….

But some things are expensive. Like. REALLY expensive. Cheese, bread, milk and other staple goods that would have been in my shopping basket in the UK every week cost much more here. I pay about £4 for a small block of cheese and I’ve seen single yoghurts for as much as £4 each!

Utility bills are cheap-amazingly cheap! We had our air conditioning running 24-7 in August (see- whether in Hangzhou) and our bill was only £40! Wow!

Tip: Don’t expect the cost of living in Hangzhou to be cheap… the salaries are high for a reason!

Transport is also really cheap. You can take a taxi (known locally as a DiDi) for next to nothing (a 20 minute journey to collect my daughter from school each day costs around £3). BUT if you want to buy your own car, you’re looking at £20,000 or more! The metro and bullet train are also really cheap. You can get a ticket for just a few pence.

People in China don’t cook that much because takeaways are super cheap. There is a takeout app on AliPay (an app designed primarily for managing money, but that also has a range of other functions) that provides you with literally dozens of takeout options from Pizza to noodle soup. You can get a healthy meal of meat, vegetables and rice delivered straight to your door for just a couple of Pounds, which is actually cheaper than cooking it yourself sometimes! The only issue is translating the app into English (see communicating in Hangzhou)…

Overall, our monthly expenditure is similar to what it was in the UK. We save money on rice and spend those savings on cheese…. You can live cheaper as an expat in Hangzhou if you eat locally grown foods and use public transport. We try to have a good balance of the imported foods that we love and local dishes, but that’s just our taste.

I literally couldn’t live without our VPN in China! Click the image above to sign up to Express VPN BEFORE you leave for China!

Culture shock for the expat in Hangzhou

You will almost certainly experience a degree of culture shock when becoming an expat in Hangzhou, China.

For me, the biggest shock was the food. Chinese food in Hangzhou is nothing like what I expected it to be! Do you like chicken chow mein? Egg fried rice? Sweet and sour chicken balls? Think again! You will more likely find chicken claws, cat stew and pig trotter soup…

The supermarkets are not like the ones that I am used to in the UK. We sometimes shop in Bravo, which is one of the major supermarket chains. They have lots of items in Bravo. For example, they have about 30 different varieties of porridge oats. But no frozen pizzas. I typically find that most items I want to buy cannot be found in the Chinese supermarkets.

Talking of supermarkets. When we first arrived I bought a packet of yoghurts, only to find that they were ‘out of date’. I believed that the date marked on the packaging was the use by date, as it would be at home, but I later found out (when I realised this applied to EVERY food item in the supermarket…) that the date is in fact the date that the product was sealed. You are then expected to work out from the information on the packet, which is probably written in Chinese, by which date you should eat it.

Of course, the language barrier can be challenging for expats in Hangzhou, because very few people speak English in the city. Foreigners are also not too common, so expect to get lots of stares and people asking to take your photograph. Also watch out for people videoing and photographing you without your permission… you never know, your photo could end up on the side of a bus or something (I’ve heard stories of this happening!).

Tip: Want to read more stories about what it’s like to live in Hangzhou? Follow me on Instagram or Facebook!

Chinese culture is quite different from many Western cultures and this does take some getting used to. I’d be here all day if I delved into the ins and outs of Chinese culture, but a few of the things that I have noticed are that they typically avoid confrontation, ‘face’ and appearance are very important to Chinese people, there are complex social and professional hierarchy systems and food is an important part of Chinese life. In fact, I thought it was very interesting when I learnt that Chinese people typically greet each other by asking ‘did you eat?’, which is their way are saying ‘are you ok?’… because if you have eaten then you are thought to be ok…

Anyway, it goes without saying that if you are moving to Hangzhou as an expat there will be an inevitable degree of culture shock. This is true when relocating to any destination that is different from where you are from. Just be aware of this and be prepared to embrace it!

Communicating in Hanzgzhou

Whilst I said above that there is a considerable language barrier between most Chinese people and expats in Hangzhou, this can easily be overcome!

China is way ahead of the rest of the world with their communicating and technologies!

WeChat has built in translation features that are absolutely brilliant. I message my ayi (literal translation is aunt- the people who help with cleaning, childcare, household chores etc- more about that later…) in English and she replies in Chinese and we are able to communicate effectively and efficiently.

I use Google translate to respond to texts from delivery drivers and I use the WeChat scan function to translate signs, menus etc. There are many other translation apps and softwares that you can use too.

Tip: Remember that Chinese is a tonal language. That means that the same word can mean something completely different if pronounced using a different tone!

The translation doesn’t always work perfectly. In fact, sometimes it makes no sense whatsoever. I bought a slow cooker and I can’t for the life of me figure out what the buttons do, for example…

The WeChat translation of the buttons on my rice cooker

When we first arrived as expats in Hangzhou I began to take Mandarin lessons. To be able to speak Chinese would be awesome and good effort to anybody who learns and succeeds! But I personally found that out was too much hard work to learn whilst I am home with a baby and a toddler and trying to run my blog. After living in China for a few weeks I had learnt that actually it is not necessary to be able to speak Chinese and that I can get by just fine with the use of my translation apps.

So, if the language barrier is a concern for you, worry not!

