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Shanghai Beginner's Guide: The Essentials

Your guide to the first 48 hours in Shanghai, long-term success, and advice from lifers who've seen it all.
2023-01-26 12:35:18

The revolving door never stops. Prepare for adventure and debasement. Our team of aging expats / lifers are here to answer all those crucial questions racing through your FOB brain. This is the knowledge train.

Arrive in Shanghai

Within 24 hours of arriving, you'll need to register with the police. You can now do this online, here's the link to the app. If you're staying in a hotel, they'll do it for you (that's why they scan your passport).

You have to register your dog too. Here's how to.

Visas: Most of the time, you'll need to get a visa before you arrive. Chinese visa laws change constantly, but you can check Reddit's China Visa page for the latest changes. Contact a visa agency for help. To renew your visa, head over to an Entry-Exit Bureau. Most foreigners live here on a Temporary Residence Permit, a few lucky ones manage to get a Permanent Residence Permit. Here's how. Many long-term visa types require that you pass a health check done at the International Travel Healthcare Center.

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The Basics

Emergency Numbers & Hotlines:

  • Police 警察 Jing cha: 110
  • Ambulance 救护车 Jiu hu che: 120
  • Fire 火警 Huo jing: 119

The city also runs an English-language help hotline that can answer a wide range of questions, or help if you want to complain about something: Call 12345, then for English press 7; you might be asked to press the 'number sign', which means the pound key (#).

Another useful hotline is Shanghai Lifeline, a volunteer-run, non-profit English-language crisis line that you can call if you are in a personal emergency.

Depending on the situation, you may also want to call your consulate.

Is Shanghai Safe? Yes, especially compared to Western cities. Use common sense and be aware of common scams.  Report lost or stolen items to the police following this guide.

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Is Shanghai Safe? Yes, especially compared to many Western cities.

But you need to aware of scams, especially in touristy areas. When a pretty girl walks up to you on Nanjing Lu and asks you to have a tea or drink with you - it's a scam. Many people fall for it. Don't.

Use common sense. We have a full list of common scams

Report lost or stolen items to the police following this guide.

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Where do I go in case of an emergency? We have a full guide to emergency departments here.. If you do run into an emergency, it might be faster to just a cab and go there yourself if you know where the closest one is.

What If I Need To Go To The Hospital? For Chinese hospitals, it's first come first served, and expect to wait. Some hospitals have a VIP or English service. For international hospitals with English-speaking doctors, check out our full directory here.

Is It Cool To Drink The Tap Water? No, it's not cool. You cannot drink the tap water. Brushing your teeth or shaving with tap water is fine. Many families add additional water filters.

How Bad Is The Pollution In Shanghai? Not as bad as it used to be, Shanghai is doing pretty well. Very rarely, the pollution does reach unsafe levels when you shouldn't do outdoor sports. We also have an interview with an American doctor about this topic.

How about mental health: Shanghai isn't always the easiest place in the world to be happy and stay mentally fit. We asked experts how to be happy in Shanghai, and covered mental health essentials here.

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I'll need WeChat right? WeChat (微信 Wei xin) -- China's most popular form of digital communication -- is a chat client that blends the best / most time-wasting features of Paypal, What's App, Facebook, and Tinder is the primary form of communication in China. Everyone uses it, for pretty much everything. It's literally impossible to live in China without it.

Which other Apps do I need? The SmartShanghai app for events, activities, addresses, and finding an apartment or a job. Didi for rides. Alipay for payments, paying utilities. Pleco is the best dictionary. Meituan Dianping for finding every restaurant address that's not listed on SmartShanghai.

Here's our full list of good Chinese apps and find all the localized tools (like the Gmail of China, the WeTransfer of China …) right here.


Can I Use Facebook And YouTube Here? Many foreign websites are inaccessible in China. There are apps that you can install on your phone to bypass the firewall … unfortunately, we can't go into more detail here. Do a Google search.

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Transportion Hubs: Shanghai has two major airports so make sure to check the airport code:

  • Pudong Airport (PVG) for most international flights and local flights. It's far outside, so plan enough time. You can take the metro there (slow) or the Maglev train, but that ends in a part of Pudong so it's not very convenient if you head to Puxi. The best option is usually just a taxi or a Didi (200-300rmb).
  • Hongqiao Airport (SHA) mostly for local flights. It's much closer to Puxi dowtown but traffic in this area us usually bad.

