In this study a differential optical absorption spectroscopy (DOAS) method was used to monitor formaldehyde (HCHO) concentrations in Shanghai ambient air at a research station in Fudan University. The measurements were carried out during April 2010–April 2011 and a total of 120940 recorded data points were obtained. The average HCHO concentration was found to be the highest (10.0 ppbv) during August 2010 and the lowest (2.0 ppbv) during April 2010. The diurnal variation of HCHO and O3 followed very similar trends in all the seasons. This was evident from the fact that HCHO had a strong positive correlation with O3. Both peaked once in the morning (07:00–09:00 local time), and once in the night (16:00–19:00 local time). The peak concentrations varied from season to season, which could be attributed to the seasonal variation in anthropogenic activity, traffic movement and atmospheric boundary layer conditions. The background HCHO concentration in 2011 winter (similar to 12.0 ppbv) was an order of magnitude higher than that observed in 2010 spring (similar to 2.0 ppbv); corresponding with the results of several pollution controls adopted by the Shanghai administrative government before and after the EXPO 2010 period (May 1, 2010–Oct. 31 2010). This study contributed the basic information for understanding the concentration level and the chemical processes of atmospheric HCHO in a major metropolitan area.