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6 Destinations for Learning Chinese Abroad on a Budget

Budget destinations to study Chinese

Chinese is the “it” language of the twenty-first century. With China poised to surpass the United States as the world’s number one economy in just a few short decades, and more and more international businesses requiring Mandarin proficiency of its executives alongside English, more and more American students are rushing to learn Chinese abroad.

But just because the Chinese economy is booming doesn’t mean your own personal economy is. Plane tickets, tuition costs, and daily meals aren’t free -- and we get it. Here at Go Overseas, we want to help all language learners find their perfect destination to learn Chinese abroad -- not just those with nine-figure trust funds and big savings accounts.

We want to help all language learners find their perfect destination to learn Chinese abroad -- not just those with nine-figure trust funds and big savings accounts.

That’s why we’ve put together a list at the best budget destinations to learn Chinese abroad, including what makes these places great, what to expect from a study abroad there, and some first-hand testimonials from students who have already lived them. So let’s get into it!

Guilin: budget destination for learning Chinese abroad
How much will a Chinese language course cost in Guilin?

A 2-week program with The Chinese Language Institute will cost $1,070 and includes housing. Budget about $20 per day for additional expenses.

A 3-month program with CLI will cost $6,510 and includes housing. It's a little more expensive ($7,310) if you choose to stay with a host family.

Guilin is where I spent my own budget study abroad in China. Nestled in the ancient Karst mountains of Guangxi province in the south of China, it's a veritable eden for language learning. Guilin has approximately the same population as the city of Washington, DC -- which makes it a small city by Chinese standards, and it's relatively unknown compared to the giants of Shanghai and Beijing.

Guilin’s natural beauty make an easy job of convincing someone to visit. President Richard Nixon said of the city, "I have visited more than eighty countries and over a hundred cities. I have found that no city can surpass the beauty of Guilin.” With some of the most striking geography anywhere in the world, coupled with the timeless, still elegance of the Li River, Guilin is dreamlike.

There is more to making Guilin a top budget study abroad destination, however. First of all, there are numerous excellent universities and language schools there. Guangxi Normal University is one of the best universities in China for international students, and its sprawling student-friendly campus is one of the city’s main landmarks.

Because Guilin is relatively off the beaten path, it's both an excellent budget destination, and a great place to immerse yourself in Mandarin.

Located just a few blocks from Guangxi Normal University is the Chinese Language Institute, a highly-acclaimed Mandarin school run by two American brothers, that has taught everyone from college students to UN ambassadors. It's a great option for language learners of any age.

Because Guilin is relatively off the beaten path, it's both an excellent budget destination, and a great place to immerse yourself in Mandarin. A big hearty bowl of mifan soup, designed to fill up field workers and other manual laborers, is just thirty American cents. Prices all over the city are much, much lower than in the United States, and are easy on just about any American’s wallet.

Additionally, because foreign English speakers are not altogether common, most local shopkeepers are tickled to death to help you practice your Chinese with them, and are both encouraging and patient.

Shanghai: budget destination for learning Chinese abroad
How much will a Chinese language course cost in Shanghai?

A 2-week intensive program with That's Mandarin starts at $500 and at The Hutong School, it's $812 (without housing). Expect to budget about $30 per day for housing and personal expenses.

An 8-week program with That's Mandarin starts at $2,000 and with The Hutong School, $2,294 for a 3-month program with housing; $1,179 without.

Admittedly, when you think “budget,” you don’t think of one of the hottest, most in-demand cities in the world. But that’s what makes Shanghai so fantastic -- it’s never what you expect of it that gets you hooked.

Sure, Shanghai is the bustling financial center of the world’s most booming economies, but it is also home to over twenty million residents -- not all of whom are pulling in finance salaries.

Garrett Segerson is a graduate of the George Mason University Class of 2012 who taught English and studied Mandarin in Shanghai. “Shanghai is just so big -- big is how I would describe it -- that you can find anything. If you want to have a nice four-star dinner, sure you can, but there are also a hundred little street food stalls where you can get the best Chinese food you’ve ever had for less than fifty cents.”

Admittedly, when you think “budget,” you don’t think one the hottest, most in-demand cities in the world. But that’s what makes Shanghai so fantastic.

If you're okay with a smaller-than-usual apartment, and living within your means, Shanghai can be a dream budget destination. As Garrett says, “My wife and I were poor, and we made Shanghai work. Heck, it wasn’t even that hard to make Shanghai work. It’s great if you don’t have a lot of money.”

