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Shanghai Beginner's Guide: How To Survive And Prosper In The City
Your guide to the first 48 hours in Shanghai, long-term success, and advice from lifers who've seen it all.
By Aug 26, 2015 Community
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. And remember, how you act here affects how people view all laowai, so follow the golden rule.

We've divided this into three sections:

1) The First 48 Hours: Basic stuff like getting a SIM card, registering with the police, and finding an apartment.

2) Longer Term: Here we cover topics like learning Chinese, joining a gym, meeting people, going out, and making friends.

3) Life Advice From People Who Have Lived Here Far Too Long


The First 48 Hours





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.

Do not accept any job that says "hey just come on a tourist visa and we'll sort it out later". It is illegal to work on a tourist visa, and lots of shady English schools make promises they can't keep. Chinese authorities can and have done random checks. If you are caught working without a Chinese visa, it can mean deportation back to your home country and a heavy fine.

Is Shanghai Safe?

Yes, especially compared to Western cities. But, while violent crime is low, property crimes are a problem. Beware of ninjas. Thieves can pick door locks and steal whatever is easy to reach from your front door when you sleep. Likewise, in public, keep your hand on anything important, e.g. bags, phones, etc. Don't set your stuff down in the bar, and watch your pockets. Thieves are fast.

Don't ever get into a fight with locals. Even if someone pushes you at the club, just say "sorry" and walk away. You will not win, and no one will help. Also, while the city center is safe, don't walk around drunk by yourself at night. Use common sense.

Emergency Numbers

Police: 110
Ambulance: 120
Fire: 119

110 is the the number for general emergencies. They should be able to assist you even in English. Depending on the situation, you may also want to call your consulate.

What Are Some Common Scams In Shanghai?

Everyone has a story of a laowai getting scammed or getting held hostage for 20k at a massage parlor. Don't be that guy! If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. And if it’s just a little sketchy, chances are that it’s really sketchy. Here ten of the most common scams in Shanghai.

How Do I Get A Metro Card?

Traffic in Shanghai sucks. Despite what some say, the subway is almost always faster than taking a cab -- even when walking is involved. Don't even think about trying to flag a taxi when it's raining heavily, or between 8-11pm on a Friday or Saturday night. Ain't happening. Buying a ticket each time you ride the subway is a hassle, so grab a reusable metro card at any station’s kiosk for a 20rmb deposit. That's called a Jiaotong Ka. From then on, you can add money by taking to a station’s staff counter.

Where Can I Buy A SIM Card? Will My Phone Work Here?

If you're here short-term, just buy a SIM card from a kiosk on the street. The kind of places that sell phones and cigs usually have SIM cards. Busy areas like the train station and People's Square will have someone selling them too. Those are called SIM ka.

China Mobile and China Unicom and are the big cell providers in Shanghai. You probably want to go with China Mobile, though it is slightly more expensive. That SIM card should run you 80-100rmb, including some phone time, and will work right out of the box. If your phone is unlocked, it will probably work here. After this, you'll need to recharge by buying chongzhi cards from smaller convenience stores and magazine stands (most chains won't have them) – just make sure they're for the right company. You can also have a local friend do it from their phone. Nowadays, some Lawsons can charge your phone without a card, you just need to enter your phone number in a keypad.

Now, if you're staying in town for a while -- and especially if you want 4G, or want to make international calls -- you might want to get a cell phone plan from an actual China Mobile or China Unicom store. You’ll need to bring your passport, which will be linked to that number.

What The Hell Is A WeChat?

WeChat -- China's most popular form of digital communication -- is a chat client that blends the best / most time-wasting features of What's App, Facebook, and Tinder is the primary form of communication in China. It sucks, but everyone uses it. When you meet people, they’ll often just ask for your WeChat instead of asking for your name. Facebook might take over your life, but WeChat will make you its bitch. Don't discuss sensitive topics here -- or on phones in general for that matter.

How Much Should Taxis Cost? What About Fake Cabs?

First off, the golden rule of traveling in Shanghai: Street numbers will get you nowhere. Always know the intersection.

The metro closes at 11pm or earlier, and it's not always the most direct way of getting somewhere. Luckily, taxis are super cheap in Shanghai compared to other world cities, but not all taxi companies are created equally. If you forget your phone or other item in a taxi, you’re more likely to get it back if you rode in one of the big four companies than many smaller ones. 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. The first two, Dazhong and Qiangshen, are considered the most trustworthy by foreigners and locals alike.

