Chinese landscape

An introduction to the Chinese healthcare system

PUBLISHED: 27 August 2018 | LAST UPDATED: 6 March 2023

Healthcare in China has seen dramatic improvement in recent years, and in most of China’s major cities you can rest assured that you’ll have easy access to plenty of high-quality health services (although standards do vary from hospital to hospital). As with all countries, China’s healthcare system has a number of unique quirks, but dive in to our guide below and you’ll soon know everything you need to.

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Registering with the health system

Expats who are legally working in China usually enjoy the same rights as regular Chinese citizens when it comes to healthcare. However, as an expat you’ll inevitably have different needs to Chinese patients – care in your language, for starters.

There are plenty of private and international clinics and hospitals to choose from, where you’re also much more likely to find medical staff who speak fluent English1. This – and excellent quality of care – mean many expats prefer to use international hospitals. You should make sure your health insurance coverage is enough to cover the more expensive treatment offered there2.

You don’t need to formally register with the Chinese health system to be treated, but having health insurance in China is a must if you want fast, good-quality care at an affordable price. 

Choosing a family doctor

You don’t need to choose a specific doctor to be your general practitioner to get medical care in China, and most doctors work from hospitals instead of separate clinics.

If you need to see a doctor, the first step is to buy a registration ticket. This can be done in advance online or with a mobile app through services like Haodf. Alternatively you can go to the clinic or hospital and queue up (which can take a while). You can pick a doctor yourself based on things like their specialism or price, or alternatively ask for recommendations at the hospital itself if you’re unsure.

When you check in at reception, staff will give you a patient ID card for use during your visit. You’ll need this to see the doctor you have an appointment with.

During your appointment, your doctor will discuss whatever problems you’ve been having and give you a prescription or arrange for any further medical treatment if needed.

Some doctors also offer telephone or online consultations in non-urgent cases.

Seeing a specialist

When it comes to finding a specialist, patients in China usually go online and choose the specialist they want to see from the hospital’s website.

The websites of international hospitals are usually much easier to navigate (especially if you don’t speak Chinese), and a quick phone call is all you need to find out whether they have the type of specialist you’re after. You can also use our provider finder tool to search for medical providers by speciality, 

International hospitals always have English-speaking staff, and sometimes also offer services in other languages as well (most commonly Japanese, Korean, Russian, and French).


If you’re unlucky enough to have a medical emergency while you’re in China, dial 120 to call an ambulance.

After you arrive at the hospital, you’ll be given a registration ticket and a patient ID card.

Once you’re on the mend, you’ll need to pay for your treatment and medication when you check out (this may also include any drugs or equipment used in the ambulance on the way to hospital, as well as the distance it had to travel). Present your insurance details at this point.

Paying for healthcare

Having health insurance is handy in any country to help bring down your medical expenses, and China is no different.

Most working expats will have some degree of medical insurance from their employer, but this isn’t always the case so it’s important to check.

The cost of the registration tickets you need to buy to see a doctor varies from practitioner to practitioner. The usual price range is between 10 and 100 RMB, but some very experienced doctors may charge more.

Always make sure to buy registration tickets from reputable sources – scalpers sometimes try and resell them at massively inflated prices!3

Getting prescriptions 

Many medicines that you’d expect to require a prescription in other countries are sold over the counter in China, though some types do still require one.

After you’ve paid for your treatment or consultation, you can collect and pay for your medication at a pharmacy (hospitals usually have pharmacies on-site). Make sure to hand in your prescription as well as your patient ID card.

Prescriptions are only valid for 24 hours, and some medications can only be collected from hospital pharmacies.

You’ll also need to see a doctor again if you want to get a repeat prescription, but sometimes you can get repeat prescriptions via an online consultation (and the medication can then be delivered to your home address once you’ve paid for it online).

Pharmacies and over-the-counter drugs

Like most countries, China has a number of big drugstore chains where you can collect prescriptions and buy over the counter medication. 

Many pharmacies also offer home delivery through mobile apps, but as all of these apps are in Chinese, you should get a Chinese-speaking friend to help you place your order if you’re not fluent. In China’s biggest cities, you can often get your drugs delivered within the hour.


Dentists are found throughout all large Chinese cities. Prices vary along with the standard of treatment, and few regular dental practices have English-speaking staff. 

Mid- to higher-end dentists in China usually offer a level of service comparable to international standards, and some international hospitals also have dentists (but they tend to be much more expensive than local options). 

Don’t be surprised if…

  • you need a translator to communicate with your doctor
  • you are unable to pick up a prescription for someone else
  • scalpers try and sell you registration tickets at massively inflated prices (always make sure to buy registration tickets from reputable sources)
  • traditional Chinese medicine is recommended for some minor medical issues, sometimes in combination with conventional medical treatment 
  • there are limits on the healthcare you can access if you live in a rural area

 The information in this article is correct at the time of publishing.