Social Security in China: Exemptions for Some Foreigners

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By Gidon Gautel 

Social insurance exemption for foreigners can be a valuable asset for employers and foreign employees to save on unnecessary costs. However, many companies hiring eligible employees are not aware of the benefits available to them, while those who do are often unsure as to how to go about applying.

China’s social security system consists of five different types of insurance, plus one mandatory housing fund. The five “insurances” are pension, medical, work-related injury, unemployment, and maternity insurances, while housing fund contributions are included because the costs come from both the employer and the employee.

Regional authorities manage the social insurance system – not all regional governments have enacted implementation rules for China’s international social security agreements. However, expatriates from Germany, Korea, Denmark, Canada, Finland, Switzerland, and the Netherlands are eligible for exceptions across China, and soon those from France and Spain will be as well.  In this article, we look at who is eligible for exemption, and how to apply.

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Social insurance premiums in China

The Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security requires foreign employees working in China to participate in its social insurance scheme, as detailed in the Interim Measures for the Participation in Social Insurance of Foreigners Employed in China, 2011.

According to Chinese labor law, any foreigner employed by a legally registered entity in China, or any foreigner dispatched to a registered branch or representative office of a foreign company, must participate in basic pension insurance for employees, basic medical insurance for employees, work injury insurance, unemployment insurance and maternity insurance.

However, since social insurance is managed at a regional level, a range of inconsistencies exists amongst cities. As a result, most major cities have implemented their respective requirements for foreign employees.

For example, in cities such as Beijing, Tianjin, Shenzhen, and Nanjing, among many others, social insurance payments are compulsory for foreign employees, who are treated in the same way as domestic workers. Contrarily, Shanghai does not currently require foreign employees to contribute towards social insurance.

While not all regional authorities have implemented rules in accordance with international social security agreements, increasing the difficulty in obtaining exemptions for eligible expatriates, employees from countries that have agreements with China are eligible for social insurance exemptions.

To date, seven such agreements have been implemented between China, and the following countries: Germany, Korea, Denmark, Canada, Finland, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. China has also signed agreements with France and Spain; these agreements are not yet in effect.

Applicable countries

All existing agreements define the groups of employees eligible for exemption, and lay out the categories of social insurance for which employees are exempt from paying. In turn, Chinese employees sent to the participating country will also be exempt from making the relevant social insurance contributions there.

Social insurance exemptions are only available to a defined group of labor categories, and not to all foreign employees. The seven bilateral agreements with China for social insurance payment exemptions that have been implemented are as follows:

Social insurance exemption table

Details on the agreements with France and Spain, including their implementation dates and range of exemptions, will be announced once each country completes their respective domestic legal procedures.

Basic process for applying for premium exemptions

Exemption does not apply automatically, and companies with foreign employees are required to apply to related bureaus for exemption. Though the process of applying for insurance premium exemptions varies across regions, and according to the specific agreement under which it is performed, it follows a standard formula.

The entity that employs the foreign employee in China must submit original certification of insurance issued by a relevant entity in the country of origin to the local Chinese social insurance bureau. This will then be verified and a copy will be held on record. Following verification of this documentation, and possible further verification and certification, the employee in question will be exempt from the relevant social insurance payments.

The time limit of the exemption period may vary. For employees from the Netherlands, for example, the maximum length of the exemption period is five years. If the dispatch period is more than five years, the time limit for exemption will not be extended for more than one year.

Professional-Service_CB-icons-2017 International Payroll & HR Solutions from Dezan Shira & Associates

Difficulties of implementation

While social insurance exemption agreements offer cost benefits to enterprises based in China, businesses should act in caution regarding how they go about availing them. Although bilateral agreements for exemption are made at a national level, regional governments must implement the system locally. This invariably results in inconsistencies and varying levels of implementation at a local level, complicating the process for companies and foreign employees.

Helen Kong, Manager of Human Resources Administration and Payroll Services at Dezan Shira & Associates, explains: “Officers in social insurance bureaus are often unsure about how to implement foreign employee social insurance exemptions. Many cities have no local regulations relating to this topic, especially in second and third tier cities.”

She elaborates: “Cases exist where city-level regulation for insurance exemption is not at hand from the local bureau. In such cases, if a business makes the decision not to make social insurance payments for their foreign staff, they may be challenged by the bureau for non-compliance during a later insurance inspection.”

Failure to pay social insurance premiums when not in receipt of explicit consent from the local social insurance bureau bears inherent risk. Therefore, it is essential to consult both the local social insurance bureau, as well as relevant staff at the local labor bureau before taking any unilateral measures. Additionally, seeking the help of an advisor is highly recommended. If appropriate precautions are taken, these agreements can be beneficial tools for enterprises employing foreign staff in China.

This article was originally published on August 28, 2017 and has been updated with the latest regulatory changes.


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2 responses to “Social Security in China: Exemptions for Some Foreigners”

  1. K says:

    Interesting article. Any visibility on when social insurance will be made mandatory in Shanghai? Also, when one already has a private pension scheme, is he obliged to switch to the public social insurance?

  2. China Briefing says:


    Shanghai does not require foreigners to pay social insurance, and there has been no indication to date that the city is planning on reversing this policy.

    In terms of pensions, private and public schemes are separate. If one has a private pension scheme, that does not exempt him or her from contributing to public social insurance (if they are required to pay social insurance in their jurisdiction).

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