Relocation to China for Dummies

Expat’s first steps in Shanghai.


Today is my 18th day in China. Some things that freaked me out first week don’t look that annoying anymore, I got used to some ridiculousness, everything goes well… except the internet. And I’d like to share my experience to help newly arrived expats be more informed and avoid common mistakes.


What‘s inside

  1. Money
  2. Transportation
  3. Pitfalls of local employment
  4. Food
  5. Mobile phone
  6. Internet
  7. Accommodation
  8. Healthcare
  9. Registration (Residence permit)
  10. Your family registration
  11. Bank account
  12. Ecology
  13. Growing roots
  14. Scam

Now in details…

1. Money.

First thing to do once arrived to China is to get local currency RMB (Reminmbi — literally People’s Currency). You can do it right in the airport. The exchange rate is about 6.1 RMB for $1, and be ready to pay some fee.

Visa/MasterCard are widespread in hotels, shopping malls and restaurants where foreigners can be found, but not in small local places. China has own payment cards called UnionPay.

There are good news — you can forget about tips, no one expects tips from you.

No tipping culture in China.

2. Transportation

If you landed in Pudong Airport, which is most likely for international flights, you can use either taxi or subway to get to the city, but I wouldn’t miss a chance to have a ride on the Maglev train which will bring you to the city at a speed of 301 - 431 kmph. It’s only 50 RMB or 40 if you provide your flight ticket at the cash desk. Then you can take a cab or go down to the subway.

Public transport is cheap comparing to US and Europe, but more expensive than in Kiev (where I came from). Single trip subway ticket is 3 RMB and don’t forget to save it during your trip, cause you want to insert it into a turnstile to get out of subway. You can buy this kind of ticket only in vending machines which have English UI and will give you change. Though it’s more convenient to rent a multi-pass for 20 RMB and put some money to it at a cash desk. This card can be used in various kinds of transport including taxi.

Left — single trip card. Right — multi pass.

Speaking of taxi, the only English word Chinese taxi drivers know is Bye and they can not read English address, so show them address in Chinese and make sure they activate a meter if you don’t want to pay astronomical amount upon arrival. If you’ve got a work in China, your company may reimburse traffic expenses, so ask for receipt (Fahpiao in Chinese). By the way pay your attention to the fact that taxi drivers don’t use GPS in this huge city and always know where a destination point is. More about taxi.

Make sure a taxi driver turns on a meter. Claim receipt.
Left. All cabs have plexiglass cocoon in which taxi drivers live.
Right. All taxi cabs are old Volkswagens. Different taxi companies — different colours.

Want to rent a car? You need a Chinese driver’s license. But, you can try and if you’re lucky enough you may have a chance to drive where no one follow rules, all road signs are in Chinese, and your rental agreement in Chinese too.

If you succeed, please share your experience by clicking “+” at the right.
Chinese driver’s license is required to rent a car.

Another popular vehicle is electric scooter which is very cheap and expats can easily buy new one each month. Though it’s illegal on highways, slow (avg. 45 kmph), and can’t ride far (avg. range is 60 km), but you can use it in your local neighbourhood without driver’s license.

This brand new scooter is $420

For those who seek luxury, Uber operates in Shanghai.


3. Pitfalls of local employment

One serious cultural difference — people who are below don’t argue with those who are above.

Don’t criticize your boss’ work unless he’s not Chinese.

Chinese companies are really strict with employees, no flexibility, no cool perks. It’s far from Silicon Valley startup world literally and figuratively.

Before you accept a job offer in China located company, you have to know how taxation works, what is Allowance and how it’s paid out.

Usually to minimize taxes Chinese companies split expat’s salary by two parts:

  1. base salary which is taxable. The tax is deducted from employee’s pay and can be calculated here.
  2. tax free allowance that covers certain expenses and is paid monthly against invoices. You will get not more than a sum of all your invoices and of course this amount can’t exceed the number stated in the contract.
Allowance is paid against invoices!

All invoices except traffic have to be issued to your company name, so when let’s say it’s time to settle up in a cafe, don’t forget to ask “Fahpiao” with your company name on it. As a restaurant staff often speaks awful English if speaks at all and you probably can’t write your company name in Chinese, have this request either printed on paper or in your mobile device: “请给我开单位抬头的发票:/Your company name in Chinese/”.