There's always been an urban legend in Shanghai that red cabs are sketchy, and that's somewhat true. These drivers often own their own cab and lack the insurance of a big company.

Then there are the black cabs, which look like regular cars. Look out for shady dudes hanging outside of metro stations, whistling and howling "Hey! Taxi?" They charge a flat fee, sometimes ridiculous amounts like 10x the normal fare. Avoid these*. They're completely unregulated.

At the time of writing, the initial meter charge is 14rmb for the first 3km, then 2.4rmb for each kilometer after 3km, and 3.6rmb/km after 10km. At night from 11pm-5am, fares generally end up costing about a third more than during the day.

Does Uber Work In Shanghai? What About These Other Taxi Apps?

Getting a taxi in the rain or during rush hour can be almost impossible, and that's where taxi apps come in handy. Uber is getting popular here, and currently the “People’s Uber” is cheaper than a taxi, especially at night. Sign up is easy and you can even use a foreign credit card (preferably one without an international transaction fee).

Didi Dache and Kuaidi Dache are like the Chinese versions of Uber, but they work with actual taxis AND private cars. You'll need to know some Chinese to use that though -- here's how to use Didi Dache as well as some other crucial Chinese apps.

How Do I Find An Apartment In Shanghai?

If you don’t have a place yet, wait until you arrive. You don’t ever really know what a place is like until you see it, and dealing with someone in person is a lot safer than over the Internet. 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. Don't ever give more than two months as a security despoit, but always bargain to pay one month at a time and give a one month security deposit.

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. Jing’an, Xuhui, Changning, and Luwan / Xintiandi are all good areas near downtown. Remember: You didn't move halfway around the world to live 45 minutes outside of the city. Get a place in the city center. But if you don’t mind being a little further away a.k.a. out of laowailand but still in an urban zone, Hongkou, Lujiazui, and Zhongshan Park are also nice and usually cheaper. Whatever you decide, stay close to a subway station. Line 10, 9, 2, 7, and 1 are good ones to live near. Try walking to the subway station from your potential apartment and keep in mind that you’ll probably be making that trip every day, unless you're a princess who takes Uber every day..

To find the latest housing listings in Shanghai, check out our housing section. It's the only one in Shanghai with a built-in spam filter to weed out all those unscrupulous agents who employ bait-and-switch tactics – there's a ton of those. If you're don't know anyone in town, a shared apartment is a good look.

How Do I Register With The Police?

Within 24 hours of arriving, you’ll need to go to your local police station and register. If you're staying in a hotel, they'll do it for you (that's why they scan your passport). Being late to do this can result in heavy fines, sometimes thouands of rmb . If you do go late, you usually won’t get fined so heavily and depends heavily on the mood of the officer on duty, but it can happen, so just get it done. Here’s what you’ll need to bring:

- Valid passport and visa.
- Photocopy of the passport picture and visa pages.
- The original rental agreement (lease) and a photocopy.
- Photocopy of the landlord's ID.
- Photocopy of the real estate booklet.

And don't look like a fucking bum, rocking slippers and a Dead T-shirt when you show up at the police station.

Can I Use Facebook And YouTube Here? What's A VPN?

The Great Firewall of China blocks a lot of foreign websites. So, depending on how addicted you are to websites like Facebook and Twitter, you might want to invest in a Virtual Private Network (VPN), which should run you about 5-10 USD a month. Do some due diligence and compare VPN providers. Ask fellow expats. Reddit is a good place to start, but use the search function before you post some noob question.

Popular VPNs include Astrill, 12VPN, and VPNinja. This is one of those things that is better to do before you arrive, but it’s still possible to set one up if you’re already here.

Longer Term





Should I Get A Chinese Bank Account?

There are foreign banks in Shanghai, but opening a Chinese bank account makes life a lot easier. You won’t have to pay huge ATM fees, and you’ll be able to sign up for online services and pay with your bank card. Go with one of the bigger banks like ICBC, Merchant’s Bank, or Construction Bank. Each bank has different rules, but often they don’t have fees or even account minimums. We recommend going with Merchant's Bank, because it's easy to set up Alipay, a really convenient way to pay for almost anything. But in general, going to the bank is an awful, awful experience.

