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Section I: Teaching English in China continued

Preparing For Your Arrival in China

This chapter will address what you will need to do in order to prepare for your arrival in China. Topics include obtaining a Z-visa, how to deal with a criminal record, completing a physical exam (required of all foreigners who will be residing in China for more than six consecutive months), inoculations and immunizations you should consider, and what you will need to bring with you from home.

Obtaining a Z-visa

In order to obtain your Z-visa, here is what you will need: First, the school will have to send you, via postal service (facsimiles and e-mail attachments are unacceptable), a formal letter of invitation (referred to as the Official Invitation Notice or Visa Notification as of summer 2009) and a foreign expert work certificate. Depending entirely on the province and even municipality, you may also be required to have a local physician complete and return the Physical Exam Record for Foreigners (see below) before the foreign expert work certificate can be issued by the local PSB.

Once you have received the letter of invitation and work certification, you will need to obtain a visa application form. This form can be downloaded from this site or from any visa service website and will not be included in the school's package (make sure you are using the latest version as the form was officially changed in January 2007). You will fill out the visa application form and then take all three documents and your passport (with at least six month's validity prior to expiration) to the nearest Chinese embassy or consulate. In the event you do not live close to a Chinese embassy or consulate, you may use an authorized proxy usually in the form of a professional visa service. For a handling fee, the visa service will take your passport and supporting documents to the embassy or consulate for you, will then pick up your passport with the attached Z-visa and mail it back to you usually by certified or express mail. Simply conduct an Internet search for such visa services in your country of origin (we've listed a couple that we recommend for U.S. and U.K. citizens on the page for China EFL Teacher Resources).

Assuming there are no problems, the entire process for normal service takes less than a week although overnight service is also available. Once you have the correct forms, it is truly a relatively simple process and, despite what others may tell you, obtaining a Z-visa is no more complicated or involved than procuring either an F- or L-visa barring those occasions when the physical exam form is required prior to issuance of the work certificate..

Your Z-visa is valid for up to 90 days from the day it is issued to enter China. Once you enter China, your legal duration of stay is 30 days, i.e., you have up to 30 days to report to work and apply for residency. For additional information about Z-visa validity, you should consult that topic on our Q&A Forum.

Criminal Record

Question 3.3 on the new China visa application form, Q-2007, specifically asks "Do you have any criminal record in China or any other country?" No distinction is made about whether that record must include a conviction or if the crime was a misdemeanor (minor crime) or a felony. Technically, for example, a charge of DUI (driving under the influence; a misdemeanor for the first offense) that was later reduced to reckless driving in which the defendant pleaded "no contest" would still constitute a criminal record.

On the application form itself, it clearly states that a criminal record does not necessarily preclude the applicant from receiving a visa. Abundant anecdotal evidence seems to support that: Foreigners with misdemeanor records for DUIs, simple assaults (domestic violence), and petty larceny have reported receiving visas to China after having truthfully reported and explained the incidents on the application.

Some foreigners have suggested that it is best just to lie about the presence of a criminal record because "there is no way for the Chinese embassy to know." We strongly disagree. The Chinese embassy or consulate in your home state, district, or region has access to the very same criminal and background checking services that any prospective employer does. If you are caught lying on the visa application, that alone will automatically disqualify you from receiving a visa, perhaps for life.

It appears that a criminal record for anything other than a major felony comprising violent crimes involving deadly weapons or felony drug distribution convictions does not necessarily disqualify you from receiving a visa to China. If you have a criminal record, it is best not to use a proxy service to apply for your visa. Instead, you should apply in person to the Chinese embassy or nearest consulate and, face-to-face with the consulate officer, directly explain the details of your offense, arrest, and case disposition. Make certain that you wear professional-looking business attire and be as contrite and apologetic as possible. From what we've read and heard, your chances for receiving a visa are still good.

