10 Tips for an Amazing Shanghai Study Abroad Experience
Want to have the experience of a lifetime studying abroad in Shanghai, China? Follow these tips to get the most out of your time abroad, and minimize the speed bumps along the way
1) Be careful about theft – especially in night clubs, and especially with apple devices (iPhones, iPods, etc.) which are considerably more expensive in China. I had my iPhone stolen from my purse on my second day in Shanghai – not a great way to start the semester! Consider getting an inexpensive secondary phone to bring with you if you are going out at night, and leave your iPhone or other expensive smartphone at home.
2) If you are still a beginner or intermediate Chinese learner, make sure to have your apartment or dorm address and the address of where you’re going written down in Chinese characters to show the cab driver. It’s easy for details to get lost in translation, so have the address written down on a card (or on your phone if necessary) to make sure you end up in the right place.
3) Definitely get a transit card! Shanghai has an extensive and reasonably clean metro system that is also fairly inexpensive, and every stop is labeled in both Chinese and English. Having a transit card pre-loaded with money makes the process of taking busses and the metro much easier – you can even use your card to pay for cabs! I would recommend putting a sticker or other identifier on your card to avoid it being switched out for a different one or other similar scams.
4) Look into purchasing or obtaining a VPN before you get to China, as it will be much easier to sign up before you’re behind the “great firewall”. Some universities offer free VPN services which can save you from purchasing your own, but be wary of their reliability. I had planned to use my university’s VPN while abroad only to learn after arriving that its reliability left much to be desired. Always try out the free trial to make sure that the VPN works for your connection and devices!
5) Be careful about what you eat, but don’t let it stop you from being adventurous and trying new things. Food safety is a very real concern in China, so it is important to be savvy and keep your eyes open. However, some of the best (and least expensive) food in China is sold at street stalls! No matter how careful you are, travelling to a foreign country often means dealing with stomach problems, so be sure to have your preferred medications on hand. Use your judgment, but still be willing to try new and different things.
6) Think carefully about what type of visa you want – most students studying abroad in China for the semester will receive an X2 single entry visa, which will not permit you to leave the country and return. If you are interested in travelling outside of China during your semester, consider applying for a residence permit, which will cost you about $150 extra and will require a medical check-up. Getting a medical exam in a foreign country may sound intimidating, but I found it was actually an interesting, albeit somewhat awkward and hilarious, cultural experience. Alternatively, you could save the money on the residence permit and put it towards travel before or after your program in China should your schedule allow it.
7) Download Pleco and WeChat onto your smartphones! Everyone in China uses WeChat to communicate, and you will quickly find it replacing Facebook or Twitter as your favorite means of communication. Pleco is an awesome Chinese translating app, which with some upgrades includes a character scanner that uses your phone’s camera, the ability to write characters on your touchscreen, stroke order guides, and of course your standard dictionary. Very very helpful both inside and outside the classroom!
8) Learn how to bargain! Especially at markets and stalls, it is often possible to purchase items at 20-30% or less of the seller’s asking price – don’t be the uninformed foreigner who gets ripped off! Also be aware of shopping areas that are more pricey than others (I’m thinking Tian Zi Fang) where you may get the same item at a higher price than in other areas. Always go in with a rock bottom starting price to leave room for negotiation. Remember, the “walk away” tactic is your #1 tool when it comes to bargaining.
9) You’ve all heard the horror stories – be aware of the serious issue of pollution in Shanghai and many other parts of China. Definitely download an app to keep alert of the pollution / air quality index, and avoid going outside when pollution reaches severe levels. Be especially wary of running and exercising outside when the pollution index is high (I would recommend exercising indoors, such as at the gym), and consider investing in a mask for when the pollution gets especially bad. Not every day will be smoggy (you can definitely get the occasional day of blue sky!) but be aware that the pollution can get very severe, and be knowledgeable about ways to combat its effects.
10) Set aside money in your budget for travel around China and other parts of Asia! One of the best parts of studying abroad in Shanghai, apart from the amazing city itself, is its proximity to so many amazing sites and cities both within China and throughout parts of Asia. It is very possible to do a lot of travel on a limited budget – check out websites like Skyscanner to search for flights, and consider staying in hostels, which can save you a lot of money and are a great way to meet other travellers! Prices for travel definitely go up right around Chinese New Year, so be sure to book in advance if you plan on travelling then.