If you are looking for a more Western experience with high end housing, meals in Western restaurants and most of your shopping done in stores catering to foreigners, Beijing is NOT a cheap place to live.
On the other hand, with a modest apartment in a nice complex, most shopping and eating out done locally with the occasional splurge in Western establishments, cost of living can be well below what it would be in any capital in Europe or the US.
How much living in Beijing can cost: An example
Below is a break down from our experience for 2 people (as of early 2013), which is in line with what I know from other foreigners living in similar circumstances. For someone on an expat package, where many expenses are paid by the employer, this will probably look different.
5500 RMB for a nice, newly remodeled 2 bedroom 900 sqf / 90 sqm apartment in a nice complex in a Chinese neighborhood in Haidian outside of the 5th ring road (not an expat area). Landlord speaks some English but property management very little, so some Mandarin skills or a Chinese friend are needed every now and then. (2014 update: Our rent increased steeply over a few months, reaching 7500 RMB in early 2014. Time to move.)
For a similar amount of money you can find apartments closer to the city but probably not such a nice complex. Some other examples: One friend paid 6000 RMB for a 1 bedroom apartment close to the subway in Wudaokou, another 3000 RMB for a room in an older Chinese style shared 2-bedroom apartment with a basic kitchen and bath within the 2nd ring road close to the subway.
In an expat compound, rents can easily be 15000 RMB and even much higher but that may include more amenities like a swimming pool or fitness center. Likewise, if you are within the 3rd or even 4th ring and close to good schools, rents of 10-15k RMB are not uncommon for 100-140 sqm in Beijing.
Check out the housing classifieds on the Beijinger’s website (see Resources) to get more info. Just remember that most places don’t look as good as in the picture, especially kitchen and bathrooms in older buildings can be very basic or run down. Ideally, you can find a newly remodeled unit, but that requires luck.
We usually pay less than 300 RMB per month for apartment utilities (read more on utilities). This is how it breaks down:
Electricity: we use on average 400 units/200 RMB per month, ranging from about 300 units/150 RMB to 500 units/250 RMB in periods with more use of AC or electrical heating
Water: about 35 RMB per month.
Reclaimed water (used for the toilet): prepaid at the property management office in increments of 15 RMB, which lasts about 2 month (less if the toilet water tank is leaking again…)
Gas (for cooking): 200 RMB lasts us a couple months. We cook at least 4-5 times per week.
Many people hire an Ayi, this is what the household helper or maid is called here, to help with cleaning and sometimes shopping and cooking. Ayis cost around 25-35 RMB an hour. There is also the option to hire a live-in ayi/nanny, which can be a good choice if you have children, but not everybody is used to or comfortable with having someone living with you. Don’t expect your helper to speak much English, if any. Basic Chinese and great pantomimic skills are helpful.
Phone & Internet
For a middle of the road Internet connection that is bundled with a land-line phone and one cell phone SIM card we pay around 200 RMB per month. This includes unlimited (but not always fast) data, but only 300 minutes of talk time for the phones combined. We have another mobile phone for about 100 RMB per month for unlimited data, 50 minutes talk and 300 text messages per month, which suits our needs. The prices are lower if you commit to longer terms, meaning if you buy 6 months or so in advance.
Our occasional (about once a month) shopping at a Western supermarket usually cost about 200-300 RMB, for a backpack full of mostly Western items. Western items cost Western prices plus a premium.
A more typical trip to the local supermarket often fills the backpack for less than 100 RMB for staples like milk, yogurt, fruit, vegetables, cleaning supplies, etc. Veggies are often cheaper and fresher in the open markets (read more on shopping in Beijing).
The cost for eating out really depend if you go mostly to Chinese or Western restaurants. At typical Chinese restaurants, a bill for two with beer can often be less than 100 RMB, and much less at a small hole-in-the-wall place. At a nice, bit more upscale-looking restaurant you can expect to pay around 200-300 RMB. A Western restaurant usually sets you back twice that much. Compared to other western capitals, this is still a bargain.
If you are a Starbucks fan and need your daily caffeine fix, expect to pay 25-35 RMB for a fancy coffee (the regular tall brewed coffee sets you back 17 kuai), not only at Starbucks but also other coffee chains and cafes. Buying good coffee beans is also expensive, typically at 90+ RMB per half pound.
Public transportation is very cheap and I spend rarely more than 5-10 RMB a day (2 RMB for a subway ride, 0.40 RMB for a bus ride using the Yikatong; read more on transportation).
A shared private driver to work can run a couple hundred to over a thousand RMB per person, depending on the distance and number people sharing. I don’t have specific info on the transportation cost for cars, other than that buying a western car is more expensive than in many Western countries. Gas prices are similar to the US.
Expensive or not?
Of course these numbers can only provide some guidance on the order of magnitude for the cost of living in Beijing and cannot predict what your cost will be. Living in Beijing can be really expensive or really cheap, all depending on your choices and situation.
PS: If you enjoyed this post, you may want to check out my Practical Guide – Newcomer to Beijing. It contains this post and 30+ others, plus additional resources, and follows your steps from planning your move to a new culture to settling into your new expat life in Beijing, all in one easy-to-read pdf.