Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China.


The Middle Kingdom

China, with its intricate blend of timeless tradition and cutting-edge innovation, unfolds itself like a scroll of contrasting tales and vivid experiences. Picture the ancient, venerable walls of the Forbidden City, where one might almost hear the spectral echoes of long-passed emperors whispering ancient secrets through the hallowed halls. Then, mere moments later, a high-speed train ferries you to an ultra-modern metropolis, where futuristic skylines punctuated by architectural marvels reach ambitiously towards the heavens. The country cradles millennia of history and an ever-morphing future, side by side.

Navigating through the bustling digital realms of China as a digital nomad presents an adventure quite unlike any other, a blend of traditional wanderlust and a crash course in technological adaptation. In a place where Google has been replaced by Baidu and your transactions are managed by the flickering QR codes under the omnipresent WeChat, you become an adept of an entirely new digital playbook. VPNs become your clandestine allies, helping you scale the great digital wall to stay connected with the rest of the digital globe, sharing stories of unexpected spicy breakfasts and late-night coding sessions, backdropped by the neon glow of a city that never truly sleeps.

The linguistic tapestry that unfurls before you becomes both a delightful puzzle and a confounding maze, where a subtle mispronunciation could alter your dinner order from a comforting noodle soup to a fiery, tongue-numbing delicacy. Surrounded by Mandarin language, every interaction transforms into an opportunity for unexpected adventures and charming misadventures alike. You’re ordering mishaps, misdirections, and chance encounters all weave into the experience, awaiting the day they’ll be shared over steaming dumplings and hearty laughter. So let’s dive in, shall we?

I. The basics

Cost of living

In China the cost of living can oscillate rather dramatically based on geographical and lifestyle choices. From humble abodes in the countryside to glitzy apartments in pulsating urban hearts, your budget could be stretched or comfortably navigated depending on a host of variables.

  1. Accommodation: Housing in metropolitan areas such as Shanghai, Beijing, or Shenzhen can reach or exceed CNY 10,000 (approximately USD 1,570) for a one-bedroom apartment in the city center. Smaller cities or towns are generally much more affordable offering similar accommodations for CNY 3,000 (approximately USD 470) or even less.
  2. Food: Culinary expenses can vary drastically. From delectable street food, which might only set you back CNY 10-30 (approximately USD 1.5-5), to lavish international dining experiences that could easily charge over CNY 200 (approximately USD 31) per person. Groceries, depending on dietary habits and preferred products (local vs. imported), may range between CNY 1,000-2,000 (approximately USD 160-315) monthly for a single person.
  3. Utilities: Basic utilities, which encompass electricity, heating, cooling, and water, generally range between CNY 400-600 (approximately USD 60-95) per month, though this can spike in harsher winter or summer conditions. A stable internet connection tends to be approximately CNY 100 (approximately USD 16) monthly.
  4. Transportation: A monthly public transport pass is generally available between CNY 100-200 (approximately USD 16-31), providing unlimited access to local buses and subways. Taxis, while reasonably priced starting at CNY 13 (approximately USD 2), can accumulate costs with frequent use.
  5. Leisure Activities: Depending on chosen pastimes, you might find yourself spending anywhere from CNY 500-1,000 (approximately USD 80-160) monthly on activities like cinema visits, short excursions, and other recreational pursuits.

Connectivity and infrastructure

Moving through the multifaceted and grandiose landscapes of China is facilitated by its modern connectivity and infrastructure, offering an impressive combination of physical and digital networks.

  1. Physical Connectivity: From the majestic, sleek high-speed trains that effortlessly stitch the urban tapestries of the nation together to well-organized domestic flights, options to traverse the vast expanse of the country are plenty. Even within cities, the widely accessible metros, buses, and taxis provide reliable mobility.
  2. Digital Landscape: Dominated by giants like WeChat and Alipay, the digital domain in China serves as a multi-functional platform, enabling communication, and facilitating a wide array of transactions, from groceries to utility bills. Nevertheless, for access to international digital platforms like Google and Instagram, a sturdy VPN, costing around USD 5-12 per month, becomes a quintessential tool for digital nomads.
  3. Coworking Spaces: For those seeking professional environments and network opportunities, numerous coworking spaces, with monthly passes ranging from CNY 1,000 to 3,000 (USD 160-470), offer not just workstations but a chance to immerse in local entrepreneurial ecosystems.


Ensuring optimal health during your sojourn involves comprehending and adeptly navigating through the Chinese healthcare framework.

