China is an awesome place, not just to teach English. The country is at the same time an ultra-modern but at the same time still very traditional and ancient country. It can be a very crowded place and a very serene one. Incredible landscape, modern and expanding cities, vast mountainous areas (think Himalayas, Tibet, etc), small villages and deserts. It is such a vast country, there is something for everyone – more ‘Western’ and huge cities like Shanghai and Beijing or more laid back and quite towns in the countryside or places where you will be the only foreigner.
Despite its fast development in the last few decades, China has a hugely diverse culture, different languages or dialects and varying teaching and living conditions. Wherever you decide to go, new sites, smells, cultures, open and friendly people, incredible food and of course the opportunity to learn one of the most learned languages are waiting for you to be explored. Get set and you will not be disappointed.
When you set your site on teaching English in China, most teachers will think about Beijing or Shanghai – that’s for sure where the biggest salaries are, but there are so much more places for you to choose from. But of course, sometimes it can feel a bit overwhelming to research and choose a place you have never heard of despite bigger than most Western capitals (e.g. Chengdu with 16 M). That’s why this little article gives you some suggestions with this top 9 list (it is completely subjective of course).
In this post we are trying to give indications in terms of ESL teacher salary, expat population and cost of living. Those are indications only as statistics about ESL or TEFL teaching in China are hard to come by and/or vary widely by source. In order to get a relatively fair comparison we have tried to get all our statistics for each category from one source (but sometimes we had to reach for another one).
For the ESL teacher salary we used www.payscale.com which again has to be taken with a pinch of salt as their data is relatively thin and doesn’t cover all cities in this post. The general salary given by payscale for ESL teachers for all of China is averaging at around RMB158k per year but of course much higher salaries are to be found but those are also used sometimes as a token by a recruiter or school. And in general, the salaries for ESL teachers are rising. For the cost of living we used www.numbeo.com with the same inclinations. The expat population numbers are from www.china-briefing.com but their info graphic is widely shared across the internet, so we are not sure if we reference the original. Other sources are www.wikipedia.com and our own foreign and Chinese team from www.teachdiscoverchina.com.
Ideal for: City dwellers who want a more global setting
Population: 26.32 M in 2019 (more or less – probably more)
Expat population: 209,000 (top spot for any Chinese city)
Spoken languages: Shanghainese and Mandarin Chinese
Average salary: RMB192k per year
Average costs of living for one person: RMB4,403.56 per month (no rent)
Shanghai is a hyper modern and fast paced metropolitan city with a Western charm (due to French influence) and you will meet people from all over the world. It is probably one of the most international cities in China, which makes it a safe choice for teachers to teach English as the culture shock might be lesser than in other Chinese cities. If you teach here, you will sure be able to make a lot of connections with other expats and foreign teachers and from here you can start to explore the more exotic places in China.
As a global business center, it is relatively easy to land a good job to teach English in Shanghai. Though as it is such an obvious choice for a lot of teachers, the competition for the best and good school openings is also quite high. As it turns out, you can find the largest amount of English teaching programs in Shanghai. Which again should not surprise when you think of the size of the population. If you are interested especially in teaching business English to adults, Shanghai might be the best place for you.
Although Shanghai is sometimes the poster boy for its modern skyline, it has a surprisingly urban setting. The French quarters are especially attractive for foreigners with a bit of homesickness to relax and sip a coffee, beer or a trendy cocktail. The city has an amazing night life, lots of cafes, restaurants, boutiques, shopping malls so much more. Home to a lot of authentic Japanese restaurant btw. It has also one of the largest subway systems worldwide, which makes it easy to get around in this vast and exiting city.
Ideal for: Culture, Peking duck and the Great Wall of China
Population: roughly 22 M
Expat population: 107,000
ESL teacher average salary: RMB132k per year
Average costs of living for one person: RMB4,067.52 per month
Beijing is the capital of China and has been a couple of times during its long history, though it was not the only one. After Shanghai, it is the most populous Chinese city but is completely different to Shanghai in its feel. As the capital of China, it is the seat of political power and the cultural center. There won’t be any day, where you will have nothing to do and see – which of course includes the Great Chinese Wall in all its might, the magnificent Summer Palace, the mysterious Forbidden City of the last Chinese dynasty and so on and on.
