Home to the biggest population on the globe, China can be a daunting place to live in at first, especially when it comes to understanding the health system. So, whether you’re moving to China as a working professional or to retire, it’s important to understand how healthcare standards, provisions and costs can vary greatly depending on your location. As many healthcare services centre around hospitals, the main cities often have much better access to medical services (public or private) than the more rural parts of the country.
In China, you have four main healthcare options:
Coverage for expats is dependent on the region. Due to language barriers, longer waiting times and gaps in the public system (in many parts of China, emergency transport is not covered by the public health plan), many expats choose private health insurance when relocating to China.
The following sections discuss the Chinese healthcare system, many of the decisions expats will face and the benefits of international private healthcare cover in more detail.
The quality of healthcare in China (in urban areas) is generally comparable with Western standards. In the countryside, this may not be the case. China’s three-tier system starts with community walk-in clinics which are then escalated to larger hospitals, and then on to specialist hospitals. However, many locals go straight to larger hospitals for minor illnesses, causing long waiting times. This is due to the poor quality of the community centres and their relatively recent national implementation; natives are used to hospitals being the primary source of healthcare, so it is considered normal to seek medical attention from them first.
Chinese citizens, permanent residents and (dependant on region) expats can access public healthcare through China’s government insurance plans. Most expats use private insurance as the public health institutions are slower and many treatments (including emergency transportation) are not covered by government plans.
If you are relocating to China for work, your employer is likely to provide you with the necessary health insurance. The premiums of Chinese state insurance are often high and coverage is limited. If you are self-employed, you can also benefit from the national plans, but all contributions must be made privately.
If you are working for an international company based in China, you are usually offered the enterprise’s own insurance plan. With many companies offering comprehensive coverage, you could try negotiating a private healthcare package, even if your employer is based in China.
Otherwise, you will need to purchase private coverage until you are given residency status.
The state medical insurance plans cover primary, specialty, hospital, and mental health care, as well as prescription drugs and traditional Chinese medicine. However, there are gaps in China’s public insurance plans and the majority of imported western prescription medicines are not covered by them. For example, although you have public health insurance, your non-working family members may not be covered. So, if you are thinking of relocating, you should thoroughly research what your public health insurance covers and whether you need extra private coverage.
Not all hospitals recognise all private insurers (including some Chinese insurers), so you will have to pay a deposit or fees for medical services upfront (often in cash). Your insurance will reimburse you later.
Medical emergencies are usually well managed in urban areas. In rural areas, waiting times can be longer as the emergency services are more limited. The emergency personnel are trained to a high standard but often do not speak English, so it would be useful for you to learn some basic phrases in the local dialect, as well as specific words for chronic illnesses or allergies. In a medical emergency, dial 120 or 999. As a precaution, expats often keep the details of their embassy in case of emergency. Information on emergency visits is not routinely sent to your GP (General Practitioner), so do not forget to ask for a medical summary when you are discharged.
Unfortunately, due to a shortage of state-regulated ambulances across China, private or ‘black’ ambulances have been used to meet demand. Many of these vehicles are unauthorised and staffed by unqualified professionals, so all expats are advised to avoid them.
Taking an appointment with your family physician or doctor is not common in China, as locals tend to go straight to the hospital for any medical problem. In order to get an appointment with a physician at a hospital, you would need to use an online service Locally, there are apps where you can see available doctors at hospitals in your area and book a consultation. Your doctor will then assess you and either run tests, prescribe you medicine or ask you to stay in if needed (for a surgery or observation). Be aware that not all applications have English interfaces, and some pages will only be available in Chinese.
It is also important to note that there are two types of hospitals in China, TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) and Western medicine. The former is often clearly marked by ‘TCM’ in the name of the hospital. Many physicians practice both types of medicine and may try to prescribe herbal medicine for non-life-threatening illnesses.
In China, there is no shortage of pharmacies and you can usually find at least one 24-hour pharmacy in most cities. However, be aware that they stock both traditional Chinese medicine and Western medicine. Your local pharmacist may not speak English and will offer you traditional Chinese medical alternatives instead of Western medication. Labels and instructions are often in Mandarin, so find a colleague or friend who can help you translate. Some Western medicines are restricted by the Chinese government, so if you need specific medication, you should check with your doctor and the Embassy for China to check if you can bring your own supply.
As part of the government’s measures to control the spread of Covid-19, it is not possible to buy antipyretics (such as ibuprofen and other medicines used to reduce a fever) from a pharmacy without a prescription.
