Living in Shanghai, Beijing or Hong Kong? Pros and Cons

living in ShanghaiShanghai’s skyline

People often ask us what is the best city to live in in China, Shanghai or Beijing? And is Hong Kong an option? What about second or third tiers cities?

Obviously, there isn’t a right answer: it depends on what you’re looking for. In this article, we’ll focus on Shanghai, Beijing, and Hong Kong and look at the most important factors (cost of living, carrier opportunities, quality of life, and so on) in order to solve some of the most common doubts.

Before we start…

If you’re looking to move to China and you didn’t read it yet, make you a favor and get our free e-book.

Also, keep in mind that Hong Kong S.A.R. (Special Administrative Region) is a Chinese Province only since 1997 (before it was a British colony).

The fact that Hong Kong is a special administrative region and that was a British colony for a long time implies that there is a border between Mainland China and Hong Kong (they will stamp your passport and so on), that the Hong Kong currency is the “Hong Kong Dollar” while the Chinese currency is the “Renminbi”, that the law system isn’t the same (for obvious reasons Hong Kong’s laws are much more similar to British laws than to Chinese laws), that in Hong Kong people drive on the left (as in the U.K.) while in China people drive on the right and so on.

As you can guess, living in Hong Kong represents a completely different experience than living in Mainland China. In the sequel of this article, we’ll explore the pros and cons of each choice.

Visa situation

Visa in Mainland China

In order to visit China, you need a Visa. We already published a long article on how to get a Chinese Visa and what are the different types of Visa in Mainland China. Click here to learn the details.

While before it was relatively easy to live in China for years by applying every three months for a new touristic or business Visa in Hong Kong, nowadays the government is cracking down on this behavior and if you want to live in China for a long period (more than three months) I suggest you get the right Visa (working or student Visa).

Visa in Hong Kong

According to your nationality, you can stay in Hong Kong for tourism or business purposes for up to 180 days per year without any Visa. People from the U.S. or the European Union can stay up to 90 without any Visa. If you own a passport from another country click here and find out what kind of Visa exemption you can get.

Of course, without the proper Visa, you can’t work legally or enroll in a university. In order to get a working or student Visa for Hong Kong S.A.R. you need to apply on a Chinese Consular Office in your country.

As for Mainland China, as far as you find a decent job or study program you shall get your Visa without any problem. Here you find the details on how to apply for an Hong Kong Visa.

It’s worth mentioning that if you have a company in Hong Kong or in mainland China then your company can provide a working Visa for you. Keep in mind that this only works if your company is a real business that generates profit and pays taxes (and not some empty box you opened to get a Visa).

living in BeijingBeijing’s Olympic Stadium

Cost of living

I’ll start with a fact: salaries in Hong Kong are, on average, much higher than salaries in Beijing and Shanghai. This means that prices are higher too.

The result is that if you’re a student or you’re paid in foreign currency by a foreign firm then your purchasing power will be much higher in Beijing or Shanghai.

However, if you plan to work for a Chinese firm in China or for a Hong Kong firm in Hong Kong, then your purchasing power may be the same because, as I said, even if Hong Kong is a bit more expensive, salaries are higher too.

In general, salaries in Shanghai are a bit higher than in Beijing. Thus, I think that in Shanghai you’ll get the best salary/cost of living ratio.


Let’s start with the biggest expense. Hong Kong is small and crowded, especially on Hong Kong Island, where is situated the city center. The result is that here real estate is bloody expensive and rents aren’t an exception. Unless you make a ton of money or settle for an apartment in the middle of nowhere, you’ll have to live in a tiny (REALLY tiny) apartment.

In Beijing and Shanghai rents are much cheaper. Probably Beijing is a bit more expensive but there aren’t huge differences of price. The problem is that the quality of Beijing’s apartments is low so you’ll have to visit many of them before you find something you like (for a decent price).

Click here to read our guide to find an apartment in Shanghai and here to read our guide to rent an apartment in Beijing.


Hong Kong is more expensive. However, I find the quality of the food in Hong Kong much better. Being an ex-English colony, finding Western products is much easier too.

In Beijing food is a bit cheaper than in Shanghai but, if you want to find Western food, you’ll have to visit an expat neighborhood (mainly Sanlitun).


As for groceries, Hong Kong is more expensive than Shanghai or Beijing.

Bars and club

I don’t think there is any difference in the prices. I’ll discuss the nightlife of the three cities later on.

If you want some numerical data you can check this cost of living index, which I find pretty accurate.