  1. Facilities: While public hospitals offer affordability, private clinics, albeit pricier, provide expedited services and typically have English-speaking practitioners. Expect to pay from CNY 300 (USD 47) for a basic consultation in private setups.
  2. Insurance: A comprehensive health insurance plan, which might range between USD 100-500 per month depending on age, coverage, and provider, will safeguard against potentially hefty medical bills.
  3. Prescriptions: Carrying a sufficient stock of necessary medications is pivotal, especially since certain Western pharmaceuticals might be unattainable. Ensuring that your medications abide by Chinese legal stipulations is equally paramount.


China generally exudes a sense of safety, with notably low violent crime rates, however, maintaining awareness and adopting preventative measures further augments your security.

  • Physical Safety: While violent crimes are scarce, exercising usual precautions, like avoiding poorly-lit areas late at night and securing belongings, particularly in crowded locales, minimizes petty theft risks.
  • Digital Safety: Navigating the digital realm necessitates additional vigilance. Utilizing secure payment platforms, regularly updating passwords, and employing reliable VPN services, enhance your digital security in the intricate web of online transactions and interactions.
  • Legal Adherence: Maintaining scrupulous adherence to local laws and regulations, and staying abreast of regional and national advisories, ensures your stay is not just enjoyable but devoid of unexpected legal intricacies.

II. Living in China as a digital nomad


China’s expanse means climates and temperatures vary significantly depending on where you are.

North: Northern China, encapsulating cities like Harbin and Beijing, witnesses a dramatic temperature range. Winter temperatures in Harbin can plummet to -20°C (-4°F), making warm clothing a necessity, while Beijing’s winters hover around 0°C (32°F). The summers in these areas warm up considerably, with temperatures often rising above 30°C (86°F).

Central: Cities like Shanghai and Chengdu in Central China experience milder seasonal shifts. While summers can get hot and humid, with temperatures sometimes exceeding 35°C (95°F), winters are relatively warmer than the north and rarely dip below freezing.

South: Guangzhou and other southern cities boast a subtropical climate. Summers here are humid and warm, with temperatures often reaching 35°C (95°F) or more, while winters remain mild, with temperatures generally above 10°C (50°F).

Note: while air pollution has improved in recent years, smog is a real factor for consideration in the larger metropolises, particularly during the winter months when air quality can degrade significantly.


China’s terrains paint a diverse canvas of topographies across the country. The majestic peaks of the Himalayas beckon in the far west, a dream for trekkers and those who seek solace in altitudes. The undulating beauty of Zhangjiajie’s sandstone pillars might seem eerily familiar, having inspired cinematic masterpieces like ‘Avatar’. The Yangtze, Asia’s longest river, meanders through the heartland, nurturing civilizations along its banks. And for those with a penchant for coastal beauty, the southern provinces with their lush landscapes and karst topography, exemplified by places like Guilin, hold promises of nature’s tranquil embrace.


China isn’t just a place to live; it’s an experience, a sensory overload that can be exhilarating. The cities, with their neon glow, hum with activity. Yet, interspersed amidst the urban sprawl, tea houses offer respite, where life’s pace slows, and the aroma of freshly steeped leaves wafts through the air. Chinese cuisine, a term too simple for its complex variety, varies with every province. From the fiery delights of Sichuan, the savory dumplings of the North, to the delectable dim sums of Cantonese tradition, every meal can be an expedition in flavor. And as night descends, China doesn’t sleep; it transforms. Karaoke bars, night markets, and avant-garde clubs shimmer in the cities’ heartbeats, each offering diverse avenues to discover both local and more international, cosmopolitan locales catering to all tastes.


China, cradling one of the world’s oldest civilizations, offers a potent blend of history and culture. The nation is steeped in philosophical traditions, notably Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism, each shaping its societal structures and spiritual pursuits. Confucianism, embedded in respect for hierarchical relationships and ancestors, significantly informs social interactions and ceremonies. Taoism, valuing harmony with nature, and Buddhism, with its varied practices across regions, are vividly expressed in the country’s temples, festivals, and daily life.

Dynastically, China unfolds a rich narrative from the construction marvels of the Qin, through the cultural apex during the Tang and Song, to the expansive Ming and Qing eras. Each dynasty has deposited layers to China’s multifaceted identity, from the terracotta warriors of Xi’an, the architectural grandeur of Beijing’s Forbidden City, to the continuous restoration and extensions of the Great Wall. These historical remnants serve not merely as tourist attractions but as palpable links to a profoundly rich past.

