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, knowledge of an important culture and potential career opportunities.
As of the 2010 census, there were just under 600,000 foreigners residing in China, with just 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.
See working abroad for a more general discussion of opportunities and considerations about working overseas.
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.
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 mainland 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. You will need to have at least a bachelor's degree to qualify for a Z visa, and your application will automatically be rejected should you not have one. 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". Note that your chances of approval are very slim even if you meet one or more of the requirements.
- 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.
- Citizens of Taiwan who hold a valid Taiwan Compatriot Pass (台胞证) can live and work in mainland China indefinitely for the duration of their pass' validity.
- 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. The employer will generally cover part or all of the costs, though details vary; this may be something to negotiate before coming, but the amounts are not huge. 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 ($180,000 US a year at a mid-2016 exchange rate). Various tricks, such as taking a smaller salary but more benefits, being paid in Hong Kong or Macau, 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.
There are strict controls and limits on moving Chinese currency out of China. Transferring a large amount of money to your home country will likely be difficult and may not be possible at short notice. Different expats have different preferred methods for getting money out of the country; all of them are inconvenient or expensive, and because the rules change frequently and are applied inconsistently, you never know for sure what will work until you try it. Even exchanging large amounts of Chinese yuan to foreign currency in cash may be difficult for foreigners (though it's easier for Chinese citizens). All of this is another reason that being paid in Hong Kong or Macau (or into a bank account back home) may be advantageous. Indeed, some expats send money home from mainland China by moving it through Hong Kong first. Your FAO or a Chinese bank can help you understand the rules.
Please see the main article for a detailed discussion about health care in mainland China.
You will need to decide between obtaining expensive private health coverage, or relying on the public hospital system.
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.
Research the level of air pollution in whatever cities you're considering. Being exposed to unhealthy levels of smog on a short vacation is one thing, but living with them day in and day out is another. Beijing's air pollution is the most notorious, but many parts of China have levels of smog considered unhealthy by international standards—read up and talk to a doctor before you accept a medium- or long-term job in a city with significant air pollution. Basic information can be found at Smog and China#Smog, but it's mainly aimed at short-term travellers, not expats.
Learning at least some Mandarin is strongly recommended for those who wish to work in China. Although many work opportunities may only require English and many Chinese people speak some English, you will certainly encounter many situations where Mandarin is useful. On a professional level connections are very important in China, and it is worthwhile to know other professionals; not all of them will speak English.
Mandarin has been the language of education and national media since the 1950s, and functions as the lingua franca for communication between different language groups anywhere in China. You can expect any educated Chinese person to be completely fluent and most others to have at least some Mandarin.
In some areas the local dialect is useful as well: Cantonese for Hong Kong and Guangdong, Minnan around Xiamen, the Wu dialect in East China, and so on. In most cases Mandarin is sufficient for communication, but learning the local language/dialect may be helpful in breaking into social circles.
In the rich coastal areas many less skilled workers — factory workers, maids, waitresses, taxi drivers, etc. — will be migrants from other provinces who speak Mandarin but not the local language. Some of the managers and officials may be as well.
Chinese business culture places a strong emphasis on making connections (关系 guānxi), particularly with those in positions of power. Gift giving is de rigeur in China, and it is customary for the Chinese to shower their friends, relatives, colleagues and even superiors with lavish gifts in order to improve their connections, particularly when returning from overseas trips. While you will likely be at the receiving end of such gifts from Chinese friends and colleagues, you will be expected to reciprocate the favour, especially when you travel abroad. Giving money should always be done discreetly, and should typically be placed in a red envelope (红包 hóngbāo).
The Chinese government is cracking down on the practice of providing gifts to government officials in order to tackle corruption. Be careful when providing any form of gift to a government official, and frankly consider not doing it at all since it could have legal implications for you in the future.
When working as a teacher, it is common for parents to shower you with lavish gifts with an expectation of preferential treatment for their children in return. Children from richer families have been known to present expensive Gucci or Louis Vuitton handbags to their school teachers on behalf of their parents. Although the practice is not illegal, you can regard this as unethical and politely refuse to accept with no offence usually taken. The government is clamping down on this practice in the larger cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, but it continues to thrive in other parts of China.
The Chinese New Year and National Day "Golden Week" holidays are week-long public holidays, where many working-class Chinese head back to their villages to spend time with family and others take trips to go sightseeing; expect all forms of transportation and any popular destinations to be jam packed during this period. Expats and wealthier Chinese often make use of these holidays to make overseas trips.
