Guide to Acquiring a Chinese Working Visa: From Start to Finish

Guide to Acquiring a Chinese Working Visa: From Start to Finish

Disclaimer: This guide is long, for reasons of clarity and exactness. If you only want to know what you need in terms of documentation then feel free to scroll. However, working in China is nothing to be cavalier about, so I’ve done my best to include everything I could. 


General information


To the uninitiated,  those trying for the first time to gain legally-sanctioned access to China, that country can seem about as transparent as a block of lead. Rules and regulations change quite regularly, and honest-to-gosh laws do the same with a frequency only slightly reduced.

Thus, navigating through a mire of websites, blogs, and forums from only a year ago may still bestow you with information that is now woefully defunct.

Plus, the search engines are convoluted with ‘official’ websites that pretty much neglect to give you information useful enough to procure a job knowledgeably and not get scammed by prospective employers.

Chinese z visa
From the official consulate website, last updated 2008. Notice the utter lack of useful information

Which brings us to today’s discussion, how to secure a working visa for/in the Middle Kingdom, as a foreign teacher. The laws, as of this writing, March 2018, last underwent change in May of the previous year.

China took the liberty of overhauling its system of bringing in and attracting foreign workers to more effectively tier and track the talent that would be streaming across its borders.

The new system categorizes ‘Foreign Experts’, as they are now known, into three categories; A’s, B’s, and C’s.

Category A is reserved for top-gun sort of geniuses and connected business-folk who, when ranked as such, barely need to look at the camera when they cross the border at immigration.

Category B is for the middle-of-the-road English teacher type, and this happens to be the category that I belong to.

Category C is for menial work, laborers and hired hands who probably lack both college degrees and opportunity in their home country.

China doesn’t limit the number of A’s that can move in, but arbitrarily restricts the issuance of B-type working visas while putting the number of C’s allowed in annually on a tight leash.

This guide, for the most part, will deal with the logistics of getting a Chinese working visa (Z-Visa) after you’re already in the country (from the perspective of a US national, though the requirements for applicants from other English speaking countries are mostly the same. Only the notary process should be different). 

If you’ve been shunting yourself back and forth to Hong Kong or Macau then it’ll come as no surprise that you need to go a little farther to get the Z visa.

Chinese Z visa
Not that there’s anything wrong with a little Hong Kong trip

This is because you cannot change your visa status, as a foreigner, at the consulates in either Macau or Hong Kong (wait, aren’t they a part of China anyways? They still have Chinese embassies? What do you mean one country, two systems? And what about Taiwan?? I.e. We’re not getting into it here).

Chinese Working Visa
From Baidu (Chinese Google) Maps. The yellow lines supposedly delineate Chinese territory, so at least we know where they stand…

The cheapest and closest place to get your visa changed is probably Bangkok, Thailand.

Apparently, it used to be harder to get a Chinese Visa there than it is now, ironically, with the new regulations in place (likely thanks to the dwindling amount of honest-to-gosh-let’s-teach-legally foreigners, a dwindling that accompanies pseudo-necessary draconian visa requirements).

For the domain of English teaching, the one I’m intimately familiar with, it seems that China’s purge of the old system has had thus far yielded ambiguous results. On the one hand, potential teachers can no longer photo-shop their names onto phony degrees and sneak them by the English-deficient bureaucracy, resulting in a higher level of legal English teachers nationwide.

On the other hand, the market has less deflated than moved into the black by creating a class of foreign teachers perfectly happy to work illegally, leaving and re-entering the country every two months on tourist visas.

This second phenomenon is remarkably easy get by with. Of the four Chinese-border entries I made in periodic two-month intervals (on a tourist visa), not once was I questioned or even scrutinized in any meaningful way by immigration officers.

Outside of the major Eastern urban hubs (Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen), it’s hard to see how anyone could ever get caught and deported for teaching sans visa.

