Save Money and Pay-off Your Student Loans; Teach in China

A near majority of individuals who apply to teach in China through our services at Opportunity in China have mentioned unanimously one principal motivation; they want to be able to save money and pay down their student debt.  This common drive for expatriation to China is valid, and the result comes with ease to anyone reasonably able and willing to manage their personal finances as teaching in China, even teaching English in China, is such a well-compensated job that saving 30% of one’s income can happen with little effort.  Saving twice that percentage is also possible.  In dozens of major cities across China the relatively low cost of living coupled with what is in Western countries still a reasonable salary renders those who teach in China people of means.

What is a tier one city in China?  What about tier two and three?  Which is best for saving money?

The concept of city tiers is not a formal one.  When one gets down to the criteria of each tier everyone seems to have their own individual perspective.  However, the tier one cities are unanimously decided to be: Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, Tianjin, and Shenzhen.  These metropolises are the favorite destinations for foreigners for work, travel, and expatriation, and for good reason.  Despite the relatively higher cost of living than when compared to tier two and three cities in China, the salaries one is able to earn in tier one cities can often make up for that difference, and even exceed that difference (see table below.)  Perhaps being equally important, many foreigners feel that tier one cities offer the greatest chance for social networking, both with local and expat communities.  The type of school one chooses to work at is also an important consideration, and you can discuss this with your recruiter.

What are tier two cities in China? A number of notable tier two cities in China are: Nanjing, Ha’erbin, Chengdu, Changsha, Qingdao, Hangzhou, and Xi’an.  Tier two cities, this author’s personal suggestion for those seeking to try expatriating to China for the first time, are usually as convenient logistically and amenity-wise as their tier one counterparts. The chief distinction would be the noticeably different cost of living.  This benefit is coupled with the industry standard of providing housing for foreign teachers.  Most of our partners in China, for example, include housing as part of their compensation package, or at least offer a hefty housing-allowance to ensure that your housing needs are covered.  Schools in China want their teachers to feel less pressure, and knowing that their teachers may be coming to China for the first time, finding an apartment is an intimidating process that they can easily handle for you.  In contrast, most tier one employers either do not offer housing or offer a much less generous allowance.  Food and transportation are also markedly cheaper in tier two cities (see table below.)  Essentially, it is arguable that tier two cities are the Goldilocks cities, where the cost of living, salaries, and social environment are just right for foreigners who aim to teach in China in part to save money and/or to pay off student loans.

What is a tier three city in china?  The definition of this class of cities is more flexible than others.  Basically, a tier three city might be described as any major city with a population less than several million.  Many less important provincial capitals can be included in this category.  Clear examples of tier three cities in China are: Jilin, Tangshan, Baotou, Changzhou, Guiyang, Zhuhai, and Guilin.  The real advantage of these cities is that the cost of living is incredibly affordable.  Whether we discuss transportation, food, dining, entertainment, or housing, tier three cities will astonish those coming from Western countries with their low-cost yet still high-quality amenities (see table below.)  While the expat populations and social scenes are fewer in tier three cities, for those who are not seeking those advantages, tier three cities can provide a great opportunity to not only save more money, but also to connect with a more traditional Chinese culture.  Moreover, learning Chinese in a tier three city might be easier if not more necessary.  Tier three cities offer great benefits for the opportunistic due to the lack of competition.  One specific strategy for succeeding financially that our recruiters often suggest to teachers is that those with higher qualifications, especially those who can teach subjects such as math or science, consider allowing us to find work for them in a tier three city public high school where the salary can be nearly as high as that of a tier one city, due to the high demand for qualified teachers, and thus teachers can expect to have 14,000rmb to 21,000rmb ($2000-$3000) monthly in disposable income after paying for housing, food, and transport.

Why is Location Important for Teaching in China?

Clearly, if the title is accurate then this article is mainly about saving money while teaching in China.  So the reader might ask, why all the discussion on city classification?  Well, selecting the type of city you wish to live in can determine your financial and social destiny while in China.  Fortunately, Opportunity in China can place our teachers in any of the dozens of major cities across China through our broad and deep network, in tier one, two, or three cities alike.  For the most adventurous and frugal, we even have options in cities too small to consider in the tier conception (dialogue on a fourth tier is beginning to occur in China as development continues to progress).  The point is selecting the right financial environment, if financial concerns are important to you, coupled with the right salary (see table below.)  Do your own due diligence, of course, but feel free to discuss this topic with your recruiter, whether one from Opportunity in China or otherwise, or visit our YouTube channel which contains more information on these topics.

Table for Reference

The following are estimates established by using information from popular online Chinese content and with the help of several expats and Chinese locals to help better illustrate the cost of living potential for teachers in China in 2017.  Some official statistics were used, but due to their lack of specificity and the lack of information for tier two and three cities, anecdotal information was used.  While this list is not exhaustive, it can provide some insights about how to begin thinking about balancing your budget even prior to taking up residence in China as a teacher.

Values are listed in RMB (Chinese Yuan).

City Tier Starting

ESL Salary


Teacher Salary

1br Apt Foreign Cuisine Meal Med. Lvl. Chinese Cuisine Simple Chinese Cuisine Taxi Starting Cost
Beijing 1 14-18,000 28,000 5-8,000 80 50 15 13
Shanghai 1 14-18,000 28,000 6-9,000 100 60 20 14
Guangzhou 1 12-16,000 26,000 5-8,000 60 50 20 10
Nanjing 2 12-16,000 24,000 3-6,000 60 40 12 9
Chengdu 2 11-15,000 22,000 3-6,000 60 35 12 8-9
Qingdao 2 12-16,000 22,000 3-6,000 60 40 12 10
Baotou 3 10-14,000 22,000 1-3,000 35 25 10 8
Taizhou 3 8-12,000 18,000 1-3,000 35 25 10 8
Zhongshan 3 9-14,000 20,000 1-3,000 40 25 10 8


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