- Download our Shanghai Schools Guide
One of the most influential cities in China, Shanghai is a bustling and sprawling metropolis that offers expats a fusion of East and West, old and new. Still, as with any city in the world, there are pros and cons to living in Shanghai. Here are a few things for expats to consider before making the leap.
Accommodation in Shanghai
Buildings in Shanghai generally expand vertically rather than horizontally. However, there are a variety of housing types to choose from and expats should be able to find something to their liking.
+ PRO: Variety and convenience in the property market
Shanghai is mostly dominated by apartment-style housing, but there are also numerous villa compounds. Of course, one may also find a combination of the two in the form of a penthouse. It is convenient that many landlords offer fully furnished accommodation, and most compounds will have some sort of clubhouse or small store nearby.
- CON: Difficult balance between pricing and location
Housing prices in Shanghai have skyrocketed over the years. Sometimes, even low-quality housing will be extremely pricey if it’s in a central area or suburb. Similarly, villas might be less affordable and are usually located in more secluded areas due to the need for greater amounts of space. Often, one has to compromise between location, pricing and quality of housing.
Lifestyle in Shanghai
It’s very easy to get out and about in Shanghai. From its rich cultural history and sightseeing opportunities to its bustling nightlife, expats can always find interesting things to see and do in and around the city.
+ PRO: Variety of activities
From art shows to music festivals, there will always be some sort of event going on in Shanghai. Expats can explore the city, taking a stroll down Nanjing Pedestrian Street or make their way around the French Concession. At night, one can visit the Bund area for a beautiful view of the Huangpu River and choose to dine at high-class restaurants or on delicious street food.
+ PRO: Travelling around the city is easy
It’s extremely easy to get around the city. With multiple subway lines, a plethora of bus routes and a never-ending stream of taxis, expats shouldn’t have a problem getting from one place to the next. With a personal driver, these commutes will be made even more convenient. Of course, for shorter distances, one can always cycle or walk.
- CON: Rush-hour traffic can be chaotic
During rush hour, navigating through the city may seem almost impossible; it might take a two-hour taxi ride to cover a 30-minute commute. While the metro is probably the most reliable time-wise, commuters can be caught in a never-ending stream of people.
- CON: Weather
The weather in Shanghai is often quite extreme. Sweltering heat and humidity in the summertime keep people indoors for the most part, and winters can be quite harsh and dry. However, keep in mind that when it’s hot out, most buildings and the subway are kept at extremely cool temperatures, and vice versa in the winter.
Safety in Shanghai
+ PRO: Little to no crime
Shanghai is a place with low levels of crime, and expats will rarely hear of any major crimes being committed. This means that walking around in the evenings is relatively safe.
- CON: Reckless behaviour on the streets and pickpocketing
Drivers and pedestrians alike don’t like to abide by the law if they can help it. Running red lights and jaywalking are not uncommon. In crowded areas, carelessness may cost one a phone or wallet. So, while Shanghai is fairly safe, we advise expats to take the usual precautions.
Working and doing business in Shanghai
+ PRO: Great work benefits
Most people are sent to Shanghai for work, and many companies offer to cover housing each month, provide a driver or food reimbursements. Being paid in a different currency may also mean being able to afford many more commodities than the locals.
- CON: Language and ideological barriers
It can be quite frustrating to deal with the language barrier in the workplace and aspects of business culture may also be difficult to understand, but there are also often bilingual employees to assist with this. In some businesses, having personal relationships may be beneficial, but one may see instances of nepotism or someone pulling strings.
Culture shock in Shanghai
Many expat families have full-time drivers and ayis. Ayis are like maids who often cook, clean and babysit. There may be varying viewpoints of this aspect of life here.
+ PRO: Welcoming expat community
Expat communities in Shanghai are usually quite welcoming and it's possible to even make friends with local Chinese neighbours. While the Chinese don’t habitually smile at strangers, foreigners are generally treated with respect.
- CON: Chaotic environment
People have a tendency to not abide by traffic laws and cut into queues. Littering in the streets is quite common as well. New arrivals will also see beggars in wealthy parts of the city and people selling everything from pirated DVDs to jewellery on the streets.
Cost of living in Shanghai
The cost of living in Shanghai is high, but with a bit of research and budgeting, expats will be able to score some serious bargains.
+ PRO: Cheap local goods
From clothes to food, buying things that are produced locally could actually turn out to be quite a bargain. It’s also common to haggle for lower prices at fabric or farmers markets.
- CON: Imported goods are expensive
Expats used to brand-name goods, however, should be prepared to pay high import taxes. One may also be hard pressed to find reasonable prices when it comes to items like avocados and cherries, which seem to be rarer in China.
Education and schools in Shanghai
Pretty much all expats will enrol their children in an international school. These schools offer curricula such as that of the USA or the UK, and some are religiously affiliated.
+ PRO: Great education and facilities
Each international school is different, but they all employ highly-qualified instructors. The curriculum itself is also on par with any other private school. Thanks to charging sizeable tuitions, international schools offer their students top-notch facilities, from high-grade science labs to expansive sports fields. Many schools are also adopting a more technology-based education that involves personal computers for each student.
- CON: Long commutes to school
Depending on where one lives and where the school is located, the commute could take a very long time. Most students will take a bus to school, but those in more centralised areas may be able to walk. Often, students who live further away will find themselves stuck in traffic when trying to get home if they participate in after-school activities.
Healthcare in Shanghai
+ PRO: High-quality private healthcare
In Shanghai, the better insurance one has, the better service and benefits they will receive. Those who have international health insurance provided by an employer will be able to bypass most queues and many hospitals even offer a ward especially for foreigners. Fewer people see these doctors, which means they can devote more time to each patient.
- CON: Expensive
Bypassing queues could mean paying several times more for a checkup than locals do. This may or may not affect an expat, depending on the level of healthcare insurance their employer offers. If expats buy their own health cover, it will be much more expensive.
►See Cost of Living in Shanghai for an overview of living expenses in the city
"I love that Shanghai is a place for adventure and there’s always something new to do. As an expat, I’d say the quality of life is quite good." Read more in this interview with Jordan.
"English as a language is still growing in popularity with the local Shanghai residents, so it is often difficult to communicate if you don’t speak Mandarin. However, the city is very efficient and you can always get the address of where you need to go written in Chinese to show a taxi driver." Check out our interview with Georgia for more insights into Shanghai life.
Are you an expat living in Shanghai?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to Shanghai. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
Expat Health Insurance
If you’re thinking about taking out private health insurance, our trusted partner Cigna Global is very aware of all the difficulties that expats can face when it comes to healthcare in a new location, so they have created a range of international health insurance plans specifically designed for expats, which you can tailor exactly to the needs and ensure access to quality care for you and your family.
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