Planning a trip to Shanghai, China? We need to talk. There’s a lot you should know before you go to Shanghai. For starters, check out these important Shanghai tips.
Below, you’ll find a mix of practical and cultural travel tips so you can enjoy your first trip to Shanghai, minus any “Shanghai Surprise.” Just be sure to consider these 7 tips before you travel to Shanghai.
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CONTENTS: In this article, you will learn the top travel tips for Shanghai that will make your first visit much easier, including:
- Bring Your Smartphone
- Get A Local SIM Card
- Invest in A Good Language Translation App
- Expect to Share Dishes
- Clothing: Don’t Trust A Bargain
- Buy Technology With Caution
- Don’t Blow Your Nose
- Final Thoughts on Shanghai Tips
Top Travel Tips for Your First Trip to Shanghai
Let’s face it: It can be challenging to travel to countries without speaking the native language.
It’s even worse if you don’t understand the characters.
That makes even tough-minded travel fans break a sweat. For instance, anyone planning to fly into Shanghai for the first time might have this experience.
Which is exactly what happened to me during a four-week business trip to the Shanghai metropolitan area.
During my month-long visit to Shanghai, I learned how to navigate the city and the culture with ease. There are several things you should know before going to Shanghai.
I’m happy to share my top Shanghai tips with you to make your experience traveling to Shanghai easier.
Related: If you’re taking an extended trip, this article will help you prepare your home for a long-stay.
1. Bring Your Smartphone
On almost every long-distance trip, I consider leaving my beloved iPhone at home and taking my old Nokia replacement phone with me instead.
The same was true of Shanghai: I worried that the risk of theft is too high. Even though China is a very safe country, there is always a chance my phone may get stolen.
Plus, I don’t have an affordable internet contract abroad anyway.
Despite these rational reasons, I took my smartphone with me.
This turned out to be a good decision in many instances, but here are three reasons I’m glad I brought it:
- It provided some familiarity when I was feeling disoriented.
- I was able to take advantage of more robust features, like the awesome camera and help from Siri.
- It replaced the need for me to bring my bulky DSLR camera, which might be more easily stolen.
So, if you’re uncertain, do bring the iPhone. You won’t regret it.
2. Get A Local SIM Card. (It’s Worth It!)
If you have followed the first tip and have your smart phone with you, then you should buy a local SIM card as soon as possible.
It will pay for itself on the first day, believe me!
I purchased mine directly at the Shanghai Airport. Although the stalls struck me as a bit sketchy, I thought the safest bet would be a prepaid card. That way, there’s no need to register my data.
My recommendation for the provider is China Mobile because you get relatively excellent and comprehensive network coverage with 3G.
For 200 RMB (Chinese Yuan), which is the equivalent of about $30 US ($27 CHF), I bought a prepaid card that was cut to the nano-SIM format on site immediately.
Here’s a little tip: Take five more minutes to try out your cell phone using the SIM card on site.
Initially, my internet didn’t work.
That’s even after changing my iPhone’s language to English and a few trial-and-error attempts by the seller to configure my cell phone. When we finally placed a clarifying phone call from the seller to the service hotline (in Chinese, of course), my cell phone was configured correctly.
Then, I could use my cell phone non-stop for both personal and business purposes, including emails.
Here’s the good news.
It took more than three weeks of countless phone calls and emails while in Shanghai before I used up my $30 credit!
You can find top-up options in almost every kiosk, where you can conveniently buy a voucher by credit card.
3. Invest in A Good Language Translation App
Eating in China is a comprehensive topic in itself, especially as it relates to ordering food from the menu.
In large cities like Shanghai, the menu cards often indicate in English what to expect.
But if you stray a little too far from the tourist centers or, by sheer coincidence, find yourself in a restaurant where no English menu can be found, the Chinese language hits you hard.
Even for adventurous foodies, it’s Russian roulette to try to avoid ordering a chicken foot soup or millennial eggs (an aged, preserved egg considered a Chinese delicacy) when you can’t read the menu.
So, if you don’t have a Chinese-speaking colleague, get a translation app on your smartphone for help.
Some Chinese translation app solutions are pretty cool, like those with augmented reality (AR) translation. Others display all possible word meanings of the text symbol captured by the camera.
The full-featured apps are usually a bit expensive.
So, you can simply go with a standard translation app. That will be sufficient in helping you navigate the language barrier–if only to order a meal.
4. Expect to Share Dishes
Once you get past the actual ordering process, you’ll need to make a mindset shift from western thinking when it comes to eating it. This is especially true if you’ll be dining in a group or with more than two people.
In Chinese food culture, you’ll find the Chinese live the “share your dish” principle. This means that they serve all dishes ordered in small bowls in the middle of the table, and everyone uses them.
A practical tip is that the number of dishes can be less than the number of people.
