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A Comprehensive Guide about Living in Shanghai

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  • David Thyne

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Life in Shanghai

Living in Shanghai has often been romanticized in Western and Chinese popular culture alike. The glamorous Shanghai of the 1920s and 1930s or the Japanese occupation (1939-45) has particularly captured the imagination of many an author and movie maker.

It is the birthplace of internationally renowned artists such as British writer J.G. Ballard or Hong Kong film director Wong Kar-Wai. Both spent only their childhood years in Shanghai. Nonetheless, their best-known works (The Empire of the SunIn the Mood for Love) focus on life in Shanghai during World War II or on exiles from Shanghai living in Hong Kong after the city came under Communist control.

Quality of Life in Shanghai

In the Mercer Quality of Living Study 2012, Shanghai ranked 95th and in 2014 it, once again, did not make it among the Top 50 cities. As China’s industrial and financial center, Shanghai is struggling with problems typical of life in other Chinese megacities, especially Beijing: environmental problems like smog, water pollution, and noise, as well as overpopulation, traffic jams, and a housing shortage.

However, living in Shanghai is relatively safe. Pickpocketing, panhandling, bicycle theft, and financial scams are the most common crimes. There’s little violent crime against foreigners, though it does occur sometimes, specifically in clubs and bars in the nightlife districts. Also, in September 2013, on two occasions, Westerners were stabbed while walking in the Wai Tan area.

Shanghai remains the glitzy “Paris of the East”in many ways. Among the top 10 most expensive cities in the world for expats, according to Mercer 2014, is a consumerist Mecca – which seems slightly ironic if one considers the city’s more recent, staunchly Maoist past. The cosmopolitan atmosphere of life in Shanghai includes a vibrant nightlife and a huge arts & entertainment scene.

Driving in Shanghai

Owing to the huge size of the city, commuting to work or school is an integral part of living in Shanghai. If you are lucky, you live in an expat-oriented compound providing you with a shuttle service to international schools or important traffic junctions. Executive expatriates might have useof a company car with driver.

Due to the maze of streets, the recurring traffic congestions, and the soaring accident rate, it is preferable not to drive yourself as a non-local living in Shanghai. However, if you settle in Shanghai’s quieter neighborhoods, you could even “go local” to some extent and buy a bike for short distances.

Shanghai’s Bus Network

Fortunately, people living in Shanghai benefit from an extensive and fairly cheap public transport system. Unfortunately, this can be extremely confusing for foreigners, particularly if they can neither read nor speak Chinese. Shanghai has about 1,000 different bus lines run by several companies. They can be extremely crowded, especially during rush hour, and a bit overwhelming to figure out.

However, expats in Shanghai will soon get the hang of the mostly numerical bus system. Lines 300-399, for example, are all night buses, and 700-799 have their routes in suburban areas. There are still a dozen lines with those famous trolley buses characteristic of an old Shanghai tinged with nostalgia.

Some city buses are air-conditioned, and a ticket costs one or two CNY. Most lines also accept the Shanghai Public Transport Card (SPTC), a smart card that may come in useful while you are living in Shanghai.

Transport and Healthcare in Shanghai

Metro and Tram

Apart from city buses, the Shanghai smart card covers several other means of transport as well. The relatively new Zhāngjiāng tram has its terminal near Zhāngjiāng High-Tech Park in Pudong, where quite a few foreign-invested enterprises from the field of technology operate a branch office. Another showpiece of Shanghai’s modernized public transport system is the Maglev (Transrapid) train from Longyang Road Station near the 2010 Expo Center to Pudong Airport.

Shanghai has an underground network as well. The 14 lines of the Shanghai Metro boast the distinct advantage of having English announcements and bilingual signs at their various stops. On the downside, the metro can become almost as crowded as the buses.

Crowds on the bus or metro attract a lot of “wandering hands”, i.e. passengers that grope and feel up women standing next to them in the throng. To avoid such instances of sexual harassment, expat women may prefer taking a taxi. With the sole exception of some unlicensed cabs, Shanghai taxis are mostly reliable, safe, and still affordable.

Health Precautions

First of all, a good healthcare plan is essential for life in China. The government-funded healthcare system, introduced in the late 1990s and expanded to include foreign employees as of October 2011, will not meet expatriate needs. Therefore, expats need either an international health insurance policy or cover for private medical care from a Chinese insurance provider.

