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The Guide to Teaching English in Shanghai

Aerial view of Shanghai skyline

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As one of the biggest cities in the world, Shanghai gives ESL teachers no shortage of opportunities: for work, for culture, for love.

However, with so much going on in Shanghai it can be hard to know where to get started.

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This article will address what it’s like to live and teach English in Shanghai and give you some pointers for how to start your China teaching journey.

Shanghai – The City of Expats

Known for its iconic skyline, flavorful cuisine, and storied history, Shanghai is truly a global destination.

It has an active arts scene and a bumping nightlife, but it also hosts beautiful parks, gardens, and river walks. 

Shanghai’s expat scene is huge: as of 2010, over 160,000 foreigners were living in Shanghaiwhich equals about one-quarter of the foreigners living in all of Mainland China.

The huge number of Westerners living there creates lots of activities for foreigners, but it can also isolate them from the native population of Shanghai.

Because so many native speakers are looking for English teaching jobs in Shanghai, it can also be harder to find good work there than in another city.

But have no fear: with a little luck and knowledge, you’ll find a great job that will get you plugged into your new favorite city.

Read on to learn about what it takes to find jobs in Shanghai for expats and what life in Shanghai is like.

If you’d like to go these easy route, you can apply with us and let us shortlist suitable ESL teaching jobs in Shanghai. Find more details here.

shanghai-skyline-iconic
The iconic skyline of The Shanghai Bund.

How Do You Get a Work Visa to Teach ESL in China?

The visa process is without a doubt the biggest hurdle anyone considering teaching English in China has to cross, but it’s easier than it seems.

All you need for a work visa in China are a bachelor’s degree, a valid passport from a native English-speaking country, a clean criminal background check, and a TEFL certification, which is easy to procure.

This primer on getting a Z-visa for China goes into detail about what all the visa process entails.

Is Shanghai For You?

When deciding which city to live and teach in, you should consider what it is you’re looking to get out of your experience teaching ESL abroad.

If you’re an unexperienced teacher and are solely interested in making money or you want to fully embed yourself in a small Chinese community, urban Shanghai might not be for you.

However, if you want to live in a world capital and still make a more-than-decent living, Shanghai might be the place for you.

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Many English teachers come to Shanghai to teach English because the city has lots of expats, which means both that it’s easy to build a community there and that you can find all the conveniences and luxuries you could want in the city.

People also flock to Shanghai because it’s a historical and cultural center, as evidenced by the countless songsmovies, and books made about it. If you decide to live here, you’ll find no shortage of fascination in the city.

If you’re averse to the cold, you may want to consider a more southern Chinese metropolis, such as Shenzhen or Guangzhou.

If you love spicy food and pandas, look into teaching somewhere in Sichuan, like Chengdu and Chongqing.

And if you’re a true politics and history buff, you may want to be in the heart of China, Beijing.

However, if you want some of everything and are an art or culture nerd, you’ll have the time of your life in Shanghai. Also, you’ll find lots of teaching opportunities there.

Pros and Cons of Shanghai

Teaching English in Shanghai is a singular experience.

Shanghai is both the center of the world and a world unto itself, where a constant rush of new creation fits in with rather than crowding out a historic past.

It’s also near a number of beautiful and historical cities, including Hangzhou, Suzhou, and Nanjing, meaning that if you do want to escape the bubble for a weekend you’ll have great options. 

However, the city is crowded and congested, and the pollution can get bad, especially in the winter.

Especially in winter, Shanghai’s air can get really polluted.

It is, by some estimates, the most expensive city in China to live in.

Some people teaching English in Shanghai also complain that the huge number of expats there makes it hard to penetrate into the Chinese community in Shanghai.

There’s even a series of sketches by Mamahuhu, a Shanghai-based comedy group, making fun of the insularity of expat life in Shanghai.

Finding English Teaching Jobs in Shanghai

As mentioned earlier, it is harder to find English teaching jobs in Shanghai than in some other places in China because the market is saturated with so many expats teaching English in Shanghai.

However, there are still a good number of English teaching jobs in Shanghai, especially if you’re a native speaker.

You’ll have an easier time finding good jobs in Shanghai for expats if you have previous teaching experience or some other type of special skill. 

If you’re not an experienced teacher you may have to work further away from the city center at first, but you’ll be gaining the skills to transfer to a better job later down the line.

Keep in mind that you can also teach English online anywhere in the world, either as a supplement to your main job or as a full-time remote job.

Anatomy of Shanghai: Where to Live, Work, and Play

Shanghai is comprised of 16 districts, meaning you have plenty of options for exciting places to live in the city as an expat.

