Living in Shanghai

I recently worked and lived in Shanghai for 5 years. Overall, I absolutely loved it! Before moving I searched online for info on living costs and found a few outdated comments. So if you are thinking or preparing to move to Shanghai soon, this would be an interesting read, especially to prepare for salary and benefits negotiation.


Actually language was not so much an issue for me. I can already speak some mandarin (although no one can accurately pinpoint my accent, they usually guess I am from Taiwan or Hong Kong). But I know plenty of lao wai 老外 (foreigner in Mandarin) that know zero Chinese and they get along just fine. Most service businesses (hair salon, super market, restaurants) can speak some English. 

Rental Costs

This was a shocker once I moved to Shanghai. I grew up in San Francisco and think it's cheaper than Shanghai. Rent and food are the biggest expenses. To live in the city center, within the inner ring, expect a nice 1bd 1 ba to range CNY10000-25000 (before moving I estimated CNY5000 for a nice flat). Keep in mind that the lower end of this range usually means it's a lao fang zi 老房子 (old lane house in Mandarin). The interior can be really nice and newly renovated, but entrance is in an old alleyway, up some creeky old stairs, and poorly lit at night. While some may like it because it feels so authentically Chinese, it's not my cup of tea. For nice location and nice flat, the upper range CNY 16000-25000 is more realistic. Sure, there cheaper places to live, just whether you are wiling to and depends on what your standards are. Most rentals are rented furnished. On one hand it's nice to save some money and not have to move big furniture in and out. But on the flip side it may be a deciding factor based on the style the place is furnished. Many expats are offered housing benefits so keep this in mind.

source:  Example of a modern furnished flat.


Example of a modern furnished flat.

source:  Typical exterior of lane houses.


Typical exterior of lane houses.

So what did I end up renting? 2011-13 I lived in Xing Guo Yuan 兴国苑 a 4th floor walkup, 1bd 1ba with enclosed balcony for CNY10,000 on Gao You/Hu Nan Roads. Entrance is wide and clean. Building is not quite as old as the lane houses and is very well kept and clean.  It's in the Former French Concession, lined with trees. Very peaceful, light traffic, close to An Fu Road and Wu Kang Road with small super market, cafes and restaurants. I sadly moved because my landlord was ready to sell the flat.

source:  Entrance to the compound I lived in, shared with the villas facing it (rate of the villa a the time was CNY50,000).


Entrance to the compound I lived in, shared with the villas facing it (rate of the villa a the time was CNY50,000).

source:  Typical tree-lined streets of Former French Concession.


Typical tree-lined streets of Former French Concession.

Hunting for the 2nd apartment, I was freaking out to keep upping the budget. I really wanted to stay in the same neighborhood as the first flat, but the rents were CNY16,000-18,000 for a 1bd 1 ba in 2013. Problem mainly were the entrances. You need to go through a maze to get to the flat. Shanghai blocks are very long. So within a block there is a maze of buildings within it. I just didn't feel comfortable at the thought of having to navigate this at night. I wanted something with direct entrance from the main street. Finally I found a 1bd 1 ba in a modern, luxury hi rise in Xintiandi Casa Lakeville (phase 3) for CNY16,000. Much more than I wanted to pay but given the other options, it was worth it. The rate for 1bd in this compound usually starts at CNY19,000 so I jumped at the chance to sign a 2 year lease. Location was excellent and super convenient with so many restaurants within 3 block radius, 2 super markets and 1 local wet market. And as I travel frequently, it was very nice to take the elevator instead of lugging my suitcase up and down flights of stairs.

source:  Casa Lakeville phases 1-3 by south end of Xintiandi.


Casa Lakeville phases 1-3 by south end of Xintiandi.

source:  Xin Tian Di 新天地 complex is full of retail and restaurants in traditional shi ku men 石库门 style architecture. Popular for tourists and locals.


Xin Tian Di 新天地 complex is full of retail and restaurants in traditional shi ku men 石库门 style architecture. Popular for tourists and locals.

