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Which Visa Do I Need to Live and Work in China?

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Ava moved to China in 2012. As a TEFL teacher she coaches students through the speaking part of their English examinations.

Your visa application form

Your visa application form

Why Do I Need a Visa?

Currently, citizens from just about every country outside of China will need a visa to enter the mainland. Current exceptions are Singapore, Brunei and Japan.

Your passport will get you to the country of your destination but it's the visa that gives permission at the borders and customs for you to go in. Your Chinese visa is the magic key that opens the doors.

Basically, you need a visa if you're an alien wishing to visit a country that has set rules and regulations about your entry, stay and departure and uses a visa as the document which defines those rules.

China is extremely transparent about this.

In a nutshell, if you're going to China and plan to stay for longer than a week you need a visa and you need to obey its rules to the letter.

Example of a Chinese Visa

Example of a Chinese Visa

Types of Visa Currently Issued

There are several different types of visas currently issued by China. Read the application forms and associated information/instructions extremely carefully to ensure that you apply for the right visa. In cases of uncertainty, you can call the Embassy or a reputed agent for advice.

  • Tourist L Visa—Issued to people who wish to holiday in or tour China with no intent to work or do business. Currently issued for one to three months. Best to apply up to two months before your departure date.
  • Business F or M visa—Not the same as a work visa but issued to people who frequently visit China for business purposes. The process is usually swifter than for the Tourist visa, but with more paperwork requirements and is priced higher. This type of visa is generally granted for six months or one year.
  • Work: also known as a Foreign Expert Certificate (FEC) or Z Visa—For anyone coming to China to do work for pay including entertainers. There are strict requirements regarding qualifications, age, health and experience. Your prospective Chinese employer will take care of the paperwork and ask you to provide the necessary documentation or proof. This visa is valid for one year.

Special Notes About Work Visas

  • A work visa does not allow you to move around between employers. If you change your job your current work visa will be cancelled and you must obtain a new one from your new employer before starting work.
  • Work visas are expensive and the process of obtaining one is cumbersome and can be lengthy. Consequently, both parties; employer and employee need to be sure that their partnership will last the duration.
Customs declaration forms. Current arrival and departure cards at Chinese borders.

Customs declaration forms. Current arrival and departure cards at Chinese borders.

Types of Visa Currently Issued, continued

  • Student—This is a fairly straightforward visa. Initial paperwork will be issued by the institution which must be accredited. An X1 visa is issued for advanced studies or fieldwork while an X2 visa is issued for study periods of less than 6 months. Working whilst carrying one of these visas is not permitted except in special circumstances.
  • Visa on arrival—Usually issued in an emergency situation where a supporting letter from a Chinese organisation can describe and or prove the emergency. Duration is typically short-lasting only up to five days.

There are other visas that are quite complicated and also rarely sought. For these reasons, I've omitted them from this article. However, in case any may apply to you they are as follows:

  • Family Reunion
  • Crew, Resident and Journalist
  • China Private Visit Visa

Visa Duration And Exit And Entry Requirements

  • Single Entry—Usually a condition of a Tourist visa. This means that you can only enter and leave China once before having to obtain a new visa.
  • Multiple Entry—Issued with visas of one year or more. This means that you must exit China every 30, 60 or 90 days. Most travellers will cross the border into Hong Kong and return to China later that day or after a few days. Of course, you can also travel back to your home country or wherever you wish.
  • One and two-year visa—Issued for business or work. Will have duration of stay requirements meaning you must leave the country at set times before returning as outlined in the previous point; Multiple Entry.
  • 10-year—At the time of writing this has just been issued as part of a reciprocal agreement between China and the US. Visas last for ten years before expiration and renewal, with multiple entry allowances and requirements.
China visa passport stamp

China visa passport stamp

Can I Get a Visa In My Home Country?

If there is a Chinese Embassy in your home country they will be able to process your application. Check their website for full details of what is required and which visa you wish to apply for.

Take your time over this. Read the instructions extra carefully and make sure you provide everything that is requested to lessen the chances of rejection or delay.

If you have been offered work in China, your employer will organise the visa before you come and they will guide you through your part in the process.

