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[How To]: Get a Work Visa in China

The increasingly difficult process made, at least, transparent.
Last updated: 2019-06-12
From the directly and minutely useful to information on living your best self in the world. How To is our regular column on how to accomplish things in the city.

Foreigners need a permit to legally work in China. If you're hoping that getting one of these permits is as simple as this statement is obvious, you are sadly mistaken my friend. The process seems to be getting harder every year, but alas, it has to be done. No (legal) way around it if you firmly believe China is the place for you to earn a living.

The steps you need to take when it comes to work visas heavily depend on if it’s your first time getting one, or if you are just swapping companies within China. That being the case, we’ve broken it down into a step-by-step guide for each situation. The relative laws are subject to regular tweaks and updates, so here’s what we make of the situation right now, as of June 2019.

Situation A: First-Time Applicants

Step 1 – Make sure you’re eligible

First off, fresh graduates pay attention, this is important. People applying to work in China are put into three categories: Class A (talented individuals earning over 600,000rmb/year that are encouraged to come), Class B (people with a certain specialty whose entry is controlled), and Class C (people with no specialty, whose numbers are restricted). Besides the odd total baller and confused average joe, most people who apply are Class B, and need to fit at least one of the profiles below:

  • You have a bachelor’s degree and two years full-time related work experience AFTER graduation.
  • You are experienced in the field of technology with an international certificate of your technical skills AND your salary is equal to or greater than 26,100rmb per month.
  • You are a foreign language teacher and a native speaker of the language you teach. You will also have at least a bachelor’s degree and two years of full-time teaching experience. Exceptions can be made for those without the experience but with a major in education, language and teaching, or if you have a recognized TEFL certificate.
  • A score of over 60 points in China’s Visa Class Calculator, which is a points-based system for certain things you’ve achieved. For example, getting a high HSK grade gives you points, as does graduating from a university in China and being in a high wage bracket.

Some of you may be thinking, “but I had no job during my marketing bachelor’s and came to China to teach English straight after graduation without TEFL and it was fine.” In this case, your company probably lied about your experience. This part of the process has been subject to forgery in the past, but China seems to be cracking down on this (and just about everything else too).

There was a recent law passed that allows certain graduates without the two years relevant experience but with a bachelor’s degree or higher in China to get a work visa as long as they work in the Shanghai Free Trade Zone (SFTZ) way out in Pudong or the Zhangjiang High Technology Park. Basically, if your major is in a special trade that China is interested in right now (telecoms, legal services, e-commerce, medicine) and there is a company based in the SFTZ willing to hire you, no previous experience may be necessary.


Step 2 – Prepare Your Materials

Once you know you are eligible, the process starts with you preparing your documents that your company will need. This can be done outside your home country if you have a trustworthy person back home to get it all together and send to you or your company directly, but most foreigners trying to get a work visa for the first time will probably have to go home and get it themselves. Miss one and the whole thing will stall, resulting in a tedious and potentially expensive exchange of phone calls, emails and sending stuff back and forth etc. Not what you want at all, so listen up! The documents you will need are:

  • Photocopies of your passport information page and previous Chinese visas (best to photocopy every page that has something on just to be sure).
  • CV/Resume in English AND Chinese. Your company will help you translate.
  • A signed labor contract from your company.
  • Reference letter from previous employer that proves you have two years’ work experience after graduation in your related field.
  • One digital photo with a white background 420 x 560 pixels. Some machines that do printed passport photos can also do digital. If you’re in Shanghai you can just type in 证件照 to Dianping to find places that offer them.
  • A signed copy of the Commitment Letter of Physical Examination. Some companies will ask you to have an examination in your home country (more details below)
  • Police Clearance Certificate (PCC) and an extra authenticated copy of your clean criminal record. In some cases, this can be obtained in China (details here), but usually you’ll get it from a country excluding China that you’ve stayed in for longer than a year consecutively from your local police station where you live/lived, and your home country. *Those with criminal records will find it nearly impossible to get a work visa for China.*
  • Your original bachelor’s or higher diploma (not degree transcript). If your diploma is not issued in China, you may be required to send an extra copy of an authenticated diploma. Details on how to get this are here.

Step 3 – Your Company Liaises with the Chinese Government

This is the bit where you take a seat and wait for your company to get permission to hire a foreigner in China from the Service System for Foreigners Working in China (外国人来华工作管理服务系统). The process will take around 25 days on average and, if successful, ends with your company sending you a Notification Letter for Foreigner’s Work Permit by email which you can then print.

Step 4 – Getting a Z Visa and Coming to China

If you’re already in China, depending on your visa type you may be able to skip this step and directly apply for the work and residence permit. In a lot of cases though, you may be required to leave the country, get a Z, then come back. If you're not in China, print your notification letter and take it along with your passport to the correct visa-processing location in your country (could be a visa centre, Chinese consulate or Chinese Embassy) after booking an appointment. If all goes to plan, they should grant you with a 30-day Z visa that allows you entry to China. Depending on your country, the visa-processing location may require other documents like a form, a photo or your flight information, but generally the Z visa is quite easy to obtain.