Though this may be acceptable to many, there’s no degree of stability. Also, should you elect the tourist-visa route, you’ll rely on naught but the good-grace of your necessarily shady employer to pay you the agreed amount on time. Without a contract, what you’re going to get in terms of hours and quality is a toss-up.

So, it stands that the qualified should gear up their psyches and get ready for their wade through the bureaucratic muck, i.e. the process of acquiring a working visa.

Requirements


To teach English, there are several requirements and certifications that the potential teacher must have before getting a Z-visa. They are as follows:

Four-year College degree; Non-negotiable, nigh-on impossible to fabricate

 Proof of non-criminal record; Non-negotiable, though possible to loosely fabricate

 120-hour TEFL certificate OR proof of 2 years working experience; Non-negotiable, fabrication possible under specific circumstances

An official health examination proving you’re not bringing in SARS or something: Non-negotiable, no way to fake it, you can get this done in any country with a clinic, but you’ll need to specify that it’s for visa purposes

A letter from your previous employer stating that you have 2 years of working experience in the field (for some schools and provinces): Fabrication possible

A resume: Lie your heart out, obviously (kidding?)

You’ll notice that I’ve qualified these requirements with ratings of how easily you can sort of fake them.

For the record, I’m not encouraging anyone to bend the rules and white-lie their way into a visa. I’m simply detailing the objective ease that someone who’s sweating about their misdemeanor in college can have in circumventing the draconian requirements of the visa (which, some may argue, is the same thing, an argument I’ll conveniently ignore for the time being).

Before we get into logistics, however, there’s a few things you need to know. Your degree and non-criminal record report will need to undergo multiple notarizations before finally being authenticated by the Chinese consulate that serves your home state (be warned – these documents CANNOT be authenticated in China proper, so be wary of anyone who tells you otherwise).

This part of the visa process represents the largest pain-in-the-ass, so you’ll want to start early and have some money you’re ready to part with.

Notaries and consulates


China is aggravatingly not a member state of The Hague Treaty. This means they will not accept documents with an apostille. Instead, you need an authentication from the Chinese consulate. To get this authentication, your documents will need to go to them directly after they’ve been notarized by your home state’s Secretary of State.

Chinese working visa
Colorado Secretary of State, certificate of notarization

If you’re like me and didn’t get your ducks in a row before going to China, it’s probably fine; however, you’ll need a representative to collect these documents and notarizations for you. You can obtain both proof of an authentic degree and non-criminal record virtually, as in not being there personally.

Send your Mom to the registrar at your school and down to your local cop-shop. Criminal back-round checks, for those who didn’t know, can be done by most anyone on most anyone, as a matter of public record.

Before your Secretary of State can notarize any documents, however, you need to have them notarized locally. This means talking to the registrar at your school, if for some reason you didn’t get the notarized paper with your degree when you graduated.

Chinese Z visa
Degree notarization

You’ll get said signed piece of paper with a notary stamp that exclaims your degree is tried and true. Once you have this you can send that and your diploma proper to the Secretary via registered post.

They’re going to staple it, though, which makes framing the thing afterwards kind of awkward

Of course, you’re going to want to wait until you have your proof of non-criminal record, so you can send them off together.

So how do you go about proving you’re not a scoundrel? There are myriad back-round check services available, the most comprehensive of which is facilitated by the FBI. Should you be squeaky-clean, you can opt for this one, but a state or county-wide check should also suffice unless your Chinese employer specifically demands a certain level of clearance (they won’t).

Now, for those with a small pile of dirty laundry, there is another option. Should your residential city or town be different from the one you were convicted in, you can head down to the local cop-shop and ask them to give you a back-round check that only peruses the city’s records.

If you’ve never been arrested there, it will come back clean, regardless of any other convictions elsewhere. They’ll probably even notarize it for you.

I acquired a back-round check on myself from abroad, from a local police department

Once the local notarizations are done you can ship off the goods to your Secretary of State (the secretary of whom will, if you make nice and call them, affix a further shipping label you included with the documents to their notarized versions to send them Chinese-Embassy-ward).