Shanghai has 3 major train stations:

Taxis start at 16rmb (18rmb at nighttime) and charge per distance and time. A trip from downtown to the airport would roughly be 200rmb. You can usually grab a taxi on the street. Street numbers will get you nowhere. Always know the intersection. Use the SmartShanghai app to show addresses to taxi drivers. The big taxi companies are 大众 Dazhong (turquoise), 强生 Qiangshen (orange), 锦江 Jinjiang (white), and 海博 Haibo (dark blue) are also less likely to take you around in circles.

Ride Shares: Uber has left Shanghai and got bought be Didi, the Uber of China. Didi is in English and you can pick from cheap-ish ride-share cars starting from 15 ish rmb to luxury limousines starting at roughly 100rmb. You can also call taxis with the Didi app. Here's a guide on how to use it. You can call a Didi directly from the SmartShanghai app venue listings.

Metro: Shanghai has the world's largest metro network, and it keeps expending. ExploreShanghai is an excellent Shanghai Metro app. There are no day- or week- passes so you'll have to buy a ticket for each ride, but you can use Apple Pay Here's how.

Maps: Apple Maps works, Google Maps is blocked and only works with workarounds. The best local map-apps are Gaode Ditu and Baidu Ditu.

Driving: You can get a temporary driving license that's good for renting a care, or read here on how to get a permanent driving license.

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Will My Phone Work Here? Yes, foreign phones work well, but make sure your plan supports international roaming. With your foreign card, you can access sites that are inaccessible in China (Facebook, Twitter …)

Where Can I Buy A SIM Card? Real name verification is required, so you can no longer just buy a sim card at a kiosk. China has three major carriers, China Mobile (zhong guo yi dong), China Unicom (zhong guo lian tong), and China Telecom (zhong guo dian xin). Visit any of their many shops around town, and bring your passport, which will be linked to that number.

Translations: Download Google Translate and download the offline language pack. Here's a guide on how to use Baidu Translate.

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Payments & Banks

Payments: International credit cards aren't widely accepted outside five-star hotels. Smaller places stop accepting cash. The best is to set up Alipay using this method.

ATMs are slowly disappearing with cash not being used much anymore, but the big banks (Bank of China, ICBC ..) have ATMs that accept foreign cards.

Tipping: Is not required and not expected, and usually not even accepted.

Should I get a bank account? You won't get around it when you intend to live here, as bank accounts are a standard method of real-name verification for apps like WeChat and Alipay. We recommend going with a smaller bank like Merchant's Bank as they are usually less strict when a document is missing or a name is spelled wrong. But in general, going to the bank (银行 yin hang) is an awful experience, so try and set up online baking right away, so you can avoid having to go to the bank.

How do I get money out of China? You can bank transfer your taxed income - we have a full guide here - but the process is inconvenient. There's a service that helps you.

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Shanghai has few sights that we would consider a "must see", the more interesting things to see are usually away from what's on our list of tourist attractions. Walk around the Bund Area, the North Bund, the Suzhou Creek, and then get lost walking around Xuhui (which some older travel guides might refer to a Former French Concession, but that term is no longer permitted to use). Maybe take Ferguson Lane as a starting point and then walk any direction.

Here is a list of temples.

Historic Shanghai offers guided walking tourist. Untour offers food tours. Here's our full list of city tours.

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How Do I Find An Apartment In Shanghai?

SmartShanghai runs the best English language housing classifieds in the city. We try our best to weed out all those unscrupulous agents who employ bait-and-switch tactics – there's a ton of those.

Despite popular belief, listings on SmartShanghai are not more expensive than at local agencies because usually several agencies post the same apartment, so there's direct competition and transparency, something you don't have when walking into a local agency.

Housing scams are big around here, so don't agree to deals where your key is mailed to you, and don't pay more than a month's deposit. Here's a whole list of housing scams. In fact, you may wanna just spend your first week staying in hostels around the city until you figure out which area you want to live in. Here are 25 more tips on renting an apartment in Shanghai

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How Do I Learn Chinese?

Yeah, do that. Don't be the guy who's been here for two years and still has to show his goddamn address card to the cab driver. You will have an entirely different, and better experience here if you can speak some Mandarin. Remember, tones matter -- a lot. Practice those. There are a lot of tools out there to learn Chinese. We have a list of language schools on our website, and universities like Jiaotong University and ENCU offer part-time and full-time language programs. The Pleco app is solid dictionary.

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When are holidays in China?

All of China follows the same holiday schedule which is usually announced around the end of the previous year, around November or December.