Expat accommodation in Hangzhou

One of the biggest questions that I had when we were considering becoming an expat in Hangzhou was where we would live. I’m sure that this is an important question for any potential expat, but it is even more important when you are relocating with two young children!

Accommodation in Hangzhou is expensive and the vast majority is not considered suitable to live in by our Western standards. This can make finding the right accommodation difficult, but not impossible!

Many employers will provide you with an accommodation allowance or they will provide accommodation for you. This is good because it is not subjected to the same level of tax as your main salary.

There are agents in Hangzhou who will help you to find suitable accommodation. These agents will drive you around lots of different properties. They regularly work with expats in Hangzhou so they known what sort of expectations we are likely to have.

When living in Hangzhou you will most likely live in an apartment. There are some houses scattered around, but these are quickly being knocked down and replaced with high-rise apartment blocks. Land is extremely expensive in Chinese cities and prices are rising extremely fast.

The population of Hangzhou increases each year by around 5%, rising from 5 million in 2010 to more than 10 million today. This means that the government need to build places for people to live and they need to do it fast! The speed of construction in Hangzhou is incredible and it is not uncommon to see high rise buildings increasing in height by a rate of one floor each week! It is for this reason that every year there are new accommodation options for the expat in Hangzhou.

Population increase in Hangzhou, China

You can see some examples of apartments in Hangzhou on the Internet, but the websites that show these are not reliable. Some are years outdated, meaning that the apartments you see are no longer available and those prices are far lower than they would be now. The best way to get a feel for what the accommodation options in Hangzhou are is to add the housing agents on WeChat and talk with them directly. Two of the major agents that work with the expat in Hangzhou are Clydesdale and Plus Housing.

Prices will vary depending on your location and the size of your apartment. You can get a studio or one bedroom for as little as 4000rmb. Or you can rent one of the best apartments in one of the best compounds in Hangzhou for as much as 30,000rmb.

Kitchens are small, like REALLY small! This is because Chinese tend to need only a wok and a rice cooker and they eat out often. You likely won’t have an oven in your apartment or a dishwasher. And most people will have only two hobs. For me, this has been one of the biggest challenges of becoming an expat in Hangzhou. Don’t worry though, you can negotiate with your landlord to have these items installed or buy table-top versions if you want them. Unfortunately we have no space for a dishwasher in our apartment •sob sob•.

Many apartments will have only showers, so if you enjoy a soak in the bath you may have to look a bit harder to find one. They do exist, they’re just not that common.

Apartments are usually located on a compound. This is a private area for those who live there and will probably consist of several apartment blocks. Some compounds will have facilities such as a gym, pool, gardens, and playgrounds.

Tip: Most pools are only open in summer months, which may be as little as only July and August (when many of us are away travelling anyway…)

The cost of land and real estate is rising in Hangzhou as the city continues to grow. It is likely that your landlord/lady will put the rent up at the end of your contract or sell up so that they can reap the rewards of the price increases. Be prepared for this.

Buying a property isn’t really an option for an expat in Hangzhou. There are strict rules and regulations and prices are extremely high (think London prices). You will almost certainly need to rent.

Internet access and VPNs in Hangzhou

One of the things that I get asked regularly is ‘how are you on Facebook? I thought it was blocked in China!’.

Yes, many of your favourite websites are indeed blocked in Hangzhou and the rest of China. But there is a way around it thankfully! You will need to install a virtual private network or VPN.

A VPN works to mask your IP address. It allows you to set your location as being somewhere elsewhere than China. This allows you to access your favourite websites from back home without being blocked.

For me, having a VPN is essential. There are many things that are blocked in China that I love or rely on. I mean, how can you work as a blogger without access to Google? How can a social media influencer work without access to social media?

Here are some examples of the things that I wouldn’t be able to access without my VPN:

  • Netflix
  • BBC iPlayer
  • YouTube
  • YouTube kids
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Instagram
  • Pinterest
  • Gmail
  • Whatsapp
  • Spotify
  • BBC news
  • Wikipedia
  • Dropbox
  • Quora
Tip: Click here to see a list of the top 100 websites that are blocked in China!

Having a VPN will allow you to access all of your favourite websites while you are living as an expat in Hangzhou, which is great. But having a VPN is actually MORE than this….

China does not have the same rules as we do in the UK (and most off the Western World) with regards to privacy. The government (and who knows who else) will regularly monitor WeChat conversations and Internet activities. It is not uncommon for expats in Hangzhou to be blocked from using WeChat because they have made a derogatory comment about Government, for example. Whilst I do not do or say anything wrong, I prefer not to feel like I am being watched online. A VPN keeps all of your data and browsing behaviour private. This is useful when travelling elsewhere too.

There are many VPNs for you to choose from, some are free and some require a subscription. I have tried and tested a few and trust me, most of them DO NOT WORK!! If you are simply travelling to China for a holiday, then sure- risk it- download a free VPN and if it doesn’t work then I’m sure that you can live without updating your Facebook status for a couple of weeks. But if you’re serious about becoming an expat in Hangzhou then you will probably want a VPN that actually works!