Art and culture in China are deeply intertwined with its history, with traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy often depicting natural scenes and embodying philosophical themes. Visitors can explore this artistic heritage in numerous museums and galleries throughout the country, or witness them in action in various cultural workshops available in cities like Beijing and Shanghai. Traditional Chinese opera, which combines music, drama, and martial arts, offers insights into ancient storytelling practices, available in various styles across different provinces.


Mandarin (Putonghua), the official language, is widely spoken across China, though each region might boast its own dialect or language, such as Cantonese in Guangdong and Shanghainese in Shanghai. English Proficiency tends to be higher in major cities and tourist hubs, with signage often available in English. However, as you delve deeper into provincial areas, English speakers might become a rarity.

Language Apps and Translation Devices can be indispensable for navigating through language barriers, assisting in everything from ordering meals to asking for directions. A basic grasp of Mandarin phrases, or at least having them written down or stored in a device, can be beneficial for smoother interactions with locals.

III. Cities to consider


Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China.
Photo by Vic Miyazaki

The capital city, Beijing, offers an enticing blend of the ancient and the contemporary. As a key destination for digital nomads, it not only provides a robust technological infrastructure but also engulfs one in China’s rich history with sites like the Forbidden City, Summer Palace, and nearby Great Wall sections. The city boasts a burgeoning tech scene, making it a viable hub for networking and accessing modern amenities, while traditional markets and teahouses allow a step back into a bygone era.


View overlooking the skyline of Shanghai, China.
Photo by Road Trip with Raj

Shanghai, arguably the financial and modern cultural hub of China, presents a dynamic, international cityscape. For digital nomads, it provides world-class connectivity, co-working spaces, and a plethora of options for dining and entertainment. The Bund and Yuyuan Garden tie the ultramodern surroundings back to its historical roots, offering a pleasant juxtaposition for those looking to explore China’s past and present concurrently.


Aerial view of Hangzhou, China.
Photo by Seele An

Hangzhou, known for the legendary West Lake and its lush green tea terraces, offers a more serene environment for digital nomads. With a strong emphasis on e-commerce, thanks to being the headquarters of Alibaba, the city doesn’t shy away from providing excellent digital infrastructure. It provides a more laid-back and scenic backdrop for work and leisure, without severing ties with China’s vibrant digital economy.


View of Chengdu skyline, China.
Photo by Shu Qian

Chengdu, while renowned for its spicy cuisine and being the home of giant pandas, also offers a comfortable pace of life with an amicable balance between tradition and modernity. With a burgeoning expat community, the city has a friendly approach towards digital nomads, offering ample co-working spaces and expat-friendly amenities. It provides a relatively relaxed environment compared to mega-cities like Beijing and Shanghai, without compromising on the comforts of urban living.


View of the Shenzhen skyline, China.
Photo by 李大毛 没有猫

Shenzhen, a vital player in the global tech industry, has earned its reputation as China’s Silicon Valley. The city is a hotspot for innovation, providing vast opportunities for tech-oriented digital nomads in terms of work and learning. Amidst its cutting-edge development, the city also presents pockets of culture and leisure, such as the Window of the World theme park and Dafen Oil Painting Village, providing a balanced living experience.

IV. Off the beaten track


Miao Zhai, Huaxi District, Guiyang, Guizhou, China.
Photo by Lin Zhang

As the capital city of the picturesque Guizhou Province, Guiyang stands as a city where the vibrancy of progressive advancements and the serenity of natural splendors coalesce. For digital nomads who lean into a balance of efficient connectivity and spellbinding natural retreats, Guiyang graciously opens its arms. While offering a hub of technology and innovation, it simultaneously serves as a gateway to explore the minority cultures and awe-inspiring landscapes that characterize the province.


Pagoda in Yueya Spring, Dunhuang, China.
Photo by Kinsey W

Nestled along the ancient Silk Road, Dunhuang in Gansu Province beckons with its whispers of historical journeys, expressed through the mesmerizing Mogao Caves and the undulating sand dunes of the Gobi Desert. The city, although not a prime spot for digital facilities, provides a starkly beautiful and contemplative environment, ideal for writers or creatives seeking solitude and historical inspiration, while still maintaining essential digital connections.


