Let’s have a look at how that works in Beijing. (To learn how much utilities may cost, see my post on cost of living in Beijing.)
Keeping the lights on – Electricity, gas, water
Utilities, like many other things in China, often work on a pre-paid basis. No monthly contracts with your name on it. Instead you use a rechargeable card to top off a utility meter. The card has a chip embedded and is inserted into the meter, which “sucks” the money from the card into the meter. (It really makes a sucking sound!) The meter then shows the new status. Usually a meter starts blinking, when the remaining charge is getting low.
If your apartment building has a concierge, consider yourself lucky. The concierge will likely be able to help and recharge the cards for you.
If you are not that lucky, cards can be recharged at the utilities company, banks, and some other locations. To make it more hassle, you cannot recharge all your cards at the same location. Banks have bill-pay machines, much like an ATM machine, where you can recharge specific cards, if you also have a bank card there (read more on Banking in China). For example, I can recharge our electricity card at the ICBC bank with my ICBC bank card. But I cannot recharge our gas card there.
Electricity is always paid by card. Gas can be paid by card or by monthly bill, depending on your apartment compound. You will also get a monthly bill for water. The bill is usually taped to your door. It can be paid at a bill-pay machine at certain banks. The menu for these machines is in Chinese only but bank employees are always willing to help.
Some buildings use reclaimed water for flushing toilets. The reclaimed water in our apartment complex is paid with a card that can be topped off at the property management office.
When you rent an apartment, make sure to get all the utility cards and locate the meters. Do not lose the cards, they are a hassle to replace.
Looking for more instructions on how to set up and pay your utilities bills? Check out the Beijingkids Home & Relocation Guide p41-43. There you also find a detailed listing of all cards and banks where you can recharge a card or pay a bill.
Staying warm – Heating and other housing cost
Central heat is usually included in the rent. The heating period is determined by the government and spans from mid-November to mid-March with the exact dates determined every year. Unfortunately, winter doesn’t always keep to the calendar. It often is cold earlier and later than that heating period, so additional heating sources are important. Many apartments have AC units that can also heat; make sure it works before you sign the lease.
We don’t pay extra for trash removal, cleaning and lighting of common areas, elevator maintenance, etc. These items are covered by a separate bill that the landlord pays, like a HOA fee. Basic cable TV is usually also provided by the landlord.
Staying connected – Phone and Internet
This is the most expensive utility item and variations here can be big, depending on the internet speed, amount of phone talk time, etc. Internet, land-line phone and mobile can be bundled. The main providers are China Telecom, China Unicom, and China Mobile. They have some information online in English about their data plans.
To set up a plan, visit a local office and be prepared to wait a long time. It is easier to bring a friend who speaks Chinese to help with the set-up as it is unlikely that the office employees speak English. China Unicom has an English phone service that is extremely helpful. In a bind, if you don’t have a Chinese friend to come with you to the office, you can call the English language line while at the office, tell them what you need, and hand the phone back to the office worker.
Phone and internet services are pre-paid, so no monthly bills. You can either go the phone company office or buy a recharge card at any newspaper stand and punch in the recharge code via your phone. It is also possible to pay online. As for many other services, there is a volume discount. The monthly cost is lower if you commit to a longer period of time, rather than going month by month.
Tip: To be able to fully use the internet and have access to social media like FaceBook and everything that has “blog” in the URL name, you need a VPN. This should be set up before you come.