Caroline Walters

When I started doing my research in preparation for the ‘big move’ from Stellenbosch, South Africa to Shanghai, many money-related questions came to mind. What is the average rent? How much will my daily commute cost? What is the average pricing of household basics? Will I be able to live comfortably? Will I be able to save? Before moving to Shanghai, it definitely helps to have an idea of the cost of living. In this blog post, I will be discussing how the living costs in Shanghai broadly compare to South Africa’s, based on my own personal experience.


Most teachers either stay in a shared apartment (you have your own room) or a studio apartment. It is not uncommon for EF teachers to share an apartment as it is more cost effective, with prices starting from around 2900-3600 yuan (±R5800-R7200, USD450-550) per month. A studio apartment is generally more expensive, starting from around 3600 yuan per month (± R7200, USD550). Rent in Shanghai is comparable to Cape Town’s, and is thus generally more expensive than the rest of South Africa. On the upside, most apartments are furnished in Shanghai, minimizing the initial start-up cost.

Tap water and electricity are billed separately from your rent. Tap water is very inexpensive, but electricity works out to about the same as South Africa. Drinking water varies in price depending on the brand you’re purchasing, but costs about 10 yuan (±R20, USD2) for a 4 litre bottle.

Data is ridiculously cheap in Shanghai. Topping up data on my phone costs about 45 yuan (±R90, USD7) for 2G. Most places have WiFi, which means that you will end up spending very little on data each month.


Shanghai’s transport system is highly efficient and cost effective. With the metro, buses, bike sharing and DiDi taxi, one has many ways to commute across the city. A trip on the metro costs you anything from 3-4 yuan (±R6-R8, USD0.5) per trip and a one-way bus ticket is 1 yuan (±R2, USD0.2). After a registration fee, one is able to pay around 1 yuan (±R2, USD0.2) per trip for bike sharing. The Chinese version of Uber, DiDi taxi, is also slightly cheaper in comparison to the Uber rates in South Africa. Living in Shanghai, you are able to travel a great deal more, spending far less on travel costs than you would in South Africa.

Metro map in Shanghai, China


Groceries that are frequently used in Chinese food such as tofu, noodles, rice and soya sauce are cheap. Certain fruits such as dragon fruit, pomegranates and Asian pears are much less in Shanghai, whereas apples and plums are more expensive compared to South African prices. Vegetables on average work out to about the same, but can be slightly cheaper if you go to a stall or market. Western ingredients such as cheese, coffee, olive oil and wine are almost double in price. Meat is also slightly more expensive in Shanghai. It goes without saying that if you purchase mostly Chinese ingredients and locally grown food, you can easily cook up a low cost meal, whereas if you want to replicate your dishes from home using Western ingredients, it will work out more expensive than if you were making it back in South Africa.

Chinese cleaning product brands tend to be cheaper, but international brands such as Mr. Muscle and Ariel washing powder are more expensive.

Chinese personal hygiene brands can be both dirt cheap and super expensive. If you prefer to use products that you used back home, such as Dove, L’Oreal, Head & Shoulders, and NIVEA, then you would be paying close to double for the same product in Shanghai.

Depending on where you purchase them, utensils can be really cheap, both in stores (e.g. Miniso) and on Taobao (an online purchasing app).


Going out and having a meal and drinks varies in price depending on whether you want a taste of China or home food. In general, Chinese meals can cost anything from around 18 yuan (±R36, USD3) for a meal and 10 yuan (±R20, USD2) for a local beer. International meals are pricier and generally start from at least 30 yuan (±R60, USD5). A glass of wine starts from around 40 yuan (±R80, USD6) and international beers start from around 35 yuan (±R70, USD5). That being said, you can get a good Chinese dish, paying slightly less than what you would in South Africa. However, if you want to buy a Western-inspired meal, you will be paying more than if you purchased the same meal in South Africa.

Buying street food is not that popular in South Africa, but it is prevalent in Shanghai and is frequently bought by locals and internationals alike. Jian Bing, also known as Chinese crepes, start at anything from 5 yuan (±R10). Baozi, a steamed filled bun, starts at around 3 yuan (±R6, USD1) and fried dumplings can cost anything from 9 yuan (±R18, USD3) for four. These snacks/small meals are delicious and leave you with a fuller wallet.

Movies vary in price depending on where you purchased your ticket (online or at the cinema) and the cinema itself (if it’s a grandiose cinema, you will pay more) – it ranges anything from around 40-80 yuan (±R80-R160, USD6-12), working out to about the same as South Africa’s cinema tickets.

Tickets for concerts and events tend to be more expensive in Shanghai.

In the end, how much you spend every month depends on your lifestyle and preferences. It is definitely possible to live comfortably while putting away money each month for savings. Unlearning the habit of converting everything from RMB to rand is something that gradually fades as you become more comfortable with understanding the average costs of living in Shanghai.

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