Housing in China Guide: Apartments, Hutongs & Dorms

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Finding suitable short-term accomodation in China can be challenging, even for the most experienced of China-hands. The language barrier is only a small problem. The bigger challenge is finding accommodation which ticks all the boxes, including affordability, location and a sit-down toilet!

Rest assured, Asia Options has done our best to make things easier by bringing you up-to-speed on the housing situation in China with the following guide. This guide also includes an up-close look at apartments in Beijing and Shanghai.


Living on Campus

Short-term accommodation can sometimes be difficult to secure in China, so most students on their first stint in China opt for dormitory accommodation on campus. While dorm life is usually lots of fun, there may be limited cooking options and no guarantee that you will get your own private room. Most universities house foreign students in the university hotel which has floors for visiting guests to the university, and numerous floors designated for international students. Most international students however are able to secure a single room (especially if they present themselves at the relevant office on the first day of university registration) but it can be a competitive process, and international student dorms never have more than two students per room. A private bathroom is common but a communal bathroom for the entire floor is also a possibility!

Potential downsides of living on campus include a lack of cooking equipment; curfews (doors may close at 10-11pm but more so at universities without a long history of hosting international students); and the typical noise and distraction that comes with living closely to other rowdy international students. But generally speaking, living in a foreign dorm is very social, convenient and certainly far superior to the dorms offered to local Chinese students!


Living off Campus

To find accommodation outside of the university campus, city based expat websites such as The Beijinger are your go-to-resource. That said, be careful who you approach. Expat websites can be a minefield of unscrupulous agents posting fake photos and taking you on a wild goose chase on the back of their E-bike to look at alternative accommodation options. On top of that, agents posting on these types of websites will typically insist on a months’ rent as an introduction fee. In China, housing agents rarely receive money from the landlord and instead have two main channels to receive income. Agents usually accumulate income from renovating the apartment and lifting the rental price (the landlord in return receives a renovated apartment), or by charging an introduction fee of one month’s rent. the introduction fee can usually be negotiated down to 50-60% worth of a month’s rent.

Asia Options instead advises our readers to look for other foreigners on expat websites or in WeChat groups looking to fill a vacant room in a share house, or to go to a major brick-and-mortar real estate agent. Most cities have real estate agent branches that can simplify the apartment-finding process; although an acceptable level of Chinese is generally required to negotiate this (for example, the agent 我爱我家 and 连家 have branches in many cities). There is usually a management fee on top of monthly rent but is allocated towards to a weekly cleaner, wifi or other expenses. The Australia China Youth Association WeChat groups in major cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Nanjing are also useful for sourcing accommodation in those particular cities.

Keep in mind that living a short distance from the train station will raise the price of rent and investing in a push bike or electric bike might be an effective way to minimise your rent expense. Rental properties in China are usually supplied with existing furniture, otherwise IKEA is a popular option for quality and reasonably priced furniture.

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Apartments in Beijing

Rent in Beijing is typically going up 10% a year and word has it that the imperial capital has overtaken Shanghai as the most expensive city to rent. Rent in 2016 for one room in a typical shared apartment usually varies from 2,500 RMB to 4,500 RMB. Most young people pay over 3,000 RMB and renting in a renovated hutong with a rooftop terrace can be as much as 10,000-16,000 RMB for a one (loft) bedroom place. Younger foreigners tend to gravitate to three areas in Beijing.


Students typically live out in Wudaokou; near BLCU, Tsinghua University or Peking University. Despite living far from the central part of Beijing, Wudaokou is notoriously expensive but relatively easy to find suitable accommodation due to the regular rotation of foreign students. Keep in mind that rent does tend to go up before the major student intake in August. Students living in Wudaokou can usually find accommodation without using a middle man through contacting foreigners on expat websites or through general word of mouth.


The gritty turned hipster hutong lane ways are home to a growing deposit of foreign occupants in the Gulou/Andingmen/Yonghegong/Dongzhimen area. Young professionals and students with an affinity to hutong bars and who want to enjoy a more authentic China experience will love living in this area. Renovated hutongs are all the rage but prices are getting out of reach for younger people – especially the famed siheyan hutongs (courtyard hutongs). Apartment complexes such as Guanshuyuan in Andingmen are also a popular choice. Guanshuyuan itself is well catered by a hole-in-the-wall foreign grocery, coffee shops and a wide choice of hang-out areas. The greater area is relatively well priced considering the proximity to the city, access to subway lines and Houhai lake. However, finding a gym or a large supermarket will take a bike ride to Dongzhimen as you won’t find much among the old hutongs.


