The Expat Relocation Guide to Shanghai

January 10, 2024

Shanghai is China’s largest city, one of the most populous cities in the world, and one of the biggest global financial hubs. Shanghai boasts a vibrant cultural scene and a cityscape blending visionary skyscrapers with elegant, historic architecture. Shanghai is truly an expat magnet.

Situated along China’s central coast, this economic center has long been a draw for ambitious, career-focused expats in industries like science, technology, finance, and business. But work aside, Shanghai has many other incentives to attract adventurous expats worldwide. This dynamic modern metropolis offers a unique blend of modernity and tradition, making it an enticing choice for those looking to immerse themselves in Chinese culture while enjoying the comforts of a cosmopolitan lifestyle.

A thriving expat community makes it easy for newcomers to connect with like-minded individuals and find support networks. The city also has stellar infrastructure and amenities, from an efficient mass-transit system to excellent health-care facilities, good schools, and a culinary scene that caters to every taste. Diverse neighborhoods provide a range of housing options, from historic shikumen houses to modern high-rise apartments, suiting all preferences and budgets.

Beyond practical amenities for daily living, Shanghai offers a multitude of recreational and cultural activities to keep its residents entertained. The city boasts iconic landmarks, such as the Oriental Pearl Tower and the Bund, offering breathtaking views of the skyline and the Huangpu River. Cultural enthusiasts can explore world-class museums, like the Shanghai Museum, and enjoy traditional Chinese opera performances.

With its strong economic prospects, thriving international community, and wealth of leisure opportunities, Shanghai is a compelling choice for expats looking to embark on a fulfilling adventure in China. Offering guidance on everything from getting health care to finding the best neighborhoods, this expat guide to Shanghai will make your transition as seamless and easy as possible.

Shanghai fast facts

  • Population: 26.3 million
  • Currency: Chinese yuan or renminbi (CNY; ¥)
  • Language: Mandarin Chinese
  • Time zone: GMT+8
  • Climate: Humid subtropical
  • Emergency numbers: 110 (police), 119 (fire department), 120 (ambulance)

Shanghai work visas

Although China has long been notorious for its difficult visa processes, it’s relaxed some aspects of the process in the wake of COVID-19 in the hopes of attracting more foreign talent.

Although exact requirements vary, foreign nationals hoping to move to Shanghai generally need to meet the following requirements:

  • A job offer from a Chinese employer
  • A valid passport
  • A clean criminal record
  • At least two years of professional experience in your field

You’ll then need to follow these steps:

  • Apply for a Foreigner’s Work Permit from outside China
  • Apply for the Z visa at the nearest Chinese embassy or consulate
  • Arrive in China with a work permit and Z-visa
  • Register with the police
  • Undergo a medical exam
  • Apply for and receive actual work and residency permits

Due to the multiple steps and complicated process, employers often assist foreign hires with navigating the Chinese visa process. You can learn more about Chinese visas, their application processes, necessary documents, and more here.

The cost of living in Shanghai

As one of China’s biggest and most powerful cities, Shanghai is an expensive place to live on both a national and international scale. It frequently ranks as one of the most expensive cities in the world. However, it’s still more affordable than other major cities. For instance, Shanghai is nearly 57% less expensive than living in New York City, setting aside rental costs.
As with similarly expensive cities around the world, housing is the most costly monthly expenditure here. To give you a rough idea of Shanghai’s cost of living, here are the average rates for different expenses (shown in US dollars).

  • Average monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment in city center: $1,069
  • Average home asking price: $950 per square foot
  • Average monthly cost of living for family of four: $2,707 (without rent)
  • Average monthly cost of living for one person: $819 (without rent)
  • Internet: $16
  • Average monthly utilities (gas, water, electric): $68
  • Monthly transit: $34
  • Mid-range restaurant meal: $30-$35

The best neighborhoods in Shanghai for expats

Shanghai comprises 19 county or district municipalities, which then break down further into townships and neighborhoods. In general, the city is split between two main districts, Pudong and Puxi, within which you’ll find a range of smaller neighborhoods, each with its own unique character and offerings. Young professionals who want to live close to both work and entertainment can set themselves up in the central districts, while more laid-back neighborhoods further afield appeal to families.

