The Pros and Cons of Living in Taiwan as an American
In 2017, my (now) husband and I moved to Taipei Taiwan. We stayed for a year and it completely changed our lives. As you might imagine, an adventure like that comes with both challenges and opportunities. As we reflected on them, we created a list to share with you, detailing the pros and cons of being an American in Taiwan. Maybe it will help you if you’re thinking about moving overseas or to Taiwan in your future.
First, here’s a bit of context about us:
- We’re American and lived in the city of Taipei, although we traveled around the entire country quite a bit during our year there.
- We didn’t make this choice right out of college. I was 39, Andrew was 28. We’d both been working in corporate, full time jobs when we left the United States for Taiwan
- We didn’t speak any Chinese and we chose not to live in an expat neighborhood (we lived in the Datong District)
- We ate entirely plant-based while we lived there.
So take all of those into consideration when watching and/ or reading about our pros and challenges. Hopefully this can help you decide if this is the right location for you to live. This video and post are organized by categories.
Be sure to also check out our Pros and Challenges videos here:
Although there’s a slight learning curve, there are many housing websites like 591, Housefun and Craigslist you can use to find apartments. Most have phone numbers or LINE IDs so you can contact the owners or housing agents directly. They are very responsive and want to help you. Know that you may need to have your google translator out to communicate back and forth in Chinese.
You can also hire companies (or agents) to help you find apartments. Once you find an apartment, they work with you during the entire term of your lease to help you communicate your needs in English. Such as a pipe busting and you need a plumber (which happened to us our first month!). You pay a one-time fee up front that’s half the cost of one months rent. This was definitely worth it for us! If you speak fluent Chinese, you probably wouldn’t need these services.
Housing prices are on the rise in Taipei City. Our small, 500 square foot apartment cost $35,000 NTD/month which is about $1200 USD per month. Mind you, this comes without comforts we are used to such as a big refrigerator, cabinet space, etc. Although not as expensive as apartments in some major US cities, this is not much less than it would cost for the same sized apartment in downtown Denver, Colorado. Many apartments in general are small and a bit outdated. Standard appliances like refrigerators are small, you will probably only get a one-burner stove. Ovens, washing machines and dryers are rare. A dishwasher just isn’t going to happen.
If you live outside the city, you can get more bang for your buck but you will probably have a lot less amenities around you. If you’re going to school or working in the city, you would need to take the train so add that to your budget and decision.
Although there are options for finding a home, house hunting can be exhausting with the language barrier. It’s definitely doable, but expect to invest more energy into it than you would need to at home. If you have a friend in the city who can help you or translate, that is helpful. Or find an English-speaking rental agent as mentioned above.
Taipei has one of the best MRT systems in the world. It’s extremely clean and efficient. You don’t need a car or scooter if you live in Taipei, as you can get by with both the Metro Rapid Transit system (MRT) and the easy to use bus system. Taipei is also very walkable compared to other Asian cities, with large sidewalks and clearly marked crosswalks.
For longer distances, the High Speed Rail (HSR) is also one of the best trains we’ve ever seen. You can get down to places like Tainan in southern Taiwan in under 2 hours. Purchasing tickets is a breeze, there are very comfy seats, you can order food and drinks and it’s a great experience overall. Public transportation is also helpful because renting a car is pricey.
As mentioned, renting a car is more expensive in Taipei than in the US. We rented the lowest cost car we could find for a trip to the east side of the country and even after a discount it ended up being about $80 USD per day.
Also, pedestrians still don’t really have the right of way. It was our personal mission to go against the cultural grain to boost pedestrian confidence and train taxi drivers to be less aggressive toward pedestrians. We thought we were winning…but there’s still more work to do, hehe.
Taiwan offers a 90 day visa for visitors with a U.S. Passport. For long-term stays, there are several options for obtaining an Alien Residency Card (ARC), which provides you will a long-term visa. Most companies will sponsor your visa if you have a job, or you can get a visa if you’re accepted into a school to study.
It’s A LOT of work to get the ARC and an endless amount of paperwork to complete. Andrew spent so much time getting all of the health requirements completed, sending files back and forth, having forms notarized. Then once you’re in Taiwan and you have your ARC you have to go back to the National Immigration Agency to renew your residency card every 6-months to keep it valid. It makes sense that they have so many requirements, but there are many inefficiencies in their process that could be eliminated. Hint hint.
