How To Immigrate To China

Interested in moving to mainland China? Here’s what you need to know:

China: Quick Facts

  • China is the 3rd largest country in the world (after Russia and Canada).
  • Has the largest population in the world, with ~1.42 billion people.
  • Despite its large size and population, China only has one time zone (UTC +8).
  • Many strange and useful inventions have their origins in China (including gunpowder, the kite, compass, and toilet paper).
  • While black is the color of mourning in most countries in the world, it is not so in China (white is the equivalent here). Red is considered to be the lucky color in China, and is often used in celebrations and worn on special occasions and holidays.
  • The Chinese are a nation of tea drinkers. Some believe that tea was discovered by Chinese Emperor Shennong in 2737 BC, when a tea leaf fell into his cup of boiling water!
  • China is currently on a path of very rapid economic growth, with a rapidly expanding middle class and heavy urbanization (whether or not this is sustainable is a whole different matter).

Practical Information

  • Currency: Chinese Yuan Renminbi (RMB).
  • Spoken languages: primarily Mandarin (many other dialects are spoken).
  • Major religions: Buddhism (18%), Christian (5%), Muslim (1.8%). Most (>50%) have no official religious affiliation. It is worth noting that lines between different belief systems in China (e.g. Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, worship of ancestors, etc.) are blurry, so it is not easy to get an exact breakdown.
  • Major races: predominantly Han (91.5%).
  • Largest cities: Shanghai, Beijing, Chongqing, Tianjin, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen.

Why move to China

  • The Chinese cuisine is world renowned, and expats can enjoy great dishes at a much lower price than they would at home. The produce is usually fresh, and there are a lot of interesting and exotic fruits to choose from.
  • The Chinese are very hospitable (and curious) people. While they may not always like it, visiting foreigners will find themselves receiving a lot of attention (and often, special treatment).
  • It’s easy to get on with Chinese people and make friends. The Chinese like to have a good time and socializing is an important aspect of their daily lives.
  • China is not all just big cities – it also offers some great natural scenery in the form of deserts, beaches, forests, rivers and mountains. Some great places to visit include the Huangshan Mountains, Guilin, Li River, and the Himalayan mountain range.
  • Just about everything is available in China, at a fraction of the suggested retail cost. From clothing to household goods, it’s all here.
  • Due to the country’s rapid economic growth, there are plenty of job opportunities for newcomers (especially for those with degrees and professional training). Many international corporations are setting up camp in China due to lower output costs and trade prices.
  • China is an exciting place to live – many expats feel that every day brings something new. There is a fast paced feel to the place, with new businesses opening up daily and infrastructure being built at a breakneck pace.
  • Rental accommodation is cheap and it’s possible to rent spacious Western style apartments or villas for a reasonable price.
  • The expat community in China is growing rapidly – there is an established expat base in most major cities, with its own set of organized activities and sports groups.
  • Expat women enjoy the convenience and inexpensive prices of beauty treatments, hair salons and makeovers that can be found dotted throughout the cities and even small towns.
  • There are tailors galore – it’s possible to get designer inspired clothes whipped up for a fraction of the cost.
  • The Chinese are huge fans of live entertainment and it’s possible to find something going on every night of the week.
  • The typical Chinese diet is healthy – although Western foods are quickly rising in popularity!
Aerial shot of highways overlapping in Shanghai, China
The scale of China’s new megacities has to be seen to be believed (Pictured: Shanghai)

Reasons Not To Move To China

Note: these are common expat complaints, and may not apply to you.