Allowance may cover following expenses, but it’s individual for each contract:

  • apartment rent
  • traffic (taxi, subway, train and air tickets)
  • meals and food
  • mobile phone
  • children education
  • some trainings.

If you have a solid allowance it might be problematic to cover it all, and here goes the simplest workaround — ask you real estate agent to issue rental invoice for the whole allowance amount. You’ll have to pay 5% of invoice amount on top of your rent.

How to get whole allowance with no hassle?
Ask your agent for an appropriate amount invoice and pay +5%.

4. Food.

There is a good chance to get a traveller’s diarrhea if you eat local food, so I extremely recommend to start taking appropriate medicine before your arrival to China… and after.

Beware of street food as it’s cooked on reused many times oil and in some cases gutter oil.

Take anti traveller’s diarrhea pills before your arrival.

There are different schools of Chinese cuisine and widespread Szechuan is extremely spicy and half of a dish can be hot pepper. Another strange thing about food is small pieces of meat on sharp bones, it’ll take some time to finish, but once you’re done you get a Chopsticks black belt.

Left. Szechuan dish. 1/3 meat on bones, 1/3 pepper, 1/3 peanuts. Took plenty of time to finish as I had to separate meat from bones and pepper from the rest. 40 RMB.
Right. Another Szechuan dish. 1/2 octopus, 1/2 pepper and some onion. 45 RMB.
By the way, I like all Chinese beer I had a chance to try.
Left. In this restaurant they always give me a spoon for this kind of dishes. And localized Coca Cola. 32 RMB.
Middle. Donald Duck. Chinese like to have an animal’s face on top of a dish, so they may establish connection with food. 40 RMB.
Right. Eye of Sauron or Century Egg — not that bad as you may think. Included in a hotel breakfast.
Left. So called Hot Pot. You have a boiling water, some vegetables and the main ingredient as lamb on the picture. Then you cook dressing in a small plate by combining various components. Put vegetables, noodles, meat into the pot. When cooked, dip food into the dressing and enjoy. 82 RMB.
Middle and Right. Some cheap delivered to the office food before and after. These small bones again. 15 RMB.
In worst case, expect to get this kind of menu. Then just run.

At first you might want to visit mostly western well known chain restaurants and cafes such as Starbucks, McDonald’s, KFC (don’t eat there), Papa John’s Pizza, Pizza Hut (the one I tried here was disgusting), Donut King, TGI Friday’s, Paulaner Brauhaus and so on, and buy familiar food in Wallmart, Metro, Carrefour and others. And that’s not a bad idea at all cause if you listen to what experienced expats say about local food manufacturing processes, you won’t buy meet, fish, vegetables… basically you will die of starvation.

Don’t drink tap water if you want to live. You can buy big bottles of water in supermarkets or order water to home. More info about water delivery.


5. Mobile phone.

The largest mobile operators are China Mobile, China Telecom and China Unicom of course with no consumer oriented English web sites. Supported types of network for all 3 carriers can be viewed on Wikipedia.

I had two requirements:

  • stay with my current phone — Galaxy Note 2
  • be connected to the internet all the time using all the traffic eating apps constantly.

My colleague recommended China Unicom, and as I couldn’t find any information on pricing in English I went to the branded store on Lujiazui subway station and was disappointed with what I found out there — 1.3Gb is 1250 RMB ($204), 2Gb is 1950 RMB ($320). But a little of patience and they confessed that there are plans optimised for use in Shanghai only. 1Gb is 56 RMB ($9 RMB), 2.5Gb is 116 RMB ($19). I got 1Gb plan to check if it’s enough for 1 month. You need to have passport to buy a SIM card, and I was asked to pay 200 RMB right away.

UPDATE. Once I spent my 1Gb of data on 25th day, the rest of money (144 RMB) disappeared really quickly and I found out the rest of details of this plan:

  • incoming calls in Shanghai are free
  • outgoing calls on Shanghai phone numbers — 0.15 RMB per 1 minute
  • outgoing calls on China phone numbers — 0.2 RMB per 1 minute
  • incoming and outgoing calls in China outside Shanghai — 0.39 RMB per 1 minute
  • 1 Kb beyond your plan — 0.001 RMB.

For comparison in Ukraine I used 1 month unlimited EDGE internet + unlimited talks and SMS for $6.6 month.

Left. Whole China coverage plans.
Right. Shanghai only plans.