If you can’t seem to coerce the person on the line to ship these documents via Fed-ex or registered post to the embassy, you’ll have to do that yourself.

The upshot of doing it yourself is that you get to make copies of everything; the embassy demands copies, and third-party liaison services charge for them (I cannot attest to whether your Secretary of State’s secretary will make them for you; maybe).

Now, you’re not to just ship the documents to any old embassy. You need to find the one that conducts the business of residents in your home state. In my case, Colorado, I went through the Embassy in Chicago.

The disappointing thing about dealing with the embassy is that they either demand your documents to be personally delivered or delivered by a representative of your absent person. This means, unless you have a friend who can do the pick-and-drop in the city where the embassy’s at, that you’ll need to hire a third-party service.

Personally, I’ve always used TravelDocs.com and have never had an issue with them, though they charge you to make copies of your documents. Other companies such as VisaRite should work just as well (note: I am not in any marketing sort of way associated with these companies).

Your employer


After the sweat has receded and you’ve got your authenticated documents in hand, it’s time to get in contact with your employer in China.

Chinese working visa
Getting to China beforehand allowed me to find the right employer – in this case, the one with the castle

They’re going to give you an official paper with a stamp that says you’re hired and they (your employer) are an entity that is legally recognized as being able to employ foreigners (remember, there an anxiety-inducing number of places that are not licensed to hire foreigners but will try and hire them anyways).

It may be the case that, for the provincial entities to give your employer the OK stamp that lets them send it off to the consulate with you, you’ll need to have your English stuff translated. The school should do it for you if they’re not inept.

The MOST important aspect of this part (the school giving you its end of the documents) is that you tell them you’ll be applying in Bangkok or whatever embassy you choose. They tell the provincial government that, and then they (the provincials) tell the consulate. If you don’t make it clear where you’re applying, you’ll need to apply in your country of origin, in person.

This applies only to those already outside of their country of origin.

Other requirements


All person’s hoping to enter the country on any sort of visa will need to fill out a generic application form. This is to be completed digitally, in capital letters. Do not hand-write. Do not leave anything blank. Put N/A in whatever category doesn’t pertain to you. The form can be found here: http://www.china-embassy.org/eng/visas/fd/

Guide to Chinese Working visa

Even if you’re already in China and you’ve filled out the form for the tourist visa you’ll have to do it again. Go to the visa office armed with this document beforehand (one gets turned in digitally, one manually) as it’s a hassle trying to fill it out while you’re there.

You’re also going to need a few passport style photos, with exacting dimensions in the millimeter. Photo requirements sometimes change, so check the consulate website before going to take the pictures.

They can be obtained in China, the US, or Thailand though if you’re in the US you may need to go somewhere that can customize photos for you.

I went to Walgreens, and though they had visa photography services they didn’t have the technical expertise to get the dimensions right for the Chinese visa requirements. Plus, they were ambivalent about the whole thing and basically told me shove off.

Chinese working visa
Not what I’d call specialists in the photography department

You’ll also need all the compelling paperwork that says you’re hired, so an invitation letter and the stamped piece of paper that serves as a work permit. If you’re in China then you’ll get these things from the employer in person; otherwise, have them mailed. If your employer has any degree of aptitude, they’ll know what documents you need.

Other things to think about bringing are the documents from your country of residence that give proof of where you reside, though I didn’t need it personally, as well as a recent bank statement, which I also didn’t personally need (be overprepared, especially if you’re flying somewhere just to get the visa done). PHOTOCOPY EVERYTHING.

Another indisputable piece of documentation is a health examination that can be done in any licensed clinic in the developed or pseudo-developed world (if you’re in Burkina Faso or something you may be out of luck).

Chinese Z visa
Or maybe not. Who’s to say?

