Being a digital nomad in China

digital nomadism in China
Updated 2022-09-25 13:23

For those new to the term, a digital nomad is someone who works remotely using telecommunications technology and is, thus, able to move around and choose which country to settle in and for how long. The choice of a place to settle in would usually be guided by the cost of living and Internet speeds. Thus, Asian countries like Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia often top the list of digital nomad destinations. What about China?

Is China a good destination for digital nomads?

Southeast Asia is one of the world's top destinations for digital nomads. But while countries like Thailand and Vietnam are well known on the digital nomad map, China is not quite as popular among digital nomad destinations. There are several reasons for that.


Following the COVID-19 pandemic, you can only travel to China if you possess a valid residence permit. You also need to be vaccinated, have a negative PCR test and undergo a 14-21 day quarantine. Traveling to China on tourist and business visas has not yet been approved.

Traveling to China and obtaining a long-stay visa is much more complicated compared to a lot of its neighbors. Residents of most countries do need to apply for a tourist visa to visit the country, even for a short stay. If you want to work in China legally, you will need to obtain a work permit sponsored by your employer. This is a rather complicated process and is mostly only initiated by large established companies for full-time employees.

Second, the cost of living in China is also substantially higher compared to Thailand or Vietnam, especially if you plan to settle in a top-tier city and lead “an expat lifestyle”. Monthly rent alone in cities like Shanghai or Shenzhen will easily cost you over $1,000 per month — and more. Living costs are generally much more manageable in smaller towns — however, you may not find a large expat community if you choose to move away from the big cities.

Third, if you move to China to work online, you will need to find your way around the various forms of Internet censorship. Access to some websites and popular social media, like Google, Gmail, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and others, is heavily restricted. There are workarounds you can use to access these websites and applications from within China. But these are never a guarantee and will also affect your internet speeds and overall experience.

Yet another concern you may need to take into account is environmental. High levels of PM2.5 (atmospheric particulate matter with a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometers) are a growing issue in cities like Beijing and Shanghai. Living there long-term is not recommended for those with respiratory problems and heart conditions.

While there are definitely difficulties you will face if you want to work remotely from China, the country also offers unrivaled opportunities for professionals in certain fields.

What are the opportunities for digital nomads in China?

China is known as the world's number one manufacturing hub. This means that a lot of international companies have taken their factories to China and are often on the lookout for experienced professionals through all stages of the manufacturing process.

There are also a lot of local tech companies in the country that have established themselves in the international market. They are often eager to hire foreign experts in sales, marketing or design to help them tailor their products to the needs of the international market.

All of the above opens up lots of opportunities for expats interested in working in tech, industrial design, marketing, sales, copywriting, and more.

While many of these positions are often in-house, you may also secure freelance and remote work opportunities. Once you do, you can choose to work from within China (if you have a visa that allows you to do so), or you can move to a neighboring country and work remotely from there.

Because of China's superior manufacturing ability, it is also a popular destination for entrepreneurs and start-up creators. Major cities in China are home to multiple startup hubs and investment centers that offer opportunities to expat professionals — both in-house and on a freelance basis.

Online teaching is yet another field where freelance opportunities exist. English learning is exceptionally popular in China, and there are a number of online platforms and applications that let you work with Chinese students online. Unfortunately, following the introduction of the “double reduction policy” that aims to lessen the amount of extra-curricular work Chinese students are involved in, opportunities in English teaching may currently be limited.

To sum things up, if you are in tech, marketing, sales, copywriting, or IT, China may be a good destination to secure lucrative work contracts. However, your visa options for working in the country on a freelance basis are very limited.

Visa options for digital nomads in China

If you want to stay in China while working remotely, you will need to consider your visa options. If you are working for companies outside of China, you can travel to China on a tourist visa. This typically allows for stays from three months to six months, depending on your nationality. Citizens of the United States, for instance, are eligible for a multiple entry tourist visa valid for up to ten years.

If you want to work for a company in China, you will need to apply for a work permit and a residence permit. This is the only way to be legally employed in China. To apply for a work visa in China, you will need to have a valid job offer and have your visa application process sponsored by your employer.

