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16 things to know before moving to Shanghai

Top tips for a stress-free move to the most populous city on Earth

If you’re moving to Shanghai – brilliant. You’re going to love it! You're about to become a resident of one of the most dynamic and exciting cities in the world. Upon arrival, some things might prove a bit of a culture shock, but not to worry: here are some tips to help you settle here, and save you some hassle along the way…


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Before you arrive


1. Check your passport is up to date

Renewing your passport from abroad can be easy, but can also be a massive headache. If you only have five months left on your passport and have taken a three-year contract at your new job in Shanghai, renew your passport at home. Trust us, it’ll save all manner of hassle later.


2. Check currency conversions

Some currencies, in particular the South African Rand, are very difficult to convert in mainland China. Check whether you’ll be able to convert your local currency before you leave home – if you’re not sure, change it directly into RMB, US dollars or HK dollars before arriving.


3. Sort a VPN (virtual private network)

Some of your favourite websites are likely to fall foul of China’s Great Firewall (not those sites, we’re talking about your social media addiction). In more recent times, websites like Google and Twitter have been blocked, along with a number of news websites. Download a VPN for both your computer and smartphone before you leave (there are lots of VPNS to choose from: check out PC World's recent round-up, which includes some fierce debate in the comments section too) and get it working smoothly before you land. You'll be Instagramming pictures of all your kerazy meals before you know it. See some of the best VPNs for China.


4. Stock up on toiletries – including mosquito repellent

There are many places to go shopping in Shanghai, and chances are you can find most things you want. But some things remain sadly lacking in choice; over-the-counter ibuprofen and paracetamol, tampons, mosquito repellent containing DEET. Also be aware that many face creams will contain whitening elements as the fashion in China is for pale, not tanned, complexions. Alternatively, shop online to find the brand you're used to and have it delivered to your door.


5. Bring your winter layers


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If you arrive in the summer when the temperature soars to near 40 degrees it might be hard to believe, but trust us – Shanghai gets cold in the winter. Really cold. Most homes don’t have central heating and many of them are without double glazing too, and as a result get pretty darned chilly. Bring that extra sweater and woolly scarf, and don’t leave your coat behind just because you’re arriving in shorts and flip-flops. And don't freak out just yet, we've got you covered with warm dishes to eat and tips of beating cold in Shanghai.


When you arrive

6. Enjoy yourself while househunting

This might well be one of the most important decisions you make, but don’t worry – there are plenty of places to live in Shanghai and a vast range of properties, from old lane houses to towering modern condominiums. If you’re looking to live alone, ask someone who knows Shanghai to come looking with you – preferably someone who can speak Chinese if you can’t. The first rule is to never, ever, pay any money for the house until you’ve seen it first. When you settle on your dream Shanghai pad, be aware that some landlords ask as much as three months’ rent upfront as a deposit, and that many contracts ask for two or three-month installments of rent at a time. And we've compiled a complete guide to renting in Shanghai. You're welcome.


7. Register with the police

One of the first things you need to do is head down to your local police station to register. Copy all documents you have to do with your property – your contract and your landlord's ID and property ownership documents – and bring them to the police station along with your visa and, of course, your passport. Don’t be nervous; the police are well accustomed to lost-looking newcomers wandering into the police station. Just grit your teeth and get it done; if you leave it later than 48 hours after moving in you can theoretically be fined, and although most police don't want the hassle, there's no guarantee you won't come across one who wants to play the power card just for the hell of it . Which reminds us…


8. Take your passport to pretty much everything

While you don’t need to carry it around the streets at all times, without your passport you can’t buy plane tickets, train tickets or long-distance bus tickets. You’ll need to show it when you take out a phone contract, do anything at the bank, go to the doctor – so just bring it to anything vaguely official. Consider having a picture of the main page saved on your phone, or a copy in your wallet; this can sometimes be a good work around if you’re asked for your passport and don’t have it for some reason. But be warned, it doesn't always work.


9. Don’t drink the water

You can’t drink tap water here so don't even think about it, bottled water is cheap and plentiful, and that's the stuff you should be boiling too. Invest in a water cooler for your home, or bulk buy large bottles of mineral water. Side tip: always wash fruits and vegetables.


10. Start learning Chinese, IMMEDIATELY

Many people get by fine in Shanghai without ever learning Chinese. But while you might make some Chinese friends who have fantastic English-speaking skills, the vast, vast majority of people don't. Being dropped into an immersion environment provides the perfect opportunity to learn a language, and although learning Chinese is incredibly tough, it's equally rewarding. So get off the plane, unpack your bags, and find yourself a Chinese teacher. If you can get great learning habits fixed in the crucial early weeks then you'll be laughing. In Chinese. See useful Chinese translation apps here.


11. Travel is cheap...

Shanghai is easy to get around; taxis start at a bargain 18RMB for a journey, and the metro has 14 lines whizzing across the city (see how to use a public transportation card here). Signs are bilingual and announcements are also in English, so you’ll have no trouble finding your way. There are also plenty of cycle roads across the city, making a bike a very viable option for getting from A to B. Take a look at six great cycle routes in Shanghai.


12. ...while imported goods are not

One of the great things about Shanghai is it’s diversity; you can find almost anything in this city if you scour enough international supermarkets, of which there are loads. But many imported goods are very expensive, and subjected to taxes of at least 30 percent. So, be prepared to switch to local brands and you can save a fortune.


13. People might stare at you

Be prepared to feel like a minor celebrity. In Shanghai, this will probably happen less than in other locations across China (depending on just how goddamn good-looking you are), but it’s still a near certainty that you will have at least one family stop and stare at you in your first week and beyond. If you go near tourist areas like the Bund, be prepared to pose with various babies deposited in your arms from Chinese tourists on the lookout for foreigners. It can be irritating, but it’s mostly harmless, and is definitely happening less than in the past.


14. The city has a world-class food and drink scene


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Shanghai is home to internationally recognised restaurants, hotels, and bars. Many celebrity chefs have opened restaurants here, and there is plenty to be explored in the gastronomical scene (eat at the five best international restaurants in Shanghai). In fact, if you've never lived outside of your own country, you might find a whole new world of cuisine at your finger tips. A word of warning though; this doesn't always come cheap. What may be seen as a cheap and simple snack back home, might end up costing you more than you bargained for here in Shanghai.


15. There are many, many people


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Shanghai is the biggest city in the world with 24 million residents. That means (obviously) there are a lot of people, and people will be everywhere you want to go. All the time. This can make even the most menial of errands feel like a life or death game of Frogger to the uninitiated. Get used to crowds and learn how to zen things out like a boss. A great way of doing this is observing everyone else; at those times when someone cuts you up or comes too close to you and you want to flip out, it's worth remembering that the people around you are not getting offended by the same stuff – if they were this would probably be the most violent city on the planet. If you really can't abide crowds then do your best to avoid them where you can. Oh, and pro tip: avoid People’s Square station like the plague during rush hour, unless you want to take leave of your senses.


16. But remember, some things will just never make sense

It’s not just you. Some things will be genuinely baffling, and probably will remain so for the length of your time in China. The stultifying irrationality of the bureaucracy in the banking system will be in this category, as will the relative lack of queuing and the general kerfuffle when it comes to getting into a lift or on the metro. Don’t try and make sense of them, or you’ll drive yourself mad. Just breathe deeply and dive in; after all it's these quirks that make living here such an adventure.


Good luck – we'll see you soon!

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