In Mainland China internet is censored. This means that in order to accede to many Western sites such as Facebook or Youtube you’ll need a VPN. If you want to learn more about the Internet situation in China click here.

If having a fast and reliable internet connection is a must for you (because you’re an online entrepreneur, for instance), than keep in mind that if you decide to move to Mainland China this will probably be the main issue for you.

In Hong Kong internet isn’t censored and you won’t have any problem.

living in Hong KongHong Kong’s skyline

Learn Chinese and/or find a job

Suitability for learning Mandarin

The most common language in Hong Kong is Cantonese, which is the dialect from South China, not Mandarin. The second most common language is English. So if learning Mandarin is your priority, you shall avoid Hong Kong.

Shanghai isn’t good either: there are too many foreigners and many Chinese people that can speak decent English. Within these three cities, Beijing is by far your best bet for learning Chinese fast. Click here to read our guide for studying Mandarin in Beijing.

Notice that if learning Mandarin is the only reason for which you’re coming to China, then you shall also avoid Beijing and move to a second (or even third) tier city such as Chongqing, Chengdu or Kunming where there are much less people that can speak English and thus you’ll be more motivated (because learning Mandarin will be your only way to get a social life).

Suitability for finding a job or start a business

The three cities have a different economies; thus your choice is related to what kind of job (or business) you’re looking for. If you want to teach (either at the university or at a private English school), then Beijing may offer more opportunities to you.

If you’re an engineer or a fashion designer, I’d say to try with Shanghai first. If you’re a sourcing agent, probably you’re best bet is Hong Kong (or Shenzhen, which is close to Hong Kong S.A.R., just across the border).

If you’re looking for a job I suggest you start with our free job search engine.

If you’re coming to China in order to find new opportunities and start a business, I have to warn you: this is not 2003 anymore and you’ll find a lot of competition. Also, the two Chinese cities that show the greatest economic growth rate nowadays are Chengdu and Chongqing, situated in Western China. The reason is that the Chinese government is investing a lot of resources in order to develop the economy of the internal provinces.

This means that the best cities to start a business in China aren’t anymore Hong Kong or Shanghai, while less known cities such a Chengdu, Kunming or Changsha.

Quality of life


Within the cities where I lived, I think that Beijing is the one with the worst weather. On Winter it’s bloody cold, on Summer super hot and rainy, and in Spring you’ll have a bit of rain and sand storms. The Autumn is good but the problem is that it only lasts from middle September to middle November because then it starts to get cold.

Shanghai’s weather is acceptable (although far from perfection). The Winter isn’t so cold (it may snow once or twice but that’s all); Summer is hot but in China, there are few exceptions (Yunnan, where you can enjoy eternal spring or the North, where winters are terribly cold). Spring is the rainy season while Autumn in Shanghai is awesome and quite long.

Hong Kong has a subtropical climate: from October to March is the dry season and it’s not too hot while from April to September is bloody hot and it rains pretty much every day. During the summer there may be some violent typhoons (this can also happen in Shanghai).


China is infamous for pollution so if you’re reading this article, you probably know and accepted it already. Having said that, Beijing is much worse than Shanghai.

In Hong Kong, in my opinion, pollution isn’t a big issue. Sure, it’s a metropolis and it’s close to China, so it’s not exactly a virgin forest. However, there isn’t much heavy industry and the wind helps to clear the smog.


All three cities have extremely modern and functional international airports from where there are flights to any part of the world. Also, all cities have a massive subway system (my favorite is probably Shanghai’s one). Taxis are pretty cheap anywhere but the difference is that in Beijing the traffic is much worse.

Cultural life

If you’re an artist or, anyway, the cultural scene is important for you, then you shall consider Beijing as there are much more cultural events (i.e. music festivals, readings, art exhibitions, museums, and so on) than in Shanghai or Hong Kong, which are more “business-oriented”.


While Beijing and Hong Kong have their bar districts (Sanlitun, Gulou, and Wudaokou in Beijing, LKF in Hong Kong), the bar scene of Shanghai is pretty scattered (unless you consider Yongfu Lu a bar district).

Speaking about clubs, in Beijing and Shanghai you’ll mostly find Chinese-style clubs. They are quite dark, there is no dance floor and the music is so high that you can barely hear your friends. In these places, the 99% of the clients are Chinese people, most of which are drinking whiskey and green tea at their table. You may also find some clubs that are closer to the Western idea of the club, but they are usually quite small (for instance The Apartment in Shanghai).

