Visas, Rules and Regulations (2 of 3)

05 - 02 Visas Rules and Regs

Visas, Rules and Regulations

Welcome to the ever changing hazy world of visa regulations in the PRC. If you want any help with changing your visa please drop a line on this blog site or mail at I know a man that can as they say!

A key part of existence for the foreigner living in China is having an understanding of visas and how to attune your life accordingly. The longest most people can usually is one year, after that you have to renew or extend it. Extensions vary from days to weeks though there may be exceptions to this such as in Shanghai where you can get F-visas extended by six months. All in all, preparing for visa renewal is a part of life that you have to get used to and in the long run cutting corners is a counter productive way of doing things that you will eventually live to regret. From personal experience its far better to take your time, be patient and do things by the books if you are serious about staying in China for any length of time. Once you have done it, it’s like walking through an invisible barrier where you no longer have any worries about anything along with an immense feeling of freedom. Here is a list of the visas that you can obtain in China, their use, how long they will last for and how many entries you will get:

Tourist L-Visa: The easiest to get is for 30 days, though it’s also possible to get ones for 90 days. Single and double entry visas are available but not multiple entry. You can’t renew a tourist visa, merely extend it. I’ve met many people who teach on a tourist visa, especially in the South of China.

Student X-Visa: These look very similar to F-Visas. As stated they are meant only for study and you cannot receive employment is you have one. Obtain this while going through the college application process. I know a lot of students who also teach English on the side to supplement their allowance.

 Spouse/Marriage L-Visa: If you marry a Chinese national then you can apply for this one year visa though you are not allowed to obtain any employment.

 Business F-Visa: These are issued for people who are here to do ‘business, research’ and ‘cultural exchanges’. These last for six months and are fairly easy to obtain. If you have been in China using a tourist visa having renewed it two times, it’s no problem in changing over to an F-visa. Many people use them, especially as the actual purpose of their usage can be open to wide interpretation. The F-visa is legendary in its number of grey areas, though is also a two edged sword that in some big cities such as Beijing can back fire if there is a check by the authorities on foreign teachers. I’ll go into that in more detail below. The best thing about an F is that there isn’t much paperwork involved and you can move from company to company, whereas the Z visa (below) attaches you to only one place. You also don’t need a degree or equivalent to get an F. Literally, anyone can obtain an F-visa.

There are some key drawbacks to using an F-visa though. Despite the ease of renewal, six months does rocket by at lightning speed. If you don’t have a system in place for regular renewal then the process can be a laboured and arduous one.

Most people working on an F actually believe they are legal when this is absolutely not the case. If your company says otherwise, then they are deceiving you. Make sure your contract somehow covers your F-visa, for example, that you are a visiting lecturer or scholar. Make sure you have a contract in the first place.

Because you aren’t officially working on an F-visa, the longer you use them for, the more difficult it is to change to a Z-visa. A Z requires that you submit a CV with at least two years experience abroad. If you have been working on an F-visa then you won’t be able to add it to your CV and all that experience will be wasted. It’s best to get off the F-visa way of life as soon as possible.

Work Z – Visa: This is the most desirable one as it means you don’t have to renew it for one year though you are attached to one company only. Starting off is a royal pain in the** though once it’s done, you really can breathe a sigh of relief. The tip is to focus yourself, roll up your sleeves and be workmanlike about it until it’s done. It’s worth it as the next year it’s cheap and easy to renew with a minimum of stress. While you are in the process of getting your visas and permits sorted out you will still be able to teach. Your school should provide a letter to cover you while it’s being done with the company stamp. Any authority will accept it.

Looking for work

Unless a company has been recommended to you by a reliable source, forget trying to arrange jobs from your home country as it’s such a hit and miss affair. The tip of the day is to come over on a tourist visa and have a look around on what’s on offer, extending it if need be. I spent six blissful months travelling around looking at schools until deciding on a school. You can even go into a school and do some trial lessons to see what its like. The first thing you should ask is whether they can convert your tourist visa into a work visa. Don’t just ask people in the office, ask the teachers who already work there.

Alternatively you can mail me at for advice on looking for work, especially if you are interested in working in Beijing.

Once you have found a suitable place then ask the school to help you out with changing your visa from an L-visa to a Z or an F. Don’t hold back on asking for help for everything including all the translations that need to be doing. There will be someone in the office that will be responsible for settling in new teachers. Check this out when deciding which school to work at. You may well get someone who will personally help you.

Hold your breath and remember it’s really worth doing and if you apply yourself for one month, you will look back and thank yourself on a daily basis for having done it.

To obtain a Z-visa you need the following things (though this is subject to change):

  • Degree certificate or equivalent.
  • Translations of your certificates into Chinese.
  • Your passport.
  • Your CV
  • A translation of your CV into Chinese.
  • At least 2 years experience teaching abroad and a recognised TEFL certificate.

There is of course a way to get around this thanks to China’s new one week SAFEA training course (State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs). Amazingly this is the equivalent of two years overseas teaching experience with a 90 minute test at the end of it and all at the handy price tag of 3000 RMB (2013: That’s about 300 pounds or around 500 dollars).

