Studying abroad is an exciting and eye-opening part of any university experience, but when you have the whole world at your fingertips, it can be hard to pick a destination. While it’s not an easy decision—especially if you’re studying something other than a language course—you wouldn’t be alone if you’d considered going to China as part of your degree. With one of the largest international student populations, there are several reasons why so many people are choosing to study in the planet’s most populous country.
First of all, there are plenty of Chinese institutions offering world-class education and opportunity. In fact, Tsinghua University, Peking University, and the University of Science and Technology of China have all been placed in the top 100 of Times Higher Education’s World University Rankings 2019. It can also be far cheaper than studying at home—it typically costs between £1,320 and £2,400 in tuition fees per year for Bachelor’s degrees—and it costs even less if you’re able to get a scholarship. What’s more, spending an extended period in China guarantees unforgettable memories and a chance to experience things that aren’t typically a part of western life.
There are plenty of perks, so whether you’re still considering making the move, or have already accepted a place at a Chinese university, here are five things you need to know before beginning your studies.
You need a student visa
Before you fly to China, you’ll need a visa that grants you access to the country and allows you to stay there for the length of your course. This should be sorted between one and three months before you’re due to leave. There are two different types—an X1, which is valid for over 180 days, or an X2, for short-term students—which are valid for 90 days after being issued.
To apply, you’ll need to complete the visa application form and submit it along with your passport, a passport-style photo, and two Admission Notices—the original and a photocopy—from the Chinese institution where you’ll be studying. If you’re applying for an X1 visa, the State Education Ministry of China will also issue you with a JW201 or a JW202 form. The first is for those being funded by a government scholarship, while the second is for self-sponsored students. You will also need to submit both the original and a copy of these forms as part of your application. All of your documents must be presented to the Chinese embassy or consulate, or your closest China Visa Application Center. As of November 2018, you’re also required to provide fingerprints and have your photo taken. This is compulsory for all visa applicants between the ages of 14 and 70.
It’s important to bear in mind that you may also be required to have certain documents attested by a solicitor, the British Foreign Office, and the Chinese embassy. This could include things like degree certificates, correspondence with your Chinese university, and any insurance plans. You can either arrange this yourself or find a professional attestation agent to do this on your behalf.
The language barrier could be challenging
Mandarin is the most common language in China, spoken by over 70% of the population. However, there are several other Chinese variants spoken throughout the country, such as Cantonese and Taishanese, so the native tongue will very much depend on where your university is located. Whatever the local variant, you’ll almost certainly struggle to get to grips with it if you have no previous experience with the language. According to the Foreign Service Institute standards, Mandarin and Cantonese are two of the most difficult languages to learn.
There are many English-taught programmes in China, so you don’t necessarily need to be fluent in a Chinese variant in order to study there. But even if your teachers and peers speak English, not everyone else you encounter will. When you consider that fewer than one in 100 Chinese people speak English, you could find everyday activities like shopping and dining immensely challenging. It’s definitely a good idea to come equipped with a few essential phrases to help you get by, or download an app like Pleco for an on-hand English-Chinese dictionary. And, of course, try to learn the language as well, whether that’s by hiring a tutor or teaching yourself.
Homestays are a popular accommodation choice
When you move to China, you might expect to live in university dormitories or rent an apartment with some of your classmates. But if you want an authentic Chinese experience, bypass standard accommodation in favour of a homestay. There are lots of websites listing available properties, where you can also upload your own advert so people can contact you directly if they have a spare room to fill.
Moving into an ordinary household means you’ll get a first-hand glimpse of Chinese family life, be able to enjoy home cooked meals, and build on your Chinese language skills by listening and chatting with your new hosts. And on moving in day, make sure to take a gift. Gift-giving is an important part of Chinese culture as it evokes respect towards elders and superiors, as well as a commitment to maintaining close relationships.
The quality of healthcare hugely varies
Medical insurance is a legal requirement if you’re studying in China, and you can purchase this either before or after arriving in the country. However, the healthcare you’ll have access to entirely depends on where you’ll be living. There’ll be far fewer hospitals in rural parts of the country compared to urban areas, which may not offer all the services and facilities you’re accustomed to in the west.
Waiting times for public hospitals can be extremely long, with particularly slow service, while the language barrier between you and the medics could also be problematic. Approximately 71% of students have claimed that an inability to communicate prevented them accessing healthcare in China, and most believed that interpretation services should be available in the country’s hospitals. For these reasons, international students will often turn to private healthcare instead, though some public hospitals in major cities may have international wings or “VIP wards”. These are aimed at foreign patients and employ English-speaking staff, but in order to use their services, you must have an insurance plan from a Chinese provider.
If you take regular medication, it’s recommended that you bring a big enough supply to cover your entire stay in China, just in case your prescription is unavailable or restricted in the country. In case of an emergency, the number you need to dial is 120.
Prepare for Chinese tech
Almost all of the most popular western apps and websites are blocked in China, including Facebook, Gmail, and WhatsApp. Also known as the Great Firewall of China, this online censorship allows the government to have a high level of control over the information that travels in and out of the country, while also promoting Chinese businesses. However, you will still be able to access all of your usual platforms by getting yourself a virtual private network (VPN). This gives you digital anonymity, so you can make it look like you’re in another country and can, therefore, access the restricted content. You will need to install a VPN before your flight, however, as many of the necessary websites and apps will be inaccessible from China.
That said, you might still want to embrace China’s own social media sites and apps. If nothing else, it would be a good idea to download WeChat, the Chinese equivalent of WhatsApp, which is accessed by over 83% of the nation’s smartphone users, and is the main way Chinese people communicate with each other. As well as using it for instant messaging, WeChat also allows you to pay for goods and services through a Chinese bank account, and play games.
Weibo, a combination of Facebook and Twitter, is the country’s favourite social network and boasts over 500 million users. You can upload videos and images, read and share posts, and follow other users, making this particularly useful for connecting and socialising with new friends.