Working in China
China is set to become the world's biggest economy, and many foreigners are interested in coming to live in China in order to gain work experience, language ability and potential career opportunities.
As of the 2010 census, there were just under 600,000 foreigners residing in China, with over 200,000 of them in Shanghai. About 250,000 were foreign students and some were dependents of workers, but at least 300,000 of them had jobs.
Visas and residence permits
Most foreign nationals working in mainland China are required to obtain a residence permit. This is in effect a one-year multiple entry visa; a permit holder can leave China and return with no difficulty.
Much the safest way to come to a job in China is to enter the country on a Z visa. There can be some confusion with the terms; a few years ago, the Z visa was a one-year working visa but now the Residence Permit is the long-term visa and the Z is just an entry visa good for 30 days, long enough to get the Residence Permit. The Z visa can only be obtained outside of China, and it requires a letter from the employers to accompany your passport when you apply. Generally the employer will request a signed contract, a health certificate (the more official-looking stamps, the better), a copy of your passport details, and a copy of your diploma. If you are over 60 and they are asking for their provincial office to accept you, they may also require that you have your own health insurance.
It used to be common for people already in China to go to Hong Kong or Macau in order to apply for their Z visa. Around the time of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the rules tightened up considerably; they have relaxed some since, but not entirely. This is also true for getting Chinese visas in other nearby countries such as Vietnam, Korea, Japan or Singapore. Some people have been told they must return to their home countries to obtain a Z visa. Others have been able to get a Z visa in Hong Kong, provided the invitation paperwork clearly stipulates it.
The residence permit is not the only way to live or work in China. Other visas which apply in some cases are:
- The permanent residence visa. These are valid for ten years, permit you to live and work in China indefinitely and allow you to exit and return to China multiple times. Requirements for obtaining them are quite strict and you need to fulfill one of the following conditions: Five years married to a Chinese citizen, four years employment in a senior post in China, a substantial investment in a successful local company, or significant other "contributions to China".
- Citizens of Hong Kong and Macau who hold a valid Home Return Permit (回乡证) can live and work in China indefinitely for the duration of their permit's validity. These are issued mainly to ethnic Chinese. Permanent residents of Hong Kong and Macau are still considered to be foreigners in mainland China and are required to obtain a residence permit to live and work in the mainland.
- An F visa is a business visa which allows some work, such as providing training or consulting services to a Chinese client. Getting the visa requires a formal invitation from a Chinese company and quite a bit of other paperwork. The F visa does not allow any form of salaried employment and is usually good for only three or six months.
- The family visit visa. These are issued mainly to overseas Chinese but can also be issued to foreigners who have married Chinese. They are good for six months or a year and are generally easy to renew; although they do not allow employment, the enforcement on this is sometimes lax.
Neither marriage to a Chinese citizen nor owning a business there is sufficient by itself to become fully resident in China, though either may eventually lead to a permanent residence visa. In the meanwhile, marriage qualifies you for family visit visas and a company can get you business visas or, with more expense and paperwork, residence permits.
Residence permit procedure
In most cases, a Chinese member of the employer's staff — in English, the Foreign Affairs Officer (FAO), in Chinese the wai ban (outsider boss) — will guide foreign employees through the residence permit process and even handle much of it for them, and the employer will cover part or all of the costs. These may be points to negotiate before coming. Your spouse and any children going with you may require an even higher amount for their residence permit.
Getting a residence permit requires dealing with two organisations, the State Administration for Foreign Expert Affairs (SAFEA), which is Beijing-based but has offices around the country, and the local Public Security Bureau (PSB, the cops).
SAFEA issues a Foreign Expert's Certificate (FEC) or a Foreign Teacher's Certificate (FTC) and most foreign workers will need one or the other, though for skilled trades an entirely different certificate issued by a provincial department of labour can sometimes be used instead. In theory, the FTC is for elementary or high school teachers and the FEC is for tertiary education or experts in industry; in practice, nearly everyone seems to get the FEC. In theory, both FEC and FTC require a degree; this is usually, but not always, enforced. Whether it is depends at least on where you are, how well-connected your employer is, and how much trouble they are willing to go to. If you lack a degree, it helps if you have other certifications or diplomas.
Once you have an FEC or equivalent, getting the residence permit is routine. It requires an appearance at the local PSB, registration of your residence address with them, a small fee, and a health certificate. If you complete your health certificate in your home country, be sure to get copies of the x-ray, lab reports and other machine documents. Also have the form stamped with the official seal of the hospital. Even though you do all of this you will quite likely be required to take another physical in China. The physical is usually very quick: EKG, chest x-ray, sonogram of heart and stomach area, blood test, and urine check. However, the time of completion and various tests may change depending on the province.