Update, this Shanghai optimized plan is not available anymore.

Everyone who has a phone use Wechat, which is basically WhatsApp analog. The interesting thing is Wechat is widely used in marketing campaigns. For example at GSMA exhibition I got to take a picture of company logo and place it in Wechat’s “Moments” to get a present, or subscribe for Cadillac channel to get a free ticket to Design exhibition sponsored by Cadillac. Apart from that there is a functionality that allows to find people nearby, chat, meet.


6. Internet.

This is the toughest part for me. There is so called Great Chinese Firewall.

  1. Chinese internet is so slow, you sometimes think of packing luggage and move out of the country asap. Some people say: “Come on, look, you can watch online video on Baidu.com”, and my answer is: “FUCK YOU, I don’t give a fuck about Chinese videos and web sites in Chinese!”. And here is a proof that people adapt to ANYTHING — expats who are here for a long time are resigned.
  2. A huge amount of web sites is banned. Some of them — all Google services (including Gmail, Maps and Youtube), Facebook, Twitter and thousands more.
  3. Workaround is VPN which is not stable and slows down connection even more. In the evening it’s difficult to connect to VPN as too many people use internet, and even if you connect successfully, you often loose connection.
  4. When you try to get to a global site of some company (i.e. Skype or Logitech), you get redirected to Chinese web site.

Most popular providers are similar to mobile carriers: China Telecom, China Mobile and China Unicom. I use some less known one, pay 980 RMB per year for 10 Mbps and get 2 Mbps in best case.

This is Chinese internet. Depending on unknown circumstances, the speed may jump up to 2.x Mbps.
China government and whoever responsible for the internet — I HATE YOU!

The best rated VPNs for China that I’ve found are vyprvpn and Express VPN, both are available for Mac OS, Windows, iOS, Android. None of VPNs help much because of slow internet and high load, you just unlock favourite web services by loosing in bandwidth and connection quality. Vyprvpn has beautiful and stable apps, really like it.

Update. As I was unsatisfied with both VPN services speed and stability, I tried another — Astrill, and it beats them all. UX is bad, but it works.

Update 2. Changed my provider to China Telecom 20M, 6 months, 700 RMB + 200 RMB deposit for WiFi router. Sometimes I can even watch 1080p video without buffering. Now the quality of my life is much higher.

Update 3. Changed my phone to iPhone and figured that Astrill doesn’t work on iOS devices, so found another solution — http://getqujing.com/ Very good. The only thing that doesn’t work is Facebook because of some special protocol.


7. Accommodation.

There are two big areas in Shanghai where expats reside:

  • Jing’an and Huangpu districts in Puxi (Shanghai’s central part) located at the left side of Huangpu river along subway line 2 (green). The best for young people — crowded, heavy traffic, loud, tourists, annoying people.
  • Century Park area in Pudong (right side) which I chose thanks to work proximity and the best park in the city.
    Fits families — not crowded, beautiful park, lots of nice routes for jogging, wide roads, no traffic.
Expat areas

Why expats live in these areas:

  • it’s clean
  • shopping malls, restaurants with English menu and English speaking staff
  • good quality apartments
  • you may miss European faces outside these areas.

Types of residence you may consider:

  • a hotel
  • a service apartment — usually small studio apt in the most touristic locations, expensive but not bad option for not more than 1 month
  • a long term apartment which is obviously the most advantageous option for a long term stay.

Searching for an apartment is exhausting because:

  • landlords don’t deal with clients directly, they use agencies as intermediaries
  • agencies usually don’t show you pictures and post fake pictures in online resources
  • agents show you expensive and low quality apartments first, then either less expensive but still bad or more expensive and better, then you stop being picky and get something normal but still expensive.

The common rule for a long term rent is one year contract and you pay immediately for 3 months + 1 month security deposit + 30-35% of one month to agency. As I’m still not sure if I want to stay in China for more than 3 months, I was looking for a long term apt with 1-3 months contract. People said it’s either impossible or much more expensive per month, but I was lucky to find a good apt near Century Park, 3 minutes walk from subway station and sign a contract for 1 month with ability to extend.

How to search for an apt.
I asked colleagues who could refer an English speaking agent, I wrote emails to many agents from smartshanghai.com, finally I came to random agencies in a neighbourhood where I’ve found Summer who immediately said she has what I’m looking for and the landlord is ok with 3 months contract, but later I negotiated to 1 month which makes me even more flexible.