Physical Examination Record for Foreigner

Technically speaking, the physical exam record is not required for the Z-visa, per se, but for the issuance of the residency permit, which must be applied for within 30 days after your arrival in China. Nevertheless, some schools may still send you the Physical Examination Record for Foreigner and ask that you have it filled out by a local physician. In most instances, this is essentially a prescreening measure adopted by the school to ascertain that you will pass the physical exam once you are in China (and, in most provinces, the exam will have to be repeated within a few days after you arrive in China, as even certification issued by a Chinese doctor from a different province is occasionally unacceptable). However, in a few provinces, the request is entirely legitimate as the PSB will actually require all the teacher's paperwork, including the Physical Examination Record for Foreigner, before issuing the Letter of Invitation and Work Certificate.

Essentially, if you do not have any communicable or sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), if you can breathe, walk, and talk without assistance and are not in the end stages of a terminal illness, you will pass the exam. Foreigners will chronic hypertension, insulin dependent diabetes, and other illnesses requiring the daily use of maintenance medications will pass the physical exam just as long as they are deemed healthy enough (fit for duty) to teach 16 to 22 periods of English in China per week. Related, a history of mental illness would not exclude from one from passing the exam unless the physician detected an acute episode of psychosis or delirium (mental confusion) at the time of the exam. Finally, there is no drug or alcohol screening of any kind.

Inoculations and Immunizations

The Chinese government does not require foreigners to have any inoculations or immunizations before arriving in China.

However, hepatitis-B is fairly prevalent in China with some experts estimating that up to 15 percent of all Chinese are carriers. Consequently, it is advisable to receive immunizations for hepatitis-A, and -B before arriving in China. Some health experts also suggest that your tetanus and tuberculosis immunizations should be up-to-date as well.

In light of the recent swine flu outbreak, it is also strongly recommended that you receive the H1N1 vaccination before moving to China. According to at least two news reports, H1N1 has reached epidemic proportions in China to the degree that hospitals and schools have been ordered to stop testing for and reporting new cases in order to "avoid public panic" (Li Zhenzi, 2009). Many hospitals throughout the country have exceeded capacity with 90% of all new patients in December 2009 presenting with swine flu symptoms (Fang Xiao and Gu Qing’er, 2009).

Aside from the aforementioned warnings regarding hepatitis and swine flu infection, unless a teacher engages in high-risk behaviors, the biggest health risks most foreigners face are recurrent episodes of upper- and lower-respiratory bacterial and viral infections, as well as gastrointestinal distress, for which there are no vaccinations.

Converting the Z-visa into a One-Year Residency Permit

Your Z-visa, valid for three months from the date of issuance, is simply an entry "permit" into the country that establishes your presence here for the purpose of earning income. Once you arrive in China, you have 48-hours to report your residency to the local PSB (the FAO or a school agent will take you to the special PSB station for this purpose).

Generally, within the first week of arrival, your school will have someone walk you through the local hospital designated for completing the physical examination record for foreigners, which the school usually pays for. Once the physical exam form is completed, your school will take that and your passport (with the valid Z-visa) to the PSB for your one-year multiple-entry residency permit, which gets pasted directly inside the passport. The school is typically responsible for paying for your residency permit. Within two to three weeks, the school will return your passport, foreign expert certificate (FEC), and official health certificate (which is useful for expediting passage through customs and quarantine when traveling in and out of mainland China). You are now a legal resident alien of China with the right to earn income.

What To Bring From Home?

Okay: I've got my visa and I'm ready to go. What should I bring with me from home?


Unless you will be working in a fairly rural part of China, most of what we would refer to as basic necessities, including medications, are available on the mainland. However, it is strongly recommended that you bring at least a three-month supply of any daily maintenance medications (e.g., for hypertension, diabetes, etc.) with you, which should give you enough time to locate available sources in your area. Keep in mind too that although China does have regulations controlling the manufacturing and distribution of medications, in the context of 1.3 billion people, they are extremely difficult to enforce despite China's best efforts at improving the health and safety conditions of its citizenry (in fact, the last two directors of the Chinese FDA were executed for approving medications that were either fake or, far worse, actually harmful to people in exchange for bribe money). The point is, you need to be aware that the enforcement of pharmaceutical regulations is a difficult and challenging problem in China (McNeil, 2007).

