Being a foreign worker in China is not always smooth and easy

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 March, 2013, 5:44pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 March, 2013, 5:59pm

China is changing so fast – doesn’t every piece written about China begin that way these days? Unfortunately, this also applies to employment regulations for foreign workers in China. When I arrived in Beijing more than a decade ago, it seemed easier to get a job and secure the correct paperwork. However, maybe this is rose-tinted thinking.

Most executives working in China were sent by their company’s head office. Very few management level people found jobs here by other means. Every day we receive many applications from either professionals overseas wanting to come to China, or from those based here whose contracts are finishing and who want to extend their stay. However, we see few openings from our clients for foreign executives.

If you have been sent by a multinational to work in a local office, there should be little or no difficulty getting the correct paperwork from the Chinese authorities.

What about the majority who don’t fall into that senior level category? There are several groups of people that either can’t get (or potentially don’t want) a work visa. People without two years of working experience or a bachelor’s degree, for example, will find it very difficult to gain approval from the Chinese authorities.

I recently met a scientist with a doctorate degree, working for a world-leading research organisation. When her company applied for a work visa for her, she was rejected. The local bureau felt that China has plenty of scientists and therefore didn’t need any from overseas.

In the scientist’s case, the rejection may have been political as her organisation was conducting some sensitive research, but, on the other hand, the organisation hadn’t proved that they couldn’t find a local person who could do that job.

So what choices do you have if you cannot secure a work visa? This is where China’s famous, or infamous, grey area comes into view. Everyone working in China knows someone who is working without a work permit.

I was enjoying a cold beer at the weekend when an expat came into the pub, loudly complaining that his application to have his five-year tourist visa extended had been turned down.

Wait a second. A five-year tourist visa? You’ve been a tourist for five years? No work? No cash? And now you want to extend that?

Another group of long-termers are those holding business visas. This truly is a grey area. If you are running a company here doing import/export, and you are based here the majority of the year, you really should have a work permit, but in reality, many do not.

Youtube video: How to Get a Chinese Work Visa by bontvChina

A different problem exists for those working for companies who are not willing to apply and pay for the correct paperwork on your behalf.

Last year, I interviewed a young expat for a junior consultant position with my company. During the interview it became clear that she didn’t have enough work experience for me to get a work visa for her. Her current company had told her that she was fine with a business visa, and it was better for her because she would pay less tax. This is terrible advice if you plan on staying here for any length of time.

First, we have a moral obligation to contribute to the country we are living in. Also, these loopholes are closing quickly. Who really wants to live looking over their shoulder? You are risking a heavy fine and possible deportation.

So, if your company will not provide the paperwork, what are your options? My advice is simply to think about whether you really want to work for that kind of company.

In my opinion the Chinese government will continue to tighten the regulations for foreigners wanting to work here. This is a natural process for a rapidly developing country. It’s a simple fact that the local workforce is now qualified to do many of the jobs that companies used to ask expats to do.

However, China is still, without doubt, the land of opportunity. Like most things in life, if you want something badly enough, you’ll find a way to get it. Consider the points below.

  • If you have a work visa then do everything you can to hang on to it. It’s much easier to transfer it to a new company than to apply for a new visa.
  • If you currently have a student, spouse or tourist visa, it is becoming more and more difficult to transfer to a work visa. It is likely you will have to return to your own country as part of this process. Clearly this can be very costly, so check if your potential employer is willing to pay for this before you begin.
  • It is easier to get a visa for some jobs than others. Not all of these jobs have high entry qualifications. English teaching, for example, remains a relatively simple way to enter the workforce in China.
  • If you are working here without the correct visa, then begin to think about getting your papers in order. The current grey areas will not last forever.


Jonathan Edwards is a Partner at Antal International China (Shanghai).