People over 60 often have trouble getting visas because of their age, and some job ads specify an age range. There are conflicting reports on whether this is SAFEA policy, SAFEA advice to provincial departments that make their own policies, or a question of health insurance. There are some exceptions, including a few people in their seventies still working legally, but there are also cases of people being asked to leave because they were turning 60 or 65.
Salary and Tax
Salaries for general white collar jobs are still very low compared to western levels, but are climbing.
For low-to-moderate pay levels, Chinese income tax is very low. Chinese salaries are usually quoted in rmb per month, and in the ¥5,000-20,000 range (typical for foreign teachers), the monthly deduction from pay is ¥375 which is insignificant compared to deductions in a western country.
Tax payable in that range is 20% of salary minus a ¥4800 deduction; at ¥10,000 this works out to ¥1040 a month, about 10%. However, for incomes under ¥120,000 a year you are not required to file a tax return; the employer is supposed to handle the taxation and many apparently do not bother, so most teachers pay only the ¥375 a month and the authorities do not pursue it.
At executive pay levels, income tax is much higher; the rate is 45% if you are legally a resident and have a salary over ¥100,000 a month. Various tricks, such as taking a smaller salary but more benefits or spending only a few months in China at a time so you are not classed as resident, can sometimes reduce this. Additional state social insurance contributions will be added; that varies between cities.
Be aware that there are strict controls and limits on moving Chinese currency out of China. You may find that transferring a large amount of money to your home country may not be possible at short notice. Your Chinese bank can help you understand these limits.
Please see the main article for a detailed discussion about heath care in mainland China.
You will need to decide between obtaining expensive private health cover, or relying on the public hospital system.
Note that many companies require a hospital note for sick days, which could involve spending a day waiting in a hospital with a nasty flu just to get the hospital note. Private cover will see you quickly but at a high premium. Try and negotiate private cover with your employer.
Learning Mandarin is strongly recommended for those who wish to work in China. Although many work opportunities may only require English and a large number of Chinese have learned the English language to some degree, you will certainly encounter many scenarios where at least the basics are useful. For example you may need to ask your housemaid about specific tasks or tell a taxi driver where you are going. On a professional level connections are very important in China, and it is worth to be introduced and be known by other professionals who do not speak English.
It is also worth noting that a surprising number of Chinese can not speak Mandarin fluently, however most will also know the basics. A taxi driver in Guangzhou may be fluent in Cantonese but will also speak advanced Mandarin as well.
Most cities and regions are available to you. Exceptions are Tibet and the western provinces which require permits even for visiting and economic opportunities are generally few. Your choice of city will be guided by opportunities in your field, local language, climate, commute to work and cost of living.
- Shanghai mainland China's most 'international' city with the most foreigners working in education, finance, engineering and many other fields. Shanghai is considered to have the highest cost of living.
- Guangzhou & Shenzhen The new powerhouse cities of the south and the source of the development and production of most of the world's electronics
- Beijing as the capital has some of the best teaching opportunities, and many foreign companies choose to base themselves here. Severely bad air pollution is currently pushing many expatriates away, although most Chinese would regard the opportunities available here to be the best.
- Dalian in the far north has a favorable tax regime for IT companies.
Teaching a language, most commonly English, is a very popular source of employment for foreigners. There are English-teaching jobs all over China.
The market for teachers of other languages is more limited. However most universities require all students majoring in a foreign language to study another language as well, so they all have to teach at least two. The most common combination is English and Japanese, but many universities will happily hire a qualified instructor for another major language whenever they find one. Also, there are specialised universities for foreign languages in major cities such as Beijing, Guangzhou, Xi'an, Dalian and Shanghai which teach most major world languages. Guangzhou is establishing a reputation as a hub for so-called rare languages.
Requirements and qualifications range from just having a pulse and speaking a bit of English up to needing an MA and experience. Typically the good jobs want at least one, preferably two or three, of:
- a 4-year degree
- a teaching certificate for primary school or high school from your own country
- a recognised TEFL certificate, e.g. Cambridge CELTA
- teaching experience
If you want to go and do not already have good qualifications, get a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certificate. It really helps.
There are fairly strong preferences for native English speakers and for citizens of major English-speaking countries. Job ads routinely include a list of acceptable passports; UK, US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand are on every list, Ireland and South Africa on most. Many employers will not even read the rest of your resume if you do not have one of those passports.
Various prejudices and stereotypes may also come into play; some schools prefer Caucasians, especially blue-eyed blondes, apparently because they hope the "right" image will help their marketing. Overseas Chinese (even ones with English as their first language), Filipinos, Indians, Malaysians, American Blacks, and especially Africans all report some difficulties finding jobs, or getting lower offers. Members of all those groups are happily employed in other schools, and many are well-paid, but getting a job is easier if you fit the stereotype. Accent can also be an issue; almost any educated native speaker will be fine, but if you sound like you are from rural Queensland or the hills of Virginia or are working-class Glaswegian, then some employers will not want you.