When deciding where to live, you should consider how far away you want to be from your workplace, how much money you want to spend on rent, and what type of lifestyle you want.

Downtown

As a foreigner teaching English in Shanghai, you’ll probably find yourself in one of the seven districts that make up its downtown: Huangpu, Jing’an, Hokou, Yangpu, Putuo, Changning, and Xuhui.

No matter where you are downtown, you’ll find yourself near all the conveniences you need as well as a thriving expat community and public transportation.

Let’s break down a few areas of Shanghai’s downtown.

Huangpu

Shanghai’s urban core is spread out across a few districts, but if you want to be at the heart of the city you have to be in Huangpu.

This district is home to The Bund, a strip along the Huangpu River whose buildings are an architectural history of the many colonial influences on Shanghai over the years. Also, it has a killer club scene. 

If you live in Huangpu you’ll also be near Nanjing Road. Starting from The Bund and stretching all the way to Jing’an Temple, Nanjing Road is the longest shopping district in the world.

The road is limited to pedestrian traffic for a sizable portion leading from The Bund.

A groceries dealer carrying his goods the old-fashioned way.

Nanjing road splits at People’s Park, where you can take a leisurely stroll, visit Shanghai’s Museum of Contemporary Art, or even browse the park’s famous umbrella market, where parents trade information on their unwed children in a bid to find them good spouses.

Huangpu has a large community of expats teaching English in Shanghai, and the area obviously puts you close to good shopping, green space, nightlife, and culture.

However, centered as it is in the middle of the city, it is more expensive and crowded than some other areas in the city.

Jing’an

If you follow Nanjing Road past People’s Park you’ll find yourself in Jing’an, a district named after the aforementioned Jing’an Temple.

The section of Nanjing Road in Jing’an hosts more shopping and some of the best dim sum you’ll find in Shanghai.

In Jing’an you can visit the former home of Chairman Mao, which has now been converted into a museum, as well as the Shanghai Natural History Museum. You’ll also find a great park and a good nightlife, and you’ll be just a short trip from The Bund.

Best of all, it’s possible to find reasonably priced apartments in Jing’an.

Changning

Many expats teaching English in Shanghai choose to live in Changning because it’s central but feels less Westernized than areas like the Former French Concession.

Changning is home to Zhongshan Park and the Shanghai Zoo, and again may be a little quieter and more affordable than the heart of downtown, while still providing plenty of amenities and attractions.

Putuo

More residential and industrial than some of the areas surrounding it, Putuo is nevertheless one of Shanghai’s hippest areas.

It’s home to M50, a compound of old factories turned into art spaces. M50 is world-renowned and attracts young people from all over China and the world, and the neighborhood surrounding it is hip and relatively affordable.

Pudong

Across the river from Huangpu lies Pudong, which you’ve seen if you’ve ever seen a picture of Shanghai’s iconic skyline.

Pudong is home to Shanghai’s financial district and thus some downtown attractions, but it quickly cedes to residential areas.

This means that it’s cheaper than living on the other side of the river, but also that there’s not as much to do.

However, it does have a number of beautiful and spacious parks as well as many international schools, meaning that it’s easy to find jobs in Shanghai for expats there, and you can live close to your work.

Suburbs

If you live much further out in Shanghai, you’ll be able to live cheaply and you’ll get a much more Chinese experience, but you really won’t feel like you’re in the Shanghai you’ve read and dreamed about.

There’s life beyond the shiny skyscrapers of Shanghai.

It will be harder to get into the city and you probably won’t have an expat community around you.

Of course, living in the suburbs can be rewarding and lucrative, but you should definitely keep in mind what you’re sacrificing by living in the suburbs if you’ve been looking forward to living in the Shanghai you’ve seen portrayed in film and literature.

The Financials of Teaching English in Shanghai

As a tier-1 city and world capital, Shanghai can definitely get expensive.

However, don’t let the high prices intimidate you. It’s entirely possible to live a cost-efficient life, especially on a Shanghai ESL teacher’s salary.

Average Salary for English Teachers

You can make ¥10-20,000 ($1,450-2,900) per month teaching English in Shanghai, on average.

If you work at a public school your earnings will fall toward the lower end of the spectrum, while if you work at an international school you could make as much as ¥30,000 ($4,350) per month. 

International school jobs in Shanghai do often have stricter requirements for teachers, and because they’re sought after, teaching jobs in Shanghai international schools may be hard to get if you don’t have any experience teaching ESL. However, they’re high paying and have great benefits.

Many schools will offer you housing or a housing allowance, medical insurance, and a yearly bonus.

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Your school may also offer cultural outings for teachers and other activities that help you improve your teaching and your China experience.

