Taipei strikes a wonderful balance between the pros and cons of living in East Asia. It’s less polluted and has fewer big boulevards than Beijing, is friendlier than Hong Kong, cheaper and easier to assimilate into than Tokyo, and warmer than Seoul.
Many people who move to Taipei end up staying long term and cite the ease with which they made friends in Taiwan, its accessibility, the opportunities to learn Chinese, the variety of geography and outdoor activities, the laid-back culture and delicious food as key reasons for this.
On the other hand, many new arrivals feel that Taipei seems more intense and dirtier than what they are used to back home. It can be difficult to adjust to the weather, the traffic and some elements of business culture but, on the whole, most foreigners enjoy all of the great things that Taipei has to offer. As such, most people leave Taipei – if they leave at all – with great memories, happy for the time they spent living in Taiwan.
Accommodation in Taipei
+ PRO: Accommodation in Taiwan is comparatively cheap
It's possible to get an apartment in downtown Taipei for about a third of the cost of those in major Western or Japanese cities. Expats stand a realistic chance of finding comparatively affordable accommodation that is centrally located and close to convenient transportation routes. If accommodation in Taipei does seem to be too expensive, the cheaper inner suburbs are convenient and often have easy MRT (subway) access.
+ PRO: Apartments in Taiwan are bigger than elsewhere in East Asia
Living spaces tend to be larger than in Japan – bedrooms are often small but living rooms will be on par with apartments in the West. Utilities are good and fairly easy to set up, including air conditioning and wireless internet. Other luxuries, like an oven or clothes dryer, can be bought fairly cheaply, as most apartments don’t come with these furnishings.
- CON: Many apartments are older and don’t have elevators
If accommodation isn't being arranged through a company, expats may find themselves looking at a lot of unregistered fifth-floor 'walkups' that don't have elevator access. Living on the top floor of an older building also leaves tenants vulnerable to roof leaks and, in the summer, exceedingly hot rooms. If the low price and living conditions of these top-floor apartments suit one's needs, then they can be a good option. Otherwise, it may be worth waiting until better accommodation becomes available.
- CON: Apartments in Taipei tend to look 'cheap'
Apartments in Taipei are often painted in cheap white paint, and some landlords prohibit painting over. Flooring tends to be cheap tile and the metal bars and textured glass windows are not aesthetically pleasing.
Lifestyle in Taipei
+ PRO: Life in Taipei is characterised by convenience
Unless moving to the outer suburbs of Taipei, expats will likely be within walking distance of a few convenience stores, one or two supermarkets, a wet market, a few coffee shops and cheap and delicious local restaurants.
Convenience stores are everywhere, and they operate differently to those in the West. In addition to selling groceries and other typical goods, they also offer services such as seating areas, printing centres and counters where residents can pay their utility bills.
+ PRO: Cafes and nightlife options abound
Whatever expats like – from quiet cafes, swanky see-and-be-seen lounges, neighbourhood bars, student dives, expat hangouts, pool halls or thumping nightclubs – Taipei has it all. There are also plenty of bistros and shopping streets. Taiwan is famous for its lively night markets, which stay open until about midnight, even on weekdays, and feature better shopping and eating than one might find in the liveliest city centres elsewhere.
+ PRO: Accessible foreign food and English language books
One can generally find a variety of cuisine options in Taipei. Indian, Thai, Mainland Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, German and French food are all popular, and many American chain restaurants have established themselves in Taipei.
There are some large bookstores offering English books, including travel guides, and a few used bookstores with fair selections.
+ PRO: Outdoor sports
Hiking, biking, river tracing, camping, paragliding, surfing and other outdoor sports are extremely popular in Taipei. Taiwan has scenic natural geography with a varied coastline, a few beaches, towering mountains, paddy-covered plains, rivers and high waterfalls, gorges and cliffs, and plenty of opportunities to get out into nature. It’s far easier to get out of the city than in most major Western cities. Northern Taipei has hills and mountains, and some hikes can be done within the city limits.
