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What to Do When You’re Locked Out of Your House in China

Updated on February 7, 2017

Locked Out

What an ordeal.

Today I left work knowing that there was a problem with the lock of our apartment. My partner messaged me (here in Casper) when he was leaving for work that he couldn’t lock the door with the key. With him needing to be at work on time he asked me to deal with it once I was home. I exited work at exactly five, walking home with some gusto, living with the hope Casper had made some mistake.

Unfortunately, he was correct, the lock on the door was busted.

The old, mangled door handle.
The old, mangled door handle.

I had a gut feeling it was our mistake.

With an abundance of spare keys, we always keep one by the front door to double lock it at night. When I left for work this morning, as usual, I unlocked the door with the spare key. However, I believe, I may have (almost definitely) forgotten to remove the spare from the keyhole. The next problem: Casper didn’t notice my mistake on his leaving for work, closing the door behind him with the spare key still within the mechanism.

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Once I had realised we were truly locked out, I contacted Casper asking him to recruit a locksmith. Apart from facing the problem of being locked out, now we had to deal with the language barrier on my side. While my Chinese is functional about town, as it were, dealing with a locksmith is another challenge. Casper told me the smith was on his way. Indeed, this is quite the benefit of living in China, on recruiting a service, it often takes less than 10 minutes for them to arrive.

And this was the case this time. Indeed, luckily, as it's really cold today!

Within a few minutes of acquainting one another, he had begun (the locksmith, herein Joe), professionally, to remove the door handle allowing access to the locking mechanism.

I’m still debating whether ‘professional’ is the appropriate description given he was using a spanner to mangle the lock while casually chatting with his friend on the phone.

A New Handle and Locking System

This process was over sharpish. Joe had removed the ageing handle and locking system and replaced it with a new shiny affair. Provided with this were two master keys (blue) and a lock setting key (gold) and five new keys for once the lock had been prepared. I’m attempting to ignore the swiftness of breaking in.


As you’ll remember, I left work at five. As I type, the time reads just ten past seven. That means within less than two hours Casper was able to call Joe; Joe arrived; Joe fixed the lock; Joe called Casper to inform him of success (even though we communicated this effectively in Chinese); Joe and I completed the receipt and exchanged cash; I made a tea; and finally, I sat down to write of my torment.

How much did this cost?

  • Labour cost – 80 RMB
  • New handle – 150 RMB
  • New lock – 80 RMB

The total, then, a measly 310 RMB. For those of you reading from home, Britain, just GBP 36. Or for those of you reading from the U.S. $45.

I’m thinking it was quite cheap. I wouldn’t know as I have never had this experience back home.


Joe and I managed to facilitate the completion of the receipt, being surprised by my signature as Chinese often are by western signs, and I paid him using the infamous electronic payment system, Alipay.

This experience has spurred me to put together some advice for what you should do in such a situation. I know not everyone living abroad can rely on the efficient efforts of a loved-one to effect the solution to such a problem, so my advice aims to those new in a foreign country, with few connections.

What to do if you are locked out of the home while living and working abroad:

  1. Keep calm. Indeed, this is a stressful situation that could seem hopeless but just take it easy. You’ll no doubt have many people surrounding you willing to aid.

  2. Check the contacts on your phone. First, who is responsible for taking care of the foreign workforce in your company? Second, who are your new friends? Decide from these two who you’d rather ask for help.

  3. Dealing with the locksmith (or other service providers). The advice from my friend today was: ‘watch out, be alert and do not allow the locksmith beyond your front door.’

  4. The new keys. I have heard many horror stories in China of people having a new locking system not noticing that there were keys missing from the packet. What’s next? Their apartment has been robbed with no signs of forced entry. I made clear that the keys were coming from an undamaged packet and that the content was correct.

  5. Before the locksmith leaves. As you’re alone, you’ll want to be sure you’re certain the new locking system works correctly. Check while the smith is with you.

  6. Payment. You must ensure, with the help of your vernacular speaking acquaintance, the exact cost of the process before the work is started.

To those not suffering being locked out of their home while living and working abroad, this advice might seem redundant and obvious. That said when in the incredibly anxious position of consulting with workers speaking a different language some mistakes could easily be made.

Maybe picking a lock is a helpful skill...

I do hope you never suffer such a dramatic episode. I know, it was our fault for one, leaving the key in the door, and two, failing to notice the key was in the keyhole.

Let this be a lesson well learned.

To put this all to bed, I’m going to pour myself an oversized glass of wine.

See you.


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