The Basics of Expat Life

By Lolita Wong

Relocating to Shanghai is an exciting experience; living and working here means amazing career opportunities, exhilarating language challenges and cultural immersion. You can enjoy a wide range of food from all over Asia, network in a large and diverse expatriate community and be a part of the fastest growing economy in the world – this is where things are happening.

However this change also comes with frustrations. Shanghai is crowded, noisy and chaotic – people push on the metro, drivers sound their horns at each opportunity, the air quality is often low and spitting in public places is acceptable behaviour. Adjusting to a foreign language, culture and government can be frustrating. Acclimating to a vastly different environment takes time, patience, open-mindedness and sometimes, a good sense of humour.

At the Airport

If you do not already have map directions printed out in both English and Chinese, you can obtain a copy from the airport tourist information centre or Google Maps with your smart phone. Alternatively, offers a street map on their website that allows you to print a map with Chinese instructions. If you do not use a smart phone or prefer to text, you can take advantage of the Guanxi SMS service to access bilingual addresses. Type in the name of the hotel and text it to 1066 9588 2929; seconds later you will receive a message with an address. Reply C for addresses in Chinese and wait for a few more seconds for a reply that gives Chinese characters you show to your taxi driver. You can also use this SMS service for restaurants and bars.

Register with the Police

Foreigners arriving in China must register with the local police within 24 hours upon arrival. If you are staying at a hotel or serviced apartment, they will take care of this for you. Otherwise check with the management office of your compound or landlord about where the nearest police station in your neighbour is located – bring along your passport, a photocopy of your identification and visa page to let them know where you are staying and for how long. You will receive a form that is the temporary residence permit upon registration. You will need to keep it for applying for your longer-term residence permit. Always re-register each time you change residence in Shanghai. Late registration results in a nominal fine while failure to register could lead to major bureaucratic hassles.

Getting Around

Taxis are cheap and generally available unless it is raining, snowing or peak hours during weekdays. Most drivers speak little or no English, so prepare to show your destination in Chinese. Destinations should come with an address along with the name of the nearest cross street. Most taxis are not equipped with seat belts for the back passengers.

The metro is the fastest way to travel across the city, especially during rush hour. The system’s signs and instructions are in English and easier to navigate compared to bus routes that do not come with English translation. Bus rides are the cheapest form of public transport, and tickets can be purchased from the driver in cash, but are often crowded and may not arrive in time especially during rush hour. Getting around by bus is not a recommended mode of transport if you are a newcomer.

You can apply for a driving license in China with a valid driving license of your home country. Local drivers overtaking and cutting you off is an acceptable norm, so a newcomer driving in Shanghai can be dangerous. It is recommended that you first get familiarised with directions, major highways and a general feel of traffic practices before considering this option.

Walking is a great way to explore neighbourhoods. The French concession area in Xuhui and Huangpu is a scenic choice for strolling. Walking tours organised by several English-speaking operators can be a good option for you to discover roads not usually accessible by other modes of transport.


Expats tend to send their children to one of the many international schools in Shanghai. You can choose from American-curriculum (Shanghai American School, Shanghai Community International School, Concordia International School Shanghai), British-curriculum (British International School Shanghai, Rego International School Shanghai, Dulwich College International School), international-curriculum (Yew Chung International School Shanghai) or others such as Singapore International School Shanghai, Korean International School, Japanese International or French/German International School. If you have a child under 10 years of age, spaces are at a premium so do submit your child’s application as early as possible to secure a seat. For non-native English applicants, the admissions office may require your child to take a language proficiency test and/or be subjected to an interview, usually conducted at the school.

Settling In

Full or part-time domestic helpers, also known as ayi, are common in Shanghai. An ayi (which means auntie) helps with chores like cooking, buying groceries, washing laundry, cleaning the house, looking after your children, running errands, etc. The best way to find a reliable ayi is recommendations through your friends or colleagues. Neighbours will be a good source for part-time help as it is convenient for ayi to work in the same compound. You can also go to domestic help agencies that train ayi to speak basic English and cook western food.

You can open a RMB or USD bank account with your passport. Common banks in China include Bank of China, China Merchant Bank, ICBC, China Construction Bank and Agricultural Bank of China. They offer online banking, currency exchange and debit card services. There is a limit to the amount of funds allowed to be transferred to and from your home country so many expats set up international bank accounts for ease of paperwork, access to funds and credit card services. Queues at the bank tend to be long especially during lunch hours, pay days or Monday when weekend earnings are deposited. The operating hours tend to be from 9am to 5pm Monday to Friday and Saturday mornings.

Lolita Wong is Head of Global Mobility Services, China Region, at Crown Relocations, an international relocation company and global mobility specialist with over 250 locations in 55 countries worldwide. Crown handles over 100,000 relocations each year and manages every step of the journey from visas to property management and packing up. For more information please visit

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