Apartment Searching

I highly advise using as a good resource. The rental listings are usually current and photos accurate. If you like what you see, contact the real estate agent. It would be good to find 2-3 real estate agents and have them do searches for you based on your criteria. Before moving to China I searched on Chinese websites such as thinking it would be the best deal as it does not cater to foreigners. I was wrong! Listings use photos of other properties.

The rule of thumb is pay 1 month rent to the real estate agent for commission, 2 months rent for deposit and 1st month rent to the landlord. Lease terms are generally 1 year or more. So basically be ready to pay in cash 4 months rent for move in. Anything you want different from what you see must be negotiated up front, for example changing some furniture. Once paper work is signed, landlords are not likely to do any favors.

Prices of course range depending on location. The 2 areas I lived in, Gao You/Hu Nan Road and Xintiandi, and Lu Jia Zui 陆家嘴 (financial district in Pudong) are the most expensive areas of Shanghai. First there is Puxi 浦西 or Pudong 浦东, west or east of the Huang Pu River. Puxi is older, historic, full of one way streets, location of most of the city's best restaurants. Pudong is newer developments, wide boulevards, less retail and food & bev as the west side. Definitely check out different areas before zoning in on which areas you prefer.


Based on a 1bd 1 ba and cooking at home 2-3 times a week, travel 20-35% of the time.
Gas: CNY100-200 per month (usually used for cooking and heating water)  CNY150-300 per month. Water no more than
Electricity: CNY250-600 per month (depends on use of air conditioning)
Water: Cannot remember the range but estimate CNY100-200 per month.
Utilities can be paid at a local convenience store if it is not past due. But now many people use Alipay to pay for all sorts of stuff including utilities.

Cable TV

Most tv program services are internet based. I think I paid CNY2000-3000 for the year. There was no monthly option. But I never explored different services and compared, just used what was already used in the flat I rented.


Roughly CNY250 per month. Speed for Chinese sites are ok but foreign websites are a crawl. Foreign blogs, Google, Facebook are some of the things that are blocked. So subscribe to a vpn service. I used ExpressVPN which worked fine.

Personal Income Tax

Rate depends on income. There is lots of information online regarding tax rates. Taxes are taken out of your paycheck by your employer each month. There is an annual tax declaration/filing for people earning higher incomes, but don't expect any tax returns in case you overpaid and don't expect any government pension or benefits in return. It's basically money gone. For foreigners, the tax law says housing, laundry and food expenses are tax deductible. But not all employers agree to prepare paper work accordingly, such as my former employer Eagle Ottawa, who claim the local tax authorities deny they are tax deductible. Strange as it is a national tax law and other expats' employers in Shanghai help them with this. Maybe another thing to keep in mind and negotiate up front with your employer.


If your expat package comes with a driver, lucky you! If not, no worries. Taxi is cheap (within inner ring, CNY12-40, inner ring to Pudong Int Airport CNY170-190). It is impossible to wave down a taxi during rainy days. There are quite a few taxi booking apps (in Chinese unfortunately), but the last 1.5 years I used mostly Uber. I preferred Uber over taxis as they tend to be much cleaner, private cars, and usually not smoky. 95% of taxis have smoky interiors. Although interface can be in English, the drivers call you to confirm the pickup location and most do not speak English. The Shanghai metro system is clean and efficient. Trains come every 3-10min. You can purchase a metro card at a station with a small deposit, add value to it and use it for metro and taxis and ferries across the Huangpu River. Not sure about the bus as I never took the bus. Bikes and electric scooters are also popular and cheap.


Ayi, literally auntie in Mandarin, is also how we refer to housekeepers. Hourly rates were CNY25-40 as of 2015. To find a good one, ask your fellow colleagues/friends for referrals or try your local City Super or City Shop type supermarket. Sometimes there are ads posted on a bulletin board. I found my first Ayi that way and my 2nd Ayi via referral. I loved them both. They are so sweet and worked for me at the same time, but different days of the week. They helped me with things such as grocery shopping, laundry, ironing, cleaning and pay utility bills.