Living in Beijing: Tips on Staying in China’s Capital

October 16, 2010

Temporarily or permanently relocating to a new city can be a daunting task, especially if it’s in a foreign land.  Beijing, the capital of China, is no exception.  Whether your stay in Beijing is for business or pleasure, and whether you intend on networking with the expat community or with the locals, this article will walk you through some very useful information about staying and living in Beijing.  We will cover making the move to this city, getting to know the available methods of transportation, as well as moving in to your new apartment.

TRANSPORTATION

Beijing is an enormous city with a population of over 16 million.  Getting around can be extremely time-consuming with the sheer size of the city as well as the traffic.  If you don’t own a car, you’ll have to rely on taxis, the subway, and local buses.

From the airport to the city

Assuming you didn’t plan on an airport pick-up, you will have two choices to get to the city after landing at Beijing International Airport:

  • Taking the taxi
  • Taking the Express Train

The taxi may be more convenient, but the ride is likely to be more expensive.  The express train costs 25 RMB, and follows this route: Terminal 3 – Terminal 2 – San Yuan Qiao Station – Donzhimen Station.  Note that the last two stations are also subway stations.

Taking the taxi

Taxis are cheap compared to big Western cities, and can be very convenient in getting you from point A to point B, especially if you avoid rush hour traffic (usually around 7-8 in the morning, 5-7 in the evening).  Be aware that taxi drivers aren’t likely to know how to get to lesser known destinations.  While they will have a good idea of how to get to famous landmarks, certain shopping malls, popular restaurants and known parks, before hailing a cab, it is best to do a bit of research beforehand in order to know how to get to a certain place.  Use Google Maps and jot down the names of any landmarks that may be found near your destination.  Taxi drivers will often ask you exactly how to get to your destination, and they expect you to know.

The taxi drivers in Beijing can be extremely friendly and talkative, but the great majority can’t really speak English.  Although they underwent language training in preparation for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, they haven’t had the opportunity to maintain or improve their conversational level.  Therefore, a little Chinese goes a long way.

Taking the subway

While many foreigners may live months and even years in Beijing without having taken the subway, they are missing out on a cheap, reliable and very convenient method of transportation.  Once you get to know the subway lines and where the subway stations are located next to, you’ll be able to zip with ease from one end of the city to the other (even during rush hour) for a mere 2 RMB.  The subway lines have been well planned, making many shopping malls, department stores, and tourist spots very accessible.  The only drawback – if you can call it that – is you may have to walk an additional few minutes after exiting the station in order to get to your destination.  However, walking is truly part of the Beijing culture.  There is no better way to take in the city than by a nice stroll.

When taking the subway, you have two choices for subway passes:

  • Purchase a disposable one-use subway pass which you’ll be inserting into a card slot as you exit the subway station.  These can be purchased from subway station attendants or the vending machines.
  • A rechargeable pass which can be purchased and recharged from the subway pass booth.  You keep this card and use it to swipe in and out of stations.  Rechargeable passes can also be used on the local buses, and you’ll be saving on bus fare.

I highly recommend familiarizing yourself with the subway system once in Beijing, as it is overall the most convenient way to move around the city.  It’s also clean and very well maintained.  The subway is likely the only method of transportation that allows you to calculate with a decent level of accuracy the amount of time it takes to get from one place to another.  This is very useful if you have an important meeting, or simply do not want to arrive late when joining up with a friend.  Additionally, you can coordinate a subway ride after taking the Airport Express.  Just be prepared to face some very overpopulated rides during rush hour, particularly with Line 1.  The last subways ride until around 11 pm, everyday.

Taking the local buses

While the bus system is also very useful, it is more complicated than the subway given bus stops don’t come with a comprehensive route map.  Adding to the challenge is the absence of English words: bus stop itineraries are only written in Chinese characters.  That being said, if you know exactly where the bus route will take you, don’t hesitate to climb aboard.  Beijing buses are clean and efficiently run, but of course, they are subject to heavy traffic just like any other road vehicle in the city.