These top neighborhoods for expats in Shanghai have everything new arrivals need to find their feet, from good schools and a community of peers to age-appropriate entertainment ranging from nightlife for the younger crowd to parks for families.

Best for young professionals

Pudong: Pudong, specifically the Lujiazui area, is famous for its iconic skyline and serves as Shanghai’s financial hub. Expats working in the finance and business sectors often prefer this area for its proximity to their workplaces and the presence of upscale apartments and reputable schools. Modern and commercial, it offers stunning views of the Bund and a range of shopping and entertainment options.

Jing’an: The cosmopolitan Jing’an district is another expat-friendly area known for its central location and upscale living. It features a mix of modern skyscrapers, luxury boutiques, and international restaurants. The Jing’an Temple area is a cultural highlight, and the neighborhood’s proximity to public transportation makes it easy to explore other parts of the city.

Former French Concession (FFC): Situated within Xuhui District, FFC is renowned for its historic charm, tree-lined streets, and wide range of boutiques, cafes, and art galleries. It’s a favorite among expats who appreciate a bohemian and culturally rich atmosphere. The area also features a mix of renovated lane houses and apartments for different accommodation options.

Huangpu: The bustling city center of Shanghai, Huangpu may be too central for some, but it’s a dream for workers who love its convenience and access to iconic attractions, like the Bund and People’s Square. Expats who prefer to be at the heart of the action and enjoy a vibrant urban lifestyle can set themselves up in luxury apartments and high-rise living in this district.

Best for families

Xuhui: Xuhui is a popular choice for expats due to its leafy streets, historical charm, and convenient location. It’s home to the former French Concession area, known for its tree-lined avenues, historic architecture, and international dining options. Xuhui also hosts many international schools, making it a great choice for families.

Hongqiao: Hongqiao is a family-oriented neighborhood known for its expat-friendly amenities, like international schools. Home to a big expat community, it’s also close to the Hongqiao International Airport and Hongqiao Railway Station, making travel convenient.

Minhang: Minhang is a quieter, more suburban option for expats seeking a peaceful environment. It offers a mix of green spaces, affordable housing, and international schools away from the city center, providing a tranquil escape from the hustle and bustle of downtown Shanghai.

Jinqiao: Located in Pudong, Jinqiao is a well-planned and family-oriented neighborhood with a substantial expat population. It offers spacious suburban living, international schools, and large green spaces. Jinqiao’s residential compounds often come with excellent amenities, like swimming pools, gyms, and on-site supermarkets.

Gubei: Also situated in Pudong, Gubei is known for its convenience and diverse expat population. Expats living here enjoy access to Western-style supermarkets, international schools, and healthcare facilities. The neighborhood offers a mix of apartment complexes and gated communities, making it attractive for expat families.

Education in Shanghai

Because of the language barrier, most expats in Shanghai prefer to send their children to one of the city’s international schools as opposed to Chinese public schools. While Shanghai’s public schools boast some of the best academic standards for public schools in the world, most classes are taught in Mandarin Chinese. They also follow the Chinese National Curriculum, which covers a comprehensive range of subjects, including Chinese, math, history, science, the arts, and more, through preschool, primary, and secondary school.

While Shanghai’s public schools may be top-notch, the language barrier can be an obstacle for children who are new to the country or aren’t fluent in the language. That being said, expats who wish to immerse their children in the local culture and language can still enroll them in Chinese public or private schools.

For those who prefer to stick to international curricula, parents have a range of excellent international schools to choose from, thanks to the city’s thriving expat population.

International schools

Shanghai’s options for international schooling typically offer curricula from various countries, such as the International Baccalaureate (IB), American, British, French, or other international systems. Most offer education from primary through secondary, but there are also some international preschools and kindergartens as well.

