Are you a Westerner that’s planning an extended vacation or more permanent move to Shanghai, China? If so there’s some preplanning and first steps that I’d advice you to take before actually boarding the plane. If you’re anything like me, you waited until the last minute to pack your suitcase and shop for travel items, and like me you might even make plans to purchase whatever items you neglected to pack after your arrival to the destination. Well I’ve got news for you, that strategy will not work if your destination is Shanghai! It would be unfortunate having to adapt to a new culture and environment, while also attempting to live without some of your day to day essentials. This blog highlights the steps that you should take in order to assure a more peaceful and stress free transition.
Inform Your Phone Company
Contrary to popular belief most cell phones (especially those registered under your name with a phone company), are not unlocked. If you are planning to stay in Shanghai for anything longer than 1 month, chances are you’d like to purchase a Chinese SIM card to avoid expensive international roaming and data charges. In order to successfully use your Chinese SIM card your cell phone must be unlocked therefore I’d advise doing this prior to your arrival, since it can be extremely difficult getting in contact with your mobile carrier from overseas.
The process for me was simple. My mobile carrier was T-Mobile; I informed T-Mobile of my trip and they sent me an email with directions on how to unlock my phone from home. For many companies this process may take a couple of days since you may need to wait at least 24 hours before being able to complete step two of the unlock process. You will also need to back up your data, pictures and contacts (which can take hours), since this process requires restarting your phone which will consequently delete all of your data. So don’t wait until the last minute to complete this step!
Download a VPN
You may have heard rumors about China’s strict government laws and internet restrictions. Well let me confirm them for you; yes it’s true. Say goodbye to Instagram, Facebook, Tinder, Snapchat, Google etc.; Yes I said Google! That includes all things associated with Google, even Dropbox and your Gmail account, but if you follow my advice and download a VPN prior to your arrival you will still be able to feed your Instagram addiction and contact friends and family using these popular social networks. The process is easy, but it will cost you. The VPN I have is called Express VPN and it has a red logo with the letters E and V; it can be downloaded in the App Store. There are 6 month subscriptions and annual subscriptions available for users; trust me this will be your most important investment. If your primary email account is Gmail I would also recommend setting up an account with yahoo because the VPN can be unreliable at times especially in areas with an unstable wifi connection. Please be advised: if you plan on purchasing a cellphone in China or downloading a VPN in China you may want to reconsider. The VPN laws are becoming stricter by the day and many Chinese cell phone companies block you from downloading a VPN from the App Store. So do this before you get here.
Travel With a Credit Card and Cash
I know that this may seem like an obvious step to take but trust me it’s not. There are many people that travel to China without a credit card for their own personal reasons. If you are able to get a credit card I’d advice you to do so, and that you reserve it for emergency purposes only. Many expats move to Shanghai for work opportunities and chances are you will not be greeted with an arrival bonus or a bag full of cash! Some even find themselves working for an entire month before earning their first paycheck. You may ask “will I be able to use my debit card?”; the answer is yes and no. It really depends on who you bank with, I know people who have been able to use their debit card in many establishments with no problems at all, and I also know others that had no luck what so ever in this matter. BE SURE TO INFORM YOUR BANK OF YOUR MOVE! Most Chinese companies in Shanghai do accept VISA, Master Card, American Express and Union Pay. If you are worried that you will not be able to travel with a credit card be sure to bring sufficient cash so that you can exchange it for RMB at the airport or bank upon your arrival (be sure to have your passport with you if you plan to exchange your currency at the bank). FYI: YOU WILL NOT BE ABLE TO RECEIVE WESTERN UNION WITHOUT A CHINESE BANK ACCOUNT!
Study the Culture: Learn Chinese
Remember you plan on being here for some time. Embrace the culture, learn the language, and study the beliefs of the people in preparation for this new and exciting journey. I recommend learning common greetings (hello, good morning, goodbye etc.), directional language (left, right, straight, stop etc) as well as phrases like “I do not speak Chinese” and “do you speak any English?” just to start. I will attach a YouTube link that teaches you some of the common Mandarin phrases to assist you in your daily endeavors. The Google Translate App will also come in handy and it’s fairly accurate in its translations. It even has a feature that allows you to access your camera to translate Chinese text in real-time!