Your best bet is to set up your VPNs before you leave your home country. This is because it can be difficult to set it up properly in Hangzhou due to the great firewall in China. We have tried several VPNs since moving to China and we have subscriptions to three different providers- we don’t want to take the risk of the connection going down, which is does!

The best VPN, without a doubt, is Express VPN. You can add this to each of your devices for a set annual subscription (click here to check current rates). You can switch it on and off as you like and connect to a server anywhere in the world. China can be tricky and they are always trying to block VPNs. Express VPN is great at constantly revising their connections and they offer suggested areas to connect to if you’re in China (because some are blocked).

This video explains what a VPN is and why you need one in China

We also have a router with a built in VPN that we purchased in China from the local ‘TV guy’. This works ok on our phones but makes the Internet connections on our laptops too slow or prevents them from working altogether. For this reason I would advise against buying a built in VPN like this or purchasing both options and switching between the two (this is what we do).

You can install a VPN on almost any device. We have it on our laptops, desktop, phones, iPads and Amazon TV.

Sometimes your VPN WILL go down, and there is nothing that you can do about it. Each year around September time, the President of China comes to visit Hangzhou (or so I’ve been told). Because he is in the area all VPNs are shut down. This year our VPNs were down for around 6 weeks. Whilst all VPNs were blocked for a period of time, Express VPN was the last to go down and the first to be up and running again. The people at Express VPN work really hard to ensure that their service is top quality.

If I can give you one piece of advice it is to get your VPN sorted BEFORE you leave for China.

Television in Hangzhou

Worried that you won’t be able to watch your favourite television shows when you become an expat in Hangzhou? Worry not! We actually have MORE TV options than we did in the UK!

Almost every expat in Hangzhou that I have met has had a visit from ‘Steve, the TV guy’. Steve will come to your apartment and get your TV up and running for you in no time.

For a one-off fee he will set up IPTV on your TV. This provides with hundreds of channels that offer both live TV and on demand options. We have all of the sports channels, movie channels and kids channels that we couldn’t afford as part of our Sky subscription in the UK.

Tip: Take a look at all of the channels available with IPTV here!

Foreign food and drink in Hangzhou

Chinese food isn’t to everyone’s taste. We love a good stir fry or egg, tomato and rice dish once a week or so, but we also love our home comforts.

You can’t find everything in Hangzhou that you might like to eat at home and many things will taste remarkably different. BUT you can find a lot of the foods that you love from your home country.

There are two main places that I buy my imported food and drink from: Taobao and Epermarket.

Taobao is like the Amazon of China but WAY better! You can literally buy ANYTHING from Taobao! Furniture, plants, groceries, clothes, pets… you name it!

I like to use Taobao (the food section is called TMALL) to order some of my favourite foods from home. I’ve tried ordering frozen goods and they have arrived in a somewhat unfrozen state, so I personally tend to only order dry foods from Taobao. I have ordered spices, cereals, gravy, dried fruit and nuts, pasta and lots more. You can often find your favourite brands on Taobao. You just might have to pay 5x the price that you would at home!

Learn how to use Taobao as a foreigner in this video

Epermarket is the expat supermarket in Hangzhou. They cater to the needs of expats and have a range of foods and drinks. They do online delivery, so we tend to do a weekly shop.

Beware though! Whilst the food from Epermarket is generally good quality, it is not cheap! But I guess that’s what you get for buying imported goods…

Tip: Shop on Taobao using a Google Chrome browser and it will be translated into English for you!

As I mentioned earlier in this article, local foods are pretty cheap, but foreign foods tend to be quite expensive. Below I have listed some of the items that I have seen on Epermarket and their cost. Some of these I will buy (cheese, bread, cereal) and others I choose not to eat because I can’t justify the price (yoghurts, hummus).

  • Crunchy nut cornflakes 500g- £7
  • Greek yoghurt 90g-£4
  • Tub of margarine- £4
  • Small block of cheese- £4
  • Loaf of bread- £3
  • Bottle of red wine- £10
  • Small pot of hummus- £5
  • Skimmed milk 1 litre- £3
  • Packet of McVities cookies- £4
  • Packet of TimTams- £4

Don’t be too put off. You can shop local and pay A LOT less than this. Or you can do a bit of both, like we do. Our shopping bill is around £120 a week for a family of four but I know a family of 5 that spend only £70 per week.

Transport in and around Hangzhou for expats

You’ll be glad to know that transport in and around Hangzhou is cheap and easy!

Most expats in Hangzhou get around using DiDis. DiDis are similar to Uber, which create a strong sharing economy in Hangzhou. You can select which level of travel you want (taxi, express, premier, luxury) and you will usually be collected from your pick up point in a matter of minutes. Prices are super cheap. I travel in a premier each day to collect my daughter from school. The journey takes 18 minutes and it costs me 55rmb. That’s about £6.

Find out how to use DiDi in this helpful tutorial!

The metro is also really easy and very cheap, like pennies cheap! Hangzhou is currently undergoing a major expansion of their metro lines, adding several new lines over the next couple of years. Right now, I do not use the metro, as it doesn’t come close to where I live. BUT they are building a line right outside and I have been watching them making excellent progress over the past couple of months! This metro line is due to open next year.