4. Cost of Living
Compared to the US, you’ll find affordable high speed internet, monthly cell phone charges, cable charges, and transportation. Restaurants food costs are also pretty good overall.
Housing isn’t as affordable as you’d think, especially for the smaller spaces you get. Consumer products like electronics, camera gear, quality apparel and shoes are also marked up 20-30% from what you can get in the US.
Groceries aren’t affordable if you’re looking for foreign goods. Especially for American items like peanut butter, syrup, pasta sauce, spices, etc. There’s an international section of the grocery stores but look to pay higher prices, such as $16 for peanut butter. It really adds up.
Taipei has a ton of restaurants. For those who are plant-based or vegan, there are many restaurant options throughout the city. Taipei ranks near the top worldwide for the best vegan restaurants, and it’s easy to understand why. For other types of food, it’s very easy to walk outside your apartment and grab a snack from a food stall or get some quick noodles at a restaurant. Everywhere you go in the city, food is never too far away.
There are many interesting local varieties of food to try, especially at the night markets and fruit stands. We’ve never had so many delicious and unique fruits, as well as the best kiwi’s, mangoes, watermelons and pineapples of our lives.
We aren’t huge fans of traditional Taiwanese food as we found it to be a bit bland – lacking depth of flavor and spices. We have a few of our favorite spots to find cheap and tasty noodles and buns, but otherwise we ate at more Western or Indian style restaurants if we were out.
Also, expect new food textures, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but does take some getting used to.
6. Grocery Shopping
One of our favorite features of Taiwan were the traditional, outdoor morning markets all over the city with fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs. We primarily went to the large Shuanglian market in Datong district, near our apartment. There are many others throughout the city, as well as a few ‘sundown’ markets you can find with a little research. Although they try to give you plastic bags at these markets, all you have to do is decline politely and potentially several times, and bring your own sustainable bags and containers.
When moving to an Asian city, it’s a given that you will be adjusting the types of foods you eat and ingredients you buy. Foreign items are expensive and everything you are used to from home isn’t always stocked. This includes spinach, kale peanut butter, syrup, and so much more. Even if you find something familiar one week, you can’t necessarily count on it always being in stock the next week. We found it easier to shop for and learn to cook with local foods, but even then the items are still seasonally stocked. It’s not like in some other countries where you can have produce year round.
There’s a lot of plastic wrapping in the grocery stores, to excess. Plastic over individual fruits and vegetables and even crackers in a box are each individually wrapped in plastic. We avoided buying products like this. Plastic use is a major problem in Taiwan that the government has claimed they are making efforts to reduce.
7. The Taiwanese People
One thing you always here about Taiwan, and what we heard before arriving, is that the people are incredibly nice. And it’s true. They are very kind and always want to help you. If you look like a foreigner and somewhat confused, they will stop you immediately to ask if you need help. The Taiwanese are so open to welcoming you into their lives and homes and are excited to meet new people from other countries.
The Taiwanese, especially the older generations, are fascinated by foreigners and especially ‘Westerners’, or people from the United States and Europe. People stop you to ask you where you are from and stare a lot. I know that people are just curious and if you are traveling through or there for a short time this wouldn’t be a big deal. However, when living in Taiwan this can get a bit uncomfortable after a while. As an American female, I was stopped constantly, almost every day, much more often than Andrew. It became overwhelming.
Taipei has a subtropical climate, so it is beautifully green, with many trees, plants and flowers everywhere. There are mountains nearby that are easily accessible via bus, with many hiking trails. The city has done an incredible job incorporating green spaces with parks, waterfront walking paths and more.
Taipei is very hot in the summer, so it is difficult to do outdoor activities during the day. Even walking outside can be tough because the sun is so strong and it’s pretty humid, so you want to stay inside during the day. Choose evening or morning during the summer for outdoor activities. Some of the better hikes and river activities require a car or scooter to access.
Taiwan has a national healthcare system, which means it’s it’s free and accessible for citizens of Taiwan, and those with an ARC (Alien Residency Card). As a foreigner working and living in Taiwan or going to school, your health needs can be taken care of without going into extreme debt or worrying how you might pay the bills while you are sick. Which is the opposite case in America for the most part.
As a foreigner, it can take some time to obtain an Alien Resident Card to qualify for national healthcare.