Pay Your Bills In Advance
So it’s a couple of weeks before your departure and you have a few bill that are due soon. Since you are making a big transition you figure instead of paying your bills in advance you’d rather save your money and pay your bills once you’ve earn your first pay check. This might not always be the best idea. Of course this step is situational to your own financial circumstances, but I do think it’s best to pay your bills a couple of months in advance to avoid dealing with it later from Shanghai. Although Union Pay is widely accepted and internationally recognized, I had difficulty paying my student loans as well as my phone bill with my Bank of China debit card. This is where your credit card may come in handy, that is if you made sure to reserve it for emergency purposes only. As an expat, sending money home can be strenuous and expensive especially if you have yet to make any Chinese friends that would be willing to assist you with this process. It’s a lot less expensive for locals to send money abroad than it is for expats (depending on your VISA status). If you are having trouble paying your bills via your Chinese bank account the next best option would be to send money to your original bank account or credit card company to pay your bills that way. Paying a few months in advance would give you more time to meet local friends and to wait for your VISA application to process so that you can eventually send money on your own.
Buy Toiletries and Health Care Products in Bulk
As an African-American woman in China I found it very difficult to find products for my hair type and texture. My first couple of weeks here I wore a wig that I absolutely hated; I searched far and wide for familiar hair products for women of color and was unsuccessful in my feats. I often wear my hair in a sew-in weave but I couldn’t find the proper needle and thread to achieve this look. I also wear my hair natural, and I like to use certain products to help maintain my moisture, kinks and curls but I could not find the right products. It took me over 3 months to find the proper needle and thread for sew-ins, something I could have easily packed had I known. Some other things you may also want to consider packing are as follows: deodorant (many stores only carry roll-on deodorant); sanitary napkins/ tampons (many stores only carry Chinese brands); make-up (many stores, including Sephora, only carry lighter shades of foundation); Bras, under-garments and swimsuits (many stores have limited sizes); all medication (many pharmacies only carry Chinese brands of medication unless you have a prescription).
Travel With Valued Items (DO NOT HAVE IT SHIPPED LATER)
You’re at the airport and you decide that instead of paying for excess luggage you will wait and have your favorite pair of shoes and your family photo album shipped to you later. News Flash: international shipping is far more expensive! My advice to you would be to pack wisely and pay for excess luggage. I wanted to have a few paperback books delivered to me for my classroom library and the delivery fee came up to $200 dollars! Save yourself the money and pay a few extra dollars for excess luggage at the airport!
Hire an Accountant! (Tax season)
I am currently a teacher in Shanghai and I count my years in school years. Unfortunately the rest of America does not and this can be an issue once tax season approaches. Get in contact with an accountant and exchange contact information before you depart for China, you will need them come January. Since I arrived to Shanghai in late August I was still responsible for filing taxes from the previous job that I worked in the US during the earlier months of the year. It was a headache trying to figure out what steps to take, and finding a person of contact to assist me with this matter.
Pack a USB Drive With Movies/ HDMI
When I arrived in my hotel and turned on the TV I was so excited to see that my favorite episode of Friends was on. 10 seconds later Phoebe begins to speak and to my surprise she was speaking Chinese. Later I realized that every program except for The World News was in Chinese. I encourage you all to learn to speak Mandarin, it’s actually one of my biggest goals of the new year; but I also advise you to come prepared with your own books and movies in your native language for those late nights or relaxing Sunday afternoons.
Say Goodbye to Your Loved Ones
Last but most certainly not least, inform you friends and family of your plans! I’m sure they will miss you dearly and would like to stay abreast of your experiences while living in beautiful Shanghai. 🙂
THANKS FOR READING
I hope this blog was helpful. If you have any questions please drop a comment below.
Also if you would like a “Preparing for China” PDF checklist, request for one in the comments and I will email it to you directly.
– Nala Gold