- CON: Wet weather
It rains a lot in Taipei. From late November to early April one can expect few sunny days. Autumn (mid-September to mid-November) is beautiful, often clear and sunny and is punctuated by the occasional late-season typhoon. Winter is an almost constant procession of grey clouds that cover the sky. Spring is hot, humid and interspersed with frequent, sudden downpours and thunderstorms known as 'plum rains'. Summer is also humid and hot with typhoons and thunderstorms on many afternoons – and then the cycle repeats. Many expats take holidays mid-winter just to escape the incessant grey weather.
- CON: Pollution
Although it’s noticeably less polluted than China and far cleaner than it was even 10 or 20 years ago, Taipei is not known for its crisp, clean air. Occasionally the dust of a sandstorm or a gust of pollution from China blows down to Taiwan, and occasionally the smog comes from local industry.
Getting around in and outside of Taipei
+ PRO: Public transport in Taipei is great
Taipei has some of the best public transport in the world – a clean, safe and on-time MRT system and comprehensive bus system. This means that, while many foreigners choose to buy scooters and get around as locals often do, it's far from necessary. Those living in Taipei will never need a car or scooter.
- CON: Heavy traffic in Taipei
Many foreigners are put off by the Taiwanese road culture which results in speeding, disregard of traffic laws and congested roads. There are limited sidewalks and where they do exist, they can be uneven and difficult to navigate. Traffic signs tend to be in English but intersections can be extremely busy and confusing. Scooter accidents are common, and some expats complain about the noise levels near major thoroughfares.
- CON: Public transport is limited outside of Taipei
Outside of Taipei expats will need a car or scooter – buses are less frequent and only Kaohsiung in the south has another MRT system. It can be difficult to get around the rest of Taiwan without owning a car and although trains and buses go to most destinations, it can be difficult to get to the countryside from the bus or train station.
Travelling outside of Taipei
+ PRO: Lots of countryside to explore
Just outside of Taipei is an impressive collection of mountains with winding roads and breathtaking views. Head straight south and one will hit the cultural heartland of Taiwan, with towns and cities such as Sanxia, Daxi, Beipu, Sanyi, Lugang, Tainan, Meinong and Donggang preserving elements of traditional Taiwanese arts and lifestyle. There are also many fantastic national parks that often display unique geographical features. As such, there's much to do outside of Taipei.
+ PRO: Proximity to great holiday destinations
From Taiwan, it's cheap and easy to take short trips to Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea and most of Southeast Asia. India is even within affordable reach. Guam and Palau are popular vacation spots with locals and foreigners alike. With the advent of direct flights between China and Taiwan, visiting China is also easier than ever (although getting a visa may not be).
- CON: Lack of direct flights from Taiwan
For all destinations outside of this corner of Asia, one generally needs to catch connecting flights. Direct flights to major cities such as New York and London exist, but they are expensive and usually involve a transfer in Hong Kong or Tokyo.
Education and schools in Taipei
+ PRO: Taipei has excellent private schools
Taiwan has a developed world school system which is competitive and holds students to high standards. The international schools are excellent, although there aren’t many of them. They provide a Western-style education in Taipei.
- CON: Taiwanese traditional teaching styles and cram schools
Students get an overwhelming amount of homework and learning tends to be rote learning rather than being based in critical thinking. Many parents will say that these local schools are fantastic – they help children learn more, review more and understand more, and help them score more highly on Taiwan’s important placement tests. That said, most Westerners feel that the amount of time Taiwanese students spend in class just to compete at the most basic level is too much.
Healthcare in Taipei
+PRO: Taiwan's National Health Insurance
Public healthcare in Taiwan is excellent, heavily-subsidised and accessible. If working or studying here one is eligible for it.
Taiwan’s National Health Insurance (NHI) doesn’t cover checkups but it does make treatment, medication, dental and vision care and hospitalisation affordable. If an expat passes the health check required to get a long-term visa in Taiwan and gets an Alien Resident Card, they will be covered by Taiwanese public healthcare.
- CON: National Health Insurance in Taiwan is concerned with survival and treatment and not quality of life
Often the most comfortable, easiest treatments are not covered (or not covered initially) because they improve quality of life but not survival rates.
If one is sick and needs a certain medication, there are regulations as to what can be prescribed first – and what can be given after that if the first drug doesn’t work. Doctors are not always free to just prescribe the medication they feel will be most effective.