Around some national holidays, the workweek or school week may be rearranged, with students or employees going to work on a Saturday or Sunday to make up for a day off during the week. This includes the two Golden Weeks, which are technically three-day national holidays with the surrounding weekends rearranged to make seven days off in a row.
For Chinese New Year, it's quite normal for business and schools to close for more than just the weeklong official holiday – 10 days, two or three weeks, or even a month or more is not unheard of. In this case, you should be paid for the three days of government-mandated holiday, but you may or may not be paid for the rest of the time off, depending on your contract.
Your contract may or may not include paid annual leave. If you're teaching English, you may even be expected to work on national holidays, as demand for private English classes is especially high when students have time off. You might be compensated for these days with additional vacation days to use later. Some cities (including Shanghai and Shenzhen) require employers to pay employees 300% of their normal wages if they have to work on a public holiday, but this is not strictly enforced. Your employer's expectations and policies should be spelled out in your contract, of course.
An additional annoyance for teachers is that schools don't set the dates for all of their breaks at the beginning of the school year. In particular, the dates of the break around Chinese New Year may not get set until very late, which makes it hard to buy tickets for a trip before the prices go up.
As for weekends, since 1995 China has had an official five-day workweek (Monday–Friday) and a two-day weekend. In practice, some workers are still expected to work six days a week (Monday–Saturday) and others work every day with only a few days off a month, depending on the industry. English teachers often have a more unusual schedule, which may change from week to week, to accommodate students who want to come to take classes after work, after school, or on weekends. Also, even teachers who normally work a five-day week may be asked to work a few Saturdays or Sundays to make up for holidays during the week.
Most cities and regions are available to you. The big exception is Tibet, which requires a permit even for visiting and has few economic opportunities for foreigners. 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. As of the 2010 census, Shanghai had 208,000 foreign residents, about a third of China's total; some of these were students, but many were working.
- Other major cities near Shanghai — Suzhou, Hangzhou and Nanjing — are also booming and have large contingents of foreign workers.
- Guangzhou & Shenzhen – The new powerhouse cities of the south produce much of the world's electronics. Other cities in the Pearl River Delta also have opportunities.
- Beijing as the capital has some of the best teaching opportunities, and many foreign companies choose to base themselves here. Severe air pollution is currently pushing many expatriates away, although most Chinese people would regard the opportunities available here to be the best. The nearby city of Tianjin serves as Beijing's port city, and also offers opportunities for those working in the shipping industry
- Qingdao is a major port city famous as the home of Tsingtao beer.
- Dalian in the far north has a favorable tax regime for IT companies.
- Xiamen on the south coast has little heavy industry, low pollution and a lovely climate. It is popular among the Taiwanese due to the fact that the same dialect is spoken there.
- Kunming is at tropical latitude but 2000 m altitude; the "city of eternal spring".
- Chengdu and Chongqing are among the fastest-growing cities in the inland parts of China, and home to a growing community of expatriates.
When considering a position, make sure you find out what part of the city it's in. Prefecture-level cities and municipalities are vast and typically include huge swaths of suburbs and countryside. It's easy to accept a job in a glamorous destination like Shanghai or Beijing, only to find out that you'll actually be working and living in some obscure suburb far from the city's well-known spots. Of course, if you want to practice your Chinese and get to know Chinese culture in a more authentic way, a lesser-known suburb might be just what you want—but either way, it's worth researching where exactly you'd be living before you take the job. See List of Chinese provinces and regions to orient yourself on China's administrative structure, which can be confusing for foreigners.
Salaries are higher in more urban and developed areas: for instance, teachers tend to earn more in the big "top-tier" cities (Beijing, Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Shenzhen) than elsewhere, and more in downtown districts than in suburbs. Of course, the cost of living is also higher in these places.
- See also: Teaching English
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:
- at least a bachelor's 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, though US accents are generally given a slight preference over others, but if you sound like you are from rural Queensland, the hills of Virginia, or working-class Glasgow, 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 tend 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.
Visas for English teachers
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 airfare 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. Legally, foreign teachers are required to come on a Z visa and then apply for a residence permit. It is illegal to work with a tourist or business 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.
