Expat in Shenzhen

Overall, I have found Shenzhen to be much more challenging to navigate than other countries I have lived in or visited. The language and internet barrier means that much of the time I have no idea where I am or what is going on and few around me speak enough english to help. But every once in a while something expecting happens…

I’ve been in China for a short period of time and I plan on updating this post as soon as information changes…


BEFORE traveling: read this at least two weeks before you travel

  • VPN: ExpressVPN is the best I have found that work on Android, iPhone AND laptop. Otherwise nearly every website you care about is blocked in China(e.g. gmail, facebook, netflix, slack, dropbox, etc.). This link will give us both 30days free.
  • Phone service: I use Google Project fi for my Nexus 6p which was one of the best decisions on made on the trip. Use this code and we both get $20 off. Basically Google has their own SIM card which enables you to make calls from 130+ countries as soon as you land and enables you to use the local mobile data as soon as you connect to WiFi (presumably so that you can get the local network settings). fi costs $40 per month including 2GB of data. fi only charges you for the data you use (and refunds the rest). It also seems to have a built in VPN as I don’t need to use a VPN to access banned content in China.
  • Phones: I have an iPhone with a China Unicom SIM and WeChat and Nexus with a Google Project fi SIM, which has me covered… mostly.
  • Money: I usually just rely on my debit card and don’t bring foreign currency when I travel, but I’d actually recommend bringing $200 each of USD, HKD and RMB in cash.
  • ATM card: I use the card from my local bank in Phoenixville, PA called Customers Bank. I have never had a major problem in the 5 years and 20+ developing countries I have used it in. However, in China about 60% of the ATMs I try to use it in reject it. See ShanghaiExpat.com for details.
  • Credit Card: Most places don’t accept Visa, MasterCard or Amex. WeChat money and Alipay are almost universally accepted mobile money, but foreigners who don’t have a Chinese bank account can’t use them. I use CapitalOne Venture when I travel because there are no international transaction fees. Just make sure you download the CapitalOne app. When you make purchases abroad CapitalOne will ask via the app if it is a fraudulent charge. If you don’t have the app it will just block your card, which can cause massive problems if you are in the middle of nowhere and don’t speak the language—I know from experience. Here’s a list of other credit cards for travel.
  • Transit from the airport: Flights from Shenzhen airport are about $200 more than from Hong Kong airport. If you take the bus from HK airport it will be less than $20 USD. You have to take your bag out of the bus when you get to the HK boarder, go through immigration and get back on the bus. I didn’t realize this and thought I could walk to the China board, but it is very far away. Don’t try to walk. Just get back on the bus :-) Here’s a comprehensive post on getting from the Hong Kong Airport to Shenzhen.
  • Housing: I use Airbnb to find a place. (Use my referral code and we both get $25 off.) So far that has worked really well. I know in advance that my host speaks english which makes things a lot easier. And I know I won’t have to set up an ISP (internet connection) which is probably my least favorite activity. I have stayed in places that are $10–30 per night which works pretty well.
  • Translation: Baidu Translate is great and most people will spend the time to watch me type out a message, and direct me based on the translation, which seems to be accurate. Google Translate doesn’t work of course because everything google is blocked.

AFTER you arrive: you can read this after you arrive

  • Taxi: Uber was bought by the Chinese company Didi that promptly removed english from the app and require a Chinese bank account. So you have to take normal taxi’s in China which aren’t too expensive. But if I want to go more than 3 miles the drivers will usually say they can’t take me; I’m not sure why.
  • Maps: Use Apple Maps. Google maps are very inaccurate (it placed my location as about 1 mile away from my real locations and caused me a lot of confusion) and Baidu maps are only in Chinese. So I am very glad I kept my iPhone 6 which has a China Unicom SIM card. See a comparison here.
  • Transport in Shenzhen: the metro or MTR is clean and cheap and in English. The most foreigner friendly part of Shenzhen so far. ¥100 to get a card with ¥80 credit on it.
  • Places to go out: OCT Loft has a bunch of very nice restaurants and lots of local young people. Coco Park bar street is a block north of Coco Park and there are many adjoining clubs there with about 10% expats which I found to be the best place to go out. Shekou is also a beautiful place.
  • Street food: to be updated later.