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Living in Shanghai

So you are about to join the ranks of the many expats living in Shanghai? While a fascinating time awaits you, expat life in China can be challenging for newcomers to the country and its culture. Let InterNations guide you through what to expect of Shanghai, from transport to health and education!
Chinese traditions and colonial heritage are both found at the Shanghai Bund.

Living in Shanghai has often been romanticized in Western and Chinese popular culture alike. The glamorous Shanghai of the 1920s and 1930s or the Japanese occupation (1939-45) has particularly captured the imagination of many an author and movie maker.

It is the birthplace of internationally renowned artists such as British writer J.G. Ballard or Hong Kong film director Wong Kar-Wai. Both spent only their childhood years in Shanghai. Nonetheless, their best-known works (The Empire of the SunIn the Mood for Love) focus on life in Shanghai during World War II or on exiles from Shanghai living in Hong Kong after the city came under Communist control.

Quality of Life in Shanghai

In the Mercer Quality of Living Study 2012, Shanghai ranked 95th and in 2014 it, once again, did not make it among the Top 50 cities. As China’s industrial and financial center, Shanghai is struggling with problems typical of life in other Chinese megacities, especially Beijing: environmental problems like smog, water pollution, and noise, as well as overpopulation, traffic jams, and a housing shortage.

However, living in Shanghai is relatively safe. Pickpocketing, panhandling, bicycle theft, and financial scams are the most common crimes. There’s little violent crime against foreigners, though it does occur sometimes, specifically in clubs and bars in the nightlife districts. Also, in September 2013, on two occasions, Westerners were stabbed while walking in the Wai Tan area.

Shanghai remains the glitzy “Paris of the East” in many ways. Among the top 10 most expensive cities in the world for expats, according to Mercer 2014, is a consumerist Mecca – which seems slightly ironic if one considers the city’s more recent, staunchly Maoist past. The cosmopolitan atmosphere of life in Shanghai includes a vibrant nightlife and a huge arts & entertainment scene.

Driving in Shanghai

Owing to the huge size of the city, commuting to work or school is an integral part of living in Shanghai. If you are lucky, you live in an expat-oriented compound providing you with a shuttle service to international schools or important traffic junctions. Executive expatriates might have use of a company car with driver.

Due to the maze of streets, the recurring traffic congestions, and the soaring accident rate, it is preferable not to drive yourself as a non-local living in Shanghai. However, if you settle in Shanghai’s quieter neighborhoods, you could even “go local” to some extent and buy a bike for short distances.

If you are still going to brave China's roads yourself, you should take a look at our Extended Guide article on driver's licenses and traffic in China, for information on Chinese roads, as well as rules and regulations.

Shanghai's Bus Network

Fortunately, people living in Shanghai benefit from an extensive and fairly cheap public transport system. Unfortunately, this can be extremely confusing for foreigners, particularly if they can neither read nor speak Chinese. Shanghai has about 1,000 different bus lines run by several companies. They can be extremely crowded, especially during rush hour, and a bit overwhelming to figure out.

However, expats in Shanghai will soon get the hang of the mostly numerical bus system. Lines 300-399, for example, are all night buses, and 700-799 have their routes in suburban areas. There are still a dozen lines with those famous trolley buses characteristic of an old Shanghai tinged with nostalgia.

Some city buses are air-conditioned, and a ticket costs one or two CNY. Most lines also accept the Shanghai Public Transport Card (SPTC), a smart card that may come in useful while you are living in Shanghai.


We do our best to keep this article up to date. However, we cannot guarantee that the information provided is always current or complete. 

David Thyne

"At the first Shanghai Get-Together I met several American expats. I am very grateful that they shared their experience with me."

Diana Anhaus-Brey

"It is just so easy to find other international people and global minds with InterNations. I didn´t know there were so many in Shanghai."

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