  • 2 passport photos

A one time only health check. This has to be arranged two weeks in advance and about 700 RMB (2013: That’s about 70 pounds or just over 110 dollars).

  • Your temporary residence permit. Every foreign person has to have one. If you are in a hotel you can use the Hotel Registration Form of Temporary Residence.
  • The employment certificate/ application form/invitation which should have the company stamp.
  • Everything photocopied.
  • The fee.This can be up to 10,000 RMB (2013: That’s about 1000 pounds or just over 1,600 dollars). Attitudes towards paying for a foreign teacher’s visa vary from school to school. Some don’t offer any assistance saying that a foreign teacher’s wages are much higher than a Chinese teacher’s. Indeed they are correct on that one, though it still seems like a big outlay to be making for the privilege of working. Imagine starting a job in your home country but your boss saying you have to pay a grand before you start. Many places will offer help. If you’re lucky they will pay for your visa and your health check, some will offer to pay half. Don’t forget that once you have made this outlay then you won’t have to do it again. The renewal the following year is really cheap.

Foreign Experts Certificate

Hold on one moment. It hasn’t finished there. Before you start jumping for joy when they finally hand you your passport back with your Z, you still need to get your Foreign Experts Certificate. This means sending off your passport again along with more cash, 3000 RMB if I remember, temporary residents permit, CV and certificates, translations and photocopies of the lot. The whole process is actually free but the process is so long winded and complicated that all schools use an agency to do it for them hence the price tag.

There you go! Having gone through all that you are completely 100% legally able to teach and live in China. At the end of the day it’s hardly surprising that people choose to use F visas.

In Reality

The above is the absolute letter of the law and finding information to the contrary is rare. Most websites are not prepared to or are unable to spell out what the teaching situation is really like. I’ve met hundreds of teachers in China and been to countless schools. Truth be told, I can safely say that the majority of them were not on Z visas. Actually I’ve met teachers working on all of the above from tourist to spouse visas. I know teachers who have been working for years on an F. I’m not for one second advocating you should, I’m just telling you what it’s really like.

Since 2005 I’ve actually been checked out by the authorities only four times and two of those were in South Korea. Checks normally happen in the bigger cities and it depends on how much ‘guanxi’ a company has with the powers that be. This refers to a level of influence and understanding between two bodies and is an age old Chinese concept. The greater the guanxi a company has with its authorities then the less likely it has to be inspected or instead may receive a prior warning.


At the end of the day, the worst thing that will happen is you will receive a warning not to do it again and the school will pay some kind of fine which won’t be that big. There has been two times where things have gotten really tight. In 2008, visa control was so rigid that I couldn’t renew my F and had to leave the country until the Olympics were over. Many foreigners had to leave the country having lived in China for years. In 2012 ‘San Fei’ was introduced which means ‘three illegals’ Authorities clamped down on

foreign nationals who were “1) in the country illegally, 2) remaining illegally, or 3) working illegally” for 100 days. Many of my friends kept me posted from around the country and it seemed that Beijing was the only place targeted. For a few months the only people that were on the payroll were teachers on a Z visa. However, one year on, things are back to ‘normal’ and the whole process seems to have relaxed yet again.

If you are a qualified teacher, this can be seen as most advantageous though. Beijing is now crying out for English teachers and salaries have gone up to match. If you’re on a job hunt and you have a degree then take your pick and they will go out of their way to help you get on their payroll.

Changing Your Visa

If you need to renew your F-visa then just go to the police station and it should be done pretty quickly. However, if you want to change your F-visa to a Z-visa you have your work cut out. Companies should really lend a helping hand with this sort of thing but some rely on agencies to do their visa work for them who will undoubtedly tell you that you should leave the country in order to change it. In terms of changing an L-visa into a Z-visa, then your company should be able to do this without much problem if you have got all the required documents.

Visa Runs

The most common way to do this is to leave the country to somewhere nearby, fix yourself up and return in a few days; a process known as a ‘visa run’. Popular destinations are South Korea, Thailand and Hong Kong. Hong Kong is a part of China I know, but in this case it counts as the same. Most Westerners can travel freely in and out; you also have your passports stamped on the border.

Visa runs are a massive pain in anyone’s a**. They take a big chunk out of your schedule so you are spending money rather than earning. They are expensive and energy consuming, especially if you decide to go on the cheap and take the train. You return exhausted but faced with work the next day!

If your company tells you that you should leave the country to change your visa then I can firmly tell you that this is not the case. They are merely giving you secondhand information from an agency that will no doubt be monitored by the authorities.

Ask as many teachers as you can what they do. Normally you will find someone who can change visas without leaving. I have been using someone who is totally legal and works in the centre of town for a completely legitimate company in a modern office building. If you are stuck then just drop me a line at and I’ll point you in their direction.


Categories: 09 - About Teaching in China, 10 - Visas in Chiina

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