Living in China

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Visas and other documents

Almost everyone (except Chinese nationals) requires a valid visa to enter China. These are available from Chinese Embassies and Consulates in most countries. Chinese Embassies and Consulates regularly close for both local and Chinese holidays. We therefore advise that you check with the embassy before travelling any distance. For a list of addresses see below or click here.

The problem is that China issues a number of different types of visa. PLEASE NOTE: there is only one visa application form, which does not ask what type of visa you want. The embassy or consulate officials have the final decision as to which type of visa they will issue. This decision is based on the supporting documents you supply.

To work legally in China it is necessary to hold a residence permit. These are only issued within China, so if you are outside China, you will be issued with a Z-visa. This is an entry visa which allows you to enter China to take up employment. It must be exchanged for the residence permit within 30 days of entry. More information below. To obtain a  Z-visa, in addition to your passport (valid for six months beyond the intended stay) and application form you must supply the following documents.

An employment permit from the Ministry of Labour or the State Bureau of Foreign Experts of China in addition to an invitation letter/fax from a Chinese governmental department or government-authorised company.

Copies of these two documents can be seen here.

To obtain these documents you should normally secure employment before you arrive in China. The documents will be supplied by your employer. To obtain these, the employer will require that you send them a copy of the details page of your passport, copies of your academic qualifications and teaching certification.

Depending on where you apply, you may also be asked for a health certificate. The New York consulate seems to require this, whereas London does not. Whatever, you will probably be asked to have another medical in China before being issued your residence permit (see below). This includes an HIV test, which is compulsory for all visitors to China who intend staying a year or more.

This can naturally take some time.

Many employers suggest that you arrive on a tourist visa (type L) and they will arrange the correct paperwork on your arrival. This was certainly possible, but no longer. See here. We strongly advise that you exercise extreme caution. In order for a school or college to legally employ a 'foreign' teacher they must satisfy certain conditions. Many employers who ask teachers to come on tourist visas do not have this permission and are employing the teachers illegally. This is commonplace and normally the authorities turn a blind eye. However there are occasional clean up campaigns (several teachers were thrown out of Shanghai last year and the schools closed down). It is illegal to work on a tourist visa. We recommend you read the warning issued by the UK government here.  The US have also issued a similar warning.

To obtain a tourist visa you need to first book a flight. The issuing officer will need to see your ticket, and will ask where you are going and the reason. You will have to lie and say you are going to visit. If you say you are going to work you may well be refused. Let's hope you can get a refund on that ticket. In practice, however, few tourism visa applications are refused.

Whichever visa you are issued it is unlikely valid to be for more than 30 - 90 days. If you are on a one or more years' contract, do not worry. The visa is only an entry document. Within 30 days of arriving in China you must apply for a RESIDENCE PERMIT. The employer will normally arrange this. Residence permits are valid  for one year and are easily renewable provided you are still employed by the same employer. It is important to realise that your residence permit is tied to the employer who 'sponsored' it. If you leave that employment, your permit is technically invalid.

Residence Permit

This replaces your visa and becomes your permission to be in China. Officially, you should carry your passport with you at all times. Few people do. It is advisable to carry it when you travel as you will usually need it to book into a hotel. All Chinese must carry an ID card and show it when registering in hotels . Your residence permit takes the place of the ID card.

Your residence permit also acts as a multi-entry visa, meaning you are able to leave and return freely during the validity of the permit.

Despite extensive publicity and propaganda, the Chinese Permanent Residence (Green Card) scheme has not been fully implemented. Shanghai, home to the largest number of ex-pats in China, proudly stated that they had issued only 49 in the first year!

In theory the following people are eligible:

1. A high-level foreign expert holding a post in a business that promotes China's economic, scientific and technological development, or social progress. 

2. Have made outstanding contributions, or are of special importance to China. 

3. Have made large direct investment of over 500 thousand US dollars in China. 

4. Come to China to be with your family, such as husband or wife, minors dependent on their parents, and senior citizens dependent on their relatives.

1 - 3 are obviously subjective decisions and require extensive connections (did I mention bribes?)

No. 4 is mainly aimed at overseas Chinese.

In addition, only a handful of cities are able to process applications. And you have to process your application in the city in which your spouse is registered.