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 a completely different, and better experience here if you can speak some Mandarin. First off all, Learn pinyin immediately, so you don't sound dumb when you're reading street signs. Also, 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. ChinesePod is great series of podcasts, though the language and accent tends to be more southern / Taiwanese / girly. Dianhua Dictionary and Pleco are solid dictionaries. But ultimately, when it comes down to it, if you truly want to learn a language, you’re going to need to make friends with native speakers. That means not spending all your time with laowais, and getting out of your comfort zone.

A word to all you fellows -- learn your Chinese from dudes. Ideally dudes from north China. There is nothing worse than a big foreign dude speaking in a girly Taiwanese accent and saying things like "dui a!" or "o…wo taoyan ni!"

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, and usually it's your company that will be picking up the bill. 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.

Where Can I Find A Job?

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

How Do I Join A Gym And Exercise? How Much Should A Gym Membership Cost?

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.

How Bad Is The Pollution In Shanghai?

Worse than LA, but not as bad as Beijing. So, not the worst, but not great either. Very rarely, the pollution does reach unsafe levels and may require the use of masks. You can keep watch on it at State Air. We also interviewed an American doctor about this topic.

Where Can I Buy Groceries?

It’s a safe bet that there will be a large Chinese grocery store, like Carrefour, stationed somewhere near where you live. But for the international stuff, you’ll want to look at imported grocery stores and specialty grocery stores.

Is It Cool To Drink The Tap Water?

No, it's not cool. You cannot drink the tap water. Ever. Your pet can, though. Brushing your teeth or shaving with tap water is fine. Bottled water is good to drink. Nestle is generally trusted around here, and Watson’s is considered to be the cleanest because in addition to filtering their water, they also boil it before bottling. Another option is buying a filter, but only the really expensive (and often unfordable) ones are really trustworthy.

What If I Get Food Poisoning?

Food poisoning does happen. If it doesn’t look clean then it probably isn’t. But food poisoning can happen in nice restaurants too. That doesn’t mean you should avoid street food or other delicious options all-together, but just be careful about it. Check out our Q&A with a doctor about food poisoning for more on this.

How Do I Meet People And Make Friends? Where Are Some Good Places To Go Out?

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 an article on an organization that has teams for almost everything. 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.

For curated listings on parties and other events happening in Shanghai, check out our event listings. And for an idea of what clubs look like when they're full, check our party pictures, which we update 3-4 times a week. Note: with clubs here, it really depends on the night / promoter. A place might be packed one night but totally empty the next, so check ahead to see what's on.

Our editors like…

Clubbing / DJs: The Shelter, Arkham, Dada.
Live Music: Yuyintang, Cotton Club.
Beer: Uptown Records n' Beer, Jackie's Beer Nest, Yongkang Lu*, Danshui Lu.
Cocktails / Lounging: Pocho Social Club, The Nest, Tattoo Bar, Bell Bar.

*Really a love / hate relationship with that street...But we often end up there, regardless.

What About Dating?

If you're looking for love, we have a dedicated dating service on SmartShanghai with over 17000 members.

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.

What If I Need To Go To The Hospital?

Figuring out your hospital is something you want to do before you have to go. It can be a tricky thing, especially if you don’t speak Mandarin. For Chinese hospitals, it’s first come first serve, so you’ll want to get there early and grab a queue ticket. One basic visit at a Chinese hospital will cost around 200rmb not including any prescribed medicine.

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 and you can manage the trip. As with everything in China, timely ambulances aren’t something you can count on.

Some hospitals have a VIP or English service. The cost for this is higher, but in practice, the English option isn’t always that good. So if your Chinese isn’t entirely functional, you’ll want to take someone with you who can help translate your needs. If not, you might want to go to an international hospital with English-speaking staff. The care quality at these hospitals is generally better, but they are also far more expensive, though they do take insurance.

What About Drugs?

Yeah, drugs are super illegal here. Don't do it. Random tests have occurred in clubs and bars. Some people like to light up spliffs outside and say "no one here knows what this is". Don't listen to people like that. Getting caught with the tiniest amount of anything ranges from deportation to a prison sentence. And they’ve got capital punishment saved for those who get caught not with the tiniest amount. Several foreigners have received lengthy prison sentences this year alone.

