Ten Easy Steps to Find Your Apartment in Shanghai

This guide is based on my experience as a TEFL teacher in China.

Beyond getting a Z visa for legal work, the prospect of trying to find and rent an apartment in Shanghai immediately after arrival was the most stressful part of moving to China.

We had just under two weeks from our arrival to find an apartment and move in. Given the language barrier, our limited knowledge of the sprawling city, and our full training schedule, it was a tough haul. Luckily for you, I’m now in a position to share my experience and help put your mind at ease.

Step 1: Research Before You Arrive

You’ll get an idea where you will be living before you go (ideally!). Check out SmartShanghai.com and Craigslist to get an idea of what you can afford and what the standards generally are in your area. With SmartShanghai there is an option to search by metro station as well. Be aware that photos are often not of the property listed.

Courtesy of Smart Shanghai
Courtesy of Smart Shanghai

Just like at home, be cautious when using Craigslist and don’t trust someone to send you keys via DHL! It’s a scam!

Before you go to China, you need some specific ideas about what you want in your apartment. For example:

  • A well-defined, hard budget (typically between 2000-4000 RMB for a TEFL teacher)
  • Do you want to live in a shared apartment, or your own place?
  • The specific metro stations that you want to live nearby as well as your place of work
  • Is an older apartment acceptable, or only newly-decorated ones?
  • What appliances do you require (be specific: washer, fridge, microwave, AC, TV, Internet, gas or electric stove)?
  • Do you want to be on higher floors or lower floors?
  • Do you require an elevator?

Having specific aims for your search helps the agent to find what you are looking for. This is one area of expat life where you should NOT be flexible.

Shanghai Railway Station
Shanghai Railway Station

Step 2: Visit the Areas You Want to Live In By Yourself

Before you contact a housing agent, get to know the area you plan to live in on your own. This is better than going with someone who has specific aims or a monetary interest. Go to shops, restaurants, and parks near your chosen metro stations. Pay close attention to the buses that run in the area; note them down for commuting.

Make a trial run of your daily commute. Time yourself to see how long it is to get to work, and do it at different times of day if possible. Learn to read the name of the bus stop you want for your commute and look for it on the bus shelters.

Step 3: Find an Agent

You could try to work out the whole system yourself, and I’d encourage you to do so if you speak decent Mandarin and/or have lived in China before. If this is your first time, it’s worth having someone who knows the city to help you. Agents will typically charge a 35% fee for their services, which can include interpretation, drawing up the lease contract, helping get internet set up, registering at the police station, and more.

If you work for a big company, they may have some options for you to get in touch with. Call your agent and work out a time to view some apartments. Most people suggest working with more than one agent, which gives the best chance to you.

Our agent is an absolute gem. Contact me directly on the ‘About’ page if you are moving to Shanghai and want his contact information. 

Our neighbourhood
Our neighbourhood

Step 4: Go See Apartments

The oldest trick in the Shanghai apartment racket: they will take you to see the shitty apartments first.

This serves two purposes. First, it might be possible to offload an apartment that just won’t budge on some unsuspecting greenhorns. Second, it makes all the apartments you see afterward look so much better by contrast. On our first day, we saw an apartment with windows that don’t close fully and a shower that looked ripe to electrocute us. Rust everywhere. Big space, though!

Keep your poker face on. Even if you are impressed by an apartment, don’t look impressed. If you think the apartment is shitty, indicate this. Set a good precedent by obviously taking notes on paper or a smartphone for later reference. Turn on the water in the sinks and shower. Flush the toilet. Light the stove. Check the hood. Open the fridge. Turn on the AC. Open and close the windows. Poke the bed repeatedly.

Check EVERYTHING at least twice.

Step 5: Go See Apartments

“No, really. I don’t want to see shitty apartments this time…”

Too late. They will do the same tactic as before, for the same reasons. Keep in mind that this is repeated for every agent you work with. Take detailed notes. Poke and turn on everything, repeatedly. Check for mold and bugs.

Now is the time to begin negotiating. Keep firm on your rent budget, and don’t allow your agent to take you to places beyond it. Ask for updated appliances. Ask for internet to be included. Ask if you can have it cleaned professionally before you move in.

You may get nowhere with this line of inquiry, but you will show that you are in the know about the Chinese custom of bargaining. If you don’t find something this time, repeat steps 4 and 5. It takes most people at least three outings to find a place in Shanghai.

Our building.
Our building.

Step 6: Put Some Earnest Money Down

Once you decide you like a place well enough, you need to move quickly. Be prepared to put down earnest money in cash.

This is to hold the place for you while you consider it, generally overnight. Don’t put down more than 1000 RMB, because you could lose it. In our case, we gave 500 RMB to our landlord directly and wrote a handwritten receipt for it (totally official). You should get a deduction on your deposit or rent when you sign your contract.

Step 7: Sign Your Lease

Your agent will most likely draw up the contract and ask you when you will move in, and how often you’ll pay the rent. It’s best that the contract be in both English and Mandarin, to prevent misunderstandings. This process is exhausting and will take about an hour. You can put down one month’s rent in cash if you don’t have access to the rest of the funds you will need.

You will also go to the apartment and check off the damage and appliances that it has before you move in, so that you can get your deposit back. Sign and keep a copy for yourself.

Step 8: Pay Your Remaining Rent

Keep in mind that if you are accessing funds from home, you can only take out 500 USD per day at an ATM. Plan to use the ATM a few times in the lead up to your lease signing, over the course of several days. Pay your remaining rent/deposit in cash, and make sure that you count it several times. It can easily be upwards of 10000 RMB that you will have to carry on your person. Don’t keep it all in one place, and use a money belt on the metro.

Optional step: feel like a kingpin with stacks of 100s on your bed.
Optional step: feel like a kingpin with stacks of 100s on your bed.

Step 9: Move In

Your apartment will likely need a deep cleaning. You can hire an ayi to help with that, or you can do it yourself. Check everything again to make sure that it isn’t suddenly broken. You can go to IKEA for household items and it will be relatively cheap.

Set up water delivery service if you can. Water in Shanghai is fine for bathing, cooking, and brushing your teeth with. It’s not ok for drinking, though. Make sure you have bottled water, or at the very least boil the living shit out of it before consumption.

Newly decorated!
Newly decorated!

Step 10: Register With the Local Police

As a foreigner in China, you must register at a local police station within 24 hours of moving to a new address. You will need:

  • Your passport
  • The original lease contract
  • A copy of your landlord’s ID
  • A copy of the property’s official documents (get from your landlord)
  • A pink piece of paper indicating that you stayed legally at a hotel while looking for a place to live (obtain at check out)

Make certain that you go to the correct police station! It’s best to go early in the morning, because you will have to wait a shorter time. Avoid lunchtime at all costs. You will receive a piece of paper with your face on it that indicates you have registered.

NOTE: If you do not register within 24 hours, you face a fine of 500 RMB per day and potential issues with your Residence Permit.

TADA! You live in Shanghai! Contact me directly with your questions!

4 thoughts on “Ten Easy Steps to Find Your Apartment in Shanghai

  1. I’m an Australian living in Sai Gon, Viet Nam and yes to all of this. Registering with police, the crappy apartments you have to trek through first, the scams, etc. There aren’t really any new ideas are there?

    It looks like you’ve moved around even more than I have and I’m averaging a new country every two years.

    Enjoy your time in your new country!

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