In all honesty, lots of the old structures have been replaced in modern times to make place for the hunger for living space but there are still pockets of the ancient city to be found. For example, the famous hutongs, the old living quarters, a bit touristy of course but again you still can see how people in Beijing used to live (including open shared toilets, though almost most of them have been updated the last time we checked). No matter what, Beijing is a city in China you should not miss – and of course you will have an even more in-depth experience once you decide to settle here to teach English in China and become one of the many expats.
As the center of China, the Mandarin here is also the standard for the Chinese language, which makes it just the right spot if you also want to learn Mandarin while teaching English. Nowadays a lot of schools offer Mandarin classes as part of the package for English teachers.
With 22 M people eager to learn English, there is no short coming of schools looking for English teachers. There is also a wide variety of schools available – everything from large schools, which accept teachers with little or no experience up to small private language academies, a myriad of public schools or places specialising in business English. For certain, there is a school which fits your expectation and qualification.
Famous for: International trade (fair)
Population: 15 M
Expat population: 118,000
Languages spoken: Cantonese and Mandarin
Average salary: RMB144k per year
Average costs of living for one person: RMB3,570.40 per month
So far, our ranking follows the population size of China’s cities – Guangzhou is the third largest city in China with a long history especially in international trade. Located on the Pearl River as an important location on the historic maritime Silk Road. Although it has lost its importance as the major international trading port in its modern history to neighbouring Hong Kong, Guangzhou continues to serve as an important port and trading hub. Nowadays it has become the location for many Chinese factories, due to its close distance to Hong Kong.
The city is separated by mountains from the Chinese mainland and has a unique culture which makes it an interesting place to teach English in China especially for teachers experienced with other Chinese cities. It is also a good teaching destination for everyone looking to save their salary while teaching as the cost of living in Guangzhou are lower than in other major Chinese cities.
As you can imagine, due to its size the city has also plenty of different English teaching opportunities available to choose from. And again, due to its proximity to Hong Kong its also a good city to explore China and the Asia (flights are usually quite cheap from either Guangzhou or Hong Kong).
Ideal for: everyone who likes warmer weather and new places
Population: 12.5 M
Expat population: 150,000
Spoken languages: Mandarin Chinese, Cantonese
Average salary: RMB174k per year
Average costs of living for single person: RMB3,665.42 per month
Shenzhen borders on Hong Kong and forms a connected megalopolis with HK, Huizhou and Dongguan (50+ M). Within only 30 years of its existence, Shenzhen has become one of the major cities in China. Before 1979 it grew from a village to this huge city with 13 M inhabitants as of today. It is an important economical center with subway and ferry connection to Hong Kong. If you prefer warmer weather and are not too fuzzed about old stuff, Shenzhen is your choice, with warm winters and hot summers you will never feel cold. It has also plenty of restaurant, shopping malls and bars to offer, so you won’t need to feel bored.
Shenzhen’s cost of living is also relatively cheaper than other big cities in China. As an extremely new mega city, Shenzhen has a very diverse population, with its people coming from all places in China. This melting pot makes it a perfect place to learn about the various cultures, dialects and ethnics.
You will find plenty of international schools, English academies, kindergartens to teach English in China. With the amount of different English schools, there is also no shortcoming of an international expat community.
Ideal for: Inner peace and green tea
Population: 10 M
Expat population: 20,000
Language spoken: Mandarin Chinese
Average salary: RMB108k per year
Average costs of living for single person: RMB3,545.42
Hangzhou is the capital of Zhejiang Province in East China and it also known under the moniker “Capital of Tea in China”. The Dragon Well (Longjing) tea, one of the top 10 teas in China, comes from this area. By speed train only one hour away from Shanghai, Hangzhou is the perfect mix of old and new. The city is home of the UNESCO World Heritage site “West Lake” or “Hangzhou Lake”, which is famous with locals and tourist alike. In this tranquil and natural setting you can find traditional tea houses and other recreational activities around the lake.
