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As of July 2015, there are plans to introduce new 5-year Green Card-style work visas for professionals in certain high-tech industries and specialist professions, as well as making permanent residency easier for expats who have lived in China for three years or more. Click here to learn more about the China Green Card and permanent residency.


Just like anywhere else, there are plenty of procedures to follow and hoops to jump through to sort out a visa for China. It’s pretty straightforward though, and the system in Shanghai is streamlined and efficient. At least for people from Western countries, it’s rare for anybody to be trying to trip you up. As long as you get everything in order in good time, you shouldn’t have any problems. If you’re coming with a company, they should handle everything once you’re in China and have someone go with you to the various offices involved.

You’ll need a visa to enter China unless you’re from Singapore, Japan or Brunei and making a short visit. A tourist visa is straightforward, though you’ll need to have your plane ticket in hand first, meaning there’s a small risk of being stuck with it if your visa is denied. Assuming you don’t have a criminal record or any other red flags, the only reason people from Western countries might get denied is any history of political action, for instance related to Tibet. Non-Western nationals can face more of a grilling, but generally China is trying to encourage visitors, not turn them away.

You’ll do this through your nearest Chinese embassy or consulate – check their specific website for instructions and to download the relevant forms. Plan ahead, since China has become such a popular destination that there can be long lines or lag times in countries like the US. There’s no interview, and once they confirm your papers are in order and give you a date to come back, that should mean you’re in.

It used to be common for companies to have relocating employees apply for a tourist visa and switch it to a work visa once they arrived in Shanghai. This made life easier and didn’t seem to cause any trouble or affect future visas. However, this is no longer allowed. Make sure your employer isn’t planning to do this.

You must register within 24 hours of arriving. If you’re staying at a hotel, they’ll do this for you and you don’t need to think about it. Otherwise, go to the nearest police station with your passport and they’ll either handle it or direct you to the nearest one that does. If you mess this up, you won’t be deported, but you will be fined. Go in and show penitence, and if you’re only a few days late they may take pity on you and let you off. Again, your company should help you with this. Note you’ll have to go through this procedure every time you get a new visa, which for most people is every year (visas of longer than a year are only available to the very highest level of foreign business person – people who run Fortune 500 companies and that sort of thing).

There are twelve types of visa:

  • C Visa: for crew members on planes or ships
  • D Visa: for permanent residents
  • F Visa: catch-all visa for non-commercial trips e.g., cultural exchanges, delivering lectures, etc
  • G Visa: for transit (note that people from certain countries arriving in Shanghai or Beijing get 72 hours visa-free if they have fully booked onward tickets and visas)
  • J Visa: J1 for resident correspondents, J2 for journalists making short trips
  • L Visa: for tourists
  • M Visa: for people visiting China to engage in commercial or trade activities
  • Q Visa: for family reunion. Q1 for relatives of Chinese citizens (or foreign permanent residents) wishing to reside in China, Q2 for visits of under six months
  • R Visa: for highly-skilled people with specialized talents in short supply in China; in practice rather mysterious
  • S Visa: for visiting family members of foreigners. S1 for immediate family for six months +, S2 has a wider net but less time
  • X Visa: X1 for studying over six months, X2 for shorter study periods
  • Z Visa: Work visa; also issued to dependents

Note that all require your passport to have at least six months of validity remaining. The most relevant ones to most people are F, L and Z. Fees are transparent but often change and vary depending on type of visa, where you apply, if it’s an extension or a new visa, and so on. Tourist visas are usually no more than a few hundred RMB, while F and Z visas can cost a few thousand. Check when applying. US citizens often pay considerably more than other Westerners.

The quirkiest thing is the health check after you’ve been in Shanghai a few days and your visa is being processed. It’s largely pointless but mandatory for people applying for work visas. You’ll be marched around with the other foreigners from room to room in a special facility and have eyes checked, get x-rayed, have blood taken and so on. It’s hygienic and efficient and even if you hate needles you’re just going to have to grin and bear it. Approach it as a learning experience. Note that you’ll get a locker and be given a hospital smock to wear – you don’t have to take off your trousers or skirt when you put it on, just your top. Avoid embarrassment!

F Visa

Some companies once had a habit of using F visas for full-time employees, to get around visa limits or just to save on admin. This has largely been cracked down on. People who finish a contract and want to stay on for some time but are between jobs or want to stay in China without working for a time sometimes change from Z to F – this entails leaving the country and re-entering. Most people use it as an excuse to go to Hong Kong, which processes this in a few hours – the so called ‘visa run’. For some years the F visa required leaving and re-entering every 90 days, making it a more irksome option than it used to be, and it’s always been a gray area. At the time of writing the six-month multi-entry visa without re-entry is available again, but these things change all the time. However, it may be the only choice for anyone who wants to stay on long-term without an employer.

Single-entry, double-entry, 6-month-multiple- entry available. Usually takes five working days.

Requirements

Visa Application Form; one passport-size photo; letter of invitation (in Chinese) from an authorised Chinese Government Department, or invitation letter from a host company, meeting or exhibition organizer in China

L Visa

Single- and multiple-entry available. Maximum six months. Takes five working days to process.

Requirements

Visa Application Form; one passport-size photo; address of place you’ll be staying in China

Z Visa

This work visa must be obtained outside China – you’ll have to leave the country and return if you have a different visa and want to change to a Z Visa. Changing employers and thus getting a new Z Visa can be done without leaving. There’s also the health check mentioned above. Your employer should take care of everything, and someone should accompany you to the relevant offices. Make sure of this in advance.

Maximum of one year (except in special circumstances) and usually multi-entry. Usually takes five working days to process.

Requirements

Visa Application Form; one passport-size photo; address of place you’ll be staying in China; letter from employer; work contract

The main place you’ll have to visit if you’re on a Z Visa (and the place to go if you lose your pass- port or have other visa issues) is the Exit-Entry Administration Bureau in Pudong. They speak English and the process is very efficient.

Exit-Entry Administration Bureau

Mon-Fri 9am-4:30pm, Sat 9:30-11:30am, 1:30-4:30pm
1500 Minsheng Lu, Pudong
2895 1900

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