How to get a work visa in China. A guide for young designers and professionals

China visa stamps
Beijing Airport. Immigration lineup

Beijing Airport. Immigration lineup

Let’s say you are a young designer looking for a twist in your career or a fresh graduate not satisfied with your country’s labor market. You’ve heard China is the land of opportunities. Whether you want to freelance or to find a full-time design job, it’s getting tougher for foreigners to obtain visas for extended stays in China. There are Chinese companies which are working hard to do global business and some of those are providing good job opportunities for foreign nationals who can make a difference to help the Chinese companies going out. Similarly for foreign companies that doing business in China, if you are a young professional who speaks and reads and writes good Chinese, you may be the person to help bring the kind of foreign culture and values and skills and habits to China that the company wants. Based on my recent experience and stories that have been shared around, I wrote this piece in order to make it easier for every designer in this situation to plan on whether or how to get a long term visa for China. China is better described as a jungle, and many things need to be done in rather unconventional ways, which doesn’t mean you will have to go outlaw, but you may have to use a bit of your imagination, and the advices being shared here may not necessarily apply to everyone. Hints are strongly encouraged in the comments area below.

For all enterprising kinds of person, China is Heaven. Whether you’re a copywriter, a graphic designer, a consultant, an fashion designer, or even a model, China offers countless opportunities. However things have changed in terms of how to legally work in China. Up to just a year ago it was possible to get business visas in Hong Kong that lasted 6-12 months and could be renewed anytime for multiple times. You just needed to do a “visa-run” when the time was up, i.e. flying to Hong Kong to get a stamp on the passport and then re-enter the country. Last September regulations changed, and a business visa now would make it difficult to take on another job with a proper work visa later on, because the official visa processing departments will look at your entire work history in China when it comes time to apply, and business visas cannot be re-issued more than once. So business visas, or even tourist visas [technically you are legally allowed to stay here on a tourist visa when you are in between jobs], are options only in the case you are not planning to stay in China for long periods. Usually business visas are now issued for up to three months periods, and tourist ones up to two months. If you plan on working in China for extended period, then really try to have a clean visa history and think long-term in your approach to the paperwork.

Just to give you an idea of how much things changed this year, and how The Chinese government is stepping up a crackdown on foreigners in China violating its visa/immigration laws, last monthover 60 models — most from western countries like the United States and European nations — were taken into custody by Chinese officials for working illegally under tourist visas. Beijing and Guangzhou police set up a fake casting in order to find models who were working illegally using tourist visas. Those who showed up were taken into custody and had their passports and cell phones confiscated. At least four models have been jailed while as many as 60 were arrested. Police in the capital other first tier cities often launch intermittent crackdowns on so-called 三非 ‘three illegals’: foreigners without permission to enter, work, or stay in China. If you lack an employee visa, you are  at risk. It’s true that this is more likely to impact you if you are from Africa or the Middle East, but there are increased problems for Americans and Europeans too.

China visa stamps

China visa stamps

At the moment there is also no regulation concerning foreign students, or fresh graduates, coming in China for internships. The new rules for the F [for exchanges, visits, inspections,etc.], M [for short term business or commercial activities], and X2 [short-term study visas] visas, don’t say you cannot do an internship, but even if internships are going to be allowed under the new rules, paid internships are certainly not be possible. For a young person who wants to work in China, there’s one clear route: to apply for a working visa, or Z visa, through the employment license route. In order to get this type of visa you will need an Employment License. The basic requirements set at the national level are you have to be at least age 18, in good health, and have the professional skills and job experience required for the intended employment. The latter is decided by the Local Labor Bureau. Cities like Beijing and Shanghai generally require also that you must have a bachelor’s degree and at least two years of post-graduate related experience and no criminal record. If you don’t have two years of postgraduate work experience you can try to apply in a second tier city. If you’re going to be the representative of an established rep office you will not be required the Employment License, and therefor you won’t need the two years of experience, but this doesn’t usually apply for young designers. There still are some agencies in town that can help you get an Employment License if you don’t match some requirements through 关系 Guanxi [personal connections]. But it seems this method is becoming more and more difficult to pull off, and as a result, more and more expensive.