Legitimate medications are generally available at large government regulated (especially military and university) hospitals, but buying your medications at small, local unregulated pharmacies is extremely ill-advised. As a rule, if the price seems too good to be true that's because the medication isn't entirely (or even at all) what it purports to be. Those susceptible to upper and lower respiratory infections are also strongly advised to bring at least two or three complete treatments of antibiotic medications from home.

As a rule, toiletries (deodorants, tampons, menstrual pads, razors, Q-tips, etc.) are widely available but in very limited variety: However, as a rule, what is available is more than adequate to meet your needs, e.g., you might find yourself having to switch from "dry stick" to "roll on" deodorant (or vice versa) with a choice limited to one or two brands only. Finally, if you are a particularly big person, you may find that it is very difficult to locate clothing in your size outside the three aforementioned international cities. Generally speaking, and for example, small to mid-sized cities do not carry pants that are larger than a 40-inch waist or collared shirts that would fit anyone with a neck size larger than 17½ inches.

Aside from the issue of differences in size, Chinese men and women are proportioned quite differently than Western people are. For this reason, many of our female readers have reported enormous difficulty finding bras that fit them properly. Western women—who are anything other than petite and small-breasted—are strongly urged to bring an ample supply of undergarments with them to China, especially (but not only) if they will be living outside of Beijing and Shanghai.

As a rule, if you require large sizes it is highly recommended that you bring enough shirts, pants and T-shirts (if you wear them) to last you for at least a year—given wear and tear. However, we should quickly add that it is typically far less expensive to have clothes tailor-made in China than it is to buy them off the rack back home and this is a common solution among plus-sized teachers outside the three international cities. Finding shoes that fit will generally not be a problem unless you require a special size or fit back home. As a foreign teacher, you will often be invited to attend your city's formal official affairs such as National Day and Chinese New Year celebrations: It is recommended that you bring along a suit or business attire for such occasions. For more information about buying clothes and the sizing system in China, you should read the section titled Clothes Sizing System in China in our chapter on shopping.

Barring the three well-developed international cities of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, certain items we take for granted—such as handkerchiefs, sweat socks, and plain white cotton T-shirts—might be hard to impossible to find (as a rule, the Chinese do not use handkerchiefs as they consider them to be unhygienic). If there is a particular type of toiletry, article of clothing, or other personal item that you use regularly, it would be best for you to specifically inquire about their availability with teachers already in the city you will be headed to.

If you have a special interest or hobby, you may want to bring an initial supply of materials that are needed to keep you going for awhile until you are able to locate a source in China. For example, one old-timer who loves to cook recommends to all prospective foreign teachers that they bring a good supply of hard to find herbs and spices with them.

Probably the one thing that foreign teachers miss the most in China that is virtually impossible to buy on the mainland—with the notable exception of the three aforementioned international cities—is reading material. At best, you may find popular books and bestsellers from the West in major Chinese cities that are bilingual but, for the most part, English language books are very hard to come by. The good news is that does ship to China. The only apparent restriction is that they won't ship any software packages or books that contain software CDs and DVDs and, of course, shipping will be neither free nor cheap (as it often is with domestic U.S. orders). In addition, there are also restrictions on the types of merchandise that can be shipped to China as well, such as gift sets containing food items and over-the-counter (OTC) medical supplies.

You don't need to over pack. China is a shopper's paradise, especially in regard to clothes, so unless you are a particularly big person, there will be a great deal of relatively inexpensive clothes, shoes and other items for you to choose from and buy once you are here (see unit on Shopping). A big problem most foreigners face when returning home is figuring out how to transport everything they've bought while in China. Most foreign teachers leave with more possessions than they came with.

Finally, your students will be intensely curious about your home country. Bringing stamps, postcards, personal photos, and even the shopping inserts found inside Sunday newspapers are really useful ideas.


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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