Expat Safety When Relocating to China

Shanghai Living

Moving to China? Here is a list of five things designed to help new expats in China to make sure they are relocating safe and sound in order to avoid stress and quickly get to enjoy their new cities of choice to the fullest.

China is generally a secure place to travel and live as crime rates are relatively low. However, if you’re planning to move to China for the long-term, maintaining your life standard and level of comfort during the transition may prove harder than expected. This is why it is smart to plan ahead and consider these few tips about how to secure your online actions as well as how to use money, eat and drink, take taxis, and go to hospitals in a smart way.

Stay Safe Online.
I have a phone, therefore I am. That’s at least what it feels like in China if not everywhere in the world these days. Cellphones are crucial particularly in China because besides using one to message people in urgent situations, it usually functions as your ID and credit card. Without these on board, it’s hard to register on apps and pay for things when out and about in the city.

Considering these functions, you don’t want to enter the country to notice that your phone is locked, blocked, and data-less. Good luck trying to find your way from the airport to your hotel. What makes it worse is it that it is hard to ask people and get directions in English. This is why last time my friend visited, she said she had to rely on a screenshot that I sent about the general area to get to her lodging. This is one of the reasons why it is necessary to make sure that your phone has what it takes to start your China life safely.

If coming from the US, please remember to unlock your phone. Others may start their journey toward the Middle Kingdom by downloading a couple of useful apps.

The top essential apps to stay on top of things in China include WeChat, which is the nation’s one-stop answer to WhatsApp and Instagram, mobile payment platform Alipay and China’s biggest ride-hailing platform Didi Chuxing. It’s smart to download these before traveling because some have reported that you may be able to add a foreign credit card as a payment method if registering abroad. That could honestly make it much easier to get ferried to your hotel from the airport. Instead of getting hustled by airport cab drivers and going out on a limb with a broken translation of the address, a hassle-free Didi ride could turn out much more efficient and almost luxurious after a long flight.

Other useful China apps for expats involve language and navigation tools as those help in understanding your surroundings and therefore making wise decisions about where to go, what to buy and what to eat. Google Translate’s camera function is great for interpreting texts real-time wherever you go, which really makes a difference when you need to get something interpreted fast. Another language app Pleco allows users to type by hand and thus learn what Chinese characters symbolize.

Online maps are not only good for finding places, but also in order to avoid looking like a lost tourist, which could invite trouble. Apple’s in-built map app works without a VPN but Google Maps doesn’t so the latter can be a bit slow in daily use. Chinese Amap is one option as it is apparently pretty accurate and can locate venues even inside malls (which is pretty useful in China).

Save Some Thought to Your Health.
First things first, it’s wise to check where is the closest ER to your house. That’s because you probably wouldn’t want to waste time looking for the Chinese word for that in a burning emergency. China Expat Health has compiled a free map about different ERs in the eastern mega city so you may want to take a shortcut by checking that out to see what’s close to your home and office.

The next thing is health insurance. Once starting work, it’s good to ask what kind of medical insurance your employer offers. Most Chinese companies include a new worker in their group plan free of charge but that involves only public hospitals that predominantly function in Chinese. Moreover, the service in these institutions may not be exactly on the same level as what you’d expect at home.

Some foreign companies may encourage you to pay a monthly premium to upgrade your insurance plan so that you can go to international hospitals while keeping costs reasonable. A good insurance plan is worth its weight in gold if, for example, a seemingly minor back pain escalates to what may seem like a thousand little knives jabbing your spine and you need to see a physiotherapist, involving sessions that cost my boyfriend CNY2,200 (USD328) each at United Family Hospital in Shanghai.

International hospitals in China offer top-notch high-quality care, perhaps even better than what I would be getting in Finland, my home country. That is why if moving with your partner or family, upgraded insurance plans are particularly useful to make sure that your whole family is covered in case of emergency.

On a lighter note, how about getting all the right products to stay healthy in your everyday life? The Chinese market has its own perks, so you might see stores stacked with more air and water purifiers than what you’ve ever seen, but some Western personal care products may be hard to find. So if you’re used to having a certain deodorant, hair product, food supplement, and particularly a certain type of medicine, it may be wise to carry those from your home country.

