Shanghai for English Speakers – Tips & Suggestions When You Don’t Speak the Language in Shanghai

Don’t know how to read or speak Chinese? Don’t let a language barrier get in the way of making the most of your trip to Shanghai!

In today’s world of smartphones and apps, there’s a workaround for nearly every situation. With a little preparation and patience, you can communicate well enough to get around, see the sights, and get a good taste of the city while staying safe.

Below, we’ve put together a list of what you can expect as well as steps you can take to be prepared for most situations.

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Shanghai for English Speakers – Tips & Suggestions

Getting Around

One of the most critical aspects of traveling is actually getting around your destination.

How can you do so, safely and effectively?

  • Write out your destinations each day. Get a hotel agent or some other native speaker to write down your destinations in Chinese, so you can easily show the piece of paper to your driver or ticket agent. This is a great way to make sure you’re asking for the right place.
  • Riding the metro is easy. Good news: it’s all translated into English! Some street signs will be in English, too, although more often they’re translated into pinyin.
  • Catch a train. Give yourself some extra time and take your ID to the English counters — each station has one — where an agent can help you with your purchase and itinerary.
  • Ride a taxi but be careful. Share that written-out destination with your driver, who most likely will not speak English. Unfortunately, tourists are often vulnerable when taking taxis, so make sure you take some extra precautions:
    • Ask your hotel or call up a taxi service. Do not accept rides when approached on the street with an offer.
    • Check for a meter that starts running when your cab starts.
    • Know that drivers are required to give you a receipt. If they don’t, you’re not required to pay!
    • Consider using an app like Didi Chuxing (keep reading for more) if you’re nervous.
  • Want to use a rideshare? Uber in China doesn’t have an English version. If you’re set on using it, install it in advance and try it out so you get comfortable with the Chinese-only form. We list some alternatives below – so keep reading!

Taking Care of the Essentials

Getting comfortable with pinyin – a Chinese-English hybrid that spells out Chinese words into the Western alphabet, based on their sounds – can help you to an extent with your communication in Shanghai, although it obviously doesn’t take you all the way to native speaker. How, then, will you get by on securing daily needs, such as bathrooms, food, and even medical care if needed?

Here are some tips to help you with your day-to-day needs:

  • Pay attention to the menus. Many restaurants do have English menu cards, especially in Central Shanghai. Chinese restaurants often have visual menu cards as well.
  • Leverage restaurant reviews. Walking into a place with a good sense of what you want to order can help you at once be adventurous while also exercising some discretion, control, and knowledge over what you’re eating.
  • Look for “English” settings. ATMs, applications, and other digital menus will likely offer an option to set to English.
  • Consult with other foreigners. You are definitely not the only traveler in town. Finding other English-speakers is a great way to get help, meet new people, and potentially even score some recommendations you hadn’t even known about.
  • Learn some basic Mandarin. Learning some common Mandarin phrases will help you with some small talk in your day-to-day travels, while also making Shanghai natives more open to helping you.
  • Meet locals. Trying couch-surfing, Meetups, alumni organizations, friends of friends, and so on. Any opportunity you have to connect with natives gives you a chance to navigate Shanghai better, both by improving your communication and even providing you with more insider tips to enhance your trip!
  • Carry a pocket dictionary. You might not want to break it out in the middle of a busy street, but in a quiet moment or a pinch where your smartphone fails you, this is a good backup.

Use Apps to Help

A critical way to bridge the language gap and also stay safe, secure, and organized while traveling overseas in Shanghai is to leverage the power of your smartphone.

We’ve compiled the following list of apps that we find critical for you to carry in your Shanghai travels.

  • Consider one of several pocket translation options:
    • Google Translate is a classic standby, showing both Chinese characters as well as pinyin.
    • WayGo can scan and translate words even when you’re away from an internet connection. Got a difficult street sign or food menu that you’re trying to make sense of? This app will save you.
    • Pleco is an amazing powerhouse in your pocket, even capable of reading your handwriting or images of Chinese text. Use it to look up words, hear pronunciations, or even use flashcards to support your efforts to learn Chinese.
  • Wechat (also known as Weixin) is the most popular messaging app in China. Aside from providing a great way to keep in touch with anyone you meet in Shanghai, this app functions much like a social network. One of its key benefits is it can translate text messages into English, facilitating communication.
  • Alipay is a great way to pay in China and make sure you don’t need to worry about losing your credit card or dealing with currency conversion. They offer excellent customer service and security features so you can have peace of mind.
    • Apple Pay and Google Pay are other great alternatives for payment, syncing across your devices and helping you easily track your spending.
  • Trip (formerly Ctrip) lets you book planes, trains, and hotels, all in English (or seven other languages). The fact that it accepts all credit cards – not just Chinese – makes it even more convenient! You can track trip times, status, and confirmation numbers here, with a copy sent to your inbox as an additional potential reference.
  • Agoda is the premier search tool for Asian lodging, be it hotels, hostels, or other vacation rental options. Again, you can read descriptions in English and book using international payment methods.
  • Didi Chuxing is the leading taxi ordering mobile app in China. Based on your budget, you can pick everything from a shared ride through a private car. This is a great way to get around any language barriers, since you simply input your pick-up spot, destination, and pick the ride you want. The rest is taken care of by the app – no discussion necessary!
  • Metro Shanghai Subway is an iOS app that lists out stations in both Chinese characters as well as pinyin, and comes in nine languages total. Plan out trips, calculate travel time, and view real-time arrival/departure time updates all in one handy app!
  • Dianping serves as China’s version of American favorite Yelp, featuring tons of restaurant and bar reviews.
  • Air Quality is a tool that can help you monitor air conditions and avoid dangerous pollution. Many Shanghai citizens rely on face masks to get through their days, although in extreme cases you may choose to remain indoors.
  • VPN subscription is a good idea if you need to access the internet in the same way you would at home outside of China, which uses a big firewall to censor and block off sites like Facebook from public access. You can choose a short-term subscription so that you only pay for what you’ll actually need and use.
    • Getting a VPN gives you access to Google Maps.
    • Otherwise, you’ll need to work with Baidu Map, although it only works in Chinese.
  • Bring a charger. Ok, this is not an app recommendation, but with your phone proving to be such a critical lifeline for keeping yourself organized, you want to make sure you can keep your phone powered. Make sure you bring any necessary adaptors or converters.

Let’s Recap

The above is all helpful tips and suggestions to make visiting Shanghai for English speakers a little bit easier when you don’t speak the language in Shanghai.

If you’re visiting Shanghai, another tip we like to give travelers is to enjoy the sights! From observation decks, gardens, and museums to cruises and theme parks, there’s something for everyone to enjoy.

Save on some of the most popular things to do in Shanghai with a Go Shanghai Card. You’ll save up to 30% on combined admission prices. Happy travels!


The information contained in this post, to the best of the author's knowledge, was accurate at time of publishing. We do our best to ensure and maintain the accuracy of this information.

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