Before You Go
No vaccinations are required for entry to China and Shanghai, but be sure your inoculations are up-to-date. The standard inoculations are for polio, diphtheria, and tetanus, while additional inoculations may be against meningococcal meningitis, cholera, typhoid fever, hepatitis A and B, and Japanese B encephalitis. Some of these vaccinations, such as the one for hepatitis B, may require several shots over a span of several months, so allow enough time before your trip. Mosquito-borne malaria, while a cause for concern in more rural parts of China, is not a factor in Shanghai. Consult your doctor or a specialist travel clinic about your individual needs.
For the latest information on infectious diseases and health-related travel risks (including the latest update on the ever-changing situation with malaria), contact the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers (IAMAT) (tel. 716/754-4883 or, in Canada, 416/652-0137; www.iamat.org) for tips on travel and health concerns in China, and for lists of local, English-speaking doctors. The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (tel. 800/311-3435; www.cdc.gov) provides up-to-date information on health hazards by region or country and offers tips on food safety. The website www.tripprep.com, sponsored by a consortium of travel medicine practitioners, may also offer helpful advice on traveling abroad. You can find listings of reliable overseas clinics at the International Society of Travel Medicine (www.istm.org).
Standard over-the-counter remedies are easily available at drugstores and supermarkets, though you may want to bring your own if you use any regular medications. It's best to stock up on all your prescriptions before you leave, but prescriptions can also usually be filled (at least with a generic equivalent, if not the actual drug) at select Shanghai pharmacies if you're in a pinch. Carry the generic name of prescription medicines, in case a local pharmacist is unfamiliar with the brand name. Don't forget an extra pair of contact lenses or prescription glasses, though there are plenty of optometrists in Shanghai who can replace your glasses or lenses. Feminine hygiene products such as sanitary napkins are widely available, but tampons are usually sold only in international supermarkets and pharmacies like Watson's.
Regional Health Concerns
Hygiene standards in Shanghai are some of the highest in China, but despite this, the standards of many places are still not up to those in developed nations. Do take precautions here that you may otherwise overlook at home, more so if you plan to travel outside of China's big cities. Still, travelers shouldn't be unduly worried.
Dietary Red Flags -- The greatest risk to your enjoyment of traveling in China is probably that of stomach upsets caused by low hygienic standards. To minimize this risk, wash your hands frequently, and keep them away from your mouth and eyes; eat freshly cooked hot food, especially if away from the top international hotels; eat only fruit that you peel yourself; and only drink boiled or bottled water bought in supermarkets, larger shops, and convenience stores. Never drink tap water. Use bottled water to brush your teeth.
Respiratory Illnesses -- Another common ailment is respiratory illnesses of various kinds, from the common cold (which can be picked up during the long flight over, the overcrowded subways, or the change in temperature and humidity) to upper-respiratory tract infection, often mistaken for a cold, all of which are exacerbated by Shanghai's heavy pollution. Standard over-the-counter cold remedies are easily available at drugstores and supermarkets, though you may want to bring your own if you use any regular medications. More serious infections can be treated at any of the clinics that cater to foreigners.
Influenza -- The SARS crisis hit China in 2003, avian influenza (or "bird flu") struck a chicken farm on the outskirts of Shanghai in 2004, and the H1N1 Flu also hit Shanghai in 2009, but all three have been brought under control and you should have little to be concerned about. At press time, none of the above was a major concern in Shanghai, but check the latest news before you leave.
Sun Exposure -- Other ailments to guard against, especially in the summer months, include excessive sun exposure, heatstroke, and dehydration. Shanghai's pollution makes most days appear overcast, but the sun still has the power to burn. Shanghai's high humidity during the summer can also cause those just coming from drier climes to fatigue quickly. Drink plenty of bottled water.
Sexually Transmitted Diseases -- Led by AIDS, sexually transmitted diseases are also on the rise in China. The government denied the existence of AIDS for as long as it could, and while there are now a few public campaigns addressing the issue, there is still a lot of ignorance and silence surrounding AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. Condoms, including Western brands, are widely available in Shanghai.
If You Get Sick
If you begin to feel unwell, contact your hotel reception first. The top hotels have in-house doctors or doctors on call who may be able to treat minor ailments and direct you to the best places should further treatment be required.