Popular international schools include the Shanghai American School, Shanghai British International School, and the Shanghai Community International School. Most international schools in Shanghai offer bilingual education, with classes conducted in English and Mandarin. Some schools also offer a choice of language tracks, allowing students to focus on one language more than the other.

These schools are in high demand and often have competitive application processes. Some even have waiting lists. Prospective expats should try to get their children’s schooling arranged before arriving to ensure there are no lapses in their education. The high cost of tuition for many of these schools, plus things like uniforms and extracurriculars, are further reasons why Shanghai can be an expensive place to live for families.

How to build community in Shanghai

One of the hardest parts of moving somewhere new is making new friends and creating a new social circle. This can feel especially difficult when cultural differences or language barriers also come into play.

New arrivals in Shanghai, however, will find a large expat community, where they can likely meet others from their home country and culture. Most Chinese people also tend to be friendly and welcoming to foreigners. But how do you start the process of meeting your new community? Here are some tips:

Learn Mandarin or join a language exchange: Even though Shanghai has a fairly large English-speaking population, thanks to its status as an international center for business and economics, Mandarin Chinese is the official language. For one-on-one practice, you can find partners on sites like MyLanguageExchange, or you can join a language-exchange group, like Shanghai Language Exchange Friends or Meetup language-exchange events, to improve your language skills and meet new people. These groups often bring together Shanghai locals and expats from around the world, giving you chances to make new connections while also learning a new skill.

Join expat groups: Expat groups, like InterNations, Shanghai Expats, and the Shanghai Expatriate Association, are great resources for forming community and seeking advice and guidance from fellow expats. They’ll also keep you in the loop on expat events happening in your neighborhood, at your kid’s school, and at your workplace.

Networking events: For those in the professional sphere, attending networking events at work is a fantastic way to make connections. These gatherings often attract both expats and locals, providing opportunities for personal and professional connections alike.

Join clubs and groups: Finding people who share the same interests can help you feel more settled in a new place. Online lists of expat groups from SmartShanghai and Angloinfo Shanghai, among others, can help you discover different organizations related to your interests, hobbies, and lifestyle.

Navigating healthcare in Shanghai

Offering basic coverage, China’s public healthcare system can be a mixed bag. While it can be accessible to expats depending on your visa terms, the quality of care, facilities, and access is sometimes inconsistent.

Due to this, most expats opt to go the private route while living in Shanghai. Along with higher-quality care and convenience, many expats prefer to pay more for private health insurance, as it provides access to better facilities with English-speaking staff as well as shorter wait times.

It’s highly recommended for expats to have comprehensive and appropriate medical insurance that covers medical expenses in Shanghai. International health insurance plans are available, and some employers may provide insurance as part of your expatriate package. Many expats in Shanghai also need to undergo regular health check-ups, as these are often required for work permits and visas. These check-ups can be done at both public and private hospitals.

Lastly, air quality can sometimes be an issue in Shanghai. Although its air quality levels are lower than in other Chinese cities, these levels can sometimes still irritate the eyes and throat of immuno-compromised, elderly, or young people. Having an air purifier in your home and using face masks on especially smoggy days can help.

Top hospitals in Shanghai

Even though public health-care offerings in Shanghai can vary, the private healthcare system excels with its modern state-of-the-art facilities, English-speaking doctors and staff, and top-quality care. Some of the top private hospitals that expats turn to include Shanghai United Family Hospital, ParkwayHealth, and Shanghai East International Medical Center.

Banking and money in Shanghai

As mentioned above, Shanghai is one of the world’s major finance centers, home to some of the biggest banks in the world, like HSBC and Citibank, as well as local options, like Bank of China. Along with standard account options, like checking and savings, many international banks allow expats to open accounts in various currencies, including Chinese yuan, US dollars, or euros.

Different banks will also have different fees for things like foreign transactions, so be sure to research your options to find what works best for you.

There are two primary types of bank accounts in China: resident and non-resident. Resident accounts are for individuals with a Chinese residence permit, while non-resident accounts are for expats on short-term visas. Most expats will open non-resident accounts initially but can sometimes upgrade to a resident account eventually once they’ve lived in the country long enough.

