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Section I: Teaching English in China continued

The Z-visa Debate

Note: Before reading this chapter, it is highly recommended that you first read our article titled SAFEA, Foreign Teachers, and Chinese Boxes so that what follows will be better informed.

There has been a great deal of ongoing debate for years on Internet EFL teachers' forums, one that still rages on to this day, about the pros and cons of teaching in China on tourist (L-) and business (F-) visas with some strongly advocating that it is not only unwise but extremely risky to enter the country for the purpose of earning income with anything but a Z-visa in hand. From an entirely practical point of view, a few of our readers have argued that there may be a couple of isolated instances in which entering China on a tourist visa with the intention of eventually working can make sense and might be worth the risk. This chapter will present both sides of the argument as objectively as possible.

The Argument Against Arriving on Anything But a Z-visa

According to the strictest letter of the law, you need to arrive in China with a Z-visa in your passport in order to work legally. Only schools licensed by the SAFEA (State Administration of Foreign Expert Affairs) are authorized to hire foreign experts and this license is not easy to come by. Consequently, many schools currently advertising teaching positions are not duly licensed to hire foreign teachers and they will often obscure that fact by encouraging you to travel up to halfway around the world to work on a business or F-visa, assuring you that this is perfectly legal, customary and acceptable.

In at least one province that I am personally aware of, Hainan Province, government officials see no legal contradiction or prohibition in converting a tourist visa into a Z-visa. In fact, I was told this directly by the director of the Haikou municipal PSB. In the vast majority of provinces, however—barring a few select private schools with enough clout to pull the right strings—the only way you will be able to obtain employment is if you return back to your native country and reenter China with a Z-visa in hand, as is the case in Guangdong, as well as many other provinces. As a possible alternative to having to return home, a few teachers have reported successful “Z-visa runs” to Hong Kong effective summer 2009 (see article Teacher Reports Successful Visa Run to Hong Kong).

The problem here is that mainland China is not so much a land of laws as it is a remarkably complex network of interpersonal relationships. In addition, and more to the point, the law serves a very different function in China than it does in our respective Western countries in that it is primarily intended to maintain social order far more so than to specifically dictate what should or will occur under any given set of circumstances, as is true of the law in the West. Provincial and municipal government leaders are free to interpret and enforce the law in any way that best meets the needs of their citizenry. What is considered best for the social good of the people of China at any given time will generally supersede or trump a strict interpretation of the letter of the law.

The major complication here is that there is absolutely no reliable way for any prospective foreign teacher to know in advance what the current sensibilities and enforcement policies are of any provincial or municipal government, and no one but a fool is going to rely upon the assurances of some anonymous poster on an EFL teachers' forum. In addition, what is true today may not be tomorrow and although 10 foreign teachers will assure you that they had "absolutely no problem" converting their tourist and business visas into Z-visas in Hong Kong, for some inexplicable reason, your personal experience could very well vary considerably.

What often happens is that private schools without an SAFEA license to hire foreign experts will simply lie and promise the teacher that his or her tourist (L) or business (F) visa will be converted to a Z-visa shortly after arrival, often in provinces that strictly forbid this practice even for licensed schools. Furthermore, although the SAFEA does maintain a list of accredited schools, that list is in Chinese only and not updated often.

Unscrupulous recruiters will always encourage prospective teachers to arrive on an L-visa because their intention is to retain those teachers as employees of the agency and then hire them out to the highest bidder. This is probably the worst case scenario foreign teachers can face in China because, essentially, they have no legal rights and are completely at the mercy of the recruitment agency, which typically regards them as nothing more than mere chattel.

Many private schools, even those that are licensed by the SAFEA to hire foreign experts, will often promise to convert that tourist visa into a work visa (in provinces and municipalities that allow it) while their real intention is to delay signing a contract until after they have had the chance to observe the teacher perform in the classroom. In essence, the foreign teacher is being asked to fly up to halfway around the world for what is no more than a glorified job interview or trial period.

Here is the bottom-line in a nutshell: If you do not know and completely trust the source, your safest and most secure option is to enter China with a Z-visa because that Z-visa commits the school to providing you with a job upon arrival. Entering China with a Z-visa also provides you with the greatest degree of latitude in terms of changing employers, especially (but not only) across provinces that require it, if that initial position doesn’t work out—assuming that a mutual agreement to sever the contract can be reached.

In the absence of a mutual agreement, foreign teachers have little choice but to endure whatever unfavorable conditions they face for the entire duration of their contracts as Z-visa and residency permit information are now tracked in a national database. If a foreign teacher pulls a "midnight runner," i.e., breaks the contract by just taking off one night, the next employer will know about it. In addition, as most provinces now require both a letter of release and a personal letter of recommendation from the sponsor of the current Z-visa and residency permit, breaking a contract or leaving on bad terms signficantly decreases the likelihood that one will be able to continue teaching in China.

