Applying for China Visas. It’s a Compliance Issue

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Op-Ed Commentary: Chris Devonshire-Ellis

Feb. 10 – The issue over obtaining China visas is a perennial question, and China itself is not always consistent in regard to the application guidelines for foreigners wishing to travel to the country on business. In particular, for businessmen, there is often confusion over which of the two pertinent visa types should be applied for.

Here we’ll look at the most common visa types and their usage. In particular, we will go into detail about work visas and the related process of obtaining a residency permit.

Tourist visa

These should only be used for the stated purpose – tourism. Usually an itinerary will need to be provided, occasionally proof of hotel bookings and even guided tour operators in China.

It is unwise for businesspeople visiting China to be on tourist visas – if engaging in business activities you breach the terms of the visa issuance. Sharp-eyed officials can deport you for breach of terms of stay.

Business visa

An invitation from a registered company or business in China is required (occasionally our firm provides this to clients) together with an itinerary. It permits businessmen to hold meetings, travel to factories and so on. It does not allow work – i.e. paid work – while in China. These are usually restricted to double entries of 30 days each stay at the present time.   

Work visa

Work visas are required, fairly obviously, if one intends to work in China. However, the exact details of work visa requirements vary to some extent upon nationality, which is where some confusion arises. Nationals of countries with a double tax treaty agreement with China can stay for a period of 183 days before their stay is considered “residency” and the need to apply for a work permit arises. For nationals of countries without such agreements, this free period is reduced to 90 days. However, please note that if you commence paid work in China you must obtain a work visa from the beginning of your employment and not use double tax guidelines. The loophole as regards upgrading business visas to work visas should only be used in legitimate cases where an individual has not previously worked in China.

Work visas automatically trigger residency requirements (i.e. a resident permit, described below), as well as registration with the tax bureau. If you are working in an office or factory in China you must apply for this status. If you do not have a residency permit and you are caught you may face deportation, the most serious offense justifying this being the evasion of personal income tax.

It should be noted that spousal visas and student visas do not make the holder eligible for employment in China. Additionally, if a work visa holder changes company, the visa must also be reapplied for in the name of the new employer. China’s provinces also from time to time release guidelines applied on top of these basic key points. These include satisfying professional qualifications and experience and not possessing a criminal record. Visa issuance during certain occasions or periods of unrest in China can also be curtailed.

The correct issuance of work visas is a bureaucratic, yet variable matter nationally. However, in order to first assess whether your country has a double tax treaty with China or not, please see our firm’s (complimentary) guide to this subject. Following the determination of the length of stay thus permitted, regional variations over visa issuance need to be taken into consideration.

Applying for (normally one year) employment and residence documentation in China can be roughly broken down into four steps:

(i)             Alien Employment License application

(ii)            Employment Visa and Residence Permit Notification application

(iii)           Alien Employment Permit application

(iv)          Residence Permit application

Alien Employment License

The Alien Employment License is a document which basically states that a foreigner is allowed to work in China. It is needed to apply for an Employment (Z) Visa Invitation Letter from the Ministry of Commerce. The Employment (Z) Visa can later be converted into an employment and residence permit. While in the past it was common for F visas to be converted into employment and residence permits, currently most cities require an applicant to obtain their Z Visa from their country of residence (their home nation or country where they possess legal residency).

The following documentation must be submitted:

  • Application for Employment Permit for Foreigners
  • Valid passport
  • Copies of the health certificate issued by the Entry-Exit Inspection and Quarantine Authority*
  • Copies of the Industrial and Commercial Business License (duplicate)/Registration or any other governmental instrument of ratification
  • Reasons for employment
  • Credentials required for job
  • Curriculum vitae of foreigner to be employed
  • Letter of intention for employment
  • Criminal record check**

* This can vary from city to city and even nationality to nationality; some nationalities do not need this certificate prior to obtaining their entry visa.

**This is a relatively new requirement that is not yet implemented in every city in China. We suspect that in the near future, it will become a standard requirement.

Notification for Application of Employment Visa and Residence Permit

The Entry-Exit Administration of the Public Security Bureau in the city where a foreigner wishes to work and reside must issue this notification before an Alien Employment Permit will be issued. The following documentation must be submitted by the employer:

  • Employment license
  • Valid passport of the applicant (copies of main pages and valid visa shall be attached)
  • Application for Residence Qualifications of Working Foreigners in China (with photos)
  • Two copies of the Industrial and Commercial Business License (duplicate)
  • Temporary Accommodation Registration off the applicant (from local police station or hotel where applicant is residing)

Alien Employment Permit

The Alien Employment Permit allows foreigners to work legally in China. It is usually valid for one year and must be renewed annually. The following documentation must be submitted by the employer:

  • Employment License
  • Notification for Application of Employment Visa and Residence Permit
  • Copies of the labor contract or certificate of appointment (those who have a clear and defined position specified on the Business License/Registration or other governmental instrument of ratification may be exempt)

Residence Permit

The Residence Permit allows foreigners to legally reside within China. It is usually valid for one year and allows the holder to enter and leave China whenever they choose. The following documentation must be submitted:

  • Valid passport
  • Alien Employment Permit
  • Certificate of Verification for Physical Examination Record for Foreigner or Overseas Chinese
  • Notification for Application of Employment Visa and Residence Permit
  • Interview Record of Residence Qualification Application for Foreigners
  • Chinese Visa or Residence Application form

Once these four steps have been completed, the foreigner is legally able to work and reside within the People’s Republic of China for the validity period of their permit (usually, but not always, one year). Both permits can be renewed prior to their expiration.

The Criminal Record Certificate

Over the past two-three years, additional requirements for obtaining an employment permit in China have begun to be put in place. These include a certification of “no criminal record,” to be issued by immigration agencies of foreign governments, on which an official statement must be obtained certifying that the applicant has no prior criminal convictions in his home country. Details to the extent of this documentation, acceptable levels of criminal offense, or how this requirement applies to long term residents of other countries have yet to be worked out.

Previously, the issuance of an employment permit was a much simpler process; it only required the provision of a contract between a registered company in China and the individual concerned, a health check, an interview with the Public Security Bureau, registration of residency with the local PSB, and subsequent registration with the tax authorities and immigration department. The new requirements described above are just that – new – and have yet to take effect nationally.

The visa application process varies from country to country, please check with your embassy for advice.

Dezan Shira & Associateslegal services team in China includes Pascal Wang, a lawyer with specific background in China visa and employment law. For enquiries concerning China visa issuance issues, please contact him via legal@dezshira.com. The firm may also issue China invitation letters to visiting businessmen, however please note this facility is restricted to clients only.

2 thoughts on “Applying for China Visas. It’s a Compliance Issue

    Jon Zatkin says:

    I much appreciate all the detailed visa information you have provided. I’d like to add a couple of notes based on my 25 years of residence in Beijing:
    1: Work (Z) visas and residence permits are obtainable through two channels, the first being explained clearly in your newsletter. The second is through the Foreign Experts Bureau, for those working in academia.
    2: You have (quite understandable) neglected to mention new restrictions to both channels: age! Except for General Manager and Chief Representative positions, NO work permits are granted to anyone over 60 years of age. Similarly, no Expert Certificates are issued to anyone over 65 years of age.

    Consequently, anyone (without the wherewithall to obtain the mythical “D” visa) considering long-term residency or retirement in China is SOL!

    Chris Devonshire-Ellis says:

    @Jon – appreciate your feedback and our apologies for missing the silver hair visa issues! Thank you for enlightening us. Best wishes – Chris

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