For a city of 20 million residents, skyscrapers in Beijing are few and far between. Instead, the city has retained narrow alleys of hutong neighborhoods and historic areas, and added a growing proliferation of flat apartments to diversify the skyline. Like a stone dropped in a zen pond, the city continuously spreads out, serving its people with increased metro lines and ring roads. Within these ripples, there’s a culture unlike any you’ve experienced before. Whether it’s eating skewered scorpions bought from street vendors or sinking deep into the underworld of nightclubs, students will find education reaching far beyond the classroom walls through study abroad in Beijing.
Study Abroad Programs in Beijing
As an international city, the list of subjects you can study in Beijing is virtually endless. Most international students that choose to study abroad in Beijing end up studying at local universities, either directly or specially enhanced by third-party study abroad program providers. In addition, U.S. based universities often arrange their own faculty-led study abroad programs in Beijing.
That being said, there are some areas of study that are more emphasized than others. Naturally, there are a great deal of courses offered in Chinese and Asian studies, both of which come with plenty of opportunities to practice what you learn or take your learning outside the classroom. Since Beijing is the heart of over 3,000 years of Chinese history, there is no shortage of history classes to dust off your dynasties.
For those inclined to think more about the present state of the world, there are study abroad programs in Beijing focused on business, economics, and international policy and diplomacy. Not only does study abroad in Beijing offer students the latest technological advancements and the freshest perspectives, it also provides plenty of opportunities for networking and research.
Most large universities in Beijing operate in a similar fashion to Western schools, especially if you choose a study abroad program arranged through your home university. Classes will likely be organized into terms or semesters, though their are some short-term opportunities to study in Beijing, including winter and spring break options. China has distinct seasons, so when it comes to picking a time of year to study abroad in Beijing, ask yourself which season you’d like to experience in China. Cold winters will make a hot cup of green tea your BFF, dusty springs persist thanks to the nearby Gobi Desert, golden summers make the red color of the traditional buildings pop, and delightful autumn brings moon cakes and falling leaves.
One last consideration before you decide how to study in Beijing: unless you enroll in a Chinese program directly, it is likely classes will be taught, at least partially, in English; so, if you’re not a pro at Mandarin (yet), no worries. If you would like to focus more on learning Chinese while studying in Beijing, do your research and sign up for classes instructed in Mandarin, or take some language classes on the side!
Life in Beijing
If you decide to study abroad in Beijing, you’ll likely want to see more than the inside of a classroom. In fact, with history, delicious smells, and bright colors buzzing at every corner, the most difficult part about study abroad in Beijing will be remembering to show up for class.
Beijing is more expensive than other Chinese cities in the provinces, but it still has a much lower cost of living than other common study abroad cities, which makes it a great city to both explore and use as a base for experiencing the whole country. You’ll most likely find yourself in the Haidian District, on the west side of Beijing, which is home to most (but not all) of the capital’s universities.
For being the third largest in the world, the Beijing metro system is an amazing value. Tickets cost just cents for a journey across the network comprised of 18 lines and 334 stops; you don’t need a car to get around Beijing to see the sights or experience the culture! As a city with a long history, international students will benefit from magnificent museums and galleries, historic palaces, and still-preserved old Beijing housing. Thanks to the authorities, entrances to many major museums in Beijing are free too!
Food on and around Beijing’s university campuses is typically inexpensive, and local students often eat one of the many varieties of delicious street food. In fact, in Beijing, you can find anything you can imagine eating available on a stick. There are also street markets, grocery stores, and famous markets where foreign students can join in the haggling. For special treats, there are high-end malls and top-quality restaurants in Beijing as well, but those can get a bit out of the student budget.
When it comes to exploring Beijing, it’s the ultimate city for history buffs; the famous Great Wall of China from the Ming Dynasty is the most frequented site in the country, and within easy reach by tour or car from the city. There are countless parks, temples, and historical sights, even despite the loss of artifacts and sites during Mao’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. On the modern side, there's the Olympic Park from 2008, a contemporary Central Business District, and the 798 Art District to check out.
Accommodation & Visas
When it comes to the logistics of living in Beijing, be prepared to wade through documents in Mandarin, jump through bureaucratic loopholes, and navigate a maze of red tape. Most students have a smooth transition, but special care should be taken to ensure you understand what is required in both securing accommodation in Beijing and a visa to study in China legally.
Accommodation will usually be arranged directly through your study abroad program in Beijing, and usually comes in a dormitory arrangement. You may end up sharing a room with a fellow international student or be paired up with a local Chinese student, who can help show you the ropes and give recommendations for what to see and do (#score!). Given these constraints, expect to be living in an urban environment, with local amenities close at hand. For those that have the choice of a homestay, this is a great option to save some yuans and taste home-cooked meals with a temporary family abroad that also doubles up as an extended language-learning opportunity.
The main hurdle to studying abroad in Beijing is ensuring you are compliant with the visa application process for China. Plan to apply for a visa at least three or four months ahead of time, and anticipate an in-person visa interview at the nearest Chinese embassy. These interviews are standard for most visa applicants and operate on the schedule of the Chinese government, rather than when your study abroad program or courses may start. The best defense to scrambling on to obtain a visa is to prepare in advance for a slow, but steady, application process. For more information, don’t forget to consult GoAbroad’s Chinese Embassy Directory.
Benefits & Challenges
Study abroad in Beijing is not the same as being a tourist in Beijing. Most people go to China to see the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square, and a few jade sculptures when they visit Beijing on a tourist visa. As a student, you’ll get to live the nitty, gritty details of daily life of a city with over 20 million residents: pollution, crowds, temple fairs, communist rules, and all. If you run out of things to do which push your boundaries, it’s because you’ve stopped looking!
There are other people in your bubble. Beijing is crowded, like more crowded that any place you’ve likely ever visited before. Prepare in advance to say goodbye to personal space when in public places, such as on the metro or waiting in lines. Western customs regarding privacy and having a “bubble” aren’t defined the same way in China, and in can be a bit unnerving for those adapting to life in Beijing.
World-class education. Beijing may not score the highest in all areas of quality of life (most residents use an app to check air quality before heading outdoors!), but education is an exception: the seven major universities in the city are among the world’s best. Students from around the world flock to study in Beijing and experience life in China, providing a diverse set of backgrounds upon which discourse and education flourish.
China is a stunningly beautiful country, and its capital encapsulates this in a distinct, unforgettable way. Whether you’re studying, practicing Tai Chi in the eerily quiet Temple of Heavenly Peace, or pressed tight among Chinese locals shopping in the outdoor markets, prepare for an eye-opening, mind-widening experience as a study abroad student in Beijing.