Country Facts – Taiwan
This information is provided to offer guidance to those seeking to live and work overseas. For more information we recommend that you speak with your national government Foreign Office (or equivalent).
Taiwan Country Guide
Taiwan is a fascinating and complex country. One of the so-called Asian Tigers thanks to the strength of its economy, Taiwan ranks highly for both its standards of healthcare and education, making it an excellent expat destination.
Lying just off the coast of mainland China, Taiwan is a sovereign state officially known as the Republic of China (RoC). Once known as “Ilha Formosa” (meaning “Beautiful Island”), Taiwan may be one of the most densely populated areas in the world, but this is because much of the residential areas are condensed into a few major urbanizations.
As it turns out, almost two thirds of the island consists of stunning rugged mountain ranges, offering extensive green spaces for enjoying the great outdoors.
With its high-tech cities offering all the mod cons, yet wide open spaces just a short distance away, Taiwan may well offer expats the best of both worlds, combined with an opportunity to experience an exciting new culture.
The island of Taiwan may not be big, but thanks to its geography and location the climate can be surprisingly diverse.
For one, the country is bisected by the Tropical of Cancer, essentially splitting it into two different weather systems; the wetter north and the drier south. In addition, the Western two thirds of the island consist primarily of impressively-proportioned mountain ranges; with higher altitudes come cooler temperatures and higher winds.
The average annual temperature to be found in Taiwan is roughly 22’C, with a climate classified as “marine tropical”.
Considerable seasonal variations can be observed. The hot and humid summers frequently reach 30’C and run from June to September. It is this time of year where typhoons are also more regularly experienced.
Outside of this season the weather can be considerably wetter and cooler, with temperatures of 10’C not unheard of during the winter months of November to March. The best time of year to visit is considered October to December, where more moderate weather makes for easier exploration and more comfortable climatic conditions.
It is perhaps Taiwan’s culture that brings the most intrigue. Not only has this geographically significant island been colonized over the years by the Dutch, Spanish and Japanese; it is also a former British protectorate. This wide range of influences makes for a unique cultural experience to be found nowhere else on earth.
Whilst 95% of the population consider themselves Han Chinese, with the majority of the population tracing their ancestry back to mainland China, even to this day there are disagreements over the legitimacy of Taiwan as a stand-alone country or whether it should be considered an extension of mainland China.
Much debate regarding unification or independence still remain. The British government, for example, does not officially recognise Taiwan as an independent state, so offers only limited consular assistance for British citizens visiting the island.
One fascinating quirk of Taiwanese life is that two different calendars are in use. Firstly, one will encounter the standard Gregorian calendar used in most Western nations. However running alongside this is the so-called Minguo calendar.
Whilst the two calendars use the same day and month, it is the years which differ. So, while the Gregorian calendar runs in years from Common Era, the Minguo calendar uses years since the founding of the Republic of China. In other words, years in the Minguo calendar start in what many of us know as 1912.
Thus, the 21st of September 2015 could equally be known in Taiwan as the 21st of September 104.
Taiwan has a number of other unique cultural nuances the visitor should know. For one, despite the often muggy weather in summer, sandals are often seen in Taiwan as “farmers” footwear; so are almost universally avoided.
Note that tipping is also not commonplace in Taiwan; while restaurants may add a gratuity to your bill, tipping taxi drivers and suchlike is not necessary. Indeed, tips may well be handed back to you in all but the most luxurious hotels.
Over the years Taiwan has successfully transitioned from mainly agricultural exports to become a worldwide hub for technology and science innovation. As an indication of this, agriculture has dropped from 35% of GDP in 1952 to less than 2% as of 2001. These days the rice fields have been replaced with high-tech industrial parks, which are to be found all around the major urban hubs.
Popular pastimes in Taiwan include Karaoke, baseball (the national sport) and basketball. Taiwan also has an impressive classical music scene.
Thanks to the mainly native Chinese population, the official language of Taiwan is Mandarin. It is considered polite to at least have a passing understanding of the language, which can help to ingratiate you to local people.
With the diverse ethnic mix present in Taiwan, a number of other languages may also be encountered. Of these Taiwanese Hokkien and Hakka Chinese are the most prevalent.
These days English is taught in schools, so the younger generation are most likely to speak fluent English. It is not uncommon for even young children to speak a higher level of English than their parents or grandparents.