Here is a copy of the current metro map of Hangzhou-

Hangzhou metro map 2019

And here is what it will look like when all of the lines are finished being built-

Hangzhou metro map 2022

The Asian Games are coming to Hangzhou in 2022 and the Government plans to have all metro lines open and operational by this time. Construction happens FAST around here!

Want to know more about the Asian games in Hangzhou? You can read more here.

You can also travel around Hangzhou by bus. This is also REALLY cheap, although I haven’t actually taken a bus myself yet. Personally I don’t feel the need to lug two kids and a pram around on buses when DiDis are so cheap…

Rail is very efficient in China. Things tend to work like clockwork. Tickets are also pretty cheap. You can book your train tickets on WeChat, AliPay, Trip.com or you can go to the train station in person.

Trains generally have business class, first class and second class seats. They will also have a standing option. Business class are like business class seats on an aircraft- they recline flat and have an entertainment screen. First class seats are larger than second class, but otherwise there isn’t much difference. If you are travelling on a long journey there may also be sleeper cabins with bunk beds.

Hangzhou is very well located by train and you can reach Shanghai on the bullet train in around an hour. Beware, there are often long queues at the station and you will need to take your passport with you. You can travel to Shanghai for around 220rmb business class, 150rmb first class and 75 rmb second class. Children under 1.2meters can travel for free, but do not get their own seat.

Tip: Don’t pack your aerosol when taking the train or it might be confiscated because of the risk of explosion… we learnt this the hard way when it was taken away from us on our weekend away in Shanghai…we smelled all weekend….

Hangzhou International airport is currently undergoing a major expansion. There are several major international airlines which fly here and this is set to increase. The only negative for me is that there are currently no direct flights to the UK, but I’m hoping this will change as the city continues to expand and become more of a centre for global commerce.

Click here to see a list of airlines and routes that currently operate out of Hangzhou International Airport.

Many people choose to ride an e-bike around the city. E-bikes are electronic scooters that can travel up to around 30km an hour. The city infrastructure is designed around the popularity of e-bikes and many roads have lanes specifically for e-bikes. E-bikes are not allowed on many of the roads in Hangzhou.

For me, one of the biggest adjustments that I have had to make becoming an expat in Hangzhou is not having a car. Whilst DiDis are very affordable and convenient, it is difficult to install car seats for the children every time that we travel. This is particular an issue for my toddler who requires a larger car seat. Luckily, I found the Mifold portable car seat, which has been a lifesaver! I can’t seem to find Mifold on sale in the UK, but here is a similar product on Amazon. Most Chinese people travel without car seats, but I do not recommend this as the driving isn’t always great!

I have done a fair bit of research to find out whether it is possible for us to get a car as an expat in Hangzhou. So far, however, the findings have been inconclusive. Yes, we can take a driving test here and it is not supposed to be difficult. BUT it is not recommended to buy second hand cars in China. New cars are way out of our budget (£20,000+). I have been told by one person that we can lease a car. Another person has told me that foreigners cannot lease a car. I’m still working on this one…

Weather in Hangzhou

I have been pleasantly surprised with the weather in Hangzhou. I hate the cold. And fortunately there hasn’t been much cold! Whoop whoop!

We arrived at the end of July and the weather was stinking hot, with unbearable humidity. I plan to stay away from Hangzhou in July and August in future- we will be travelling during this time.

September- October and April-June the weather is beautiful. It’s warm enough that you might put your air conditioning on from time to time, but cool enough that your hair won’t frizz up the second you walk out of the door!

Tip: When it rains in Hangzhou, it REALLY rains! Buy a light weight rain jacket, like this one, and keep it in your bag just in case!

Winter is thankfully short in Hangzhou and not as harsh as the winters we are used to in the UK. The highest daytime temperature generally hovers between 10-15 degrees C, but it can reach the twenties on a good day! In early 2019 it snowed in Hangzhou, but that is rare.

A graph showing average temperatures in Hangzhou

Cash, bank accounts and online payments

Managing your money in China is a bit different from the rest of the world!

In China, cash is quickly becoming obsolete. It is common to take a taxi and to be told by the driver that he doesn’t accept cash, or for the restaurant to accept only payment by WeChat. In fact, it can be quite a challenge for tourists travelling in China who do not have access to mobile payments.

There are two main ways to pay for things in China: WeChat and Alipay. Both are linked to your bank account so the money is transferred from your bank account to the app and through to the vendor’s app when you make a transaction.

Every person who uses WeChat or Alipay will have their own QR code (yes, they LOVE QR codes in China!). You simply scan this QR code, type in the amount and just like that, you have paid!

See China’s mobile payments in action in this interesting news clip from the Wall Street Journal

China really are leading the this domain. It’s actually pretty amazing. yes, I know the UK and other parts of the world have contactless cards and Apple Pay, but seriously, it’s nothing compared to China’s mobile payment infrastructure! Paying for things has never been easier and I don’t even carry a purse around any more!

In fact, not only do I no longer use a purse, I also no longer use a bank account at all! Whilst most people will still be paid into a bank account if they are employed in China, if you don’t have a salary coming in (like me), you don’t really need a bank account at all. A bit like PayPal, you can send friends money and keep your account topped up, so my husband sends me money and I use that to pay for stuff. Simple!

