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Living Abroad in China

Visas and Residence in China

2006 © Stuart & Barbara Strother, from Moon Living Abroad in China, 1st Edition. Used by permission of Stuart & Barbara Strother, and Avalon Travel. All rights reserved.

The first step in making your move to China is to get a visa. Welcome to the web of Chinese red tape—and oh, what a web they weave. Unless you are only trying to get a tourist visa, you’ll want to leave plenty of time for obtaining all the documents you’ll need. Two months is a safe bet, though the process can be expedited if necessary. The Chinese embassy typically takes around a week to process the application before it can be returned to you. Keep in mind, however, that most visas are only good for entry within three months of their issue date, so you don’t want to get your visa too far in advance.


Chinese visas are classified based on your purpose for being in China, such as tourism, education, or employment. To stay long term in China, you’ll have to be connected to an organization (the company you work for or the school you attend), which pretty much rules out the possibility of retiring there or just hanging out for longer than a tourist visa will allow. And if you’re thinking of starting your own business in China or working in the country on a self-employed basis, you’re going to have a very difficult time getting the entry visa you’ll need, since all work visas must have a corporate sponsor. (Currently you must first get a Chinese business partner who can register the business in China, though with the current push toward opening up the nation for foreign business, these regulations may soon change.)

If any of these difficult situations apply to you, our best advice is to hire one of the visa services in Hong Kong. Though expensive, they can sometimes work miracles (though if you’re a highly ethical person, you may not want to ask just how they were able to obtain that visa for you).

Visa applications are no longer accepted by mail; you’ll need to walk it in to the nearest Chinese consulate or embassy, or have your travel or visa agent do it for you. You’ll also need to pay the application fee, which varies depending on your citizenship and the number of entries into China. All visas are classified as single entry, double entry, or multiple entry. If you are in China on a single-entry visa but would like to leave the country temporarily (including visiting Hong Kong or Macau), you can have your visa entry type switched at your local Public Security Bureau (PSB) before you go. The PSB will also help you out if you need an extension on your visa or residence permit. Staying past your expiration date will result in a 500 元 ($62) fine for every extra day; if you need an extension, contact the local PSB at least a week in advance.

Tourist and Short-Term-Stay Visas

The simplest visa to get is a single- or double-entry L visa for tourists, which will allow you to stay in the country for 30 days, or longer if requested. Multiple-entry L visas are valid for six months or more, though you’ll need to prove why you’ll be visiting so frequently (i.e. proof of real estate purchase or a sick relative). Hong Kong and Macau have their own guidelines for tourist visas and allow many nationalities to stay up to 90 days without any visa at all (check the Hong Kong and Macau chapter for more information). To obtain an F visa for short-term study or a business visit up to six months in duration, you’ll need to submit an invitation letter from the host company or university. If you will need to return regularly for business purposes and have documents to prove it, you can get a multiple-entry F visa good for up to two years. Check the Chinese embassy website (see Contacts in Resources ) for more information on what kind of documents will suffice.

Residency Visas

Residency visas (D, J-1, X, Z) are only good for getting you into the country; you’ll need a residency permit to stay in the country. Each type of residency visa requires different paperwork. To get a Z visa (issued to those coming to China for employment), you’ll need to submit a Work Permit or a Foreign Expert’s License, obtained by the company in China you will be working for, and a letter of invitation from your employer, as well as the marriage certificate and birth certificates for accompanying spouse and children, respectively. Long-term-study X visas require an enrollment letter and educational application form from the Chinese school. Journalist visas (J-1 or J-2) require both a letter from an employer and a letter from the Foreign Affairs Office. To get a D visa, you’ll have to first get a permit from a local government in China before you can apply (if you have family members in China, they can obtain this document for you). Unless you have close relatives who are Chinese citizens, D visas are extremely difficult to get and are typically only rewarded to those who have already resided in China for some time and have made sizeable contributions to the country financially, culturally, or technologically.

