Foreigners need to enter China with a proper visa if they want to undertake an internship in the country. Otherwise, the internship will be regarded as illegal and the foreigner might be deported.
Currently, there are two visa classes that can be used by foreigners wanting to undertake an internship in China.
The first and most well-known method of hiring a foreign intern in China is through an X visa that has an “internship remark”.
The other method is to use an S2 visa. Currently, businesses located in Shanghai, Guangdong Free Trade Zone, and Beijing’s Zhongguancun (a technology hub in Haidian district), are able to hire interns on S2 visas. Businesses in other locations are advised to consult with the local entry-exit bureau for confirmation.
F visa and M visa are generally not advised for internship, except in limited situations, such as volunteer without pay in a community service program or facilitating business conferences and events. These activities are very specific and are usually not regarded as internships.
Student (X) visa
An internship in China for international students with an X visa outside the student’s campus is only possible if the prospective intern receives an internship remark on their residence permit.
Without this remark it is illegal to undertake an off-campus internship in China. However, once it is obtained, the student can complete an internship alongside their studies for as long as the residence permit is valid.
According to the entry-exit bureau’s regulations (item 16), X visa holders have to apply for a residence permit within 30 days of arriving in China.
It normally takes about three weeks for the residence permit to be approved, so holders of X2 visas are less likely to be able to undertake internships given the time constraints.
A detailed explanation of the residence application process can be found here.
The prospective intern will also have to apply to the entry-exit bureau for an internship remark after the residence permit has been approved.
To obtain the remark, approval to undertake an internship must be granted by the student’s host institution. Under regular circumstances, approval will only be granted if there is a link between the student’s current studies and the internship. However, as discretion is often largely left up to the host institution, they can determine what is counted as a strong enough link.
After the approval is granted by the host institution, the Bureau will review the student’s and employer’s documentation, and add an internship remark on the student’s resident permit, indicating the internship location and term.
For internships with businesses located in Shanghai, Guangdong Free Trade Zone, and Zhongguancun, students who are enrolled in universities or colleges abroad and invited for internships by enterprises and institutions in the above-mentioned regions can apply for an S2 visa with an internship remark.
To receive an S2 visa with an internship remark, an application must be filed inside China at the local entry-exit bureau. Under normal circumstances, the foreign intern will have to first apply for an S2 visa without the remark outside China, and then apply for the remark in-country.
For prospective interns who are already based in China on a different visa class, reaching out to the local entry-exit bureau to inquire if it is necessary to leave China before applying for an S2 visa is advised. China Briefing has some indication from authorities that Shanghai requires individuals to leave China and re-enter, whereas Beijing may not.
It is unclear how many locations this S2 visa policy applies to. The best way to find out is to, again, inquire with the local entry-exit bureau.
Nevertheless, an S2 visa with an internship remark is a legitimate method of undertaking an internship. (It should be noted that this does not apply to the S1 visa.)
Hiring foreigners using an F visa is generally not advised. There are, however, some potential exceptions.
Before 2013, it was permitted for foreigners to use F visas for both paid and unpaid internships. However, changes to the State Council regulation removed all reference to internships, restricting the visa class to non-commercial purposes.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs told the American Chamber of Commerce orally in 2013 that both M visa and F visa could no longer be used for internships because they were illegally being used for official employment.
Nevertheless, Chodoraw Law, a firm specializing in residence and citizenship matters, has stated that “volunteer without pay in a community service program” may be allowed on an F visa. It is possible that research placements could be allowed as well. Nevertheless, payment is now prohibited on this visa.
Similarly, M visas are not recommended for hiring interns, as the visa class is not intended for this purpose. Students are ineligible for this visa class and payment is prohibited.
However, so long as the position is for facilitating business conferences and events, an individual may be able to undertake the position using an M visa.
Keeping up with regulatory changes and liaising with authorities is vital
Visa policy in China is often subject to frequent updates and regional variations. This ambiguity means that businesses and individuals must be constantly aware of policies as they are changed and corrected. Internship visas are no exception.
Policy updates on internship visas have been made almost every year since 2013. It is possible changes will be made to the S2 policy, given that some details are inconsistent.
For now, where there is policy inconsistency, the best option is to directly contact authorities at the local entry-exit bureau.
China Briefing is produced by Dezan Shira & Associates. The firm assists foreign investors throughout Asia from offices across the world, including in Dalian, Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Hong Kong. Readers may write to firstname.lastname@example.org for more support on doing business in China.