Let’s go through the process for a work visa. The basic process begins in China, the company willing to hire you needs to go to the Bureau of Human Resources and Social Security to apply. The bureau checks that the foreign national matches all the requirements, also the local ones. Once the employment license is approved then the company carries that to the Commerce Bureau or the Foreign Affairs Office [it depends on the city and the industry] in order to get the visa notification letter.Once these papers are sent to you, you simply need to go to the Chinese consulate and apply for the work visa. The officer adjudicating the visa at the Consulate just checks whether the applicant has all the documents, and theoretically can’t refuse to issue a visa if all the papers are properly done. Once you arrive in China you will need to get a Temporary Residence Registration at the Police Station [or, if you are staying at a hotel, the staff will give you this] and a Medical Examination. You will finally have to go to the Bureau of Human Resources and Social Security and convert your Employment License into a Working Permit. Then with your passport and all these papers in your hand you will be able to get a Residence Permit at the Public Security Bureau of Entry-Exit Administration. As soon as you got the Resident Permit go back to the Police Station and get a new Temporary Residence Registration. All this nightmare [see this excellent infographic] will take around four weeks, and you’re not allowed to work until you have the residence permit: an added expense and delay for employers. If you’ve read till here, you easily understand how much of a pain this process is, not only for you, but for your employer also. This means that besides how much determined you are, you will manage to obtain what you want if and only if your company supports you.  Its advisable to look for companies that have sponsored foreign nationals before. Chinese or foreign company are both okay, but beware the ratio of expat to local employees is generally fixed according to initial investment and other parameters. So it seems it lately became a bit easier for local companies to apply for an expat’s visa.

There are some other things that must be kept in mind. Depending on your perspective job, it’s often inadvisable to apply under your exact position; some job descriptions will be easily rejected because authorities consider them to be easily filled by a local citizens. Once you’ve got your Residence Permit etc., your employer will receive your Alien Employment Permit. When this red book is made, you’re all set to work in China, and can easily change jobs. It’s advisable to keep good relations with employers, as they’re not legally required to give you this book when you finish working with them. Last, there is no visa for people working on a freelance basis. If you want to do some freelancing one half-legal way is to offer to work for a local company on a part-time basis for a reasonable salary, and then ask its HR people to help you obtain a visa in return. Note also that I used to know many people that lived and worked in China holding student visas issued in some private language schools. It seems now it’s not possible anymore to do it this way, cause fines are extremely high for the schools, and they must ensure the students attend a certain percentage of lessons.

Anyway, don’t panic. This is China. And everything is possible. Peace.

  • Thank you very much for sharing. Very informative. We’ll bookmark this.

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  • Ben Apple

    Even though it may be getting tougher to get into China and stay legally with the visas you mentioned, it is getting easier to open your own WFOE(Wholly Foreign Owned Enterprise ). For some freelancers, this may not be a great option, but it may be possible to establish your own consulting company as a WFOE, and then you may receive a work permit for yourself. Still not the best short term strategy, but if you plan on staying in China for a while, this may be a good option.

    • MG

      Hey thanks for the comment, Ben. This is something I have been looking for a year ago, but could get any reliable source of information. If you know more about the new regulations or if you have firsthand experience about it, please share it! 🙂

      • Ben Apple

        Yeah, the big changes are that the minimum registered capital and capital verification have been lifted. If you’re ever in the Shanghai area, come check out our co-working space, Yu-link and we can walk you through the process.

        • Jacob Gadikian

          Ben, I’m quite interested in taking you up on your offer of a WFOE walkthrough– when would be a convenient time for me to visit yu-linkspace & hear sage advice? :)!

          86 186 2612 6079

          Thanks a million!

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  • Chris

    Very sounded and confirmed tips. Thanks for sharing.

    I fully understand this anoying issue because I am a chinese working outside china, in South Korea, here is almost same to get working visa. But if U.S friend or European friend failed on applying working visa in China, korean working visa would be a second option, salary in here is twice as higher as china’s.

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  • Linkbunk Bink

    Thanks for this post.
    Anything is really possible!
    I’ve just been rejected by the Bureau of Human Resources and Social Security without official reason.

    • MG

      Wow this is very strange, what process did you go through for this application? hope you solved the problem now…