Whilst it is super easy to pay for things in China with mobile payments, it isn’t so easy to pay in any other way. Like I said, many people no longer accept cash. Most places do not accept cards. If they do accept cards it probably needs to be a VISA credit card. Most places do not have card machines or the staff do not know how to use card machines.

Tip: Invest in a power bank, like this one, to make sure that your phone always stays charged, otherwise you’ll have no access to your money!

Previously it was becoming increasing difficult for tourists to spend their tourist Dollar. Whilst major tourist areas are still open to accepting cash and card payments, areas that experience less international visitors, such as Hangzhou, are not very supportive in this area. However, as of November 2019, tourists can now set up Chinese mobile payment systems using their foreign debit cards! Got friends and family coming to visit after you become an expat in Hangzhou? Get them to take a look at this article, which explains how to get set up.

Spending money IN China is really easy. Getting your money OUT of China is not. Many people choose to become an expat in Hangzhou because of the lucrative salaries on offer. However, what use is that money if you can’t send it home to make your mortgage payments or use it to book flights for your next holiday?

We have found that spending our Chinese money outside of China is very difficult. Nowhere seems to accept my husband’s ICB debit card. They take only credit cards. I think he can get a credit card as a foreigner, but it’s a lengthy process and people in the banks generally do not speak English, adding an extra layer of complexity. My husband also hates paying for things on credit.

Transferring your money to a foreign bank account is even more difficult. If you want to make a transfer, you need to visit the bank in person. I’ve been told that it takes a large amount of paperwork and to expect to be in the bank for the entire day. Fun times.

Some organisations may have a process for you to have part of your salary paid into a foreign bank account. If this option is given to you, I recommend you take it! It makes life much easier.

Ayis in Hangzhou

One of the benefits of expat life is being able to afford home help! In the UK I could barely afford a cleaner to come and clean the bathrooms once every two weeks. But in China, I have an ayi who helps me around the home for 9 hours a week!

Ayi is the Chinese term for aunty. Most families will have an ayi. Many of these will be full time and will take care of the children as well as doing all of the housework and day to day chores. Sometimes an ayi will live in the property with you.

Tip: Ayis will sometimes do things the ‘Chinese way’, make sure you give her clear instructions on what you would like her to do!

When you are living as an expat in Hangzhou, it is easy to get an ayi. There are agencies who supply ayis or you can hire one yourself directly. I know some expats who have hired an ayi for childcare purposes, so that the parents can work full time. The cost of a full time ayi to look after your child is approximately £650 per month. Other people choose to hire an ayi on a part time basis to help with basic household duties. This costs around £5 per hour.

The concept of an ayi is that she is more than a cleaner. She becomes a part of your family, an ‘aunty’.

My ayi is great. Having her around allows me to spend time with the baby and working on this website, which is a much better use of my time than mopping the floor or taking out the bins! Here is a list of the things that she helps me with when she comes:

  • Washes clothes
  • Hangs out clothes to dry
  • Irons clothes
  • Changes bedsheets
  • Tidies away children toys
  • Washes dishes
  • Hoovers
  • Sweeps and mops floors
  • Polishes surfaces
  • Cleans the kitchen
  • Cleans the bathroom
  • Cleans the windows

She also does things like cleaning the soles of my slippers and offers to cook me rice! There are many benefits to being an expat in Hangzhou, and having an ayi is definitely one of them!

Social life for expats in Hangzhou

If you’re a pretty social person, then fear not- becoming an expat in Hangzhou will not be the end of your social life!

Whilst the expat community in Hangzhou is small compared to the major cities of Beijing or Shanghai, there are few thousand of us expats in Hangzhou, so you’re bound to find someone with similar interests!

You can join relevant WeChat groups to find like-minded people. There are many different sporting clubs, hiking groups, travel groups, people who like to play chess or visit art museums. I am part of a writing group and a mums yoga class, for example.

If you’re into the nightlife scene, there are lots of opportunities to go our drinking and partying. There are many restaurants around the city, both Western and Chinese. There are cinemas, bowling alleys, ice skating rinks, go karting, trampoline parks and lots of other things to do with your free time.

Click here to see the best bars in Hangzhou

With a baby and a toddler, I unfortunately don’t get much time to go our socialising, but I am confident that if I wanted to go out, there are other expats in Hangzhou that I can hang out with.

International schools in Hangzhou

There are many schools that claim to be international school in Hangzhou.

In China, Chinese students must follow the Chinese education curriculum. This means they study for Chinese exams such as the Gao Kao. By law, Chinese national students and international students are not allowed to be taught in the same classroom or institution. Therefore international students tend to be in international schools and Chinese students in local public schools. Whilst they can sit IGCSEs or A-levels, the majority of Chinese students do not. International students are free to study any international curriculum.

If you are becoming an expat in Hangzhou, it is best to send your son/daughter to an international school.

Tip: The academic year starts at the end of August in China, so make your holiday travel plans accordingly!