Chinese clinics will demand your passport and visa information before giving you the checkup, and you’ll need to go from room to room yourself to acquire the necessary diagnoses(s) and blood-work demanded.

If your Chinese is deficient then bring a Chinese friend. Seriously. This advice can be applied unilaterally to all bureaucratic affairs on the mainland, outside of the largest cities.

Chinese Z visa
Health examination completed in Guiyang, China

If you’re applying in Bangkok, you can go to the clinic around the corner from the Chinese Visa Office (no, you’re NOT going to the consulate. You’ll go to the Chinese visa office. They’re different. I’ve included a picture snapped from Google Maps at a later point in the article).

It’s important to keep in mind that much of the headache can be mitigated by knowing exactly what you need, getting your certified documents in order, and letting your employer do the rest.

The laws had just changed when I began working here, and apparently many places just didn’t get the memo. That’s understandable, but by now the education system should have had sufficient time to adjust itself.

Once your employer gets your documents they’ll have them sent to the provincial authorities for the final OK before your consulate visit. Different provinces sometimes have different rules, but you won’t figure out what they are (with transparency probably not even having a Chinese translation and all).

Chinese Z visa
Province names, at least, are public doman

The final two documents necessary for your employment are the easiest to obtain. Should you have 2 well-documented years of working experience as a teacher, you can forego a TEFL certificate. Otherwise, you’ll need to opt into a 120-hour TEFL class.

Though the ‘formal’ requirements state that this should be obtained via attending a physical, real-world class, you’ll be fine getting one online as well.

The caveat is that your certificate must come from an accredited institution while also saying nothing about its online obtainment on the certificate. Realistically, you can knock out an online TEFL certification in 35 to 40 hours provided your grammar is on par with the average college student.

Chinese working visa
From an online course – Notice ITT doesn’t mention that on the certificate proper

If you’re shaky on the finer elements of the language, however, I’d suggest entering a brick-and-mortar institution to collect your certification (the online element is why I suggested that fabrication could be possible, beforehand, and will be the route that many who already find themselves here in China take).

Now, the element that I was most unclear on in all this was whether the 2 years of working experience was actually, legally, as in government mandated like, required.

The consensus from those above my head, i.e. my employers, was a noncommittal ‘probably’. What I’ve since worked out is that actual working experience is a provincial requirement, and I’ve done this based on the fact that one still needs a TEFL or linguistics degree to get a teaching job.

Should the work experience be required, as it is for more specific B-visa jobs to be found here, then it would render the need for a TEFL moot. You need to check with your employer on this one, as their specifications will be able to tell you whether you should get the letter or not.

Outside of the foreigner loop in big, modern cities, you’ll find that very few people in China speak coherent English. This rings just as truly for government officials (or, more rightly, bureaucrats). They’ll be reading your letter and deciding on its legitimacy, maybe even reaching out to the reference you’ve provided whom can corroborate your experience.

Unless, of course, their English is less than savory, in which case they won’t. So, if you’re in Guizhou, like me? No reference checking. What follows should be clear; your letter detailing your two years of accredited experience can point the readers towards a fictional collaborator, or your Mom, or someone who’s willing to fudge it for you.

Chinese working Visa
Option 1: Learn some Chinese  | Option 2: Ignore people and take pictures of nature stuff

Chances are no one is calling to check up, anyways.

Another massive caveat here: Should you be discovered operating on fraudulent credentials, i.e. before you’re hired, that’ll be the end of your prospective China employment. It’s not necessarily a smashing idea, though you could always play up your innocence and huff around claiming the phone numbers have changed and that they didn’t check thoroughly enough, etc., in order to press the issue. China lives in its contradictory mode of either bringing down the arbitrary hammer or letting things slip through the cracks, which when it comes to bureaucracy is easy to do (allow slippage, that is).

Getting the visa


There you have it. Your documents have been notarized and authenticated and shipped and re-shipped or handed back or whatever. It’s time to get the actual visa pressed into your passport.