FINDING ACCOMODATION AND ESTABLISHING YOURSELF IN THE CITY

It’s possible for foreigners to find an apartment through an agent or contact even before setting foot in China.  A quick online search will reveal many companies who specialize in finding you a suitable place.  Alternatively, some foreigners may take a chance and begin their stay in a hotel, spending the next few days hunting for an apartment.  If you are part of the second group of people (like I was), you may find the experience a bit stressful, but interestingly enough, checking out prospective apartments is a great way to familiarize yourself with the city, as it forces you to visit different neighborhoods.

Apartment hunting

Assuming you’re staying in a hotel and looking for an apartment online, one of the first things you should do is get yourself a cell phone.  This will obviously be useful when building a network of contacts living in Beijing.  If you don’t already have a phone, you can buy one in one of the countless shops found everywhere in the city.  Look for market stalls with electronics, or simply go to a shopping mall where you know you will be guaranteed good quality, even if you can’t negotiate the price. 

Once you have your phone, you’ll need to activate minutes by purchasing a SIM card.  These can be found at many newspaper stalls, convenience stores, phone stores, etc.  When I bought my Nokia in a shopping mall in Beijing, I bought a card from China Mobile.  You can pay in increments of 50 or 100 RMB (or more).  Starting off with 100 RMB worth of time is a good start.  Assuming you arrived on your own in Beijing without knowing anyone, your first phone call is likely going to be a prospective roommate or landlord.

A very useful apartment hunting site is www.thebeijinger.com.  This site connects English-speaking people living in Beijing, providing social networking, forums, information on sales, jobs, personals, housing, etc.  When contacting the person who will show you the apartment, it’s preferable if that person actually lives in the apartment you’ll be staying in.  Be wary of agents as they will do their best to convince you to move in.  Meeting a roommate or the person who is moving out is always best, since you can rest assured the place was adequate enough for him/her to live in.  Moreover, you’ll want to take your time checking out the new place and ask many questions regarding all aspects of living in the apartment and the neighborhood.  It’s better not to encounter any unwanted surprises after making your deposit and moving in.

Rental payments

Beijing rent is usually paid out every three months, with a front-end month deposit which you’ll be getting back once you move out.  Occasionally, there may be extra money owed from heating, water, and air conditioning.  It’s far easier to find a place to move into if you can assure you’ll be staying five months or more.

Once you move in, you’ll need to get yourself a residence permit as soon as you can.  The landlord will know which Public Security Bureau to go to.  You’ll need your passport, visa, and written proof of your stay in the new apartment (your landlord or apartment manager will be happy to provide a signed statement confirming this).

CHINESE VISA

It’s important to avoid overstaying the allowed length of time as indicated on your visa.  There are different types of visas available: Tourist (L), Business (F), Student (X), Employment/Work (Z), Resident (D) … Unless working for a company or setting up a business, the length of time permitted by the visa is far more important than the type of visa obtained.  When presenting yourself at the passport office in your country, be sure to mention all the details of your intended stay in China.  They will try to find you the most suitable visa for your situation.

Note that if you are getting a job in Beijing, the company you will be working for should provide the necessary paperwork and written proof of employment in order to get the required Employment/Work Visa.

Above all, you want to be timely with visa renewal if and when the time comes.  You can either travel to South Korea or Hong Kong in order to exit the country for a visa renewal.  Another option is to find a visa agent (www.thebeijinger.com and online searches can help you find some ads for this) who can help you get your visa renewed without necessarily having you leave the country.  In addition, an agent may be able to have you upgrade your visa to a different type; for instance, from a tourist visa to a student visa.

Of course, with an agent, you’ll be paying more for the actual cost of the visa renewal.  The best strategy is to calculate the cost of flying to South Korea and Hong Kong as well as the cost of staying there for a couple of nights.  You want to see if this offsets the cost of the visa when obtained through an agent.

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