Advice From People Who Have Lived Here For Far Too Long





A while back we collected some advice from veteran expats here in Shanghai -- mostly people have lived here for at least five years. Here’s what they had to say:

"Shanghai is like a magic mirror. It gives you what you project." - Mache

"Learn Chinese. If you think you are gonna get by here on your skills alone, then you better be really fucking good at whatever it is you do. For everyone else, the doors that speaking Chinese will open for you is an advantage you don't want to be without. Likewise, piece of advice number two – be really fucking good at what you do, because being bilingual alone won't get you anywhere. This ain't 2002 anymore." - Patrick Mai

"Whether you like it or not, cars and silent mopeds have the de facto right-of-way. Get used to it or get hit." - Perseus Renault

"The taxi drivers might sound like they hate your life, but they don't. That's just how they talk." - Skinny Brown

"Never give your landlord a two-month deposit. Never have sex without a condom. You will get burned" - Charles, a.k.a. MC One Consciousness

"While you're jetlagged, wake up super early and go to the park to watch people doing kung fu and taichi. It's important to do this while you're still jet-lagged, cause once you adjust, there's no way you will get up that early." - The Legend Of Rad

"Try your best to have at least a part of your life which allows you to spend quality time with Chinese friends, based around something like a hobby such as sports, hill walking, anything like that. For me I do this by supporting Shanghai Shenhua FC and it's the best part of my life in the city." - Shanghai_Ultra

"Splurge on buying the 30–40rmb umbrella instead of the piece of shit 10rmb ones. It's worth the value you receive before you lose it and have to buy another." - Dave Gross

"Indulge in the plethora of wicked happy hours unparalleled anywhere else in the world." - Skinny Brown

"Don't be fooled by your outdated Lonely Planet guide that talks up Hengshan Lu Bar Street." - Katy Roseland

"If you smoke, smoke real cigarettes. The fake ones will make you sick." - Ian Steimo

"Don't waste your time in lame clubs. You can live a fake-VIP life later when you are living in a less exciting city." - Ian Steimo

"Shanghai is full of hacks, fakes, wannabes, posers, and people who couldn't cut it back home. The competition is not that high. Being better than people in Shanghai is not enough -- compare yourself to people in New York and London instead." - Raul Bernardi

"There are few rules and not much support here, and it's really easy to lose control and slip into unhealthy lifestyles and all forms of addiction. Stay grounded. Know when it's time to leave." - Julian Clay

"Life back home is still happening. Your parents are getting older. Your friends are getting married and having kids. Keep in touch. Go home at least once or twice a year."

"There's more STDs here than you think. Dudes sleep with hookers more than you can imagine. Be safe." - Agatha G.

"Don't be arrogant. Chinese people have a lot of culture and wisdom. Just because we are behind a little bit right now doesn't mean we are dumb. Respect the locals." - Jodi Rao

"Don't buy designer clothes, just get your shit made. It's actually cheaper, fits better, and it's more fun."

"Don't take advice from weirdo laowai." - A Weirdo Laowai

"Vegetarians, just give up. Restaurants here consider cabbage cooked in pork fat with oyster sauce "vegetarian." - Someone Who Failed At Being A Vegetarian

"Just because girls are walking around holding hands doesn't mean they're lesbians."

***

4 comments.

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  • 2 years ago buckwurst

    I'm no huge fan of China Unicom, but because they have a 3g network, there's a much higher chance of a foreign phone working with them than China Mobile, unless the foreign phone is 4G, which most aren't, so if data is important (I rarely talk on my phone, but use a lot of data), I'd change your recommendation to be to go with Unicom not Mobile.

  • 2 years ago mistergraves

    It's not impossible to be vegetarian or vegan in Shanghai... you just gotta learn to cook.

  • 2 years ago TSkillet

    1. WeChat is awesome. WeChat payments are awesome. WeChat may have started as a What'sApp clone, but it has far surpassed it in usability. You can pay for your cell phone bill, buy air tickets, pay for cabs, buy movie tickets, split dinner bills. All at a much easier way to use than AliPay.
    2. Avoid MAROON (not red) cabs. Especially those with license plates that start AX, BX or DX. Those are the cabs owned by the drivers. I'm not saying all self-owned cabs are bad, but 98% of bad cabs are self-owned.
    3. It's not difficult to be vegetarian. The first part to that is "learn to speak and read Chinese"

  • 2 years ago Kayla02

    Well done. All right and I agree with TSKillet as well. As it says, put on a nice shirt, or at least not a dumpy one, when you go to the Police Station.

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