Many people in Taiwan speak English, especially in Taipei. There’s at least one person in every establishment that understands enough English to help you. Which was a nice and fortunate bonus. When we were looking for housing, we opted to use a company with an english speaking realtor. Although you usually have to pay a fee for this service, it’s worth it to have someone to help when things go wrong
We suggest learning a bit of Chinese before you go to Taiwan. You can get around with English pretty well, but everyone else is speaking Chinese around you all the time. English exchanges will be limited and can feel a bit isolating. Another option is to study Chinese when you get here which will also count toward a resident visa and create a better experience in the country overall. Although challenging to learn, Chinese is a beautiful and complex language. Check out the book Fluent Forever which helps put you in the mindset of learning any new language.
Taipei is well positioned within Asia for traveling to other Asian countries. Our favorite destinations with affordable flights are Japan, China, Vietnam, Philippines, Singapore and Malaysia. Direct flights back to the United States are also very budget-friendly for most of the year. EVA Air has a brilliant 16 hour direct flight from Taoyuan Airport to in Taipei to Chicago O’hare Airport (where my family lives).
Taipei can feel a bit far from home and you can get homesick if you’re there for an extended amount of time. If you need to go home on a regular basis or think you will get homesick, plan the trips in advance. If we’d done this we probably would have lived there longer.
Taipei is warm and humid year round, which Andrew and I both love. Although it can be extremely hot in the summer, the winters are very mild and enjoyable. Because of this, many homes don’t have heaters, but we didn’t find this to be an issue. It’s very personal if you need a winter coat when you’re outside and I definitely needed one, although not as heavy as I would wear back in Denver or Illinois. I guess Andrew is tougher than me so he rocked a spring jacket or long sleeves all year!
The extreme heat during the summer can be tough to deal with and you stay inside more often during the day. There are Typhoon’s in Taiwan, but we didn’t experience any issues. A few storms during Typhoon season, but not more than we’d experienced during a typical thunderstorm at home.
Native English speakers are needed in Taipei to teach English, so that may be a good opportunity if you want to stay and work.
Wages are lower than what you typically make in the United States. There aren’t a ton of jobs outside of teaching English for foreigners, since you need to know Chinese to hold other jobs.
14. City Life
Taipei is an extremely convenient city. It’s very safe. You can find free wifi throughout the city.
Very crowded. It’s extremely population dense and noisy. It is very crowded on the streets at any time of the day, and sometimes it feels like you can’t escape people. On top of that, we unknowingly chose an apartment ON a night market street. Which means every night, thousands of people pour onto our street until 1 or 2 in the morning.
Air Pollution hasn’t been as big of a challenge as we expected, but we heard it can get bad in different seasons of the year. Taipei is much better than other cities in Taiwan, such as Taichung and Kaohsiung. Google has a great feature that tells you the air index levels for each day, so it’s easy to monitor.
Tap water is questionable. Andrew did a lot of research on this and his conclusion from the research and discussions with locals that we shouldn’t fully trust the tap water. Chlorine is used to purify water at the source, but because there are many old pipes throughout Taipei, the main concern is getting metal in your water. If you ask local Taiwanese, many do not drink the water or they boil it before drinking.
15. Coffee Shops
There are tons of coffee shops and cafe’s all over the city.
Coffee shops in Taipei don’t open until the afternoon, around 1 or 2pm. Part of Taiwanese coffee culture is to enjoy coffee in the afternoon. For plant-based friends, most coffee shops also don’t have nut or soy milk (dou jiang!) so you will probably stick to Americanos or tea. Unless you go to a Starbucks, which are also located all over the city. Sometimes we brought our own soy milk to local coffee shops and they made us drinks with it.
At the grocery store you can get your haircut for $100 NTD! This is $1 USD. Andrew tried it but I wouldn’t risk it!
Getting your haircut and colored, or getting your eyebrows waxed can be difficult if you don’t speak the language and also if you have hair that is different than the local Taiwanese. I went to several shops, even high-end hairdressers, and no one knew how to work with my curly, blonde hair. I also couldn’t find anyone who would wax or trim my eyebrows if I didn’t speak Chinese. Makes sense as it probably felt risky! I waited until I went home which was no problem but would have been helpful to know in advance that this would happen.
Shopping for clothing can be a challenge when you are taller than most of the locals, which I was.
I hope this list was helpful to give you an idea of what you might experience when going to a new city and living within a different culture. There are probably more points we could cover, but it’s more fun if you experience it all first hand and find your own pros and challenges! Happy adventuring 🙂