Those already in China on tourist visas are going to be leaving. Hong Kong and Macau aren’t going to cut it, and since my own experience comes from obtaining the visa in Bangkok, Thailand, it is that city that we’ll be discussing as the closest and cheapest Asian option.

Chinese Z visa
That’s right – the process requires between 2 and 4 vacations

There’s a host of horror stories that float around about changing your Chinese visa status in Thailand, especially regarding the Z-visa. Recall, though, that the requirement for said visa have since become draconian, meaning the applicant pool has shrunk. Strictness in screening usually correlates to abundance, something that has since evaporated.

The process, for me, went without a hitch or even an interview, and this was with 4 consecutive two-month entry stamps on my tourist visa already. Don’t fret.

Once your plane tickets are booked it’s time to make an appointment. You’ll do so online. Don’t be like me and leave the little application form with your appointment number back in China, only to wake up your girlfriend’s parents at 6 AM to dig it out for you. Either bring the paper or write down the number.

The Chinese visa office is Bangkok is your destination, not the Chinese consulate proper. You should have all your photocopies and documents in tow, as well as roughly 7000 Thai baht ready to throw towards the visa itself ($140 USD based on current exchange rates).

Chinese Z visa

This is the point where you’ll need the generic application form mentioned above. All the contact information for your employer including telephone and address will need to be included on the form, so make sure you have them handy.

Getting to the visa office early is paramount considering it’s only open for select parts of the day. If you have an appointment and you’ve chosen the express service, the security guard will ask you which line you wish to wait it.

When I was there he spoke only Thai and Chinese, so you should familiarize yourself with the Thai word for ‘express’, Tang Dooan (unlike Chinese, Thai does not have a universal system of transliteration, so this transliteration is my own and ignores the Thai tones. Dooan is said with a falling tone, at the bottom of the vocal range).

If you arrive and find yourself without copies of certain documentation you shouldn’t fret. You can make copies in the office for a few baht.

Most of the workers in the visa office are Thais, who are friendly and all-business. Present your documents when you get to the counter, let them know you’ve signed up for express service if you have, and claim your number.

After you’ve been authorized by the front desk you’ll know that your documents are in line and you’re ready to conduct the process of getting the visa at the window.

Once you get there, sparse questions will be asked about your business in China and you’ll hand the stuff over, parleying about how much you wish to pay for regular or express service (the price noted above is for express service, where you can pick up your visa the next day).

The documents I didn’t need were my bank statement, plane tickets, certified documents, and proof of residency or stay in Thailand. Remember, though; there is a deft arbitrariness as to what you’ll need for getting in to China on any given day, so over-prepare just to be safe and bring all of the aforementioned things.

Any luck and you’ll get the visa stamped into your passport with no questions asked.

That’s it, really. This maddeningly hefty guide should get you from where you are in China to where you want to be in China, prim and legal.

Getting your residence permit, a requirement you’ll have 30 days to fulfill upon entering the country on you single-entry Z-visa, should be taken care of and paid for by your employer. Feel free to drop me a comment if you believe that I’ve missed anything or want further advice on things related to either the residence permit or teaching in China in general.

