First things first: the emergency number to call an ambulance is 120. They’re unlikely to speak English, so have someone write down the basic phrases you’ll need along with your address, practise them and keep the information handy. Note that ambulances take you to the nearest hospital, not the one of your choice. If possible, you’re better off getting a taxi or being driven – again, have the address in Chinese characters on you.

Shanghai has superb medical facilities, as advanced as any in the world – as long as you can pay for them. Expat packages should include insurance that covers these facilities. In fact, normal state hospitals here are also quite good. What you’re paying for with international providers is English-language personal care, avoiding waiting all day in a crowded hospital for a ten-minute session with an overworked doctor, pleasant surroundings and doctors with international experience who spend time listening to concerns and answering questions. It’s worth it.

There are two main types of healthcare available other than the state system: local hospitals with special foreigner wings (Huashan and Ruijin hospitals have the best-known), and private providers. If you want to save money or avoid using insurance and your medical problem is straightforward, consider the former. Fees are considerably lower (although be aware that you may need to provide a deposit of around RMB10,000 if you need to be admitted), and equipment and care is good. In fact, you’ll probably be using identical x-ray machines and so on to those in the rest of the hospital; the difference is nicer rooms, no hours of waiting and doctors who speak some English and have more time for you. Note that Chinese doctors love to put people on drips at the slightest excuse; make it clear you don’t want this if you feel it’s overkill. They tend to stint on painkillers though.

Private providers have mushroomed in the last decade, offering a global standard of care, excellent facilities and an extremely comfortable experience. This is definitely the best approach if your insurance covers it. Fees are two to five times those of local hospitals, and will rise fast if you require serious treatment; but you won’t find better health care anywhere in the world.

Basic dental work, as well as cosmetic work, is very reasonably priced here. Big chains like Arrail are as high-tech, professional and hygienic as anywhere in the West; and if you need English-language service, you’ll find that advertised too.

There are pharmacies everywhere, many open 24 hours, but don’t expect brand names to be the same. Find out in advance the name of what you want if possible; if they don’t have it, they’ll probably be able to offer an alternative. Certain drugs that are prescription-only in the West are available over the counter in Shanghai; otherwise, bring your prescription from home and get your provider to write you a local version.

Try out some local medical approaches too. Both no-frills and high-end massage of the respectable kind are easy to find here, along with cupping, acupuncture and the like. TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) is also fascinating, and can be effective where Western medicine fails, or used in conjunction with it. It’s not snake oil (literally or figuratively): medicine is produced in laboratories and clinically proven to be effective.

Jet Lag

Unless you’re coming from elsewhere in Asia, China is likely to be a fair few time zones away from you – 12 or 13 hours from the east coast of the US, 6 or 7 from most of Western Europe (China doesn’t change to Daylight Savings Time, so it varies depending on the season). The days of the slow boat to China are over, and while you’ll get here quickly your body might take a while to adapt. It takes about a day per time zone to get properly aligned.

Try to adapt to the new time zone immediately. Arrive in the evening, go straight to bed and set your alarm for a normal waking time; if you land earlier, do your best to stay up until at least 9pm. In this sense, having to go to work can help you. Avoid tempting afternoon naps, and if you wake up in the middle of the night don’t sleep in as a result. Eat lightly at normal times and avoid alcohol and caffeine. But even if you break all these rules with convivial welcome meals from new colleagues or friends, your body will still right itself within a week or so.

Drinking Water

Tap water can under no circumstances be drunk in Shanghai, though most people brush their teeth with it without any problems. Don’t boil it for hot drinks either; this doesn’t do anything about the heavy metals. Homes come equipped with water coolers as a matter of course, usually offering a choice of cold or hot water (locals prefer to drink it hot). There are myriad companies providing the barrels of water, and you can order more with a quick phone call – the number will be on the barrel.

More modern housing may offer a water filter. This generally comes in the form of an additional tap in the kitchen, and the thin flow is a reminder of how much has to be stripped out. It’s straightforward to set this up for a couple of thousand RMB, plus the cost of regular filter replacements; one provider is 3M. Bottled water is extremely cheap in local shops as well, unless you want to pay the Evian mark-up.

Food Safety

Food safety is a huge issue in China as a whole. Shanghai is no exception, and generally you’re going to have to accept that fruit, vegetables and meat from wet markets and in restaurants are prone to problems somewhere further back up the supply chain, often from unscrupulous producers saving money. Until regulation becomes effective and honestly enforced, this will remain the case. This has led to a fast-growing interest in organic and properly-sourced foods, and places such as Fields and City Shop where you can order food online. (Check our food shopping listings for more information.) High-end restaurants should source their meat and produce properly.

Street food in Shanghai is tasty and everywhere; it’s no more likely to give you a bellyache than street food anywhere else. You may at times feel a little delicate in the first few months here if you’re eating a lot of street food or food from small restaurants, but you’ll adapt.

Health Insurance

Health insurance in Shanghai is not mandatory, and in fact one of the social problems in China as a whole is the low penetration of insurance – poor people save as much money as they can in case illness strikes, and serious health problems can bankrupt a family if they need more than the basic state-provided care. Your company will provide it as part of your package, and they will probably have a relationship with one of the international hospitals in our listings. If you’re not insured, standard illnesses or even broken bones and the like won’t bankrupt you, as long as you use local hospitals; however, the international hospitals are extremely expensive and if you’re going to be here long you might be advised to purchase private insurance.

Some international brokers are:
Expatriate Insurance Services

Health Certificate

Anyone applying for a work visa must get a health certificate from the local government, which means undergoing a health check at the Shanghai Health and Quarantine Verification Office (15 Jinbang Lu, in Hongqiao). Your company should have someone take you out there and wait for you as it’s a bit out of the way, depending on where you live, and finding a taxi may be an issue, particularly at rush hour. It’s straightforward and only takes about an hour. You take off your top and put on a hospital smock instead, then get moved along from room to room, part of a conveyor belt of foreigners being prodded and sampled. They’ll check eyes, x-ray you, take blood, look at your teeth. It’s all hygienic and efficient, and while pretty pointless won’t do you any harm. They won’t even cancel your visa if you have something wrong with you, assuming it’s not infectious – just recommend you see a doctor.

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Moving Overseas as an Expat