Hong Kong is pretty different; especially LKF where there are a ton of English pubs and several Western-style clubs.

For a list of bars and clubs you can check Timeout Beijing, Smart Shanghai or Hong Kong Clubbing.

Distance from the countryside

An aspect I hate about Beijing and Shanghai is that, if you want to reach the countryside, you’ve to travel for hours. Hong Kong is totally different: in half an hour you’re out of town and you can even get to a tropical beach like Shek O.

Have you ever been to Beijing, Shanghai, or Hong Kong? What’s your opinion? Share your thoughts through the comments below!

Photo Credits: Creative Commons License Admiring Shanghai from the Bund by Trey Ratcliff
Creative Commons License Hong Kong Skyline by Spreng Ben
Creative Commons License Beijing National Stadium by Wojtek Gurak

50 thoughts on “Living in Shanghai, Beijing or Hong Kong? Pros and Cons”

  1. Hi!
    I am currently living in Shanghai, but I have a job offer in Hong Kong.
    My question is about arts. I am a performer (theater clown, puppets, actor…), and I want to find the best place to perform.
    Shanghai is quite open to arts, dynamic, etc. I would like to know if Hong Kong is also a vibrant city in cultural things, specially for theater.



  2. Hello Dear Furio

    I just came across this blog as I have been searching recently about living in china and found it so tremendous. in fact I am planning to come to China on the upcoming January. going to study Cisco and IT Networking stuff in a good college in China in order to get my international certificate at the end. My choices are actually Either Shanghai or HongKong definitely not Beijing. However I am facing with a difficult dilemma that among these two cities which city I shall go for. I need to act fast because my agency is awaiting me to let them know what city I am interested in so they can proceed with my application sooner. and I am just trying to find out. to be honest I always liked Hongkong .
    So what would u suggest me as a future student in China…??

    I also need to add that after finishing my study I may remain in china if I find a good job :))) However not sure about working and immigration Rules of China.
    I am from Iran And have lived in London UK for couple of years.

    1. Hello Payman,

      they are very different, as we explain in the article. Honestly this choice is very personal. Note that in Hong Kong Mandarin is the third language, after Cantonese and English

  3. Hi Furio Fu

    I am moving to Beijing within a few weeks, working as a teacher. What do you think is a decent salary for a family of 3: Schooling and rent money (7500Y) provided?

    Thank you

    1. Hi,

      difficult to assess as there are many factors to consider. If schooling and rent are paid though, I think that with around 12,000 Yuan per month you shall be ok (although you would have very little luxuries)

  4. HI Furio!! Could you please help me out! I have been given an offer with 4000 rmb a basic pay and 3500 rmb based on performance pay in Shanghai, with accommodation provided by the company! Could you suggest its worth working for the future so that I could save something!! Please help me out!! I am kinda reluctant on this offer!

  5. The transport system in HK may be expensive but it is far better than these other two cities in terms of clarity and depth of information. Most metro stations in China could be “right under the Eiffel Tower” and not have any information for you to find it – unless you read Chinese, even then its limited. HK has fantastic area maps in the station, often in 3D that enable you to get your bearings and will usually have every landmark clearly signposted. Yesterday I wandered around one station in Shanghai looking for Exit 6 and 14 which turned out did not exist. Take a compass, its the only way to work out where you are heading.

    One thing about Shanghai that no one mentions is its bloody flat, flat as a pancake, which means the terrain is boring. At least in HK you can be in a mountain or by the sea in half an hour.

  6. Nice post! I think no matter where you go to China you need to speak both English and Chinese. At least a little bit of Chinese! Plus, it’s easier to find a job there when you speak Chinese. You can definitely reach more opportunities.

  7. Douglas Renan Baquetti

    Hi, first of all I have to congrats about all infrimarion shared by here. Very practical and useful.
    I’m a Brasilian, 32y.o. and have worked on trade business for 8years in medical industry field. Now I’m thinking to be a expat in China and I’m looking into Shanghai.
    1)I’m thinking to spend couple of months in a language school in Shanghai to learn about Chinese then start looking for a job beside this period. Do you think it could suitable to find a job by this way?

    2)if I start language school in Shanghai and Then find a job opportunity in Shenzhen/ Guangzhou area, is that possible to move from student visa to employee visa?

    3)are there business opportunities for trade business or industry that’s looking for export/ international sales manager in Shanghai?