Getting a Z visa for an English teacher is a complicated, time-consuming, and potentially expensive process involving paperwork from many different offices. Your employer should help you through the process. The rules change frequently and depend on your nationality; your employer should have more specific and up-to-date information, but take this as a general indication of the kind of rigmarole you have to go through. First, you'll need to apply for a work permit, which requires the following documents: a physical examination form filled out by a physician, a teaching certificate, a passport-sized photo, an employment contract, a stamped letter from your previous employer, a copy of your passport, a work permit application form, a copy of your university diploma, and a criminal record background check. The last two documents must be notarized with an apostille and then certified at a Chinese embassy or consulate. Depending on your nationality, you may also need to provide proof of English language ability. Once you send all these documents to your employer, they can get you a work permit. Then you can go to a Chinese embassy or consulate and apply for a Z visa, for which you'll have to submit your work permit, passport, copies of any previous Chinese visas, a visa application form, and a visa fee. When you get the Z visa, you're still not done with the paperwork—the duration of stay on your visa will be listed as "000" (undetermined), with a note that you must apply for a residence permit within 30 days of arrival. Make sure you bring all the documents you used for your work permit application with you to China, because you'll need them to apply for your residence permit, which may also require another physical examination by a doctor in China. Once you've obtained your residence permit, you can breathe a sigh of relief—now you can legally live and work in China, and enter and exit the country at will. At least until your residence permit expires in a year, at which point you'll have to start doing paperwork again if you want to keep working in China.
Given all this hassle, many teachers instead work illegally on tourist or business visas. Some employers encourage or demand this, because it's cheaper and less of a headache for them. This is a lot easier than getting a Z visa, but it requires a visa run to a place like Hong Kong, Macau, Vietnam, or Mongolia, typically every three months, so you can leave and reenter mainland China and get a new stamp in your passport. Working illegally carries a risk of being found out by the authorities and being arrested or deported, which is uncommon but does happen. Even outside of that worst-case scenario, you may encounter other inconveniences like having your bank account frozen or being asked to stay home from work when a crackdown is going on. Some of the employers who want you to come illegally on a tourist or business visa are stringing you along; they do not have SAFEA permission to hire foreigners legally and are trying to wriggle around that.
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. If you decide to go this route, make sure you have all of the documents ready to go before you leave your home country, as many of them may be difficult to get ahold of once you're in China. As you can see from the description above, the process for getting a residence permit isn't simple. 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.
A few issues to be careful of regarding work permits:
- A work permit only allows you to work for the employer that got it for you. Taking other jobs on the side is illegal and foreign teachers have been arrested for it.
- If you decide to change jobs, make sure your new employer arranges to transfer your work permit.
- If you decide to leave your job and stop working in China, make sure you tell your employer and do the proper paperwork. If you go AWOL, you may encounter problems with the authorities when trying to leave China later on.
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 send their FAO or use 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 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.
"White monkey jobs"
While the legality of this is questionable, many white foreigners take on so-called "white monkey jobs" while in China. In such jobs, companies pay white people to do essentially nothing but show up at company events such as promotional events and business meetings and pretend to be one of the company's staff members, as the presence of a white person will boost their company's legitimacy in the eyes of the Chinese public. Thus, companies that appear to have white people among their staff tend to enjoy better business and win government contracts more easily. While such jobs used to pay well, these days many companies hire people from Russia or other parts of Eastern Europe for much lower wages, making it increasingly difficult for people from Western countries to land such jobs.
White foreigners are always in demand in the Chinese media. A glance at any subway wall will confirm how many Chinese products use white faces for their domestic promotional campaigns. In many of the big coastal cities, these jobs are dominated by groups of Russian models who do this as a full time job. Even so, there are always agents looking for new faces. Look on websites and notice boards for announcements. Payments start out in the region of ¥500 per day plus expenses but can often rise to much, more more. Older gentlemen and babies are especially in demand.
Everywhere you go in China, you will see wedding photo shops. Some of these hire white guys to play the role of wedding priest at big parties and photo shoots. This usually requires a decent level of Chinese to recite the wedding vow speech in Mandarin, but payments of ¥1000 per ceremony are quite standard. For full scripts and further details, see the book Is Nothing Sacred? Making Money as a Wedding Priest in China.
Nearly every Chinese location has local specialties that can be exported on a small scale to make some extra pocket money. Many towns specialise in manufacturing a single product and some of the more entrepreneurial expat teachers earn a nice little side income by leveraging this opportunity. This is especially easy in big cities such as Guangzhou and Shenzhen where international trade is the backbone of the local economy. Armed with a reliable guidebook to the wholesale markets, any teacher can quickly find a niche product upon which to focus, develop some local contacts and begin shipping to a partner back home. If you choose the right products and suppliers this can often develop into a full time business.
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 using English in addition to Chinese. Their cultures are also more Westernised than that of mainland China, making it somewhat easier for Western foreigners to adapt to the local cultures.