Here's the 2023 calendar of holidays.

The two big long holidays are:

  • Around January/February: Chinese New Year (春节) - a celebration of the beginning of the New Year in accordance with China's traditional lunar calendar. Read all about it here.

  • The first week of October: National Holidays (国庆节) - a week-long celebration of the foundation of the PRC.

Shorter holidays are:

  • At the beginning of the year: New Year's Day (元旦节) - it's to celebrate the beginning of a new year, which is the first day of January.
  • Around April: Qingming Festival (清明节) - also called Tomb Sweeping Festival.  Read all about it here.

  • From May 1: Labor Day Holidays (劳动节) - it's usually five days off.
  • Around June: Dragon Boat Festival (端午节) - when we all eat zongzi. Read all about it here. it's usually five days off.

  • Around September: Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋节) - when we all eat Moon cakes. More on that here.

It is important to note that certain Chinese holidays often include additional working days on weekends to make up for the time off. 

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I've got kids. What schools should they go to?

There are several international schools in Shanghai for the children of foreign workers. These schools aren't cheap -- check out this article here for price references - and usually, it's your company that will be picking up the bill. Expect to pay

We've got a full list of international schools in our education section, with really detailed info to give you an idea of what's out there.

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Where Can I Buy Groceries? For groceries there are several apps that offer online ordering with almost instant delivery. Hema (by Alibaba) is the most well-known one among the foreign community, but it's Chinese only. Epermarket is the last remaining large English one. Check out our full guide here.

For anything else, you'll really have to learn how to use JD for electronics and Taobao for anything else. Until then, Baopals helps you order from all those shops in English.

For other stuff check out SmartShanghai's shopping directory.

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Where Can I Find A Job?

How about that -- SmartShanghai has a dedicated page for job listings.

Generally speaking, it's pretty difficult to find a job in China unless you speak really well Chinese, or are highly qualified in a specific field. It's just easier for companies to hire locals with foreign education background or one of the many returning Chinese.

Teaching jobs usually pay well but they now require you to have related certifications. We have a full guide on that here.

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Getting Involved

How Do I Meet People And Make Friends? Shanghai is a revolving door, and people come and go all the time. That means it's easy to make new friends, but easy to lose them as well. Don't end up like one of those weirdos who only has foreign friends or only has local friends. Sports and other common-interest activities are a really good way to meet people -- here's our guide to sports leagues in Shanghai.

We also have a series of articles called Communities, where we profile running clubs, volunteer groups, and more groups of people who don't just drink constantly.

And if you want to volunteer, we have a guide for that too.

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Where Are Some Good Places To Go Out?

For curated listings of parties and other events happening in Shanghai, check out our event listings. With clubs here, it really depends on the night / promoter. A place might be packed one night but empty the next, so check ahead to see what's on. Browse our nightlife directory for live music, jazz bars and more.

Shanghai's bars and restaurants tend to be inside Food & Beverage Hubs. We have a full list of those here. Xintiandi was the first and got copied in every city in China; Tianzifang is the most touristy one, Shangkang Li is currently popular with the international crowd.

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Gyms & Sports

How Do I Join A Gym And Exercise? Working out at a gym is a good way to stay healthy and sane around here. Yearly memberships usually go for around 3000rmb at a Western style gym. Prepare to bargain hard. Some local Chinese gyms will be much cheaper but quite Spartan. The key here is to know that whatever prices they offer you can be haggled down. Ask around and see if you can find out how much people are paying at the gym you are going to. Don't impulse buy. Leave your number with the salesperson, and they'll probably call you back with a lower price. If you don't bargain, you'll likely be stuck with a very high price tag. A free option -- if you have the self-discipline -- is working out in the park with the aunties, uncles, grandpas, and grandmas of Shanghai. Also good for practicing Chinese.

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Getting Out of Town

What Are Some Good Places To Travel Around Shanghai? Definitely, definitely get out of Shanghai and travel around China whenever possible. We do this column called Outbound, with travel stories about cities in China and around Asia. Check that out for some ideas.

How to buy train tickets: Ctrip (now called Trip) is China's largest online booking travel platform for hotels, flights, and also train tickets. We have a full guide to buying train tickets here.

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This How-To guide is work in progress, we are constantly updating it as we receive new information. We rely on readers like you (yes YOU). If you find this guide useful please help us improve it by adding comments in each step or by clicking the "Verify" link if you find the information provided to be correct.