Often, with a lunch meal for six people, four dishes and a standard side dish (mostly rice) were enough to fill us up. Unless we were starving, of course.
Then we ordered more.
So the takeaway here is that you don’t need to order one dish per person, because you will share among your table guests.
5. Clothing: Don’t Trust A Bargain
You’ll find Chinese knock-offs of famous high-end makers throughout Shanghai. The trouble is, they are so good, it’s hard to tell them from the originals.
In fact, the A.P. PLAZA is Shanghai’s popular fake market, selling everything from electronics, luxury goods, shoes, toys, and clothes within hundreds of tiny little shops.
However, I had a sad experience in an outlet clothing store in Shanghai. I want to warn you about it.
I was assured that you could recognize a shop selling authentic items because they only take payments at the cash register and not directly from the seller.
Well, now I know better.
My North Face jacket, which I bought for the equivalent of around $67 US (60 CHF), turned out to be a fake.
At first glance, it appeared to be high quality. All logos, seams, and zippers were well made. But after a short while wearing it, I discovered the fabric was not breathable at all, and in the rain, the jacket was quickly soaked.
So be aware that bargains that appear authentic might be fake. Originals have their price in China, too, so don’t trust the supposed super bargain.
6. Make Technology Purchases With Caution
You’ll find offerings of technology products in numerous locations as you explore Shanghai.
Again, buyer beware.
Most of it is counterfeit.
That said, if you still want to buy something electronic, the following points will help you protect yourself and your purchase.
Try Out All Electronics
Simple stated, try everything.
If the seller protests, it shows that the goods are of inferior quality.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking a demonstration of one sample indicates the quality of another product. You’ll want to test each and every item you want to buy rather than leave it to chance.
For instance, if you are buying ten of a particular item, test all 10 of them.
Negotiate the Purchase Price
The prices first mentioned are mostly a fantasy—and totally negotiable.
Quite often, it will be possible for you to negotiate a price in the range of 20% off the original asking price!
Realize That Branded Articles are Protected (So They Might Be Seized)
The importation of counterfeit branded articles for private use into Switzerland, where I live, has been prohibited under patent law since 2008. But, it does not provide for any penalties.
In the event of an inspection, the forgeries will be confiscated by Customs.
While visiting Shanghai, I only looked around for accessories. I bought an iPhone charging cable for $2 (they ordinarily sell for over $20). It does the trick and charges my phone.
But, with most of the other electronic devices, you’ll be justified feeling that they copied the exterior with precision, but the device’s technical quality is not even worth the low price.
Depending on where “home” is for you, it’s important that you understand what your country’s most-recent laws are regarding importing counterfeit goods from China.
Be sure you know precisely what you are allowed and disallowed. If Customs takes your purchase, even the best-bargain is a total loss.
7. Don’t Blow Your Nose…It’s Rude!
Last but not least, here’s a somewhat ironic tip based on my personal experience.
During my stay in China, I caught a nasty cold. So, I was armed with handkerchiefs almost the entire time.
At some point, I noticed the Chinese were looking at me in a funny, practically disgusted manner while I blew my nose into the handkerchief.
I watched this reaction for a while before I finally asked a colleague about it. He informed me that there is hardly anything worse for the Chinese than when foreigners blow their noses loudly.
Nobody, not even my colleagues, had pointed this out to me. I was glad I finally asked.
I’m telling you this now to save you the embarrassment.
To avoid stares of disgust and making yourself unpopular, please dab your nose. The best thing to do is to turn around and do it quietly and discreetly.
This is somewhat of an irony because the Chinese have been trying for years to prevent public spitting on the street – without success.
Further, in public toilets, people smoke on the bowl and play on the cell phone, followed by hand washing optional. Similarly, western culture might frown upon these Chinese behaviors.
But, that is part of the joy of traveling, right?
It broadens your understanding and tolerance of differences, and enlightens you to varying cultural norms and beliefs outside your own country’s “bubble.” Overall, this insight is a good thing.
So, skip blowing your nose in Shanghai.
Final Thoughts on Shanghai Tips for First-Time Travelers
China is a vast country with different cultures and customs. It’s an exciting place to visit with so much to experience and discover, in and outside of Shanghai.
Shanghai itself is an amazing, modern city with superb transportation. It’s the hub of culture, fashion, art, and design and so worth a visit.
Now, with these 7 practical tips to help plan your first visit to Shanghai, there’s no doubt you’ll have a great Shanghai travel experience. Enjoy!
If you enjoyed learning about the culture in Shanghai, you might continue reading this article about the Do’s & Don’ts in Thailand (that will save you from embarrassment).
This article is a collaborative post and may contain affiliate links. As always, all opinions expressed are my own. For more information, please see the following Disclosure.
Photo credits: Forever 21 – Stacey Gabrielle Koenitz Rozells (Pexels), Dumplings – Bao Menglong, Woman taking Selfie – he_zhu (Unsplash)
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