The best real estate agents in Shanghai — Summer and Crystal. No one else will care about you as much as these girls.

Some advices.
Negotiate hard, give them arguments why an apt has to be cheaper. Internet is often included in price, so ask about it. You pay for electricity, gas and water. When you sign a contract, double check address in the contract is right, test a key. You don’t pay cash, you do wire transfer, so save receipts.

To get reimbursement from allowance, ask your agent to issue Invoice on your company name, it will cost you extra 5%.
Residential compound near Century Park, where I live.
Century Park is open till 7PM and the entrance is 10 RMB or you can buy 1 year ticket for 200 RMB.

Rent prices differ a lot. To have an idea what to expect, visit SmartShanghai.com. Fore example not bad 2 bedroom apt near Century Park is 8000-12000 RMB which is $1300-2000.

If you’re going to stay in winter time, keep in mind the fact that there is no central heating in China and you will take care of heating your apartment yourself, that’s why I recommend considering apt with heated floors.

A lot more details about rent.
How to not be cheated.

Update. It turned out that my apartment has heated floors which is absolutely a must have for people who don’t like to wear all outwear in their apartments during winter.


8. Healthcare

Healthcare in China is diverse. You can try traditional medicine and take rhino’s horn, deer’s penis, tiger’s testicles, various herbs and roots or try old school acupuncture, which seems an effective solution against many diseases, or a boring western medicine which I’ll explain more.

There are different types of hospitals. Some are cheap and experience may be shocking (huge lines, dirt, no a single English speaking person), some are more expensive (there are some barely English speaking doctors, and more clean), and expensive clinics for foreigners (all personnel is English speaking). If the company is interested in you, I recommend to claim insurance with service in 3rd type of hospitals, and ask for insurance for all your family members.

You’ll be obliged to pass physical examination in authorised medical center to get residence permit. Your company pays for it and usually acts through special agencies which help you in the hospital and do all paperwork. I did it in Shanghai International Travel Healthcare Center by address 15 Jin Bang Road, Changning. Come with passport and 4 photos. All personnel of the clinic I visited were English speaking, but not the person the agency sent to help me. Overall the procedure is very simple and fast not counting a line in which you may have some interesting conversations with other expats.

What has to be checked:

  • heart
  • blood pressure
  • eyesight
  • height and weight
  • organs (ultrasound)
  • blood.

9. Registration (Residence permit)

Work visa (Z) is valid for 30 days and you’re obliged to get a Temporary Residence Permit during these 30 days. Residence permit is valid up to 5 years.

  1. Rent an apartment for period not less than 1 month.
  2. Get Accommodation Registration. Go to police department in your apartment area or have your agent going with following documents: your passport, photocopies of landlord’s ID, landlord’s property ownership certificate. You’ll get a paper right away.
  3. Have a medical check (described in details above).
  4. Hand over your passport, the Accommodation Registration printout and Alien Employment License (the one you used to get Z visa) to the agency assigned by your company to accomplish registration. They should also have your medical check result and 4 photos.
  5. You will be notified when you need to come to Exit-Entry Bureau by address 1500 Min Sheng Lu, Pudong. Agency representative (again non-English speaking in my case) will take you to the place where you’ll be photographed, then to another place where you sign some paper. Here agency hands over your passport to the Bureau. This visit took not more than 15 minutes.
  6. Get your passport with residence permit in a week or so.
Registration form of temporary residence from police department.
Left. Residence permit in the passport. Right. Employment permit.
Employment permit.
Exit-Entry Bureau.
My French friend signs some document that probably condemns him to 24/7 work at Foxxcon factory for life.

The procedure from the moment you hand over your passport to the agency and till you get it back may take 2 weeks. During this time you can not leave Mainland China.

10. Your family registration.

When you have your permanent residence permit, your company may send invitation to your family members, so they get S visa and join you in China. Alternatively they can get L visa (for tourists), which is faster and doesn’t require invitation from your company, and change it to S visa in China afterwards.

As my company didn’t pay for my family registration, we decided to repeat the trick on our own, and it was a good start for my wife to start understanding the culture. The procedure was similar to mine. The only difference is you have to make an appointment in Healthcare Center on your own, you will be invited in one week. Adult medical check is around 700 RMB and will be sent to you with a courier. Similar procedure for your child(ren) should be done at Shanghai Children’s Medical Center by address 1678 Dongfang Road, Pudong. It was 570 RMB and took around 1 hour to have report in our hands.

