Thinking about applying for a transfer to a position in China
September 30, 2013 12:27 AM   Subscribe

Question written by my boyfriend but asking for both of us. Boyfriend is a western game developer considering a job in Shanghai. The position would be a promotion within the same corporation, but to a different studio. We have some questions about salary and the cost of living in Shanghai, with a bonus question about a visa for me, the girlfriend!

From boyfriend:

I’m a western game developer considering a job in Shanghai. The position would be a promotion within the same corporation, but to a different studio (I’d be moving from a mid-level position to a senior-level position). I currently earn $75,000/year. In the U.S. I’d expect to be earning at least $80,000/year with such a promotion.

We currently live in California and spend about $2,000/month in rent and utilities for a 730 sq. foot apartment. I have no other financial obligations aside from groceries, gas, and car insurance (I spend about $750/month on those). I typically save about $500/month for my emergency fund. I save another $400/month for vacations/travel. I spend about $400/month on eating out, doing things, buying stuff. My girlfriend saves a little less and spends about the same. Obviously she will not be able to contribute much, if anything, to our income in China, as she would not have a work visa.

My question is, how much would I need to make in RMB at a minimum to continue such a lifestyle? How much should I expect to make? When western employees are transferred to positions in China, do they typically earn their ‘western’ income or something more in line with a local income? I assume I would be paid in RMB and not USD?

Other details: we do not plan to live in one of the foreign ‘enclaves’ like Hongqiao – we would want a nice place but do not want to be living the luxurious, gated expat lifestyle. My girlfriend and I are interested in being immersed in another culture. I speak no Mandarin and my girlfriend studied Mandarin for about 4 years. My girlfriend spent 3 months in Shanghai back in 2007 (hence her Mefi name!), so is fairly familiar with the city, whereas I’ve spent about 2 weeks there.

On a different note, and this is something I am sure the company could help with if I were hired, but would it be possible to bring my girlfriend along under my work visa? Or would she need to figure out another way of getting there? We have been together for five years and have lived together for 3. One thing we have thought of if I’m not allowed to bring a non-spouse partner is that she could enroll as a student of Chinese at a language school in Shanghai. But do you think such a work-around would be necessary?
posted by imalaowai to Work & Money (7 answers total)
No idea about the visa, but provided you'll see about the same kind of money, you'll be positively rolling in it.

The wonderful thing about China (and tier 1 cities like Shanghai in particular) is the range of cost. You can potentially spend as much money as you want, or as little as you want.

In other words, if you want to avoid the Gated Expat "Lifestyle", you'll be able to save. A lot. There is so so much to see and do that won't break the bank. $5 meals that knock the socks off stateside equivalents included. If you want to get your fancy on with cocktails and western fine dining, Shanghai has that, too.

Considering your girlfriend has studied mandarin, you don't have to worry about her feeling isolated while you work. She could easily land a job of her own (as an English teacher, to go with the absolute simplest option).

If you want to start saving for a house (or anything else, for that matter), this is a golden opportunity.

Add to that: Shanghai is awesome.

Go. Go. Go.
posted by flippant at 1:39 AM on September 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

You can buy 6/12-month F visas in Hong Kong, by the way. They'll run about $3-400. Not sure if they've clamped down on it yet, but "agencies" with connects to issuing agencies in Shenzhen on the mainland will be able to hook you up.
posted by flippant at 1:41 AM on September 30, 2013

From a little different angle, from an ex ex-pat (lived in Beijing for 2 years):

- Is this a new post with a defined time-frame? I.e., are they already discussing what kind of position this assignment will lead once you return?
- Does your employer have a track-record of repatriating such overseas assignments with more responsibility? (And have you spoken to these individuals?)
- Will the offer include items like # of trips back to the US (say 1x/year for the family) as a perk? (Believe me, after about 12 months you will appreciate a break from life abroad, even if for a week or two.)

As far as what is 'typical', there is a boost in income over what you were earning in the US, but it is looked at as part of an entire package, so it depends on a lot of variables (including company-provided housing, which as was mentioned could be very very expensive, like $5K USD / month in China). And for many providing your own housing isn't an option (in countries where security is a problem, but not in China per-se).