Upon arrival, you’ll need to apply for a Temporary Residence Permit (境外人员临时住宿登记单) from the nearest police station to your apartment. Unless you are seriously under prepared or your company has screwed you somehow, you should know where you are staying before you arrive. This needs to be done within 24 hours of going through immigration. If you’re in China during this process, you should have this already.

For those fresh off the boat, you will almost definitely be required to undergo a medical. In some cases, people shell out a lot of money on one at home, only to find that they have to do another one here. Best to check with your company on this one. There will be a fee for which the hospital will probably only accept cash. Results take up to 5 working days to come out and will probably be sent to you by post.

Step 5 – Apply For a Residence Permit

Class B applicants’ Residence Permit allows you one year of unlimited entries. Class A can be up to two years. Together with your company, you’ll need to provide the following:

  • Residence Permit Application Letter from your company.
  • The company’s business license (营业执照) (copy and original).
  • If it’s a foreign company, you’ll need the company’s approval certificate, (外商投资企业批准证书) (copy and original).
  • The notification letter that your company sent you when you applied for the Z visa.
  • Your medical results (copy and original).
  • Your original passport. Best to have some copies of information page and visa page too.
  • At least one printed passport picture.
  • The Temporary Registration Permit (境外人员临时住宿登记表) that you got from the police station after you arrived (copy and original).
  • Filled-out Residence Permit Application Form which you can get at the Exit/Entry Bureau when everything else is ready.

This permit will take around 8 days to process.


Step 6 – Your Company Applies for the Work Permit

This can take place at the same time you are processing the Residence Permit. Your company will compile all the documents from the whole process and begin getting the official work permit. It can take up to 5 weeks to come through, but once it does, your home and dry! At least for now.

IMPORTANT THING TO REMEMBER – Class B work permits run out every year and cannot be renewed if there is less than 30 days left. Unless you want to do this incredibly fun and easy process all over again from scratch, ask your company to help you renew your work permit while there is 90 days or so left on it.

ALSO, make sure your passport has at least one-year validity left and enough pages. Your visa application will fail and you'll have to start from scratch if either of these things is a problem.


Situation B: Switching Companies in China (Already Have a Work Permit)

The second situation applies to those who already legally work in China with the correct work and residence permits but are moving to a different company. Unfortunately, it means cancelling your old one and doing the whole thing again from scratch.

Step 1 – Prepare Your Materials (Again)

Things you’ll need to provide your new company with are:

  • Original passport plus a few copies for luck.
  • A Work Permit Cancellation Certificate (original and copy).
  • CV/Resume in English AND Chinese. Your company will help you translate.
  • New company’s labor contract (original and copy).
  • Digital photo (same stipulations as above), and at least one printed passport photo.
  • PCC and clean criminal record check (same stipulations as above).
  • Diploma (same stipulations as above).
  • New medical check-up record (original and copy).

Step 2 – Your New Company Applies for a New Work Permit

Your new HR department will gather the stuff from above and do their thing with the Service System for Foreigners Working in China (外国人来华工作管理服务系统). Usually takes about 25 days for them to get the new permit.

Step 3 – Medical Check-Up (Again)

A new company will more than likely mean another trip to the hospital to be poked and prodded for a couple of hours. Appointment will be set up by your company, just turn up and exist.

Step 4 – Change Residence Permit to M Visa and Fill Out Temporary Registration Form

This will need to happen immediately after you leave your previous company. You’ll need to apply for the 1-month M visa during the limbo stage of the application while your company is getting your new Foreigner’s Work Permit. As soon as you get the M visa, you’ll need to go get another Temporary Registration Form from the local police station.


Step 5 – Apply for Residence Permit

This can take place while your company is securing your new work permit. You’ll need the following documents:

  • Residence Permit Application Letter from your new company.
  • The company’s business license (营业执照) (copy and original).
  • If it’s a foreign company, you’ll need the company’s approval certificate (外商投资企业批准证书) (copy and original).
  • Work Permit Card if ready. Notification Letter for Foreigner’s Work Permit if not (copy and original)
  • Original passport. Best to have some copies too just in case.
  • At least one printed passport picture. - Residence Permit Application Form.
  • Temporary Registration Permit (境外人员临时住宿登记表).

Once the work and residence permits are renewed, you're golden.


If your company is legit and they are totally genuine about bringing you in, they should be holding your hand for pretty much all of these steps, in both situations A and B. If they are little help/don’t respond to questions/give vague information, you should think long and hard about how to go forward. People have been let down in the past. Be vigilant people.

Need help navigating the process? See our database of visa agencies in Shanghai who specialize in just this kind of stuff.