View of Dali overlooking Erhai Lake, China.
Photo by Wenhao Ryan

Ensconced between the Cang Mountains and the tranquil Erhai Lake, Dali in Yunnan Province enchants with its relaxed vibes, scenic charms, and rich Bai culture. Dali may appeal to digital nomads who prefer a balanced lifestyle, where work can be interspersed with leisurely strolls along the lake, explorations into the local culture, and serene mountain hikes. With a steadily growing expat community, Dali does offer reasonable digital infrastructure, making it a viable option for remote work amidst nature.


View overlooking a street in Pingyao in China.
Photo by Cajeo Zhang

The ancient town of Pingyao in Shanxi Province is a perfectly preserved slice of Ming and Qing dynasty architecture and urban planning. Offering a striking contrast to China’s modern cities, Pingyao may serve as a cultural and historical haven for digital nomads keen on experiencing traditional China. While it does not boast advanced digital infrastructure, it provides sufficient connectivity for basic remote work needs, allowing nomads to work by day and wander through its historical streets by night.


View of the Grand Theatre in Zhuhai, China.
Photo by 钉钉

Zhuhai, situated in the Pearl River Delta, offers coastal tranquility with its numerous islands and pleasant beaches. It provides a calming respite from the nearby bustling metropolis of Guangzhou while still offering a respectable range of modern amenities and digital connectivity. The city might cater to digital nomads looking to balance their tech-oriented work life with physical activities like island hopping, beach visits, and enjoying the sea breeze.

The prospect of venturing into China as a digital nomad brings forth the necessity of understanding the nation’s visa and legal requisites. While China’s visa policies can be notably stringent and multifaceted, ensuring clarity on the available options and processes will streamline your journey.

Types of Visas Available for Remote Workers

  1. Tourist Visa (L Visa): The most straightforward option for digital nomads may initially be the tourist visa, which typically allows stays of up to 30-60 days per entry. Note that working on a tourist visa is not technically legal, but many digital nomads choose this option to explore a country while continuing their remote work.
  2. Business Visa (M Visa): For those intending to engage in commercial activities or internships, a business visa can be explored. These can be obtained for periods of between 30 days to 10 years (the latter allowing 60-day stays per entry), although requirements for documentation can be extensive.
  3. Private Visit Visa (S Visa): If you have family members residing in China, an S visa, intended for family reunion purposes, could be a potential route. It allows longer stays but requires you to provide evidence of your relationship.
  4. Student Visa (X Visa): If enrolling in a course or study program, the X visa allows you to stay and study in China, but with restricted work opportunities.
  5. Work Visa (Z Visa): This is ideal for those who secure employment in China and entails a more comprehensive application process involving work permits and invitations from a Chinese employer.

Application Process and Necessary Documentation

For most visas, the application process generally adheres to the following steps:

  • Application Form: Completed visa application form (Form V.2013), which is available on the Chinese embassy or consulate website in your country.
  • Passport and Photo: A passport with at least 6 months of validity and blank visa pages, alongside a recent passport-sized photo.
  • Supporting Documents: Depending on your visa type, various supporting documents will be needed. These might include flight and accommodation bookings (tourist), an invitation letter from a Chinese business or partner (business), or admission and JW201/JW202 forms (student).
  • Visa Fee: Payment of a non-refundable visa fee, with the amount varying based on your nationality and the type/duration of the visa.
  • Submission and Collection: Documents can typically be submitted to the Chinese Visa Application Service Center (not the embassy), with processing times usually spanning 4 working days, though expedited services are available for an additional fee.
  • Residence Permit: Note that for stays exceeding 180 days, a Temporary Residence Permit must be applied for within 30 days of entry into China.

Navigating China’s visa policies requires careful consideration and thorough preparation. Always ensure to stay updated on the latest visa policies, as these can change, and consider consulting with a visa specialist or the Chinese embassy/consulate to secure accurate and personalized advice. And remember, adherence to visa regulations is imperative to ensure a smooth, hassle-free experience while exploring the Middle Kingdom.

VI. Tips for a smooth landing in China 

Navigating the initial steps of settling into China can be an exhilarating yet challenging experience, especially given the vast cultural and systematic differences one might encounter. Here are some tips to help you integrate into the Chinese way of life.

Finding accommodation

  1. Platforms: Utilize platforms like Ziroom, 58.com, or even Airbnb for short-term stays or to get a feel of various neighborhoods before committing to a lease.
  2. Agents: Engaging a local real estate agent can simplify your search, especially if language barriers become an obstacle. Agents typically charge a fee equivalent to one month’s rent upon successful transaction.
  3. Contracts: Ensure to read your lease carefully (having it translated if needed) and be prepared to pay a deposit (usually 1-3 months’ rent) upfront.