Maintaining a low cost of living is the responsibility of the student, but very doable. You are there to learn Chinese, though, and Shanghai delivers again, with some of the best universities and language schools in the whole country. With tons of language schools to choose from and language exchanges throughout the city, it'll be easy to learn Chinese and stick to your budget.

If you're still in college, you can either directly enroll in one of these genuinely world-class universities, or take your pick from our list of study abroad programs in Shanghai and tailor it to fit your budget. The CET Program is especially good -- and did we mention CET executive director Mark Lenhart has contributed his thoughts on the importance of language study on Go Overseas's articles before?

Chengdu: budget destination for learning Chinese abroad
How much will a Chinese language course cost in Chengdu?

A 4-week program with InternChina will cost $2,124 and includes housing. You can stay for up to 24 weeks in this program, which would cost $8,944.

Chengdu is perhaps the most famous “non-famous” city in China. Known around the world as the home of the wild Great Pandas that make China famous, Chengdu is still a world away from anything you probably know. Decidedly off the beaten path, Chengdu is deep in the interior of China, far from the coastal cities of Beijing and Shanghai.

Dustin Swiggett, graduate of the Hofstra University Class of 2010, studied in Chengdu when money was tight. “I wanted to learn Chinese but I just couldn’t find any way to make the expensive cities work. Chengdu was perfect.”

The city is known for its laid-back atmosphere -- a relic from its agricultural past -- and while there is some nightlife, there are far fewer trappings pawing at your purse strings. “I got up, had breakfast, went for a walk or exercised, went to class, came home, made dinner or got it out, and just sort of enjoyed the evening. Not a lot of clubbing or shopping, which was actually a great thing for my budget,” Dustin says.

Decidedly off the beaten path, Chengdu is deep in the interior of China, far from the coastal cities of Beijing and Shanghai.

But what Chengdu may lack in glitz and glamor, it makes up for it in other ways. “It's beautiful,” Dustin says. “Just utterly, impossibly, mind-blowingly beautiful.” It's a fantastic option for students who don’t really feel like they need all the flash of the big cities.

If you’re a college student in China to learn Chinese, Chengdu has some great programs from third-party providers, as well as seven different universities that accept foreign students. One of these, Sichuan University, has been ranked as one of the top universities in the nation and a genuine resume-builder to have in your pocket at job interviews. For other language learners, Chengdu is a big enough city to offer a good selection of language schools.

Hangzhou: budget destination for learning Chinese abroad
How much will a Chinese language course cost in Hangzhou?

A 3-month program with Asia Exchange will cost $1,568 for tuition. You can earn up to 30 credits in this program.

The Chinese have a saying: “Above there is heaven; below there is Hangzhou.” Even this high praise hardly seems to do justice to the waterfront serenity of this beautiful ancient city.

Home of the Chinese National Silk Museum and the Chinese National Tea Museum, Hangzhou represents a more harmonious time in Chinese history when coexistence between the natural landscape and human society was a thoughtful one. This harmony is perhaps evident nowhere more strongly than the prominent West Lake, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Because of this reputation, Hangzhou, does suffer from seasonal “inflation” as a result to the influx of (mostly Chinese) tourists. During the busy season, Spring, prices in local shops will rise with demand, but this swell is small.

As for price, Hangzhou is primarily a Chinese city for Chinese citizens, so prices will seem low to most Americans.

Bethany Jonesbrooke, a graduate of the Texas A&M Class of 2013, studied Chinese in Hangzhou her senior year. “I didn’t really know what to expect because I hadn’t heard much about Hangzhou, but it was magical. It was so peaceful and beautiful! It’s a Chinese city so it definitely has its crowded, busy, dirty parts, but if you can get out to the lake or away from downtown, it’s really very peaceful.”

As for price, Hangzhou is primarily a Chinese city for Chinese citizens, so prices will seem low to most Americans. Apartments are cheap and widely available, and food is priced to be affordable to those who rely on it -- namely, the Chinese working class. Couple this low price with the fact that Hangzhou actually has a sizeable student population due to the number of quality universities there, and you have the idea Chinese budget study abroad destination.

Xi'an: budget destination for learning Chinese abroad
How much will a Chinese language course cost in Xi'an?

A non-degree Chinese language course at Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University costs about $1,312 for a full semester. Their 2-week long summer course, however, will cost $540 USD.

Want to visit Beijing because of all the history there? Want to see what life is like in the capital of China, where ancient emperor’s palace walls meet preserved relics, monuments, and glory?