Safeguard Your Cash Flow.
After a few days of getting settled, you may suddenly realize that the first stack of cash you took out at the airport has evaporated into thin air. Was it the hotpot feast and those sky bar cocktails the previous night? Perhaps those “factory outlet” Balenciagca shoes? There sure ain’t a shortage of places where to splurge so in order to keep on going and stay safely cash-positive, a trip to an ATM may be in place.

If your international bank card gets rejected at a Chinese ATM, you may try another one, as it may just be about that bank. Banks’ commissions on each withdrawal may be quite high, so it’s usually worth taking more cash out at once and keeping fingers crossed that your new job has a payday pretty soon.

Once you start making money in China it’s time to open a local bank account, which is useful in terms of skipping extra fees and making sure your bank card is accepted everywhere — particularly at times of emergency.

Similar to getting a SIM card, opening a bank account in China involves you walking into a bank of choice (such as ICBC, Merchants Bank, Shanghai Pudong Development Bank), showing your passport, and giving a home address (doesn’t seem like anyone checks if it’s correct) to get started with one. Some banks require you to bring your employment contract too. Opening a new account is free in many Chinese banks.

Before you leave the bank, it’s wise to ask the staff to open online banking (as they may not do it automatically) so that you can transfer money digitally to your WeChat Wallet or Alipay from that account. This is a crucial step to get started with paying on your phone everywhere and yes, getting on those delightful Chinese e-commerce platforms.

Once you have opened these mobile payment streams, life becomes so easy that it becomes almost unthinkable to carry a credit card or some dirty bills with you. Moreover, it’s more safe to leave those at home. Soon you’ll notice when going back to the cash-happy Europe (or most places in the world) that it seems utterly foreign and precarious having to keep your credit card on you. And then some places tell you that they only take cash. Forget it. All you can do is wait and hope that the world will change before you’ll leave China.

Think Before Eating.
You may have read stories about dangerous Chinese baby milk formula, fake alcohol, and even plastic rice. When it comes to food safety, it is true that the nation has a pretty smeared image so it’s best to put some extra attention to what you eat and drink.

The good thing is that it is not impossible to buy clean, organic food in China. There are foreign food supermarkets, such as Carrefour, City Super and Epermarket, and they do home delivery. These stores have a pretty wide selection of organic fruit and veggies, as well as imported cheese and meats.

Some of the most adventurous souls may buy cheap mystery meat from wet markets in China, but honestly, who knows where that is from and when it will expire. Veggies, however, look pretty fresh in these local markets. Just remember to rinse them carefully as they may contain dirt, insects and pesticides.

When it comes to moving into your new home, one of the first things to do should be buying a water purifier. That is if you don’t want to buy bottled water all the time. Now, some people just boil tap water and say it’s fine. That’s what I did for a year after I moved to China but then I saw how rusty a purifier gets in a course of a few weeks so I realized that this is probably how my insides look like by now. After getting a purifier I could not imagine going back and living here without one.

If you’re not big on cooking at home, large Chinese cities, such as Beijing and Shanghai, should have enough foreign restaurants to satisfy your appetite. In order to decide where to go, you can check customer reviews on BonApp and Dianping to get tips about clean and nice places. You may also order takeout from the plethora of Chinese food apps, such as Ele.me and Meituan-Dianping. Many foreign restaurants are featured on these apps and reviews with pictures should help in making a good choice about what to order.

Keep Out of Harm’s Way in Traffic.
Traffic in China may be quite a different bag from what you have at home. First of all, there are hundreds of millions of cars in the country and sometimes it may seem like all of them chose the same route. Happily, China is the world’s biggest electric vehicle market, so despite clogging our route to work, many of them are not polluting the air that much.

As a pedestrian, the largest danger may be the scooters. China’s lucrative e-commerce and food takeout scenes have ensured that every given day there seems to be a constant flow of delivery guys on scooters on all roads. These ‘kuaidis’, as they call them, have tight deadlines, which shows in how they drive. This is why it’s good to be cautious, look both sides before crossing a road. Even if it’s a green light it’s wise not to trust automatically that drivers follow the rules and see you.

Some might say that taxis and Didis are equally risky drivers as those that ride scooters. Last time on my way to an airport, our Didi driver seemed to be close to falling asleep on the wheel. We held onto our seat belts and told him that he should take a nap after the trip. Because it was a Didi, we could also review the driver. I guess that this, in general, is the best we can do while on the road in China: keep our eyes open, our voices loud and our rating pens sharp.

Alright, that’s it for now. Hope you found this article useful and are settling into your new job or school as well.

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