Location also matters when you’re considering where to teach English in Shanghai. You’ll probably earn more if you work closer to downtown, while you’ll have a lower salary and lower cost of living in the suburbs or rural areas.

Cost of Living

Housing

Many schools provide housing for teachers, but if your school doesn’t provide accommodations, you’ll have to scour the housing market.

Of course finding your own housing is more work than getting provided housing, but it also gives you more freedom in determining where you’d like to live.

Monthly rent for a 1-bedroom apartment in Shanghai’s city center is a little under ¥7,000 ($1,000). However, cost per room in shared apartments is closer to ¥5,400, or $780.

Outside of the city center, you can find much cheaper housing, with 1-bedrooms averaging around ¥3,600 ($522) and the median price of rooms in shared apartments dropping as low as ¥2,600, or $380. 

Some schools will provide free housing for teachers or give them housing stipends, meaning you don’t have to worry about city rent. If they don’t provide housing, they’ll probably at least help you find housing by connecting you with a housing agent.

Expats teaching English in Shanghai also find housing on Wechat forums and online.

Other Expenses

Shopping and dining in Shanghai can be as upscale or budget as you want them to be. A meal at a nice restaurant can easily cost a small fortune, but you can also buy dumplings from street stalls for cents on the dollar. 

Navigating the city is cheap and easy, as we’ll discuss below. Utilities will probably run you around ¥380 ($50) a month, a bottle of water will run you well under a dollar.

Outside of rent, daily life in Shanghai really doesn’t have to be expensive.

However, you may find yourself spending more money than you planned to in Shanghai maintaining the kind of lifestyle you see around you. Bars, clubs, and nice restaurants all cost money, as do nice clothes and accessories.

If you’re the kind of person who likes to keep up with the Joneses, you’ll get a run for your money trying to emulate the lifestyles of Shanghai’s elite.

Colonial buildings in the French Concession Quarter at The Shanghai Bund.

Shanghai by Train, Bike, Taxi, and Bus

Shanghai has a comprehensive and cheap subway system.

A ride costs around ¥4, or 50 cents. However, it can get congested due to Shanghai’s huge population.

Buses cost about the same amount as the metro, but of course, you’re subject to road traffic on a bus.

You can also rent share bikes throughout the city by swiping a QR code and paying through an app on your phone.

Taxis and Didis (Chinese Uber) are readily available throughout China, though I’ve found myself waiting for more than 20 minutes for a taxi on busy weekend nights in Shanghai.

Overall, transportation in Shanghai is affordable and accessible, but that doesn’t mean it’s fast.

The Weather

Shanghai has hot summers and cold winters, although the city doesn’t often get snow. The climate is humid, and the area gets lots of rain in winter and fall.

Because it’s located seaside, there’s also a typhoon season at the end of summer.

Overall, the city is temperate and very liveable.

Shanghai’s Food Scene

If for no other reason, you should consider moving to Shanghai for their formidable food scene.

Your school may provide you with delicious meals, but don’t completely forgo the local cuisine Shanghai has to offer.

The most famous local snack is xiaolongbao, a soupy, flavorful dumpling named for the bamboo basket it’s steamed in. Flavorful, chewy yet soft, and rich, xialongbao are bite-sized pockets of heaven. 

Shanghai is also famous for a cuisine that features seafood and sweet-and-sour flavors, leading to a number of dishes with a unique and wonderful flavor profile.

If the thought of all this Shanghai food is for some reason not making you immediately hungry, you can also find cuisine from all over the world in Shanghai.

Shanghai Attractions

Shanghai has a ton of stuff to do, so you’ll never be bored when you’re finished teaching and lesson planning.

The city has no shortage of museums, parks, bars, art galleries, and restaurants. Whether you’re a history buff, a nature nerd, or a club kid, you’ll find endless possibilities in Shanghai.

Conclusion

If you want to teach English abroad and to experience the full breadth of what China has to offer, consider moving to Shanghai.

As a sprawling and ancient metropolis, Shanghai is a city of contradictions. Fabulous mansions cede to hole-in-the-wall dumpling shops, imposing promenades turn into dank alleys, and the constant race to build the newest biggest brightest thing is laid over a complicated but soulful history. 

It may be harder to find teaching jobs in Shanghai than in other cities if you don’t have previous teaching experience.

However, the city has a wealth of opportunities for teaching jobs and for personal growth.

It’s also a large enough city to accommodate whatever type of lifestyle it is you’re looking for. 

About Molly Oberstein-Allen

Molly Oberstein-Allen spent a year and a half teaching ESL and STEAM in Shenzhen, China. She currently resides in Kansas, where she writes and teaches online. She's passionate about traveling, literature, and the outdoors.

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