International schools are for students with a non-Chinese passport. There are numerous international schools in Hangzhou including the prestigious Wellington College International Hangzhou, Hangzhou International School, RDFZ Kings College Hangzhou, BASIS and Wahaha International School.

Wellington College International School was opened in 2018. It is part of the Wellington College China group of schools and maintains the values and strategic vision of the prestigious Wellington College school in the UK. The building and facilities are second-to-none. They offer the British GCSE and A-level curriculums.

Wellington College also has a Chinese part of the school, named Huili (the Chinese word for Wellington). If your children are young, they can attend the nursery at Huili school. The nursery caters for children aged 2-5 and offers a learning-based approach as opposed to the daycare approach that we have in the UK.

Isla attends the nursery and is absolutely thriving. She does role-play in the mud kitchen, learns phonics, sings songs and takes part in a wide range of developmental activities throughout the day. They also take the children to other areas of the school to learn about the radio station or musical instruments, for example. Each year they have a sports day, which is sooo cute! I could not recommend this nursery and Wellington College International highly enough!

Hangzhou International School was one of the first international schools in Hangzhou. This school is located in the Binjiang area of Hangzhou. The location is fairly central and a popular area to live. They offer the IB curriculum.

Medical facilities in Hangzhou

There are two types of medical facilities in Hangzhou: community healthcare and private healthcare.

My advice is to make sure that you have adequate medical insurance when becoming an expat in Hangzhou. The community hospitals, in my experience, are overcrowded and chaotic. They do not seem very clean and visiting one was not a very pleasant experience for me. I won’t be going back again if I can help it.

Most expats in Hangzhou will have medical insurance provided by their employer. This will enable you to seek medical help and advice at the private hospitals, which are clean, quiet and stress-free. In fact, our private healthcare in China is far better than what we receive on the NHS at home in the UK!

There are no doctors surgeries in Hangzhou, like we have in the UK. If you need to see a doctor, you go to a hospital. All medical facilities are located at hospitals.

Different hospitals offer different types of treatments, so you will not always go to the same hospital. I visited one hospital for assessment of my back pain, another hospital for physio therapy and a completely different hospital to take the kids for their vaccinations. All of these were private hospitals and I was happy with all of them.

It’s true what they say about things being fake a lot in China. I’ve accidentally ordered fake Haviana flip flops on Taobao, I’ve heard stories of the meat you buy in the supermarkets being fake and I’ve also heard tails of hospitals giving fake vaccinations to babies. This is one reason why I would always stick to the private hospitals, that use imported vaccines and other medicines.

My tip is to check what’s covered in your medical insurance before coming out to China. Our insurance includes most things including dental care and physio therapy, but doesn’t include vaccinations for the children. It’s good to know these things in advance, so I suggest you read up on it.

Tip: There are mandatory vaccinations given to children in China which are not recommend travel injections as suggested in the UK. Don’t rely on your nurse to give you advice- check out the vaccination schedules before you leave home! Click here to see the child vaccinations schedule in China.

Clothes shopping for expats in Hangzhou

Buying clothes and shoes might not be the first thing on your mind when you consider becoming an expat in Hangzhou, but it is certainly something to think about!

Chinese people are small. I am a size 10-12 in the UK and have to buy size large in China. I struggle to find size 6 shoes in China.

There are some familiar shops, such as H&M, and many of your usual designer brands around, however they seem to adapt their clothing for the Chinese market. When I went to H&M one day I found that the options were petite (I would not describe myself at petite) or Asian fit.

Tip: You will find lots of cheap clothes on Taobao BUT remember that the quality isn’t always great…

Bear in mind that you might find it a challenge to find the clothes and shoes that you like in the style and fit that you want/need. I recommend buying a few items at home before you come out to Hangzhou as an expat.

Expat jobs in Hangzhou

If you’re thinking about becoming an expat in Hangzhou, there are plenty of options for employment, although most jobs are in teaching.

In order to work in Hangzhou you must have a valid work permit and work visa. The process for getting this isn’t simple. You must have a degree, have all of your documents certified by a lawyer, have a medical assessment and a thorough background check as well as a job already secured to obtain a working visa.

If you are on a spouse or tourist visa you are not legally allowed to work in China. Whilst this doesn’t put some people off and they do work without the correct legal documents, penalties can be harsh and I have heard stories of expats being asked to leave the country as a result. I would not recommend working in Hangzhou unless you have the correct paperwork.

Tip: You can see many of the jobs at the international schools advertised on the TES website.

If you search for jobs in Hangzhou, the majority of opportunities that you will come across will be for English teachers. English teachers will typically receive a competitive salary of around £2000 a month, plus free housing and medical insurance. You will typically need a degree and a TEFL certificate to become an English teacher. English teacher jobs could be in a school, could be for private tuition or could be working for a language training institute.

The second most common job in Hangzhou for expats is to work in the international schools. There are a range of jobs here from teachers to senior leadership to teaching assistants, technicians and librarians. Salaries are some of the most competitive in the international education sector.

Hangzhou is the home of Alibaba, Chinese conglomerate specialising in tech businesses including Alipay and Taobao. They hire more than 100,000 people, 20,000 of which are based in Hangzhou. Hangzhou is also the base for a wide range of other companies in the technology and retail sectors. As such, it is possible for an expat in Hangzhou to gain employment in this area.