Another option is to apply for a business visa to China. This is the best way if you plan to do any consulting work in the country: for instance, for a local startup. There are two types of business visas you can look into: commercial and non-commercial.

Good to know:

Unlike some other countries in the region, China has not announced any plans for creating a specialized visa scheme for digital nomads. This means that if you want to stay in the country while working freelance, you will need to find a way to do so legally within the existing visa system.

Which are the best cities for digital nomads in China?

Where you choose to settle in China depends on several factors. If you are not guided by professional opportunities that come with living in a specific city, you will probably consider things such as cost of living, access to popular amenities, expat community, and more. Here are some of the most popular expat cities in China.

Shanghai, often dubbed 'the New York of Asia' and 'Paris of the East', is China's most international and prosperous city and the center of culture and business. Shanghai would be the most comfortable city for an expat to adapt to, thanks to its colonial history and abundance of expat-oriented amenities. With that, convenience does come at a price. Shanghai has recently topped Hong Kong as the most expensive city in Asia.

Beijing is the obvious place to start when exploring China. But, when arriving in the city, note that life in the capital is quite different from that of other areas in the country — and notably different from the country's chaotic south. Beijing is an administrative center, and though a very modern city, it is also the one with the most well-preserved cultural and political traditions. Digital nomads who prefer to explore warmer regions may find Beijing to be a challenge due to its cold winters and the recently rising levels of pollution.

Guangzhou is China's southern capital. It's a large city with over 15 million people and a large expat community. If you don't mind summer temperatures in the 30°Cs, high humidity, and a touch of the tropics, Guangzhou may be a great fit for you. The cost of living in the city is lower compared to Shanghai or Beijing. Plus, you get to be close to other popular nomad destinations in Southeast Asia like Hong Kong, Thailand, the Philippines, Taiwan, Indonesia and Vietnam.

Shenzhen is China's youngest and most rapidly developing city. A small fishing village only 30 years ago, today, it has well earned its title of 'Hardware Silicon Valley' with a large and always growing number of startups, maker spaces, coworking offices, and meet-ups. Shenzhen offers effective networking as many international companies bring their manufacturing projects to the city. Working in Shenzhen is ultimately convenient with its many coworking spaces and coffee shops. Plus, the city is less than an hour away from Hong Kong, Asia's financial and business hub.

If you are willing to hop off the metropolis track, China's less 'international' cities like Chengdu, Xi'an, Guilin, and Zhuhai will let you see more of authentic China while offering a calmer laid-back pace of life and a lower cost of living.

The internet and coworking spaces in China

China is not the most reliable location when it comes to the internet. The average broadband connection scores are just 9.46Mbps across the country — but that's just half the problem. With a strict censorship policy, certain websites and services (Facebook, Twitter, Google, Gmail, Instagram, Twitter, etc.) are blocked, which may significantly hinder your work efficiency.

Most big cities have no shortage of coworking spaces (shared offices that can be rented both long- and short-term), and you will also find coworking and makers hubs that will offer marketing and fundraising assistance to small project creators.

Coworking spaces in Shanghai

People Squared (Shanghai's first coworking office):


Agora Space (Xuhui District)

Linckia (Yangpu District)

XNODE (Jing'An District)

Coworking spaces in Beijing

DayDayUp (CBD, Chaoyang District)

TechTemple (Dongcheng District)

NashWork (multiple locations)

Coworking spaces in Guangzhou

Regus (multiple locations)

Executive Center (multiple locations)

Servcorp (Zhujiang New Town)

Coworking spaces in Shenzhen

Regus (multiple locations)

WeWork (multiple locations)

Things to see and to do China

China is an incredibly diverse country, and there is an extensive choice of things to do, see, taste, and explore. From the classics like the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, Terracotta Army, West Lake, and Oriental Pearl Tower to the natural wonders of the Three Gorges, the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park (Avatar Mountains), and Chengdu Panda Reserve, you will never lack things to do on your free time.

Traveling through China is also relatively easy. The country is well-connected via local airlines and a very developed high-speed rail network. This makes exploring China relatively easy, no matter which city you choose to set up your base in. Moreover, you will also get a chance to explore other countries in Southeast Asia: Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and others.

Useful link:

Map of free Wi-Fi hotspots in China

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