Shuangjing is the other major destination for foreigners, often attracting young professionals working in the business district of Guomao or Sanlitun. Shuangjing offers relatively affordable housing options in well-kept apartment blocks and offers value for money. International supermarkets, major shopping centres and gyms are plentiful. Shuangjing offers a more modern China experience away from the hutongs. Traffic around Guomao and to the north though can be horrific and so Shuanjingers typically work and hang-out in the area.

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Apartments in Shanghai

Shanghai is big and unlike Beijing with Wudaokou, has no clear university district for go-to housing. What Shanghai does offer however is a far more convenient metro system – greatly improving your mobility across the city. Still, you should try to find accommodation as close as possible to your place of study or work to reduce your commute.

Central Shanghai

Many foreigners in Shanghai work along Nanjing Road in the central Jing’an and Huangpu districts. The large number of expats looking to shave minutes off their daily commute will haggle up the price of even the most average accommodation in this area. Housing options are generally few and expensive in the strip between Yan’an Elevated Road and Beijing Road which cut through the two districts. More reasonable options will be found in apartment complexes north of the Wusong River.

French Concession

The French Concession is extremely popular for foreigners and occupies a large part of Jing’an and even spills over into Xuhui. A rule of thumb is if there are London Plane trees lining the street then you’re in the French Concession. Public transport access can be patchy, as can the quality of accommodation; you may find yourself paying pretty penny for the privilege of living in the French Concession. However, traffic is tamer here than in outer suburbs and biking (push bike or e-bike) can alleviate your transport troubles. Try to score a pad just north of Zhaojiabang Road, at the intersection of lines 7 and 9 – it’s close enough to the fun of the French Concession while remaining affordable.

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The safest bet for students is to find accommodation on campus or immediately off-campus. Research your university and try to find something close. Jing’an, the French Concession and Huangpu in general will be outside a student budget and too far to justify the round trip to university. Students of SISU, Tongji, Fudan and the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics will be best served by starting the apartment hunt in Hongkou – a thronging commercial district along metro lines 3 and 10. Other universities are dotted throughout Putuo (ECNU) and Xuhui (Jiaotong), not too far from the action. Shanghai University and ECNU also have campuses in Baoshan and Minhang respectively where you’ll be looking at an hour by metro to even get a whiff of the Huangpu. If you aren’t tied down to a university then Xujiahui (the digital centre of Shanghai), with modern clean apartments, and easy access to five metro lines 1, 3, 4, 9 and 11, is definitely the place to be.


Other things to keep in mind

1) Register with the local police

Whilst you’re living in China it’s important to remember to register within 24 hours of occupancy by registering with the local police station. Your landlord or housemates should be able to direct you to the relevant police station where you will need to provide your passport (including photocopies of your front page and visa) and rental documentation from the landlord, referred to as 租赁合同. There should be no fee for this process, so be wary of landlords asking for a fee to do this on your behalf. In some cases you may need to take your landlord with you if documentation is not sufficient. Your name also does not necessarily need to be printed on the rental agreement, and you can piggyback on another signee legally. Keep in mind that regulations do change.

2) Scams

Foreign occupants in China should watch out for Chinese or even foreign housemates free-loading on your jacked-up rent (this has happened to an Asia Options team member in Nanjing!). In this case, one occupant and usually the rental contact signee accept rent from other housemates to compensate the cost of their own rent. While this is not necessarily illegal, this situation is obviously not ideal and you can avoid falling into this trap by asking for a copy of the original rental agreement from the landlord.

3) Paying in Advance

Rent in Beijing is typically paid three months in advance with a one month bond, known as 押租 (‘one bond, three rent’). In total, four months of rent is required. Different cities have different upfront costs, often expressed in the 押租 ratio. This equates to a major up-front cost so it’s important that you have access to funds when you arrive to China or when you are prepared to move into your accommodation. It’s also possible to secure a 5% reduction in total rent if you pay one year in advance to your landlord, but naturally this option comes with a certain amount of risk and it is important to have a written contract in place with a reputable landlord/agency.

4) Housing Fapiao

Foreign expats in China can minimise their tax obligations by providing a fapiao 发票 (stamped receipt of payment) to their employer validating their rent expenses. Although this fapiao usually costs an additional 5% of your total rent, the savings on tax usually compensate this additional expense. A fapiao can be acquired from your landlord. Discuss with your company for more details.


Looking to study part-time or full-time in China? Check out our language program reviews section.


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