Of course, there are other jobs in Hangzhou for expats too. I know one mum who works in a bar after putting her son to sleep each night. One mum is making a business out of her yoga group. Another parent I know works as an online psychologist. There are jobs out there other than teaching, I just don’t see them very often.

Air quality in Hangzhou

One of the biggest concerns that many people have when considering moving to China is air quality. Yes, Hangzhou generally has slightly better air quality than Shanghai and it is significantly better than Beijing, BUT it still isn’t great.

The Government in Hangzhou have made good efforts to reduce pollution in the city. Most cars are electric, most bikes are electric and cars that run off petrol or diesel are restricted to use only on certain days of the week.

The pollution that you will experience in Hangzhou does not come from Hangzhou. It comes from the factories located out in the countryside.

China is going through an industrial revolution. Despite all of the warnings about climate change, China continues to build new power plants that run off coal. Many international companies have their products manufactured in the factories of China, meaning that Chinese residents are taking the brunt of the pollution from companies based around the world.

A summary of where pollution is coming from and the effects it is

Having said this, China has improved the overall air quality in recent years. The average PM2.5 concentrations fell by 33% from 2013 to 2017 in 74 cities. The overall pollution in China fell an additional 10% between 2017 and 2018.

When living as an expat in Hangzhou, you will quickly become familiar with the acronym AQI. AQI stands for air quality index. Most people will check this with an app on their phone, although on a bad day you do not need an app to tell you that the air quality is poor.

AQI is calculated according to the four major air pollutants regulated by the Clean Air Act: ground level ozone, particle pollution, carbon monoxide, and sulfur dioxide. The air is filled with a range of hazardous airborne particles and chemicals that come from various pollutants, such as driving cars running on gas or coal burning. The smaller the particles are, the more hazardous they are to our health. The one that is talked about most is PM2.5.

A bit like smoking, if you stop breathing in the bad air, your lungs will start to clean themselves, ridding themselves of the toxins. However, PM2.5 cannot be removed and the body cannot rid itself of this pollutant. It is, therefore, PM2.5 that expats in Hangzhou need to worry about most.

You can check this out using an app. There are many to choose from, but I tend to use AirVisual and Air Matters. AirVisual gives you a rating between 1-500. These numbers are colour coded, demonstrating how hazardous the air is. The higher the number the more hazardous it is. Air Matters provides a simpler reading, giving a number between 1-10 .

An explanation of the AQI rating system

I’m sure that you have seen Chinese people wearing masks to protect themselves from air pollution. When I first moved to Hangzhou, I looked into getting such a mask. They are pretty high tech, with carbon filters built in etc. BUT they do not protect your from PM2.5 because the particles are too small. You also cannot buy masks for babies and young children (not that I have ever seen anyway). Because of this none of us in my family wear a mask.

Tip: You can set your app to send you notifications when the air quality changes, which can happen very quickly!

To limit exposure to air pollution, most expats in Hangzhou will have an air purifier in their home. Our air purifier is built in, similar to an air conditioning unit. We have it running pretty much 24-7. There are also air purifiers at my daughter’s nursery and my husband’s workplace. When the air quality is bad I do not take the children outside.

So how often is the air quality bad in Hangzhou? Well, too often for my liking.

When we first moved to Hangzhou, the air was generally good. In the whole month of August we had only a few days when the air quality was bad. When ever it rains, it clears the air and the next few days are good. It was pretty rainy in September, so that was a good month for the AQI in Hangzhou. However, when winter hit, so did the bad air.

During the winter months people switch on their heatings, which is said to contribute to high levels of air pollution. I also think it is down to which direction the wind is blowing and apparently, it doesn’t blow in a direction that benefits us during winter. From what I have experienced, the AQI is almost always over 100 during winter. Probably 1 in three days it is above 150. It rarely goes about 175 though, which is when the nursery stop letting the children play outside.

Whilst the AQI in Hangzhou isn’t as bad as it is in other major cities in China, it still isn’t great. If I’m totally honest, it does worry me that my young children are exposed to this air. However, we are only in China for seven months of the year (the rest of the time we are travelling), and the air quality isn’t bad every day. The kids would still be exposed to pollutants if we lived in London or Dubai. I do what I can to limit the children’s exposure, but ultimately it is still a concern.

Travel opportunities for the expat in Hangzhou

One of the reasons that we decided to become expats in Hangzhou is because of the travel opportunities that it provides us with!

There are so many wonderful travel destinations in the countries surrounding China and within China itself that we are spoilt for choice. If you want to travel a bit more, then becoming an expat in Hangzhou is a great way to do it! Here are some of the travel plans that we had/have during the next couple of years:

  • Beijing and the Great Wall of China
  • Xian and the Terracotta Warriors
  • Chengu to visit the pandas
  • Qiandao Lake to see the 100 islets (this place is just an hour from Hangzhou- read all about it here- Everything you need to know about visiting Qiandao Lake)
  • The Yellow Mountains, Zhejiang
  • Disney, Shanghai
  • Jeju, South Korea
  • Seoul, South Korea
  • Japan to see the cherry blossoms
  • Christmas in Bali
  • New Zealand
  • Australia
  • Borneo to see the orangutangs
  • Singapore
  • Langkawi, Malaysia
  • Myanmar
  • Thailand
  • The Philippines
  • Vietnam

I am soooo excited about all of the travel opportunities that being an expat in Hangzhou provides us with. The pay in China is good, so we can afford to travel and we get all of the school holidays to explore. I will always maintain that travel is the best education and I am so excited to be able to show my children this part of the world while we are living in China!