To open a non-resident account, you’ll need to provide the following documents:

  • Passport with a valid visa
  • Proof of address (often a rental agreement or utility bill in your name)
  • Employment contract or proof of income
  • Residence registration form (obtained from the local police station)
  • Passport-size photos (some banks may require this)

Because of the necessary documentation, expats usually need to go to a bank branch in person to open an account. After that, most banks offer online banking services for ease and convenience.

Getting around in Shanghai

From driving to using the city’s renowned metro system, there are many ways to get around Shanghai.

Driving in Shanghai

You generally need a valid Chinese driver’s license to drive in Shanghai. If you have an international driver’s license, it may be valid for a short period (usually three months) after your arrival. After that, you’ll need to obtain a Chinese driver’s license, which usually involves written and practical exams depending on your nationality and existing license.

Shanghai is infamous for its traffic congestion, especially during rush hour. This, paired with China’s very strict road laws, aggressive driving, and the fact that most road signs are in Chinese, deter many expats from driving and instead relying on the city’s public transportation options.

Mass transit

Shanghai’s extensive public-transportation network consists of buses, trams, ferries, and the Shanghai Metro (subway). The Shanghai Metro is one of the largest and most rapidly expanding subway systems in the world, consisting of multiple lines that cover most parts of the city. Unlike much of the road signage, subway signs and announcements are often in Chinese and English, which makes it easier for expats to learn how to use the system and get around. The Metro is especially popular due to its speed, cleanliness, and affordability.

The bus system complements the Metro and serves areas not covered by the subway. While buses are an affordable option, they can be more challenging for non-Chinese speakers, due to limited English signage and announcements. You can also get around and commute by river cruise, ferry, and river bus, thanks to Shanghai’s location along the Huangpu River. Not only do the waterways more easily connect different parts of the city, but the rides make for amazing skyline views.

While you can pay for individual-ride tickets in cash, it’s best to get a rechargeable Shanghai Public Transportation Card (SPTC) for easy access to various forms of public transit.

Apart from the metro, buses, and ferries, taxis and rideshares are widely used here. Popular ride-sharing apps, like DiDi and Meituan Dache, offer a convenient way to hail taxis and private cars. They often provide English language options and accept international credit cards.

Shanghai is also a fairly pedestrian and bike-friendly city, with designated bike lanes, wide sidewalks, and easily walkable neighborhoods.

Things to know about living in Shanghai

Moving to Shanghai as an expat, it’s important to be aware of cultural differences and customs to help you navigate daily life and interact with locals more effectively.

Guanxi (relationships): Building and maintaining relationships, known as guanxi, are crucial in Chinese culture. Networking and personal connections can play a significant role in both social and business settings.

Face-saving: The concept of “face” (mianzi) is vital in China. Avoid causing someone to lose face or embarrassment in public, as it can damage relationships.

Punctuality: Punctuality is valued in Shanghai, especially in business settings. Arrive on time for meetings and appointments to demonstrate professionalism and respect.

Gift-giving: Giving and receiving gifts is common in China. When presenting a gift, use both hands, and keep in mind it’s polite for the recipient to decline a few times before accepting it. Be cautious about the symbolism of certain gifts, as some items may carry negative connotations.

Internet and media: Be aware of internet censorship and the “Great Firewall of China”, as some websites and social-media platforms may be restricted or blocked. Use a VPN (Virtual Private Network) to access blocked content if needed.

Personal space: Personal space is often limited in crowded places, so don’t be surprised if people stand close to you in queues or on public transport.

Preparing for expat life in Shanghai

Moving to Shanghai is a complicated endeavor even for experienced expats, due to the strict visa process and dealing with Chinese logistics. But once you’re settled, you get to enjoy living in one of the great cities of Asia, with its high quality of life, incredible cultural offerings, delicious street food, and mix of past and future.

In addition to offering visa assistance, an experienced immigration specialist can help you navigate the complexities of settling in and adjusting to Shanghai life. Contact Newland Chase for a quote today.