  • A combination of large-scale industrial activity and urban overpopulation make China one of the most polluted countries in the world (especially in terms of air and water pollution). Even on a fine day, the skies look overcast and grey from smog. Newcomers may be unable to bear the pollution in the major cities. While pollution levels greatly vary (depending on where you are), it’s a stark contrast to that of most developed nations.
  • If it’s a quiet place you’re longing for, China is not the place for you. Even in the smaller towns, there is a constant drone of noise from various sources.
  • A common expat complaint about China is the notable lack of hygiene standards (and manners). It’s considered perfectly acceptable to spit in public places, even indoors.
  • While there are Western hospitals, they tend to be expensive. If you visit a Chinese doctor you’re likely to be prescribed with alternative medicine rather than standard antibiotics.
  • The tap water is not potable (not safe for drinking). Another common complaint is about how “hard” the water is, and its undesired effect on skin, hair, and clothes.
  • While you can find just about everything in China, there are some everyday products that are difficult to come by (e.g. deodorant and women’s sanitary products). “Fake” (imitation) goods are rampant – you may find yourself purchasing imitation liquor, for example.
  • Due to cramped living conditions and poor hygiene, China is statistically more susceptible to deadly epidemics.
  • Chinese people are very curious and genuinely want to know everything about you – expats sometimes find this intrusive and impolite. Asking how much you weigh and how much you earn are typical questions of the Chinese, and what seems like being friendly to them is considered rude to expats.
  • There is a lot of paperwork involved in getting visas for China and at times it feels like you are running around in circles trying to fix things.
  • While the shopping is great and plentiful, it may be difficult to find clothes that fit.
  • There is still a big gap in gender equality – this is evident in salaries and positions.
  • Due to the smog, the summer heat in the cities is stifling hot and almost unbearable, especially when air-conditioning is not always available.
  • Internet activity is monitored everywhere in China. Some expats complain about the feeling of being cut off from the rest of world – many popular social networking sites (e.g. Facebook) and news outlets/blogs at outright banned.

Getting a Visa and Finding Work

There are a number of different kinds of visas for China, depending on what your purpose of visit is. There is a lot of red tape and paperwork when obtaining visas in China – patience is key. While visitors from certain countries are exempt from needing a visa for less than a 72 hour stay, just about everyone is required to obtain a visa if they wish to stay longer.

  • L Visa (Tourist): the majority of visitors to China for tourist purposes will only need to obtain the L visa. The L Tourist Visa and the Transit (G) visa are the only visas that do not require prior approval from the government, business or academic institutions. There is, however, a lot of documentation required to obtain an L visa. To be eligible for this class of visa, visitors must have a passport that is valid for at least 6 months, an application form, passport photos, evidence of an itinerary and proof of return to ones country, evidence of funds, permission of leave from a visitor’s current job in their home country, and (if a person is applying for a visa outside their own country) proof of residence from where they are applying from. All applications need to be made in person at a Chinese embassy. If it is impossible for the applicant to attend the embassy in person, one can nominate a person or an agency as a representative.
  • F Visa (Business): the F visa can only be obtained by invitation. This visa is specifically for foreigners who are personally invited for noncommercial business exchange, scientific research, cultural exchange, education seminars, or sporting events. While this is called a business visa, it is not possible to work under a Chinese employer while in China. To be eligible for the F visa, visitors need a letter of invitation, confirmation of an invitation, and relevant information on the inviting entity.
  • M Visa: issued to foreigners wishing to enter China for commercial and trade purposes. To obtain this visa, applicants need the same documentation as for the F visa (see above), as well as a license stating that they are either the owner of the business or the main investor. If all the documents are in place, these visas typically take about 4-5 working days to process.
  • X Visa (Student): all students who wish to study in China for 6 months or more are required to obtain an X visa. Holders of the X visa are not permitted to work in China while studying. A letter of invitation from the school is needed, as are health certificates and transcripts from previous institutions.
  • Z Visa (Work): All people wanting to work in China for pay must hold a Z visa. This visa is also needed for those wishing to come to China for entertainment purposes. To obtain this visa, the applicant’s employer needs to fulfill certain requirements and the company must have the permission to hire foreigners as a “foreign expert” (that is, they were unable to find Chinese citizens to carry out the same job). This is the most common visa for ESL (English as Second Language) teachers – typically, such applicants must hold a university degree and have at least two years of teaching experience. There is an age limit on this visa – 24-65 for males and 24-55 for females. It is the employer’s responsibility to get the work permit for the applicant and a notification letter which is then submitted with the visa application. The Z Visa is only valid for 30 days – foreigners must apply for a Temporary Residence Permit once they are within China.
    Note: if the Z Visa applicant wishes to relocate with their families, they are typically able to obtain visas under the S1 or S2 categories as long as they can provide evidence of the relationship (and family members meet the health and character requirements).

Permanent Residency and Citizenship

Residency and citizenship applications are done within China and can be tedious for foreigners who are not used to the local way of doing things. The best way is arguably for the applicant’s employer to handle the application process.