    4)what could be the best and suitable way to start expat life in China? Is Shanghai might be more worldwide culture for the first step in china?

    5)where is the best region (considering living of cost X benefit) in Shanghai?

    Thanks for your attention and looking forward to hearing your comments

    1. Hello Douglas,

      1. Yes, I think that if you’re there it will be easier to find a job.

      2. Yes, it’s possible. The important is to find a company that gets actively involved on the process and helps you to go through the application process. It may be necessary to go to Hong Kong to get the working visa though

      3. Yes, Sure

      4. Yes, in Shanghai is way easier to get started as it’s more international so the cultural shock won’t be as strong as if you start, say, in Changsha

      5. Shanghai is huge, it really comes down to what you want. Please read this and let us know if you have any further questions:

  8. Hello, I’m from Africa. I want to work while studying Electrical and Automation Engineering in China. A university in the city of Shenyang was recommended to me (Shenyang University of Technology). I want to work in china while studying.

    What do you suggest?

  9. Hi! I think I wrote a comment in this page but I couldnt find it. So I will write again :) I want to go to China as an au pair (live with a chinese family and take care of their children and try to teach English). The problem is that I dont know which city is the best choice. I would like a city where I can find people that speak English, where chinese people are open minded and is safe. I would prefer that the air quality is not as bad as Beijing (I have heard that is really bad, is it?) and where there is a lot of activities to do. Some options are Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Qingdao, Beijing, Xi’an and Tianjin. What do you think of these places? What would you recommend me based on my preferences?

    Thank you a lot and It would be a big help if you can answer me! :D
    Pd: I am from Colombia and I am 22 years old.

    1. Hello,

      if English is important for you I suggest Shanghai or Shenzhen. China is overall safe. As for pollution, I’d say that Shenzhen is better than Shanghai

  10. Hi guys, do you think for somebody interested in International Trading and Financial Markets would be easier to find a job in Shanghai or Shenzhen? I’m Colombian, 32 y.o, currently in Shanghai on an X2 visa that expires in May. Here it seems there are opportunities but I feel I have the “wrong” passport, may Shenzhen be more open to “non-First World” professionals since is in the border with Hong Kong and more connected to the rest of the world? Or may it be the same as here? Regards.

  11. I’m a British citizen & I’ve just graduated from the University of Manchester (UK) with a MEng (Hons) in Electrical & Electronic Engineering. I don’t know any Cantonese or Mandarin. I have quite a lot of family in Hong Kong. Will it be difficult for me to get a job in Hong Kong?

    1. Hello Nathan,

      I don’t think so. In Hong Kong it’s possible to live and work just with English. Actually, for someone that has a specialization like yours, it’s possible even in Mainland China!

  12. hi i am only 14 right now i’ve been learning madrian for only about 3 months on my computer. and i was wanting to now do you think if i continue to learn chinese will i make it to either shanghai or beijing. and thanks for all the info

    1. I would suggest Beijing, as the population speaks mandarin (in shanghai they speak the shanghai dialect), and the possibility to find people that speaks English is much more difficult than in Shanghai.

  13. I’m planning on doing a semester either in Shanghai or Hong Kong (business program). This would be sometime between September-December. I much prefer colder/cooler weather than hot/humid. But weather aside, in terms of networking in the business industry which do you think is better?

    1. THey are both great choices. What’s business industry? This is way to vague/general to say whether Shanghai, Hong Kong, NYC or London is better! It depends on what you want

      1. I guess at the moment I’m leaning towards fashion and business. I know there’s a lot of competition in both places but I want to work for a company rather than starting my own.

  14. I was borned and raised in Shanghai, spent 4 years of undergraduate life in Beijing, and now is pursuing my PhD in HongKong.
    As a native, I found your article on these three cities pretty objective and detailed.

    Good Job.

    1. As a native chinese i recognize Nanjing the city which is pretty near from Shanghai.its modern but not so crowd As shanghai or Beijing and it is an ancient city of china have long history like Beijing

  15. Hello, im planning on working as a nurse in china as well as volunteering in their orphanages. Where would be the best place for my line of work?

    1. Hi Lisa, I have no idea. I suggest you to start looking on the web or through some agencies that specialize on your field

  16. This was very helpful. I want to live abroad. I have an accounting degree and my minor in supply chain management. I had three cities narrowed down: Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Dubai. After this I am leaning more towards Dubai. Hong Kong is very pricey from other research I have done and the internet restrictions in Shanghai wouldn’t be to my advantage.

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