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The easiest way to get around in Shanghai is to use its efficient and affordable public transport system, which includes the Shanghai Metro and public buses.
Public transport in Shanghai is more than sufficient to get expats to where they need to go and, anyway, owing to severe traffic congestion and a complex road system, it's generally advised that expats avoid driving in Shanghai.
Public transport in Shanghai
It is relatively easy to navigate Shanghai's subway and bus systems. Both display their destinations in English and Mandarin, although only the subway has announcements in English.
The Shanghai Public Transportation Card (known as jiaotong yikatong) can be used to travel on buses, the metro and even some taxis, and is recommended for those planning on regularly using Shanghai's public transport. These can be bought at certain convenience stores, banks and any metro station for a small deposit, and money can be loaded onto the card at metro stations.
Serving a population of over 27 million, the bus system in Shanghai is extensive and well established, with over 10 bus companies connecting various areas and suburbs. A list of routes written in English can be found online and at some stations, which is helpful as drivers usually don't speak English. Several routes are operated by Shanghai's trolleybuses and eBRT (electric Bus Rapid Transit) system, and this network is constantly expanding
As one of the world's busiest subway systems, the Shanghai Metro serves an average of around 10 million riders daily, and the number of lines is constantly increasing.
Despite its size, the metro's routes are made easy to understand by colour-coded maps. Also, most signs and announcements are in Mandarin and English, making the system easy to use for expats travelling in Shanghai.
Those who don’t want to use a transport card can also get day pass cards or single-journey tickets for the metro. At newer stations, these can only be bought at automatic vending machines. At rush hour, be prepared for a crush of people on the more popular lines.
A discussion on Shanghai's public transport network would be incomplete without mentioning the efficient rail network. Two major railways pass through Shanghai: routes connecting Beijing and Hangzhou, and the three key train stations of Shanghai Railway Station, Shanghai South Railway Station and Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station.
Expats can enjoy the high-speed railway, in particular the Shanghai Maglev Train (SMT). The name Maglev comes from it being a magnetic levitation train, allowing speeds of 268 mph (431 km/h). While the line is not part of the Shanghai Metro, it connects with it at Longyang Road Station. SMT also connects Shanghai Pudong International Airport.
This coastal city is cut by the Huangpu River, and travelling by ferry can be a great way to get around and see the city. The Shanghai Ferry operates 18 lines. A basic trip costs about the same as other forms of public transport, and passengers can pay using a Shanghai Public Transport Card. Passengers who wish to take a bicycle, light motorcycle or normal motorcycle are charged higher rates.
Taxis in Shanghai
Taxis in Shanghai are affordable over short distances, but as most drivers only speak Chinese, foreign passengers will need to make sure that they either carry a business card of somewhere near where they want to go or get a local person to write out the address in Chinese.
It is best to ask to go to the nearest big landmark or intersection to the final destination, as Shanghai is a huge city and drivers may get lost if a passenger is travelling outside of their home turf.
Taxis are metered and are colour coordinated according to the taxi company.
While tuk-tuks (rickshaws) are not a common sight in Shanghai, there are many taxi alternatives, such as the ride-hailing application DiDi.
Driving in Shanghai
As in other large cities in China, owning a car and driving in Shanghai is probably best avoided. The road system and traffic laws in this sprawling city are complex, while the public transport system is efficient and comprehensive enough that expats often won't need a car to get to where they want to go.
Chinese traffic laws are often very different from Western ones and, as a result, it occasionally seems that there are simply no rules at all. Safety should be a concern of expats who plan to drive, as China has a high rate of traffic-related fatalities. Parking spaces are often impossible to find, and commuting in the never-ending rush-hour traffic is a nightmare best avoided, if possible.
Those that do want to own and drive a car in Shanghai will need to get a driving licence for China. International Driver’s Permits (IDPs) are not recognised in mainland China, which means that foreign residents need to convert their home country driver’s licence or IDP to a Chinese licence.
Usually, drivers need to complete a theory test and physical test, and won’t need to retake their driver’s test. This can be done at a Chinese traffic department office and some airports.
Bicycles and scooters in Shanghai
Scooters, including electric motorbikes or 'E-bikes', are a cheap and popular method of getting around Shanghai and are even available in supermarkets. But these can prove dangerous in the city's chaotic traffic.
Bicycles are not always allowed on China’s major roads, so can be unsuitable for long distances. They also cannot be ridden in the underground tunnels beneath the river, or on bridges, so cyclists must plan their routes accordingly. That said, many people get around by bike and certain areas are more bicycle friendly than others, such as Pudong which offers well-maintained bike paths.
Walking in Shanghai
The best way to travel short distances is on foot. Pedestrians can easily make their way through the city by walking and this is a great way for new arrivals to become more familiar with their surroundings. Strolling along the Bund waterfront promenade and around Pudong is pleasant, especially in the evenings with Shanghai's nightlife.
While it is relatively safe to walk around in Shanghai, expats should take the usual precautions, as in any large city. Pedestrians should be aware of risks, such as safety when crossing busy roads and pickpocketing in crowded areas.
►Banking and Taxes in China provides useful information on money matters
"Using the public transport is probably even better than owning a car, especially during rush hour. You can take the bus, metro or taxi, which can get you just about anywhere in Shanghai." Read more in our interview with Jordan.
"The public transport is excellent. It is quick, efficient and extremely clean. There are also security officers in the stations, which makes you feel at ease. However, rush hour can be manic so it's a good idea to plan your route early to avoid the crowds. You definitely don’t need a car in Shanghai; lots of people buy bikes to get around..." Keep reading our interview with Georgia for more on the best ways to get around in Shanghai.
Are you an expat living in Shanghai?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to Shanghai. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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