Well then you don’t want Beijing -- you want Xi’an. Yep, that’s right. You may not have realized it, but every one of those criteria you described that make Beijing so perfect for you, actually describes Xi’an as well.

The former capital of ancient China, Xi’an is today a treasure trove of history, offering everything from ancient palaces and temples, to the world-famous wonder of the Terracotta Soldiers. Xi’an is basically Beijing lite -- all the wonder of immersion in ancient Chinese culture, will hardly any of the trappings that make Beijing unattractive (rampant pollution, overcrowding, high cost).

While not quite Beijing, there are still many options for language students to customize their experience within the classroom, as well as outside of it.

Angelo Zepeda, graduate of the Western Michigan University Class of 2011, studied in Xi’an with International Programs, one of the many excellent providers operating in Xi'an. “Xi’an was like stepping back in time,” Angelo says. “If you’re a Chinese history buff, this is it. This is the place.”

Angelo had considered Beijing, as he wanted to sharpen his Mandarin skills for business, but had limited financial resources. “Beijing would have been doable, but a real stretch. Then my study abroad advisor suggested I look at Xi’an, and man, am I glad she did.”

Xi’an, due to its historical significance, also has a number of excellent Chinese language schools within its borders, so while not quite Beijing, there are still many options for language students to customize their experience within the classroom, as well as outside of it.

Taiwan: budget destination for learning Chinese abroad
How much will a course cost in Taiwan?

A 4-week program with Taiwan Mandarin Institute will cost $1,185, not including housing. You can stay anywhere from 1 week to 52 weeks. Budget at least $35 a day for housing.

Tuition at the National Taiwan University will cost $1,080 per season. The winter season costs a little less (it's also shorter), with tution at $900.

Taiwan is the great, catch-all answer. “I want to learn Chinese but I’m a little apprehensive about mainland China, where should I go?” Taiwan. “I want to learn Chinese but I’d like a mix of urban and more scenic environs, where should I go?” Taiwan. “I’d like to learn Chinese, but I’ve got a pretty tight budget and want to make the most of it, where should I go?” Taiwan! Seriously, this island off the coast of China might just be your new top budget study abroad destination.

Urban Taipei is just like any other top-flight city in the world: great dining, great shopping, great entertainment. But most important to our discussion, it also has great universities. In fact, there are more than 40 universities in the northern capital city alone! With so many bright young minds originating from Taiwan, the higher education system is the envy of many a nation. Students of any ages can check out the Taiwan Mandarin Institute, which offers small class sizes and a 10% discount to Go Overseas readers.

Away from the main city of Taipei, large swaths of Taiwan have a distinctly “island” feel, with relaxed dress codes, friendly locals, and low prices.

But this is discussion about budget study destinations, and the island of Taiwan does not disappoint. Escape from the urban excitement of Taipei to the southern nation park area of Kenting, and suddenly the beauty of the South Pacific unfolds gradually before you, the urban sprawl of the north is left behind, and prices begin to drop drastically.

Da’Lonte Morris, graduate of the University of Massachusetts -- Amherst Class of 2012, experienced this first hand. “I wanted to learn Chinese because I’m a business major, and it’s going to be useful in a few years. I wasn’t sure about mainland China as a black man, so I went with Taiwan. I went to class in Taipei, where rent was a little pricey, but I spent most of my time around other parts of the island. I bought a scooter for cheap, and did my own thing.”

Away from the main city of Taipei, large swaths of Taiwan have a distinctly “island” feel, with relaxed dress codes, friendly locals, and low prices. So remember to take a look at studying Chinese in Taiwan when choosing a destination -- because after all, you can learn Chinese here, too!

Find a Destination to Fit Your Budget

From the urban to the rural, from the ancient to the modern, these destinations are all choice picks for studying Chinese abroad on a budget. Whether you’d like somewhere that’s easy not to break the bank, or you’d like the freedom of choice to budget your finances yourself, there is a destination on this list for you.

So go ahead and get excited, and start saving your pennies, because with affordable options like this, you’re going to be saying nihao to learning Chinese before you even know it.

Browse Chinese language schools abroad.

Photo Credits: Celebration, Guilin, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Xi'an.
Jason Rodgers

Jason is a hockey player from Virginia, and his passport is a quilt of stamps and visas. He studied French at the Sorbonne in Paris, worked in International Ed in China, celebrated Thanksgiving in Amsterdam and cheered July 4th in Brazil. Jason can recite Sartre in 3 languages just as fast as he can put a puck past your ear. Follow Jason on Twitter @HeyJayJRogers and on Google+.