Shanghai has several clinics with the latest equipment and English-speaking, foreign-trained doctors who deliver international-caliber health care. Expect to pay rates comparable to those in the West. In general, avoid Chinese hospitals.
Foreign consulates can provide a list of area doctors who speak English. In many cases, you'll be expected to pay the full medical costs upfront. Keep all proof of payment so you can submit your health insurance claim when you return home.
Crime & Safety
China is one of Asia's safest destinations, and Shanghai is one of the safest cities in the world for foreign travelers. Most likely the biggest potential threat you'll encounter will be the pickpockets who tend to congregate in crowded places like railway, bus, and subway stations; airports; popular tourist sights; and crowded markets. As always, the standard precautions apply: Leave as many of your valuables as you can in hotel safes; any other valuables should be distributed around your person, and not kept inside your purse or backpack, which can be easily picked. Wear a money belt inside your clothes. Always leave one photocopy of your passport and traveler's check receipts at your hotel. Violent crimes and cases of sexual harassment against foreign visitors are quite rare but do occur, so use common sense. Travel with others when possible, rebuff strangers in the streets, and avoid unlighted streets after dark. Beggars can sometimes be seen on Shanghai streets.
Visitors should also beware of scam artists who will use the pretext of practicing their English to try and befriend you, with the goal of separating you from your money. As far as many Chinese are concerned, there's no such thing as a poor foreigner. These scams can range from "art students" taking you to special shops and pressuring you to buy paintings that are neither authentic, unique, nor worth what's claimed, to the friendly face who'll offer to buy you a meal or a drink at a local haunt, where you'll find yourself with 12 opened bottles of warm beer you didn't order and, if you refuse to pay, several thuggish bouncers standing between you and the door.
Solicitations are also commonplace, whether in a bar, karaoke joint, or even your hotel room, where many a China visitor has been telephoned in the wee hours, with a voice on the other end inquiring "Massagee?" (The caller always hangs up when a woman answers.) Not only is there a higher-than-expected incidence of sexually transmitted diseases in China, but there have been reports of men, foolish enough in the first place to accept such invitations, being forced to pay huge sums for services not actually rendered.
If you find yourself a victim of theft, file a police report at the local PSB (Public Security Bureau) known as gong an ju. Don't expect any redress, necessarily, but at least you'll have the report for insurance claims back home.
In general, there's very little harassment of solo female travelers, in and of itself a rare sight among Chinese.
For all travelers, however, if you are planning a night of bar- or club-hopping, do travel in groups and watch your drinks, as stories have surfaced around press time of the appearance of drugs, particular those with sedative properties like Rohypnol (officially known as Flunitrazepam), being slipped into drinks.
Another major hazard that tourists will have to contend with is traffic. Even if foreign visitors were allowed to drive (which you are not without a Chinese driver's license), you stand little chance against Chinese motorists who treat lane markings and traffic lights like so much fluffy roadside decoration. Seat-belt rules and speed limits are consistently ignored. There really is only one rule on Chinese roads: Might is right, which kicks pedestrians down to the bottom of the traffic food chain. Still, if you look every which way before you cross, generally go with the flow, and take your cue from locals, there's little cause for concern. Paying greater attention in the streets will also prevent you from falling down open manholes or being hit by debris from Shanghai's many construction projects.
Dealing with Discrimination
In general, there is little overt discrimination in China against non-Chinese, except perhaps for persistent overcharging. But then again, many Chinese have the attitude that all foreigners (including ethnic Chinese from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia) are moneybags, and will simply overcharge anyone and everyone they can. Ethnic Chinese, on the other hand, can use the "We're all Chinese after all" appeal for better prices, which the laowai (the somewhat condescending "old foreigner" term applied to non-Chinese) cannot do. Dark-skinned visitors may also have a slightly more difficult time of it than whites, especially outside of the big cities, but beyond the expected gawking and overcharging, those who don't speak Mandarin probably will not notice any difference.
On the other hand, once some sort of communication has been established, non-Chinese tend to receive better treatment from locals than the Chinese dole out to each other. Unfortunately, this situation sometimes even extends to Shanghai's top hotels.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.