Also make sure that you know which diseases are prevalent in the Shanghai area before you leave and get familiar with their symptoms. At the moment, such diseases include hand-foot-mouth-disease among children, rabies, Japanese encephalitis, and – though to a far lesser degree than you might fear – avian influenza. Dengue fever and malaria become more of a worry in southern regions. You should also take a first-aid kit, a supply of prescription medication and contraceptiveswhen packing your bags for Shanghai.

Hospitals and Doctors

If you are looking for a doctor or dentist in Shanghai, you should know that it is customary in China to go and see a doctor at a clinic, not at their individual practice. Your local consulate may have a list of hospitals as well as dental clinics with Western standards and medical staff fluent in English or your own national language. Some consulates invite a doctor from your respective home country for office hours on a regular basis.

Recommended hospitals include, among others, the Shanghai East International Medical Center, the Shanghai United Family Hospital, the Parkway Health Medical Center, or the Huashan Hospital. You can find a list of recommended medical facilities with English-speaking staff and Western-style pharmacies via the US Embassy.

In the case of serious illness, major surgery, prolonged treatment, or pregnancy complications, however, it might be advisable to go to Hong Kong or to use of a repatriation insurance policy and return to your home country.

In an emergency, you should call 110 (police), 119 (fire) or 120 (ambulance). For such situations, it will come in handy to have an emergency form with Chinese translations of important phrases such as xuyào y liàng jiùhùche (we need an ambulance) or xinzàngbìng (heart attack). If you are unable to communicate in Chinese, you can also phone the 24/7 Shanghai Call Center (96 22 88). Its staff can help as an interpreter over the phone.

Education and Shopping in Shanghai

International Schools

For expat children in Shanghai, international schools are in many ways superior to the local Chinese school system. Older kids in particular would face an almost insurmountable language barrier, and the Shanghai curriculum might provide them with insufficient preparation for international universities in several subjects outside math, science, and technology.

International schools often unite nursery, kindergarten, primary and secondary school under the same roof. Siblings of different ages can thus attend the same institution together. An international school will also offer them the opportunity to make new international friends and help parents to socialize, e.g. by getting involved in the Parents Teachers Association.

However, international schools are very expensive. Depending on the age and grade of the kid, the annual tuition fees may amount to as much as tens of thousands of US dollars.

On the plus side, most international schools in China offer an excellent education, with teaching in the respective national language, English, and Chinese for non-native speakers. Moreover, most students sitting their finals at an international school can obtain both their national high school diploma and an international university entrance certificate, such as the International Baccalaureate.

In Shanghai, there are international schools catering to the Anglo-American, French, German, Japanese, Korean, and Singaporean expat communities.


In addition to the innumerable local groceries catering to Chinese customers, there is also a considerable number of supermarkets and department stores selling Western food. Unsurprisingly, imported products are more expensive.

If you don’t mind the resulting higher cost of living, you can fill all your shopping needs at Metro and Carrefour when it comes to food, or at IKEA Shanghai when you need to furnish your new expat villa. Big stores are usually open from 9:00 to 21:00 or 22:00, including Sundays and holidays. There are quite a few smaller 24/7 convenience stores in Shanghai, too.

Bigger stores accept payments by debit card or credit card. At the last so-called “friendship stores”, which target foreign tourists and expats, you can also buy a wide range of imports.

For some local cash, there are lots of ATMs all over the city where you can withdraw RMB with your card, although the fees may be rather high (unless you have a Chinese bank account). You can exchange traveler’s checks for Chinese currency at one of the many international banks in Shanghai.

Availability of Goods 

Since certain products are hardly available in China, not even in Shanghai, here are some everyday items that every expat (expat woman, expat parent) should have in their suitcase:

  • baby food / milk powder (Chinese parents are often fearful of the high levels of chemicals and hormones sometimes found in baby formula in China and tend to import their baby formula, but supplies are limited)
  • tampons (less common in China, but OB tampons, without applicators, might be available)
  • make-up (Chinese cosmetics may contain dangerous skin whiteners, and thus toxic levels of heavy metals such as mercury)
  • high-end creams, lotions, perfumes
  • sturdy shoes in larger sizes
  • quality clothes in larger sizes and plus sizes
  • enough layered clothing for Shanghai’s cool and wet winter

Connect with like-minded expatriates

Discover our welcoming community of expats! You’ll find many ways to network, socialize, and make new friends. Attend online and in-person events that bring global minds together.

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