In fact, this reality is often erroneously cited as the primary advantage to not working in China on a Z-visa: The argument is that one is presumably free to just walk away from a bad situation when illegally employed on a tourist or business visa. The problem with this argument is that it doesn't properly account for the fact that many provinces will not allow foreigners to convert a tourist visa into a work visa and no public school or university will do it. What this means is that foreigners who choose to work illegally in China will be very limited in the available number of schools that can and will hire them. While some perceive this as a type of freedom, we regard this scenario as a potential quagmire if not nightmare.

Aside from being the only legal way to work in China in most provinces (in that most will not convert a tourist into a work visa), it must be stated that entering China with a Z-visa in no way guarantees that all the terms of your contract will be honored or that you will necessarily be treated well and with respect. In fact, it doesn’t even guarantee that you will have a job for the entire duration of your contract because if the employer is truly unhappy with your teaching performance, the owners or administrators can easily find a way to prematurely terminate your employment.

Most public school and university contract addendums stipulate a probation period of three to six months precisely for this reason and whether the termination was justified or not, it's not as if you have the option of hiring an attorney to sue for breach of contract in civil court. As a practical matter, employment contracts in China protect the employer, not the foreign employee. This is why we continuously stress and overemphasize how important it is to choose your first employer in China as carefully and wisely as possible.

The Argument for Arriving in China on L- and F-visas

Several of our readers have argued that there are a couple of isolated instances when incurring the risk of entering China on a tourist or business visa could conceivably be outweighed by potential benefits.

Specifically, prospective foreign teachers who are non-native English speakers, non-White, or over 60-years of age, might feel they have no other choice but to arrive in China on a tourist visa and then look for work by knocking on doors and making personal appearances. The reason for this is that the e-mail application is often discarded the moment the school takes a look at the teacher’s passport cover page and photo. However, this is obviously not an ideal strategy because there is no guarantee it will work and one could easily find him or herself in the very unfortunate position of having to leave China in 60 to 90 days in what amounted to nothing more than an expensive and terribly frustrating "vacation." The other problem with doing it this way is that the prospective foreign teacher will necessarily be limited to seeking employment at private English language schools only because, as a rule, government schools are not going to engage in all the guanxi legwork required to convert that tourist visa into a Z-visa. As a matter of policy, public schools and universities follow major SAFEA guidelines and government regulations. In July 2009, an American teacher in Jiangxi province reported that he was able to successfully convert an F-visa into a Z-visa in Hong Kong. We have no idea if his results are generalizable and can be expected by others. For more information, see Teacher Reports Successful Z-visa Run to Hong Kong

Nevertheless, and in the interest of thoroughness and full disclosure, we are aware of a few prospective older foreign teachers (58 plus) who entered China on a tourist visa, attended a 4-week TEFL training program, then started hitting the pavement looking for work and eventually were successful in finding a teaching job at a private school that was able to convert that L-visa into a Z-visa and residency permit. Obviously, if you are going to attempt this very risky approach, you will need to have access to enough funds to last you for at least three months and someplace to return to if you are unsuccessful. From our perspective, in such a situation, it is a great deal safer and far more advisable for teachers who are not white native speakers under the age of 60 to use a recruitment agency rather than just show up to look for work on a tourist visa. Of course, all the warnings regarding recruiters mentioned in the previous chapter still need to be strictly heeded.

There is one other scenario in which entering China to work on a tourist visa might conceivably make sense: When there simply isn't enough time for you to wait for the SAFEA licensed school to process the paperwork that is required for the Z-visa. Generally speaking, if the school tenders an offer with less than five to six weeks of lead time from the required start date, your choice may be to either arrive on an L-visa or lose the job to another teacher who is already in China with a valid residency permit. The reason for this is that it can take up to five to seven business days for the school to process your letter of invitation (visa notification) and work certificate, assuming you have already produced all the necessary documents on your end, i.e., a copy of your passport cover page, highest completed degree or TEFL certificate, a letter of recommendation and, depending on the province, a completed physical exam form.

In provinces that first require a completed Physical Exam Record for Foreigner before issuing the work certificate and letter of invitation, this will obviously require that the foreign teacher incur what could be a considerable expense (doctor's office visit, blood work, EEG, etc.) and the process could take several days to complete depending on how busy your family doctor is and what the laboratory's turnaround time is. Conversely, arriving in China on a tourist visa and then going for the physical exam at a local hospital requires only two to three hours and the cost of the exam is almost always incurred by the school.

Nevertheless, arriving in China on anything other than a Z-visa to work for an SAFEA licensed school does require a considerable leap of faith, but it's apparently one that many foreign teachers have been willing to take. In our ongoing survey study of China foreign teacher satisfaction and retention, close to 53 percent of our 424 respondents (as of November 2009) indicated that they had arrived in China with either a tourist (L-), business (F-) or student (X-) visa and, of those 228 teachers, 192 or approximately 84 percent were eventually able to obtain a teaching position and receive a Z-visa, foreign expert certificate, and residency permit.Mavrides, G. (2009). Psychosocial variables associated with satisfaction and retention among China foreign English teachers (work in progress).