As Hangzhou is in close proximity to other big cities like Shanghai, Suzhou, and Nanjing, you can easily explore this part of China on weekend breaks. Though as most modern Chinese cities it is relatively dense, the smaller setting of Hangzhou gives it a slightly more liveable feel, when compared with larger cities like Shanghai and Beijing.
But of course, with a population of nearly 10 million, by most of the world’s standards, you wouldn’t call Hangzhou a small town. There are plenty of local schools, universities, and TEFL academies, you will have no problem finding a job in this city either.
Ideal for: Pandas and foodies
Population: 15 M
Expat population: 17,000
Languages spoken: Sichuan and Mandarin Chinese
Average salary: RMB120k per year
Average costs of living for single person: RMB3,611.26
Chengdu is located in central Sichuan province and is one of the oldest still inhabited cities in the world. It is also unique for such an ancient city (311 BC) as it hasn’t changed its name over its history (or if so, only very slightly). In the middle of central Chengdu, you will find a huge Panda hanging from one of the shopping malls (find it in the picture above).
The panda is probably the most iconic symbol for Chengdu as well as the whole of China. The Chengdu Panda Base is for sure one of the best places to watch these charming creatures and one of the reasons why there are still Pandas in the Chinese wild to be found. Every year, there is new Panda offspring, which visitors can melt over their cuteness. Make sure you pay a visit when in Chengdu.
Despite its 15 M population Chengdu has the feel of a small, sleepy town with a vibrant expat community, and an affordable quality of life. When you settle for Chengdu for teaching English in China, you will for sure get a lot more out of your hard-earned teaching buck, especially compared to cities like Beijing and Shanghai. It’s an exhilarating mix of natural and urban setting as well as old and new China which makes this ancient capital city the perfect introduction to the true China. It also tops usually the charts as one of the most liveable cities in China due to it laid back culture and incredible hospitable people.
Sichuan province is also bordering on Tibet hence the natural wonders are for you to explore and they are breath-taking for sure. There is a long list of destination for you to explore. And if you want to visit Tibet, Chengdu is the traditional gate for foreign tourists.
And not to forget about the food! You are in for a treat – Sichuan cuisine is probably the most mouth-watering food you could ever imagine. There is no other way around but to try it yourself as it’s almost impossible to describe all the facet’s and flavours of the rich variety of dishes to be found in Sichuan and Chengdu. Probably every street corner has its own incredible tasty speciality of noodle, hot pot or maozai. If you know what Sichuan pepper is but you only tried it abroad, you will be surprised of its tingling sensation, mixed with chilly it makes in incredible eating experience. For sure it is spicy.
For English teachers who want to live in and explore Chinese culture away from the huge and crowded coastal metropolis cities, look no further -Chengdu is your ideal spot. The pace of life might be slower and its feel more traditional Chinese, there is nonetheless a school available for you, according to your experience and expectation. Public Universities, colleges, secondary and primary schools, kindergartens, international schools and private language center all vying for English teachers.
Ideal for: History and culture enthusiasts
Population: 8.3 M
Expat population: 22,000
Languages spoken: Mandarin Chinese, Nanjing dialect
Average salary: RMB114k per year
Average costs of living for single person: RMB3,515.40
Nanjing is the capital of Jiangsu province and as China’s “Southern Capital, the city is packed with history and Chinese culture. It served as capital for various Chinese dynasties and republican governments over its long history. Due to its historical importance, it has always been a center for culture, education and business. It is hence known as a city of culture. For Chinese standards a relatively small city but a very pleasant and beautiful one. You will be captivated with Nanjing while wandering around Xuanwu lake or exploring the Presidential Palace.
If you are looking for a more serene place to teach English in China and are not too keen on the bustle and crowds of Beijing and Shanghai, the old southern capital Nanjing might be the right place for you.
Even if there are for sure fewer English teaching jobs than in Shanghai or Beijing, the demand for English teachers is still enough that you will find a school quickly.