Residence Permits

It is not the visa but the residence permit that gives you the legal right to live in China. Once you arrive in China, you’ll have 30 days to secure your residence permit. Your initial visa will expire within a few months, but your residence permit will function like a multiple-entry visa, allowing you to leave the country and return without an additional visa as long as the permit is valid. Three types of residence permits can give you the legal right to live in China. Permanent residence permits, a.k.a. the new “green cards,” accompany the D visas and are renewable every 10 years. Temporary residence permits are for those staying more than six months but less than one year, such as visiting scholars or those coming for job training. The Foreigner Residence Permit, typically good for one year and renewable annually, is standard issue for the majority of foreigners working in China, though some (such as company executives, legal representatives, or investors) qualify for a permit that is good for two years. With a valid residence permit you are allowed to leave the country and return, even if your initial entry visa has expired.

Physical Exam Certificate

Technically you are required to have a physical examination certificate for residence permits; the Chinese embassy lists them as required documents for residency visas. We spent a lot of money getting all the health tests completed but were never asked to submit the paperwork. If, like us, you’ll be entering on a tourist visa and then switching to a residency visa after you arrive, you may save a bit of money if you wait to see if they will actually require the physical and then get it done in China. Some provinces actually require that the physical exam be done at a local Chinese health facility. The best bet is to wait until you’re told when, and how, to get it.

Changing Visa Types

It is illegal to be employed in China on an L or F visa (in other words, tourists and students cannot work in China). If discovered, illegal employees are fined, fired, and often deported. If you get a job offer while you’re in China as a student or tourist, or if you come as a tourist and decide to stay for schooling, you can switch visa types at the PSB in most provinces. There are some locales, however, that require you to leave the country to obtain the new visa; most people accomplish this with a quick trip to Hong Kong. Either way, just don’t start work or classes until you have the correct visa in hand.

Along the same lines, it is illegal to engage in any news-reporting activities, such as journalistic interviews, if you are in China on a tourist visa. China likes to keep a close watch over the media, and you can be detained for engaging in journalistic activities without having a J visa.

Family Members

Accompanying spouse and children are given the same type of visa and residence permit as the one who will be employed or studying in China, though each family member will have to fill out an individual application and pay the application fees. If the stork should find you in China, you’ll need to bring your new baby’s birth certificate to the local PSB for registration.

China does not recognize gay or lesbian unions, nor do they extend any familial benefits to unmarried heterosexual couples. Significant others will have to apply for their own visa and residency with their own sponsorship.

If you have an employment visa and residency based on a family member’s employment, you may find your own employment while in China. However, your new employer will then have to register your employment and file the necessary paperwork to make it legal.

Once You’ve Arrived

After you’ve moved into your new digs, you’ll need to register with your local Public Security Bureau within 10 days. Bring your passport and all other documents showing your residence status. Your residence permit will be tied to your physical address, so should you decide to move, you will need to register the move with your local PSB before the relocation date, and then register with your new PSB office after you’ve arrived at your new location. Failure to register with your friendly neighborhood PSB can get you deported.

You should also register with your embassy or consulate, either online, by fax, or in person when you arrive. If a natural disaster strikes or political unrest breaks out, you will be on their radar screen, and they can and will do all in their power to help you.

Foreigners and the Law

One final word of warning: The Chinese government does not appreciate foreigners breaking its laws, and they will let you know that. We were once interrogated like serious criminals, forced to sign a confession, and required to pay a hefty fine when our kids’ residence permits had inadvertently lapsed. Staying past your visa expiration or working without the appropriate visa will be punished. China even has laws forbidding entry to those “suffering from mental disorder, leprosy, AIDS, venereal diseases, contagious tuberculosis or other infectious diseases;” if found out, visitors with any of these conditions will be kicked out. Our only question with these laws is, what if it was living in China that made you crazy to begin with?

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