Despite the positive outcome enjoyed by the majority of our study's participants who failed to enter China on a Z-visa, approximately one in every six respondents (16 percent) were not so fortunate and are (or were) working in China as illegal aliens, i.e., without a residency permit and foreign expert certificate. Consequently, we don't recommend arriving in China for the purpose of earning income on anything but a Z-visa unless there is someone at the school you absolutely and positively know is trustworthy: usually a foreign friend from back home or a Western administrator with impeccable credentials who can be held personally responsible for the outcome. That is, you absolutely need someone at the school you can trust who will guarantee that you do, in fact, have a definite job and that there will be no problem whatsoever converting that L-visa into a Z-visa and residency permit after you arrive. As stated above, you want to make absolutely certain that you are not just being invited to fly up to halfway around the world for what is nothing more than a glorified job interview.

If you have produced all the required documents, including the completed physical exam record, and you have at least two months before you are due in China, then your safest best is to simply insist that the school process the paperwork for your Z-visa. Even though many foreign teachers do overcome the potential difficulties inherent in arriving in China to work on a tourist or business visa, it is a gamble and, as a rule, you should avoid doing so barring one of the extenuating circumstances discussed above.

Finally, Z-visas can be obtained in foreign countries assuming the prospective teacher is living legally in that country, e.g., in the case of a Western teacher who is applying for a job in China from South Korea. The employer will simply need to specify the Chinese embassy or consulate in the foreign country as the source location you will be applying from on the work certificate application.

Situations That Do Not Legally Require a Z-visa

The real litmus test regarding the need for a Z-visa is not length of employment, the precise nature of the work, or even one's title, e.g., "consultant," but whether the foreigner is earning income in China.

For example, Western college students who are volunteering in China for the summer and only receiving room and board do not technically need a work visa because they are not receiving income. Related, a company executive who arrives in China on a business visa to attend and speak at an international conference and receives a small honorarium or reimbursement for personal expenses for doing so would not be breaking the law. These set of circumstances are quite different than those that constitute working on annual contracts and receiving ongoing monthly salaries (and, by the way, referring to the paid work as "consultation" doesn't change a thing, despite what some will tell you). It is not difficult to find a licensed employer in China who will sponsor your work visa and also allow you to moonlight part-time to your heart's content. So why risk excessive fines and possible deportation, even if that risk is currently minimal in some cities? If, for whatever reason, you need to terminate your contract early, there is no situation we are aware of that some earnest discussion and money can't fix. Just about everything is negotiable in China.

Chinese Visas at a Glance

All told, there are nine different types of visas one can use to enter China, depending on the intended purpose of the trip. The following is a brief outline of China's entry visas and what they are intended for.

Visa Type


Tourist (L-visa)
For sightseeing, visiting family or friends. Generally issued for 30-days, single entry. Can be renewed once. Spouses of Chinese nationals living in China typically receive a perpetually renewable three-month L-visa.
Business (F-visa)
For international business wherein a salary will not be earned in China. Requires an invitation by a Chinese partner or sponsoring company. Can be multiple entry, usually three or six months in duration.
Student (X-visa)
For international students studying in China for more than 6 months. Must apply for a residency permit within 30 days of arrival.
Employment (Z-visa)
For earning income in China over any duration. Letter of invitation and foreign expert certificate must be sent by mail by an employer authorized to hire foreign experts. Must apply for a residency permit within 30 days of arrival.
Transit (G-visa) For traveling through China en route to another country. (See note 1 below).
Journalist (J1-, J2-visa) For journalists who have received a letter of invitation from a Chinese news authority.
Crew (C-visa) Issued to crewmembers working on board of international trains, airliners or vessels to China.
Resident (D-visa) This visa has probably caused more confusion among foreign teachers than any other. The D-visa is issued to foreigners living abroad who have already been approved for a Chinese Green Card (see Permanent Residency Requirements in appendices) and will be entering China to live permanently in the country. This visa has often been incorrectly referred to as a "family" visa. It is not.
Tourist Group visa Issued to authorized travel agencies with groups of at least five tourists. Visa is not issued to individual travelers but rather to the tour group leader.

Visa Notes

1. Visas are not required of aliens who hold air tickets to the final destination and have booked seats on international airliners flying directly through China, and will stay in a transit city for less than 24 hours without leaving the airport.

Visas are not required of passport holders of the following countries, who transit through Pudong Airport or Hongqiao Airport of Shanghai, provided they hold valid passports, visas for the onward countries, final destination tickets and have booked seats, and stay in Shanghai for less than 48 hours : Republic of Korea, United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, France, Netherlands, Belgium, Luxemburg, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Austria, Greece, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Icel106*and (Source: Embassy of the PRC in the U.S.).


About Us

Middle Kingdom Life is the premier award-winning educational website for foreign teachers and Western expats in China. It was founded by an American professor in psychology and sociology for the purpose of disseminating valid and reliable information about living and teaching in China. The site's mission is to protect and enhance the interests and social welfare of foreign teachers and Western expats in China.

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