Ideal for: Ancient settings and the famed Terracotta Army
Population: 12 M
Expat population: 7,500
Language spoken: Mandarin
Average salary: RMB100k per year
Average costs of living for single person: RMB3,515.40
Xi’an is the capital of Shanxi province located in north western part of China. It is one of the oldest cities in China and the oldest of the Four Ancient Capitals – Beijing, Nanjing, and Luoyang being the other ones. The culture and history of China are omnipresent within the boundaries of this dynamic city. It used to be the capital of some of the most important Chinese dynasties as well as the starting point of the Silk Road and home of the Terracotta Army, probably its most famous UNESCO World Heritage site.
Less well known but equally exiting, Xi’an is also home of parts of China’s space exploration program, making it an English teaching location for space and science enthusiasts. Plenty of art and culture can also be found in the city and you can explore most sites easily by foot but of course there is also a metro system.
As a center for space exploration Xi’an is a good location for you to teach English in China and you will find your teaching skills in hot demand for both professionals and students of all ages.
Ideal for: Teach and travel and blue sky
Population: 7 M
Expat population: 6,000
Languages spoken: Mandarin Chinese, Kunming dialect
Average salary: RMB102k per year
Average costs of living for single person: RMB3,245.34 per month
Kunming is the largest city and capital of Yunnan province and often referred as the city of eternal spring, due to its year-round mild climate and plenty of blooming flowers. China’s southern Yunnan province is home to various Chinese ethnic groups. As a trading hub it used to be an important location along the Silk Road, connection it with countries like Tibet, Myanmar, India and beyond. Located near bordering South-eastern Asian countries it’s still plays a pivotal role with trading and linking China with Vietnam, Laos and Burma. In Kunming you will find the famous Stone Forest, made up of enormous formation of million-year-old limestones, also known as the ‘first wonder of the world’.
Conclusion? What is the right city for you to teach English in China?
Well of course, it all depends on your expectations and what you are looking for. You want the big money, a real authentic Chinese experience, learn the language while teaching, just teach and travel? When deciding to teach English in China, you should start to decide what kind of setting would be ideal for you.
Are you looking for a big city, small town or more for a countryside setting? In the big cities like Shanghai, Beijing, and Shenzhen you will for sure find plenty of teaching opportunities, and you will also find higher paying English teaching jobs. But don’t forget, living costs in the big coastal cities are also much higher than in lower tier cities such as Chengdu for example. If you fancy high paced city life, more like minded expat community and plenty of English schools looking for teachers, than those big cities are the right place for you.
If you are looking for ‘smaller cities’ with a more Chinese touch, such as Chengdu (still 15M), Nanjing or Hangzhou with a more relaxed and somewhat slower pace of life as well as lower living costs. The expat community will be smaller and tight-knit and you will be able to make real Chinese friends and connections for live and work. Those cities might not pay as much as the big ones but at the end of the day, you might be able to save more as you get more for your money due to lower living costs and lower competition for English teaching jobs.
This might lead to a more relaxed and lenient work and overall living environment and closer bonds between you as an English teacher in China and your host school. The local population will also be extremely excited to have you, and will make real effort and take the time to introduce you to Chinese culture and the unique aspects of the area you’re in.
You could also go for more unknown but still, in Western standards huge cities, such Guangzhou near Hong Kong, Ningbo, or Xi’an. There for sure you will also have an amazing and unique experience, and it will be easier for you to cherry pick your English teaching job.
If city life is not what you are looking for, then you can always find a more exotic school in the Chinese countryside working for a local school. Your salary won’t be that high but you will have an extremely rewarding and immersive experience. Though it might be more difficult to find a teaching job outside the city. But it would not be a surprise if your school hadn’t had a foreign teacher before! Imagine the impact you would have on your students and locals while teaching English in China.
Keep an open mind when going to teach English in China and you will not be disappointed! And if you decide to teach in Chengdu or Sichuan province, make sure to give us call and we are happy to find you the right school. As a government supported TEFL program working with us will give you the extra bit of safety when coming to China: www.teachdiscoverchina.com or talk with us via Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/TeachDiscover/notifications/
Do you agree with our top 9? Let us know in the comments.