Pay and conditions vary greatly depending on location, experience and qualifications. Free accommodation, provided by the institution, is common. Generally this means an apartment of your own, though some tight-fisted schools want teachers to share. Most jobs pay for all or part of an annual trip home. Teachers nearly always make enough to live well in China, though some have a problem in summer because many university or high school jobs pay for only the 10 months of the academic year. Foreign teachers generally earn much more than their Chinese colleagues, but the differences are gradually narrowing. A public college or university will often pay less than a private school, but will also require fewer teaching hours.
The demand for English teachers in kindergartens is huge; Chinese parents think learning English early will give their kids an advantage later on, and they are quite likely right. As a result, kindergartens generally pay better than other schools (even universities), and to be much more flexible about hiring non-native speakers.
It is often possible to teach private lessons on the side - in fact your students or their parents may ask about this incessantly - or to find part-time work at another school in addition to your main job. Make certain you understand your employer's policies on outside work as some are quite restrictive. The standard SAFEA-provided contract, which most schools use (perhaps amended a bit), prohibits it entirely unless you get permission from the employer.
There can be difficulties around Foreign Expert Certificates for teachers. Universities and other public institutions can easily get FECs for staff, but not all private schools can. Before they can even apply for certificates, they must be authorised to employ foreigners by SAFEA. Getting the authorization takes many months and a significant amount of money. They also have to comply with SAFEA standards such as providing housing, health insurance and annual air fare home for all staff. Large established schools have the permission, but many of the smaller ones don't want the expense. Without the FEC you cannot get a Residence Permit so all the teachers in such schools are working illegally.
In terms of work visas, schools range from completely reliable to crooks who leave foreigners stranded without a legitimate work visa after they arrive. It is illegal to work with a tourist visa, but some schools want teachers to do that, and some even want teachers to foot the bill for "visa runs" to Hong Kong to renew it. Some even lie to teachers about this when recruiting. Some employers ask teachers to come in with a tourist visa and promise that they can get a residence permit later. The official regulations require the Z visa but moving from a tourist visa to Residence Permit is sometimes possible, depending on policies at the local PSB office and the employer's contacts there. On the other hand, working on a tourist visa is illegal and some of the employers who want you to come on one are stringing you along; they do not have SAFEA permission to hire foreigners legally and are trying to wriggle around that.
Do not even consider taking a post anywhere that wants you to come on a tourist visa unless you have talked to current foreign teachers and been assured that they came that way and had no problem getting FEC and Residence Permit.
If you plan to work as a teacher in China, research very carefully. You might get your dream job or a nightmare. Take great care in your selection of employer; broken contracts and general unscrupulousness and dishonesty are common. As a rule, government schools give the best all-around deals and if there is any dispute, you can appeal to the Foreign Experts Office of the provincial education ministry. If you can document your case and it is a valid one, they will take action. And it tends to be fast. Before filing an appeal, try to resolve the issue through direct discussion. If that fails, ask someone to function as a go-between—a Chinese if possible, but otherwise another expatriate will do. Only appeal as a last resort: as in other aspects of life everywhere, the threat of action is often more effective than action itself.
See also Teaching English.
There are opportunities in the main cities for professionals with backgrounds in areas such as finance, engineering, or information technology. There are also some for teachers other than language teachers.
Generally speaking you will need to be sponsored by a company in China that has a certificate to hire foreigners. There is significant paperwork involved around your Z visa as well as taxes, and it is advisable that your company uses an agency to take care of these on your behalf. If you have do paperwork by yourself then you will find it very difficult and time consuming, even if you can read simplified Chinese.
In previous years, companies were happy to fly in expatriate managers in order to develop their Chinese operations, although for both cost and cultural reasons there is now definitely a stronger preference for hiring workers and management locally. The cost of relocating and paying a foreigner is very high compared to the local workforce and companies will look for unique capabilities that you can bring, rather than generic 'middle managers'.
Opportunities for expatriates are usually far greater at multi-national companies with a significant China office than in local Chinese companies.
Many expatriates who wish to work in China actually base themselves in Hong Kong, owing to having a simple immigration process, easier living conditions for foreigners, low taxes and ready access to the Chinese mainland.
Outside Mainland China
Since the requirements to work in Mainland China are quite difficult, you could also consider working in other Chinese territories such as Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan that have completely separate and more relaxed conditions of entry. These places are also easier to work in the English language, with the Hong Kong government and legal system actually using English rather than Chinese.