Temporary Residency:

  • Once the applicant has arrived in China, they then have 30 days until they can apply for a Temporary Residency permit. This is essentially a visa extension. This permit differs from other visas in the sense that it is multiple-entry (holders may leave and re-enter China freely). The temporary residency permit is usually granted for 5 years. Note: each case is treated individually and what might have worked for one person may not work for another.
  • Within 24 hours of arriving in China, the applicant should report to the police station to list themselves as a resident living in the area. This is a legal requirement and failure to do so may result in the residency permit taking longer to obtain (or in more severe cases, deportation). Applicants are then given a full medical for a range of contagious diseases and psychological conditions. A full chest X-ray needs to be carried out to look for signs of Tuberculosis or lung scarring. All medical exams are to be carried out with officially listed doctors and the X-rays and blood test analysis results must also be submitted with the application.
  • After the medical tests are complete, applicants are then required to go to the department of foreign affairs for an interview to confirm identity and submit all documents with the application form.

This processing time for the temporary residency permit can take anywhere between 10 days and 6 weeks. Foreigners are not permitted to exit the country while the permit is being processed.

Permanent residency: Permanent residency is only issued to a select group of applicants. The following people may apply for permanent residency:

  • Spouse of a Chinese national
  • Foreign investor
  • Applicants with permanent employment
  • Dependents of people holding either permanent residency or citizenship

Applicants trying to obtain permanent residency must be able to prove that that they have directly invested in China for 3 consecutive years and have thorough tax records to prove it. The following indicate the types of investment deemed acceptable:

  • Investing over $500,000 USD in Chinese industry
  • Investing over $500,000 USD in Western China
  • Investing over $1,000,000 USD in Central China
  • Investing over $2,000,000 USD in total

In addition to this, applicants must provide evidence of a full medical exam and criminal records from all countries that that the applicant has lived in during the last 12 months.

Note: While it is possible for a foreigner to obtain citizenship in China, Chinese law does not allow for dual-nationality (most foreigners thus elect to keep their existing citizenship).

Starting a Business in China

There are a number of legal and bureaucratic hurdles that must be overcome prior to setting up a business in China. It can be a lengthy process with a lot of running around – it is advised that foreign nationals enlist the help of a trusted Chinese citizen to speed up the process. Some of the necessary steps include:

  • Pre-approval of company name: the applicant must apply for the name of the company – this is done through the Administration of Industry and Commerce (AIC). This application can be done in person, and is usually either granted or denied on the spot. Alternatively, it may be sent in by mail (processing time: 15 days).
  • Open a preliminary bank account: All businesspeople wishing to set up their own business in China need to open up a preliminary bank account and deposit a minimum of 30,000 CYN ($5,000 USD).
  • Capital verification report: obtained from an auditing company (usually takes 2-5 days to receive). This form verifies that the applicant has sufficient capital to start the business.
  • Application for business license: the applicant must include the following details:
    1. Official approval of company name (step 1)
    2. Lease of office space
    3. Capital verification report (step 3)
    4. Shareholders’ information
    5. ID
    6. Proof of titles of people in the business. I.e. administrator, CEO etc.
  • Organization code certificate: the applicant(s) have 30 days after receiving the business license to obtain a certificate of organization code.
  • Register with local and state tax authorities: the Company has 30 days to register with the tax authorities and all of the above mentioned documents need to be resubmitted.
  • Company seal approval: applicants need to get permission from the local police in order to apply for a company seal. This process takes 1 day. The company seal must then be made.
  • Registration at local statistics office/bureau: this needs to be done within 30 days and one copy of the business license and organization code certificate need to be submitted.
  • Open a formal bank account: a formal bank account under the company’s name must be opened and all the bank details need to be submitted to the state tax office.
  • Authorization of invoices/receipts: the Company then needs to reapply at the local and state tax offices for permission to print and issue invoices and receipts.
  • Registration with social insurance

While this may seem to be a long-winded process, it may all be worth it in the end – after all, there are thousands of niche markets and consumer spending in China is on the rise. As a bonus, Chinese are known to assign a premium to foreign products and services.

Links & Resources

  • State Council Website – information about immigration and visas in English (official government website)

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