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What You Need to Know When You’re Moving to Shanghai

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  • David Thyne

    At the first Shanghai Get-Together I met several American expats. I am very grateful that they shared their experience with me.

Relocating to Shanghai

Both Chinese residents and expats have described this metropolis in extravagant terms: “Pearl of the Orient”, “Gateway to the World”, “Dragon’s Head”, or “Paris of the East” – nicknames that will make your plan of moving to Shanghai appear even more exciting. However fascinating the city might seem, one shouldn’t romanticize it, but rather appreciate the interesting, albeit turbulent history that has made Shanghai what it is today.

The Pearl of the Orient

Located in the delta of the mighty Yangtze River, approximately equidistant to Beijing and Hong Kong, Shanghai has been growing from a small market town in imperial China to a 21st century megalopolis. Its municipal region is a little province of its own, subject only to the central government in Beijing.

After moving to Shanghai, you will quickly notice the population density. The area attracts thousands of people every year, both migrant laborers from rural China and expatriates who come to Shanghai for business reasons.

Business has influenced the city’s evolution for most of its history. Moving to Shanghai with its natural harbor used to be important for the merchant guilds of feudal China. It was the rapid turnover of goods in the port that awakened the interest of colonial powers later on. After the British enforced trade between China and Western nations with the Treaty of Nanking (1842), countless international merchants arrived in Shanghai due to its trade concessions.

Since then, the city’s history has been tied up with Western imperialism and commercial interests, Chinese-Japanese tensions, and the rivalry between Chinese nationalism and Communism. It was in 1920s Shanghai that Chinese socialists founded the Communist Party of China. With Maoist troops moving to Shanghai at the end of the Chinese civil war (1949), the city became a bulwark of the party line and the Cultural Revolution.

Nowadays, the city is once again moving with the times, spearheading modern China’s rapid business development. The country’s economic liberalization has prompted numerous FIE (foreign-invested enterprises) to move to Shanghai.

Current Economic Climate

In 2013, a Free Economic Zone was officially opened in a 29 square kilometer area, in the east of Shanghai, in hopes of attracting foreign direct investment. As of October 2014, a Hong Kong-Shanghai Stock Connect is in progress, which will enable foreign investors to access China’s mostly closed off stock market. However, there have been issues with implementation, such as political protests in Hong Kong.

Despite its unchallenged supremacy as one of China’s most important industrial centers, Shanghai has recently put a strong emphasis on the high-tech industry and the service sector. Home to companies from the fields of IT and microelectronics, the city is also the seat of China’s main stock exchange and, unsurprisingly, one of the two biggest expat hubs in the country (Beijing being the other).

Large Chinese firms, over half of the CEOs are hired from abroad compared to the 27% recruited in North America and Europe. However, unless you are a professional, with advanced knowledge of industrial processes or technology, it seems as though the job market is no longer seeking English-speakers with general knowledge. For expats wanting to live in China, it is advised that you improve your knowledge of the culture and your Chinese language skills.

Upon moving to Shanghai, you’re bound to meet countless other expatriates: overseas Chinese (including plenty of Taiwanese), Koreans, Japanese, Americans, Germans, British, French, etc. After moving to Shanghai, you will see that “Shanghailand” is alive and well.

Expat Districts and Housing in Shanghai


Shanghai is not only a city, but rather an urban sprawl in a region of its own, with a surface area of 6,340.5 km². There is a distinct core city in centrally located Pǔxīhome to nearly 50% of Shanghai’s millions of residents. It is the main urban area of historical Shanghai and includes the districts of Yangpu, Hongkou, Zhabei, Putuo, Changning, Xuhui, Jing’an, and Huangpu.

Opposite Puxi, on the east side of the Huangpu River, there is Pǔdōng Xīn Qūor the Pudong New Area, Shanghai’s booming industrial and financial district. Puxi and Pudong are surrounded by the northern suburbs (Baoshan, Jiading, Qingpu, Northern Songjiang, Western Minhang) and southern suburbs (Jinshan, Fengxian, Southern Songjiang, Eastern Minhang). Baoshan, Jiading, and Minhang are still relatively close to the city center.

Popular Residential Areas

Expatslike to settle close to work, an airport, or an international school. The most popular international schools are located in the Hongqiao (Puxi) and Jinqiao (Pudong) parts of the city. Hong Qiao is also a part of Changning, a suburb very much characterized by expatriate living and family life. Its vicinity to Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport makes it attractive for foreigners. Outside Puxi, expatriates often look for housing in Pudong, in relative closeness to the other international airport (Shanghai Pudong International).

Many expats with families will settle in a three or four-bed apartment in a compound. If you have a considerably high salary, you may be able to afford a townhouse in the center or a villa in the suburbs.