As a first-time visitor in Taiwan this age-bias can be a useful tool. When buying train tickets, for example, seeking out the ticket desk with the youngest assistant is likely to make for easy communication should English be your primary language.
Taiwan’s dominance of the technology market has resulted in impressive economic growth. This is reflected in the advanced transport network which can make getting around the island a pleasure.
Firstly there are numerous trains to be found; both the Taiwan High Speed Rail network for rapid movement across long distances, and the more provincial Taiwan Railway Administration for more locally-based train services.
As a lower-cost, yet slower, alternative a network of buses criss-crosses the island. Note that buses in Taiwan are unlikely to stop for you without being flagged down, as one would with a taxi.
Taipei, the capital, boasts an impressive metro network, known here as the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system. The metro runs from early in the day right through till midnight. With smoking, drinking and eating banned on the network, underground trains are usually spotlessly clean.
For late-night travel on the metro, well-lit waiting areas complete with CCTV translate into a safe and efficient way to get around after dark. Signs and ticket machines often display English guidance.
Taxis are ten-a-penny and represent a generally safe and low-cost transportation method within urban areas.
For visitors with steady nerves it is also possible to rent a private car. Pleasantly most of the major roads are numbered, making for easy navigation. Road surfaces are generally good unless damaged by one of the many typhoons or earthquakes experienced in this part of the world.
Note that there are a surprising number of toll roads to be found in Taiwan. For ease, visitors are advised to invest in one of the prepaid eTags. These can be topped up with funds as required and facilitate easy and rapid payment at toll booths.
Visitors may drive on Taiwanese roads for 30 days with an International Driving Permit. Thereafter it will be necessary to apply for a native Taiwanese license.
Taiwan has an enviable reputation for its healthcare services and many expats report glowing experiences. Many doctors here are foreign-trained, so few language barriers are likely to be experienced. Such as it is, Taiwan has become a popular medical tourism destination as it offers both reasonable healthcare costs and high standards of care.
Indeed, recent research by HSBC found that two thirds of expats in Taiwan report higher standards of healthcare than in their originating country, with 70% of respondents claiming they spend less on healthcare than in their home country.
There are two forms of medical care available in Taiwan. Short-term visitors will need to pay full price for their treatment. Conversely expats working in Taiwan are able to register for subsidized care through the National Health Insurance (NHI) system.
Under such circumstances the government pays the first part of any medical treatment required, with the individual paying the remainder.
This does, however, mean that there is rarely such a thing as “free” healthcare in Taiwan, and at least some financial contribution will be necessary for treatment. As a result of this the British government strongly encourages tourists and expats to invest in suitable overseas health insurance.
The official currency is the New Taiwan Dollar.
In a financial centre such as Taiwan it should come as no surprise that ATMs are to be found all over major urban areas, so withdrawing Taiwanese currency is unlikely to be problematic.
Should you opt to carry cash to exchange in your visit, note that many currency exchange offices will only accept new bills. Exchanging traveller’s cheques can be problematic and will require the production of both your passport and purchase certificate. For these reasons relying on ATMs to withdraw local currency is usually the most efficient method of gaining access to local funds.
Note that Taiwan is considered to be a mainly cash-carrying nation. Credit cards and debit cards are accepted far less than in many other countries. This is especially so with American Express credit cards.
Taiwan boasts an impressive education system with literacy rates of 97.5% and globally-impressive test results, especially in science and maths. That said, concerns have been raised by expat parents that the route to academic success in Taiwan usually has more to do with rote learning rather than creative thinking.
Extra-curricular tuition is commonplace in Taiwan, with many students studying late into the evening in order to keep up with the required workload.
Taking into account that most government-run schools in Taiwan teach in Mandarin, most expat parents opt for one of the many private international schools present in and around Taipei.
Note that these schools, as in so many countries, are far from cheap and waiting lists can be considerable. For expats seeking a move to Taiwan with family, planning some time in advance will increase your odds of landing a place at the school of your choice.
Food & Drink
It should come as no surprise with a largely Chinese population that oriental cuisine tends to feature prominently in Taiwanese restaurants.
That said, Taiwan has developed its own range of culinary delights, and many visitors to the country question why Taiwanese fare hasn’t yet gained more global prominence. Generally speaking eating out is commonplace in Taiwan and one is more likely to meet a business acquaintance in a restaurant as opposed to being invited to their home.
For travellers that appreciate fine food and new culinary experiences Taiwanese cuisine has much to offer.