Short-list of things you’ll need, from beginning to end


  • Passport
  •  Money
  •  College degree, first notarized and then authenticated by the Chinese consulate
  •  Proof of non-criminal record, from most any municipality, notarized and authenticated by the Chinese consulate
  •  A 120-hour TEFL certificate that doesn’t say it was obtained via an accredited online institution (though an online certificate works as long as it doesn’t say as much and the institution is still accredited)
  •  Two years of experience in your field in place of a TEFL certificate (should you not have a TEFL certificate expect to be checked on, otherwise this requirement seems provincial as opposed to national)
  •  Note: An English linguistics degree can stand in for the following requirements, check with your employer to see if your education or other type of English degree qualifies
  •  A resume detailing your relevant or fabricated working experience, bonus points if it’s in Chinese
  •  An invitation letter from your employer who has, after obtaining your documents via mail or in person, gotten the provincial authorities to sign off on your prospective employment
  •  A comprehensive medical examination per requirements of the Bureau of Chinese Public Health Services
  •  A generic application form filled out and taken to the consulate (actually you need two; one to be done online and one to be brought into the Thai visa office)
  •  In isolated cases, proof of personal financial support (i.e. a bank statement, hopefully detailing that you have over 2 or 3 thousand USD at your disposal when you plane touches down)
  •  Should you not have entered China before on a tourist visa, then round trip plane tickets. This is arbitrarily enforced according to both certain countries and airports, and I had to provide no such proof to obtain the Z-Visa and then fly back to China from Bangkok. Another note: You can always buy a 24-hour refundable round-trip ticket, show it to the relevant authorities, and then cancel the ticket. I did it in Indonesia and it worked swimmingly
  • Patience

 If your employer has their s*@t together, then all of this should be a breeze and you likely won’t even need to bother with this guide. However, if they’ve only ever hired illegal foreigners and now you’re here demanding rights and a contract, they may not know the score. Even if they do, you should know it as well. There’s no reason to let your employer have any information about the process that you don’t. Keep yourself safe and put yourself first when it comes to working situations such as these. Most of all, once you’re there, enjoy your time as a teacher in China!


4 Replies to “Guide to Acquiring a Chinese Working Visa: From Start to Finish”

  1. Very good read. But I have a question for you that I’d be grateful if you answered… I am going through a recruiter to secure a position in China. I’ve since obtained a position. I told the recruiter that I have a BA in English (and Philosophy). However, after sending her a photo of my diploma, she stated that it does not have my majors listed on there. Just “Bachelors in Arts”… She stated that the Consulate has very strict requirements on what is actually printed on the diploma and they want to see “English.” I provided an unofficial copy of my transcripts, she said that would not work, as her company has had issues with this before. So my question is, how do we get around this requirement, if it is indeed, a requirement? I notice your degree specifically states your major. I have a little over 2 years of teaching experience but no TEFL cert. Will I be able to get my z visa?

    1. Hi Charmaine,

      If you have a way to prove that you actually have two years of experience with teaching there shouldn’t be a problem. Also, if you look at the picture directly above my diploma you should see that it states my major (in addition to my degree). Before the consulate can authenticate anything they’ll need the attendant notarizations, and the notarization for your degree should be on that piece of paper where your major should be printed as well. I don’t see how that would be insufficient. If you plan on using a transcript you should use an official one, though I don’t see why that would be necessary if you have the notarized letter that accompanies your degree. I don’t know if you’re having the recruiter (who I assume is Chinese?) get your documents authenticated for you, but you can obtain your certified documents (diploma, non-criminal record report) using any service, regardless of what the degree says on it. The requirements only state that you’ll need a bachelor’s degree – it shouldn’t matter what your major was (as you can see, mine was Tourism). To be very sure you can obtain an official transcript to go with your degree. Remember, it’s the provincial authorities who are responsible for certifying your experience and/or TEFL cert. The consulate in your home country only authenticates the degree, and all an authentication does is prove that your degree is legitimate and thus usable in China. Should your recruiter be confused, bring up the notarized letter that you should have received from the registrar at your school – that should be proof enough. Anyways, with your experience alone you should have no problems getting the Z visa. If you have other complications let me know and I’ll try and gather some more information from my own place of work.

  2. Read through. But I want to ask. After sending all necessary documents down to statement of account and so on…. how long will it take for the process of my work visa be completed and paste on my passport??????

    1. Hi! It will take anywhere from 1 week to 1 month, with the average being about two weeks. It took them a week and a half to process my visa and it was another 4 days before I had it in my hands. There will be different times for different embassies (Chicago vs. New York, for example) but your courier should be able to give you an accurate estimate because they deal with people’s documents and visas everyday. Best of luck.

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