To get residence permit, have your spouse come to Exit-Entry Bureau with following documents:

  1. Your and your family members passports
  2. Family members health examination reports
  3. Family members temporary registration printout from police (described above)
  4. Marriage and child(ren) birth certificates
  5. Not sure, but it’s better to have your Alien Employment Permit too
  6. Letter of application (your company provides)
  7. Company’s Certificate of Approval (your company provides)
  8. Business license of company (your company provides)
  9. Enterprises Code Certificate of company (your company provides)
  10. Photo copies of all documents.

Be careful with your family visas expiration date, my family had 30 days to apply for residence permit. Start registration procedure asap to avoid problems. If by some reason they weren’t in time with applying, it’s better to leave the country, for example going to Hong Kong and get new visa there, it can be done in two days.

More about temporary residence permit.


11. Bank account

Not much experience with banks and payments, but still... There are international banks as HSBC and Citi, but Ukrainian expats recommended ICBC and I chose it because:

  • ATMs are everywhere
  • internet banking web site works on Mac!!!
  • internet banking and mobile app in English.

Unfortunately I get salary on China Merchants Bank account, which ATMs are super rare, internet banking doesn’t work on Mac, and no English mobile app. Not recommended.

ICBC Bank — one of the most widely distributed banks with a funny security guard, calculator required for online payments, and e-banking that is a masterpiece of UX design.
China Merchants Bank, which logo can be easily mixed with Subway sign.
Left. Bank opening form has no a single English word.
Right. Some interesting exposition of Apple tech with bank’s apps installed.

12. Ecology

Pollution situation in China is terrifying and the “leader” is Beijing as far as I know. Ok, I warned you!

Forget about checking temperature. In China you will check pollution.

Not a surprise there are numerous mobile applications with real time data for different cities, so I recommend to buy a good air purifier, monitor pollution level in your city every day and open windows for ventilation only when the index is low. I use app China Air Quality Index available for both iOS and Android users. People say there are days and even weeks, when the index goes above 600 in Shanghai, while Good is less than 100. When it’s 150, you can barely see the sun and you feel air pollution.

Try to limit your outdoor activities as much as possible and wear a mask against pollution during these bad days.

China Air Quality Index mobile app

If you’re seriously concerned about health, MyHealthBeijing.com led by American family doctor working in Beijing since 2006 is a very fascinating reading covering such topics as air pollution, food safety, children’s health, women’s health.

Another useful resource is HealthAndSafetyInShanghai.com and particularly the guide on how to choose air purifier.


13. Growing roots.

So you came, you rented a long term apartment and sure thing it’s empty! You will want to buy a shit load of stuff including linen and pillow, dishes, cutlery, furniture (usually there are furniture, but you may want to change something), storages, router, cleaning appliances and chemicals, air purifiers, heaters, PS4, plants, animals…

Most of listed things you can find in any of three Shanghai IKEAs, which will help you to save some good money and get higher quality products comparing to those Chinese crap in shopping malls. Mobile application Google Maps will help you to get to the destination with public transportation, but as I said above, internet in your phone and VPN are required.

Another good news is many expats leave China constantly and they want to get rid of everything you need so much. Look for garage sales on Craigslist + use opportunity to know more about China from experienced foreigners.

The rest of stuff including Cheese, which is so difficult to find in grocery store, can be bought on Chinese eBay — Taobao.com. Chinese language or Chinese assistant is required.

Buy everything in IKEA, Craigslist and Taobao.

If you want to make sure you buy from big online store, minimising possibility of purchasing a fake, try tmall.com.

Usually above stores require credit card to make a purchase. Another option is Chinese Amazon — jd.com. You can pay with cash or card to courier on delivery and you may request invoice.


14. Scam.

  • Don’t follow people who invite you to a massage session.
  • Don’t drink alcohol in suspicious local bars, you may get fake alcohol and have unforgettable next couple of days.

Small part of my Chinese life in pictures on instagram.com/dnevozhai


Special message for Ukrainians:
В двух предыдущих статьях я рассказывал о том как получить рабочую визу и как легализовать документы для переезда всего своего семейства.