Setting up local bank accounts and financial considerations

  1. Opening an account: Visit a local bank branch (Bank of China, ICBC, and China Construction Bank are popular choices) with your passport, visa, and a small initial deposit to open an account. Some banks might require proof of address or employment, so check in advance.
  2. WeChat/Alipay: Once your bank account is active, set up WeChat Pay or Alipay, as digital payments are predominant in China.
  3. International transfers: Be mindful of international transfer limitations and consider utilizing services like Wise (formerly TransferWise) or Revolut to manage your finances across currencies.
  1. Public transport: China boasts extensive public transport networks. Obtain a transportation card (like Beijing’s Yikatong card) for convenience in accessing buses, subways, and even shared bicycles.
  2. Taxis: While taxis are widely available, language can be a barrier. Having your destination written in Chinese or using a translation app can be useful.
  3. High-speed trains: For inter-city travel, China’s high-speed trains are efficient and punctual. Book tickets via the official website, app, or at the station.

Adapting to local customs and cultural nuances

  1. Respectful communication: Chinese communicate in a manner that is generally less direct than in the west. Politeness and modesty are key to positive interaction.
  2. Saving Face: Be mindful of the concept of “saving face” – avoid public confrontations or criticism, maintaining harmony in social or business interactions.
  3. Dining Etiquette: When dining, wait to be told where to sit, leave a little food on your plate to signify satisfaction, and be prepared for lively, communal eating experiences.
  4. Language: While Mandarin is the official language, dialects vary. Learning basic phrases or using translation apps can facilitate smoother interactions.

VII. In summary


  1. Diverse environments: From sprawling metropolises to serene countryside, China offers a plethora of environments catering to various preferences.
  2. Rich cultural scene: An intricate blend of history, traditions, and rapid modernization offers a multifaceted cultural experience.
  3. Culinary adventures: A vast array of culinary delights ranging from flavorful street food to exquisite fine dining.
  4. Networking opportunities: Bustling expat communities and numerous networking events in major cities provide avenues for professional and social connections.
  5. Accessibility: Comprehensive public transport networks ensure ease of local and inter-city travel.
  6. Tech-friendly: With a focus on digital innovation, cashless payments and online services are widely utilized and accessible.
  7. Affordable living: Depending on location, cost of living can be remarkably affordable, particularly in smaller cities or rural areas.


  1. Language barrier: Navigating through China can be challenging due to limited English proficiency in certain regions.
  2. Internet restrictions: The “Great Firewall” restricts access to numerous international websites, necessitating the use of a VPN for unrestricted internet access.
  3. Air quality: In certain cities, air pollution can be a significant concern, impacting health and lifestyle.
  4. Visa regulations: Strict and often complex visa policies might pose challenges for longer stays and legal working status.
  5. Cultural adjustments: Acclimating to local customs, social norms, and business etiquette may require a steep learning curve.
  6. Healthcare variability: While larger cities boast advanced healthcare facilities, smaller towns and rural areas may lack comparable medical infrastructure.
  7. Work-life balance: In tech hubs and larger cities, the fast-paced lifestyle and ubiquitous technology might impinge on establishing a balanced routine.

The intersectionality of ancient traditions, a mosaic of diverse cultures, and the rapid pace of technological advancement make China a compelling environment. From the urban might of cities like Beijing and Shanghai to the bucolic serenity found in places like Guiyang, China invites a working lifestyle punctuated by moments of profound cultural immersion and spectacular natural vistas. The intricacies of Chinese cuisine alone can become a journey of discovery, where regional specialties become a gateway to the diverse culinary traditions and innovations found throughout the country.

Yet, the digital nomad in China will navigate a unique set of challenges, particularly where the digital realm is concerned. The well-documented Great Firewall impacts online access, requiring the routine use of VPNs to reach global digital platforms, which sometimes might be capricious in their reliability. Moreover, while major cities boast an expansive offering of co-working spaces and tech-forward accommodations, one must tread thoughtfully through the digital landscape to ensure consistent connectivity.

While at times the cultural and language gap can be exasperating, China invites not merely exploration but a gentle unraveling of preconceptions held, and a closer look at one’s own cultural lenses and how we see the world. And it is perhaps exactly this shift in perception and awareness of ways of thinking and doing that are other than your own that may be the greatest gift you will take away from your time in the Middle Kingdom.

Puerto Rico
View of the beach at Manati, Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico


View of the Louvre Pyramid through the arches, in Paris, France.



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