Would encourage you to really work hard on thinking through all of this, as well as to do it if you can make it work. It is an opportunity of a lifetime - later on in life it just is so much more difficult to make it work.
posted by scooterdog at 6:13 AM on September 30, 2013 [4 favorites]

To a large extent, it's your employer who could make this into a very good idea, or a very bad idea. How do they handle salaries and payment? How do they handle living arrangements? Might they assist with travel/vacation/family/partner benefits? How long will it last? Will this continue to be a promotion when you return stateside? Is this really a promotion or are they bribing you to go handle a shitty job situation? Who else in your company has done this and how do they feel about it? Will you be able to do the job speaking only English?

I had an acquaintance do something very much like this, and he returned after 1 year of the planned 2-year thing, loaded with stories about eating live baby squiddy things, glad he had gone but extremely happy to be home. I don't know him well enough to ask about the financial aspect.
posted by aimedwander at 6:57 AM on September 30, 2013

I lived in Shanghai for 2 years about two years ago. You can find a modern Western style apartment in the city center off of Nanjing Xi Lu for 12k rmb at the time. If you went further north nearer to the canal- also nice but much more local- an apartment that was older but also Western style could be had for 7k rmb per month. These are all for about 100sq meters, 2 bedroom and 2 bathroom. My housing cost was paid by my company. For people with kids the budget could balloon up to a crazy 36k rmb per month easily.

as an expat being transferred, your company normally pays you your USA equivalent salary plus a lifestyle premium. Depending on your negotiation skills and company, it can also include a budget for plane tickets back home or a ticket home once per year. Mine was $5k per year referencing east coast, where I was relocated from and could actually just spend it on tickets anywhere and for car rentals. No hotels though.

another item to consider is to have them pay for the filing of your US taxes each year. With PwC that was at least $4k per filing per year. If not its just a huge hassle to figure that out yourself. For health insurance I had the company worldwide expat standard which was basically you could go anywhere any doctor and it was 100% covered no fees no payments,, but this really depends on your company.

for items such as food and transportation your gf probably already filled you in. Food can be dirt cheap in local markets or like Western Europe if you go to high end shops. As long as your company pays you the equivalent or better salary your lifestyle would not be any worse than in San Francisco. Anything extra is just the simple nice perks of being an expat.
As for the visa situation I dont have any experience with that.
posted by peachtree at 9:00 AM on September 30, 2013

As flippant said, you can live as cheap or as expensive as you want in Shanghai. 5-6000RMB/month would get you a nice, modern, furnished apartment (virtually all apartments are furnished) near a subway station in the city center. You'll probably pay 5-700RMB/month for electricity, gas, water, and internet, plus another couple hundred for mobile phone service. For a new arrival, I'd budget around 3000RMB/month per person for food, at least until you figure out which "local" restaurants you like, whether you want to cook in your tiny kitchen, etc. Taking the subway to work would be less than 200RMB/month, or taxis every day could be around 1000, depending on how far your office is. Drinks are expensive in Shanghai, with a cheap beer going for 30RMB, and cocktails in fancier places at 80-100RMB. So adding all that up, plus your monthly $900 savings, you'd need to make about US$40k/year, or 20kRMB/month -- which is a pretty reasonable salary for a foreign software developer in Shanghai.

Visa rules change all the time, and it looks like they just changed again this month. If you're working, you'll have a Z visa, and you could sponsor your spouse, but I'm not sure about unmarried couples. I would contact a Chinese visa agency to clarify the current rules. When my visa situation was a little unusual a few years ago, I used Visa in China. Their site says: I have China working Z Visa now, I want to sponsor my living partner (not married) get Family Visa (same length of my visa):

1. Living Partner Registration Certificate: You and your partner must register as a living partner in your country (either one is fine) and the registration certificate must be notarized in the Chinese Embassy/Consulate outside.

Your girlfriend could get a student visa, or if she's a native English speaker with a university degree, she could easily find an English teaching job that pays 15-20kRMB/month.
posted by bradf at 9:14 AM on September 30, 2013

One note on taxes: The Foreign Earned Income Exclusion is US$97600, so you likely won't owe any US taxes. If you currently file your own tax returns, you shouldn't have any problem filling out the one extra form living abroad requires.
posted by bradf at 9:28 AM on September 30, 2013

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