Types of Accommodation

Although foreign residents are no longer banned from purchasing property in Shanghai, most expatriates still prefer renting to buying. Families in particular appreciate renting a so-called villa. This term refers to a free-standing townhouse ideal for parents with children. These villasare mainly situated in compounds or residential expat communities in areas like Changning and Pudong.

These communities often cater to the specific needs of foreigners in China. Their management staff frequently speaks English. The compound includes its own little grocery shop, gym, and playground. It might even provide a shuttle service to the city center or an international school nearby. The real estate agents offering such compound housing on the market are also used to dealing with expats. They are usually fluent in English and will issue you with a bilingual rental agreement.

Rental Prices

Expat comfort has its price. In comparison to the average standard of living among Shanghai’s lower middle classes, the typical expatriate life style is fairly luxurious. In 2013, a three-bedroom apartment in Shanghai cost about 15,000 CNY (or 2,450 USD). If you choose a non-prime area, housing will obviously be cheaper.

Alien Registration

One last reminder: After moving to your new place, don’t forget to re-register with the Shanghai police. If you previously stayed in a hotel, the staff will have taken care of this for you. The residents of an expat compound can also ask the building management staff to look into the matter on their behalf.

As a normal tenant, though, you have to go to the nearest police station within 24 hours of your change of address. Bring along your valid passport and visa. You might also be asked to present your rental agreement and your landlord’s proof of ownership.

Visas and Residence Permits for Shanghai

Short-Term Visas

As a foreign employee, executive, or investor, a member of your country’s consulate staff, or an expat spouse living in Shanghai, you are subject to the usual visa regulations for moving to China. You could use an L visa for tourists and private visitors for a first fact-finding trip, to go flat hunting or visit a couple of international schools.

However, as soon as you travel to Shanghai for commercial or academic purposes, an L visa is no longer going to cut it. In this case, you need an F visa. It is valid for a stay of up to six months. Among other things, it requires a letter of invitation from your Chinese contacts, a Chinese business organization, academic institution, etc.

An F visa is especially suitable for shorter business trips, academic research projects, or extended language-learning holidays. For the exact details of the application process and the mandatory documents, please make an enquiry at the nearest Chinese Embassy or Consulate in your home country.

The Long-Term Employment Visa

Most expatriates would like to live and work in China for a couple of years. This is only possible with a so-called Z visa. The application procedure is a lengthy one, and we recommend you to plan your stay in China well in advance.

At first, your future employer needs to obtain an Employment License from the Shanghai Administrative Center for Employment of Foreigners (4F, Meiyuan Lu 77, Shanghai 200070). Ask the company carefully which documents they require for this procedure. Also make sure to check if they need the original, one or several copies, and/or a certified Chinese translation. After that, your employer-to-be can use this Employment License to get you an official invitation to Shanghai from the Chinese authorities.

You are going to need these documents – the Employment License and the official invitation – in order to apply for your Z visa. If you want to stay in China for more than six months, please make sure to include a health certificate as well. This health certificate requires chest x-rays, testing for HIV and other STDs, an ECG, and other medical check-ups. Once you have obtained your Z visa, don’t forget to register with the local Shanghai police within 24 hours of your arrival.

As of September 1, 2013 expats may also qualify for a R visa, which aims to recruit senior-level professionals with skills that are needed in China.

Residence and Work Permits

Within the first 30 days of your stay, you also need to change your visa into a proper Residence Permit for Shanghai. This process can take up to 15 days. As of September 1, 2013 the validity period for work-related residence permits ranges from 90 days to 5 years.

When applying for a work-related residence permit, you must submit the following to the local (above county level) exit and entry administration authority:

  • travel documents, including your passport
  • photos and other supporting personal documents
  • human biometric information, including fingerprints
  • a health certificate valid for more than one year
  • work permit
  • documents from the Chinese authorities proving that you are a senior-level professional with skills needed in China

Visas for Family Members

Family members who plan to visit you during your stay in Shanghai must obtain either a family reunion (Q) visa or a private affairs (S) visa. The Q visa is designed for the purpose of a “family reunion”, family members visiting PRC citizens or permanent residents. Family members visiting for China for less than 180 days must apply for a Q2 visa, while those planning on staying for longer than this time frame must apply for a Q1 visa. Individuals with a Q1 visa must also apply for residence within 30 days after coming to China.

If you are a foreign student (X visa) or an employee (Z visa) living in Shanghai and a relative comes to visit, they must apply for an S visa. The S visa is also divided into two categories based on the length of stay. Family members visiting for less than 180 days need to apply for a S2 visa. The S1 visa is reserved for parents, parents-in-law, spouses or minor children of an X or Z visa holder. The S1 visa is for stays longer than 180 days.

If you need some support along the way, there are several institutions you might ask for advice: the Chinese Embassy or Consulate back home, your new company’s HR department, your general consulate, the Shanghai branch of your national Chamber of Industry and Commerce, a commercial visa / relocation agency, etc.

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