Tip: If you are travelling during a Chinese national holiday it’s best to book in advance and leave the country because it will be VERY busy!

Is there anything else you would like to know about becoming an expat in Hangzhou?

Hopefully I have answered a lot of your questions and given you a good idea of what it is like to be an expat in Hangzhou. But if there is anything else that you would like to know, drop a comment below and I’ll do my best to answer you!

Like I said before, the expat community in Hangzhou is pretty small, so lets connect! Follow me on Instagram or Facebook and see what life in Hangzhou is really like! You can also subscribe to my newsletter, where I send out regular travel deals, discount coupons and travel tips! Add your email address below to subscribe.

Whether you choose to become an expat in Hangzhou or not, I wish you the best of luck with your relocation!

22 Comments
  1. Liz

    Thanks so much for your blog. We are a family of five moving out to hangzhou next August and I couldn’t find much information suitable for a family. Your blog is exactly what we needed!

    Reply
    • Hayley

      That’s great Liz! I’m glad you have found the post helpful, good luck with your move!

      Reply
  2. Loris

    Very nice article with tons of very helpful info! However, the word Taobao is misspelled every time #annoying

    Reply
    • Hayley

      Ahhh thanks for telling me, all corrected now I hope!

      Reply
  3. Marcia

    I just came across your blog today and I am so glad I did. I have accepted a position in Hangzhou to start in August and will be bringing my husband and son. This has been very helpful to me and has helped to ease my mind. Thank you so much!

    Reply
    • Hayley

      I’m glad you have found it useful, good luck with the move!

      Reply
    • Anna R

      I’ll be in Hangzhou this Sept for a year-long assignment. I’ve been on business trips to Shanghai, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, and Chengdu but needed more info on how to survive a year in China. Your article is very detailed and most helpful. Thank you so much!
      I’m trying to learn basic Mandarin. What language app could you recommend?

      Reply
      • Dr Hayley Stainton

        That’s great, Anna- I’m glad it has been helpful!

        Reply
  4. Jackie Hooper

    As a visitor can I bring in coffeemate, bread, cheese etc.
    I am not good with smartphones, do you know of a payment card that I can get?
    Planning to fly via Amsterdam to Hangzhou is it easy to get taxi from airport into city?
    Many thanks
    Hope your life out there is not too badly affected by the coronavirus restrictions.
    Jackie

    Reply
    • Hayley

      Most places do not accept cards so you will need to get used to using your phone to pay!

      Yes, it’s easy to get a taxi from the airport.

      Thanks, we have stayed out of China during this outbreak and are currently in Thailand.

      Reply
  5. Rakib Islam

    Very good article. It is so helpful

    Reply
  6. Dave K. Davis

    Hi Hayley,

    Awesome information, thank you! How’s it going in Thailand, any plans to return to China once the outbreak is over?

    Thank you and stay safe!

    Reply
    • Dr Hayley Stainton

      Thanks Dave. I am in the uk right now and will return to China once the boarders are reopened!

      Reply
  7. Nathan Owen

    Thank you for this blog, just got offered a position teaching either here or Suzhou, and you swayed me to go for Hangzhou. Maybe see you soon. lol x

    Reply
    • Dr Hayley Stainton

      Maybe! If the borders open anytime soon…

      Reply
      • Fan

        Have you managed to get the visa? It’s a bit of a long process. It not impossible – managed to get mine in August …

        Reply
  8. Sarah

    Hello! Thank you so much for your amazing articles !!! It gives me so much good infos even if it’s been one year I’m in China.

    I have a question about your Ayi, I have one too (part time like you). Do you pay her when you are in holidays and she doesn’t have to come ?

    About your thinking to have a car, de want to rent a car while we are in holidays mostly do you know an international agence or an app that I can use ?

    Thank you very much for all your precious advices.

    Reply
    • Dr Hayley Stainton

      Hi Sarah, we do not pay our ayi during the holidays. I don’t know any car rental companies but I do know that you need to take the Chinese driving license test before you can hire a car. I hope that helps!

      Reply
  9. Fish

    I am thankful for such an eye opening tips!

    Reply
  10. Fan

    Excellent article ! I was Chinese born but live in the U.K. in the last 16 years including many years in London. I am going to be Living in Hangzhou From next week. Very exciting and a bit scared.

    Reply
    • Dr Hayley Stainton

      Welcome to Hangzhou!

      Reply

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ABOUT

Hi, am Dr Hayley Stainton

I’ve been travelling, studying and teaching travel and tourism since I was 16. Through Tourism Teacher I share my knowledge on the principles and practice of travel and tourism management from both an academic and practical perspective.

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