If your employer advises you to come into China on a tourist visa with promises to transfer this into a work visa after your arrival, be very wary. This tactic is common and could mean that the company is not registered to employ foreigners. With no registration, it's unlikely that they'll be able to issue you a work visa in any case, which means you'll ultimately be working in China illegally.

In recent years China has become much more diligent about cracking down on illegal workers.

2 Quick Questions

1. Can I stay indefinitely if I marry my Chinese boyfriend/girlfriend?

Nope. China has no special visa or staying in the country allowances for foreign spouses of Chinese citizens.

2. Can I get a Chinese Green card or citizenship?

It's possible but highly unlikely. Very few foreigners have attained this. If you have distinguished yourself in some way either in China or your home country then you may be part way there, but it's still a long shot.

The list of cities which now only require a 72 hour transit visa is growing all the time.

The list of cities which now only require a 72 hour transit visa is growing all the time.

Exceptions To General Visa Rules

As with every rule, there are exceptions.

Hong Kong which is part of China but separate from the mainland and under different administration has its own rules on visa requirements for each country. Therefore please do separate research if you're planning to travel to Hong Kong.

The illustration above this paragraph signals which Chinese cities are currently allowing a special 72-hour visa-free transit for travellers who are going on to other countries following a short stay in China.

Although this policy is seen as a progressive move there are a significant number of countries that do not qualify for this visa. As websites are being updated continually it's best to check at the time of making plans to travel.

The process when using a 72 hour visa free transit through China.

The process when using a 72 hour visa free transit through China.

Process for Direct Transit for Any Nationality Passing Through China

Process for Direct Transit for Any Nationality Passing Through China

Should I Use An Agency If I'm Already In China?

Agencies offering help in securing visas abound in China and off the mainland in Hong Kong.

Some are very experienced, able to give a professional service at a reasonable rate and some are exactly the opposite.

Many agencies open and close frequently so it's impossible to make a list here as they could be obsolete when you read this.

If you're already in China and you want an agent's help check expat websites for recommendations. In addition place a high value on word of mouth regarding both good and bad agencies. If someone claims to have had a bad experience with an agency, don't imagine that it will be different for you.


What Happens If I Overstay My Visa?

You really don't want to know.

Okay, so perhaps it's not that bad. I mean, no-one ever got flogged for overstaying their visa as far as I know, but still the consquences can be pretty grim.

First of all, it's up to you to know the law and the rules regarding your particular visa. Pay attention to them and remember them at all times. Ignorance is no defence.

If you do overstay your visa, depending on how long the overstay is (days / weeks etc) and whether or not it's a first time offence, the Customs officer may just give you a stern warning.

Make the same mistake again however, or overstay your visa for too long in the first instance (weeks, months or years) and you'll be facing a hefty fine, confinement and even deportation.

Like I said, it's a lot less stressful to just keep an eye on your dates and the rules and regulations of your visa.

There are different rules for different nationalities regarding the Chinese visa

There are different rules for different nationalities regarding the Chinese visa

Final Thoughts: Nationality Makes a Difference!

It's vitally important to check and double-check the requirements and costs for your Chinese visa as well as how long it will take to be processed.

There is no 'one solution fits all' method here. Different countries are subject to different rules and, most importantly the price for the same visa often differs greatly from country to country with some being vastly more expensive than others.

The reasons for this are many and unknown to those outside of official circles, ie me.

On top of this the requirements, prices and rules change frequently so you can't rely on something which was in place a few years ago or even last year.

As I've mentioned already don't take anything for granted when planning your trip to China. Allow plenty of time to prepare and get all of your paperwork in order then you can relax and enjoy the country and everything it has to offer.


Check here for a detailed look at the new rules.

How Difficult Is It To Get A Visa?

Questions & Answers

Question: Do I need a visa to work for a summer program for two weeks in China?

Answer: The summer programmes in China are a very grey area when it comes to Visas. For this reason, most companies running these programmes recruit English teachers who are already in China on a working, tourist or Business visa. The best thing to do is confer with the people recruiting for the summer camp and they will talk to you about visa requirements.