You generally have the choice between a public, private or an international hospital. Check out our complete guide to pregnancy and giving birth in China to find out more. It is important to note that the use of long-term oral contraceptive pills is not widely accepted in Chinese culture. As a result, there is a very limited choice of medications for expats.
Bridging the gap between public and private healthcare, VIP wards (sometimes referred to as international wards) are found in some public hospitals. They are more expensive than public wards, but cheaper than private hospitals, and tend to have a higher standard of care with English-speaking medical staff. Many of these wards don’t accept international insurance, so you will have to pay in cash and then claim the money back from your insurance provider.
International hospitals are a type of private hospital that meets certain international standards. In both cases, these hospitals offer a better standard of care and contain English-speaking staff, so they are preferred by expats.
Although public insurance covers many of your medical needs, there are significant limits to each policy and your medical care will be subject to deductibles and reimbursement ceilings. There is also no cap on out-of-pocket spending annually. Due to these gaps in coverage, delays and lack of English-speaking staff, private medical insurance is often favoured by expats.
Becoming part of a different culture can be daunting. But don’t worry, our annual cover plans are designed to bring you peace of mind so you can integrate seamlessly. With 24/7 support, you’ll be free to discover an entirely new part of the world.
Whether you’re on a professional placement for 6 months in Beijing or have 9 months to find the perfect family home in Shanghai, we can cover for any period between 3 and 11 months. Our short-term international health plan will cover general health and emergency care.
Famed for its rich history, ancient culture and incredible landscape, China is one of the most enriching places in the world to live. So, when moving don’t let concerns about healthcare distract you for a moment. Choose comprehensive health insurance that’s tailored to you.
One of the toughest parts of living somewhere new is learning the language. So, until you’re ready, you can talk with one of our experienced English speaking virtual doctors instead. Available by phone or video consultation, day and night¹.
If you can’t get the treatment you need in the more rural parts of China, our team can arrange evacuation and repatriation services to a place where you can.
Simple and reliable compensation. With all the right information, around 80% of eligible claims are paid within 48 hours².
For a new life in China, choose the right level of cover for you, from a range of comprehensive cover plans with dental and medical scans (CT, PET, MRI) as standard.
Leaving home for potentially a different way of life can be overwhelming. From the Xi’an hills to the busy streets of Guangzhou, our qualified professionals are always available on our dedicated Mind Health service.³
Navigating the Chinese medical system isn’t always straightforward. So, when you need some reassurance, you can get an independent second medical opinion from the experts at Teladoc Health4.
Relocating to the heart of Shanghai or starting a family in the thriving expat community of Chaoyang, we’ve got something to suit you during the big changes in life. Here are some examples of who we cover:
For expat professionals in China’s business districts, we make it simple and easy. With many of our expat health insurance plans including eye tests, prescriptions and a range of outpatient services as standard.
Starting a family (or adding to it) as an expat in China might seem overwhelming at first, but our annual plans are designed for families and budgets of any size. For every stage of life, we offer coverage that includes maternity and pregnancy benefits, routine and non-routine dental check-ups, vaccinations, asthma treatments and prescription glasses.
We have cover that includes annual health check-ups, palliative care and disability compensation, giving you and your loved ones some much-needed financial security. Welcome to your retirement in China.
*Lines are open Monday to Friday, 8am-5pm (GMT).
Calls may recorded and/or monitored for quality assurance, training and as a record of the conversation.
The Virtual Doctor, Mind Health and Second Medical Opinion services are provided by Teladoc Health.
Local insights have been provided by Oban International’s LIME (Local In-Market Expert) network’ - https://obaninternational.com/lime-network/
1 The Virtual Doctor service is provided by Teladoc Health. Appointments are subject to availability. You do not need to pay or claim for a consultation, but you will be charged for the cost of the initial phone call when using the call back service. You won’t be charged if you request a call back using the app or online portal. Telephone appointments are available 24/7/365 and call-backs are typically within 24 hours. Telephone appointments in Greek are available between 9amand 9pm EET, seven days a week. Video appointments in English, Spanish and Mandarin are available between 8am and midnight UK time, Monday to Friday. Video appointments in German are available between 8am and 8pm CET, Monday to Friday.
2 80.5% of eligible claims submitted online between January 2022 and December 2022 were paid within 2 days.
3 Service provided by Teladoc Health. This service provides you with access to six sessions with a psychologist, per mind health concern, per policy year. Mind Health psychologist appointments are available in English and Spanish between Monday and Friday, 09.00 - 17.30 (UK time).
4 Service provided by Teladoc Health