Possibly the most famous Taiwanese delicacy is a steaming bowl of beef noodles; essentially a rich and aromatic beef stew with noodles enjoyed at almost any time of day.
Another well-known speciality are the so-called “oyster omelettes” – fresh locally-caught oysters combined with egg, frequently served with an assortment of seasonal vegetables and sweet chilli sauce.
The rich and sticky pineapple cake has become something of a national institution that no visit to Taiwan would be complete without.
In terms of beverages Taiwan retains a strong tea-ceremony culture. High Mountain Oolong is said to be most popular of these, though travellers on a budget are advised to check their bill carefully; it is not unusual for supplements to be added for the pouring of the tea.
A uniquely Taiwanese alternative is pearl milk tea – also known more colloquially as “bubble tea”. This is milky tea, with balls of sticky tapioca added for texture. It is drunk through a straw, and while undoubtedly an acquired taste many visitors find they quickly develop a passion for this unusual drink.
Opinions vary about the safety of tap water. Concerns have been raised about the damage done to pipework by earthquakes, whereupon fresh water can become contaminated. For safety, it is advisable to rely on bottled water, or to thoroughly boil tap water before consumption. Tap water is considered safe for brushing the teeth.
Taiwan is generally considered a very safe destination, with very low levels of crime. That said, every destination has its own risks.
In Taiwan, for example, venomous snakes exist. These are more likely to flee from humans than to wantonly stalk hard-working expats, but be aware that walking quietly in the countryside is not without its risks.
The weather systems can also pose significant risks; with both typhoons and earthquakes commonplace. Keep an eye on local media for warning of impending severe weather and act accordingly.
Driving standards in Taiwan may not match up to driving conditions in your home country. It has been claimed that one can obtain a driving license in Taiwan without ever having actually driven on the road. This means that dangers exist both for drivers and pedestrians.
Lastly note that Taiwan is one of a handful of countries which retains the death penalty for serious crimes. Of these drug trafficking is given a zero-tolerance policy so ensure you pack your own bags when entering or leaving the country, and do not be tempted to bring in even the smallest amount of narcotics.
Should you get into danger while in Taiwan the police may be reached by dialling 100, with the fire service and ambulance available at 119. Most police stations maintain English-speaking staff to assist visitors and expats.
Places to Visit
It is unfortunate that to many people Taiwan represents a land purely consisting of giant sky-scrapers and busy traffic-clogged roads. While Taiwan is considered one of the most densely-populated countries in the world, the reality is that 90% of the population is confined to just a tiny proportion of the island.
Within this area there are cultural experiences aplenty; outside of the major urban areas there are numerous green places perfectly placed for hiking and exploring. As a result Taiwan offers a wide range of sight-seeing experiences.
Kenting National Park
Kenting is Taiwan’s oldest national park. Located on the extreme southern tip of Taiwan the area is famous for its pristine beaches, rich blue seas and lush vegetation. Whether you opt to relax on the sand or hike through the epic mountain landscape, Kenting National Park has much to offer.
Beitou Hot Springs
A throw-back to former Japanese rule, Taiwan now boasts over 100 hot springs which are used for their health-giving and recreational benefits. Of these, Beitou is arguably the most famous, and most easily accessible from the capital.
The area is now known for its world-class spas, luxury hotels and lush vegetation.
Alishan National Scenic Area
If the name wasn’t enough of a hint, Alishan is one of the most beautiful areas in all of Taiwan. Take a ride on the forest railway to enjoy it in all its beauty, or spend your day hiking and exploring the many well-marked trails to be found here. For a real feeling of having escaped the hustle and bustle of Taipei there can be few more rural and picturesque areas to spend your time.
National Palace Museum
With almost 700,000 artifacts of Chinese cultural importance, the national museum is arguably the finest place in the world to better understand the history of Taiwan. It is said that the exhibits span a timescale of 10,000 years meaning one can lay eyes on exhibits spanning the full history of Chinese culture.
Taipei, like many big cities, has a beauty all of its own. But it’s not until you can admire it from a distance that its beauty really becomes fully apparent. Elephant Mountain offers arguably the best possible view of the city, together with some impressive hiking trails.
For the ultimate experience aim to reach the summit just before dusk in order to watch the city lights turning on around the city as the sun goes down in the distance.
For more information on moving abroad visit www.gov.uk/knowbeforeyougo.
Of course, if you’re planning on travelling to Taiwan please ensure you have adequate expat travel insurance.