(By the way, don't think about getting married just to supply the wife/husband for No. 4. You have to have been married 5 years!)


The following bulletin was issued by the US Embassy Beijing on August 6th, 2007

"The Entry and Exit Administration Bureau of the Ministry of Public Security has tightened its regulations pertaining to the issuance, renewal and alteration of visas. The changes took effect July 2007. For the foreseeable future, it will no longer be possible to change tourist (L) and exchange (F) -type visas to other types. Many applications that formerly could be handled by a representative now must be completed in person by the applicant. Additionally, express visa service is no longer available. Enforcement has tightened of entry and exit violations, with recent reports of police, school administrators and hotel staff checking to ensure that foreigners have not overstayed their visas.

Please be advised that current regulations state that the penalty for overstaying a visa is 500 RMB per day of overstay, not to exceed 5000 RMB and/or detention. The period of detention can range from 5-30 days depending on the severity of the violation. Detention may be longer than 30 days in the case that the authorities believe that the foreigner was involved in criminal activity. The Embassy is aware of several recent detentions of American citizens relating to visa overstays and violating the terms of their visas (i.e. working while on a visitor’s visa)."


To obtain the residence permit you also require a FOREIGN EXPERT CARD.  Technically it also entitles you to certain discounts. In practice, it is impossible to find out what these discounts are. It also technically enables you to change Chinese money back to hard currency. Again, in practice this is extremely difficult.

One other document I have found useful is a WORK UNIT CARD. Parcels sent from abroad usually have to be collected from the central post office and this seems to be their preferred form of identification where I live. Your employer can supply this.

Although you are free to travel almost everywhere in China, there are a few remaining closed areas. These are mainly in rural areas with minority populations. Or nuclear missile bases! To visit these areas you will require an ALIEN TRAVEL PERMIT. These are available from the police in the nearest 'open' city. For obvious reasons they are not dished out randomly. You will need a good reason for going to these places. You also need this type of permit to visit Tibet. 



UK    USA    Australia     New Zealand     Canada     Others

Chinese Embassies and Consulates regularly close for both local and Chinese holidays. We therefore advise that you check with the embassy before travelling any distance.


The Embassy of the People's Republic of China, 31 Portland Place, London, W1B IQD

Consulate-General, Denison House, 49 Denison Road, Rusholme, Manchester, M14 5RX

Consulate-General, 55 Corstorphine Road, Edinburgh EH12 5QG

NOTE: All China Visa Applications are handled by Chinese Visa Application Service Centre (CVASC).



Note that for visa applications you must go to the designated office covering your state. If you are not sure which is applicable, check the main embassy site. Also, the Embassy have suspended postal applications. A personal visit is obligatory. 

Visa Office of the Chinese Embassy, 2201 Wisconsin Avenue, NW, Room 110, Washington, DC 20007

Passport & Visa Office, Consulate General of the P.R. China, 520 12th Ave., New York, NY 10036

Passport & Visa Office, Consulate General of the P.R. China, 100 West Erie Street, Chicago, IL 60610

Passport & Visa Office, Consulate General of the P.R. China, 1450 Laguna Street, San Francisco, CA 94115

Passport & Visa Office, Consulate General of the P.R. China, 443 Shatto Place, Los Angeles, CA 90020

Passport & Visa Office, Consulate General of the P.R. China, 3417 Montrose Boulevard, Houston, Texas 77006



Visa Office of the Chinese Embassy, 15 Coronation Drive Yarralumla, ACT 2600, Canberra



Consular Section, The Embassy of the People's Republic of China,  2-6 Glenmore Street, PO Box 17257, Karori, Wellington



Note that for visa applications you must go to the designated office covering your residential area.

The Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in Canada (Ottawa), 515 St. Patrick Street, Ottawa, Ont. K1N 5H3

The Consulate-General of the People’s Republic of China in Toronto, 240 St. George Street Toronto, Ont. M5R 2P4

The Consulate-General of the People’s Republic of China in Vancouver, 3380 Granville Street, Vancouver, BC, V6H 3K3

The Consulate-General of the People’s Republic of China in Calgary, Suite 100, 1011-6th Ave. S. W. Calgary, Alberta T2P 0W1


For details of embassies and consulates in other countries click here.


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updated 8th May 2009