China work visa: what foreign workers need to know about legal employment in China

As of 2019, there are an estimated one-million foreigners working in China. For many foreigners, working in China offers multiple opportunities to expand one’s career, learn Mandarin and acquire valuable cross-cultural skills. While there are numerous work opportunities in China, many foreigners express difficulties and uncertainties in navigating the work visa application process, including the obtaining of the proper work documentation and, in many cases, the proper steps required for transferring to a new company. In this post, we provide some practical tips for those looking to work in China or are already working in China but could use a refresher on the work visa issuance process.

Work Visa (Z Visa), Work Permit, Residence Permit

Work Visa (Z Visa)
In China, the Work Visa (commonly referred to as the Z Visa), Work Permit and Residence Permit are three separate items with separate functions and formalities for their acquisition.

Holding a Work Visa allows a foreign national entry into China with a stated purpose of such entry, which is legitimate employment. Work Visas are issued outside of China by a Chinese Embassy or Consulate. However, since March 2017, the Foreign Affairs Office in China no-longer issue the requisite government invitation letter, which is a requirement of among one’s supporting documents for the issuance of a Z Visa. Rather, foreigners may now enter China under other visa categories, such as a tourist or business visa, prior to applying for a Work Permit and Residence Permit. However, a Work Permit and Residence Permit must be obtained prior to any foreigner commencing work in China.

Work Permit
A government-issued Work Permit allows a foreigner to work in China for a company specified and job position stated on the Work Permit application. The Work Permit is issued inside of China. Applications are made through the service system for foreigners working in China and involve both online and offline submission of documents for approval. Therefore, applicants are encouraged to utilise the online submission and approval process prior to entering in China (since it allows for ample time to collect the required documents and any other documents further requested at the discretion of Chinese authorities). Once online approval is obtained, an overseas foreigner can enter China and submit the original Work Permit documents.

Residence Permit
The Residence Permit allows one to reside in China. For those holding a valid Residence Permit, there are no restrictions placed on exiting and entering in China. Customarily, the Residence Permit is issued inside China and is good for one year. The Work Permit is the precondition of the Residence Permit; therefore, the application of the Residence Permit follows the obtaining of a Work Permit.

First-time application

Work Permit
Within 15 calendar days of a foreign individual signing a labour contract, the sponsoring company should proceed with the application for the individual’s Work Permit (for further information about the Work Permit, please see our previous post: Keeping on top of employment visa regulations and application procedures). Customarily, the timeline for online approval of a Work Permit is five working days upon the receipt of the requisite online documents; the offline approval is 10 working days upon receipt of the original documents.

Residence Permit
Application for a Residence Permit should take place within 30 calendar days upon the issuance of an individual’s Work Permit. Customarily, the Residence Permit is approved and issued within 10 working days upon receipt of the application.


Any changes in the original information submitted in one’s application for a Work Permit or Residence Permit shall be updated a necessary. This includes updated for a change of address, change of passport and so forth. Failure to updated such changes will be considered a violation and may be subject to penalties.


An existing Work Permit may not be transferred to a new sponsoring company. Since the Work Permit allows a foreign individual to be employed by the original sponsoring company in the position specified in the Work Permit application, it is required that the original issued Work Permit be terminated prior to applying for a new Work Permit under a new sponsoring company. In this process, the original company is required to issue a release letter and shall cancel both the Work Permit and Residence Permit within 10 working days upon the letter.

Keep in mind…

A China Residence Permit is approved and issued on the prerequisite of the Work Permit applied under the original sponsoring company. Therefore, both the Work Permit and Residence Permit shall be cancelled concurrently. Upon termination of the Work Permit, failure to cancel the original Residence Permit deems its holder as staying in China illegally, making them subject to fines of RMB 500 per day and at risk for deportation. 

Once both permits are cancelled, a Humanitarian Visa will be issued and placed in the individual’s passport. Under the Humanitarian Visa, one may remain in China up to 30 calendar days upon receipt of the visa. In this instance, a new sponsoring employer has the opportunity to complete the formalities for a new Work Permit and Residence Permit for a foreign individual.  

It is important to note, the procedures and requirements for all China work permits are dependent on the location of employment and the local authorities entrusted with the power to lawfully implement regulations, according to the circumstances. For example, work permits in a Special Economic Zone carry less stringent criteria in order to attract foreign talent, whilst first-tier cities may establish stricter criteria in order to give preference to local workers. Therefore, navigating work-in-China procedures should be advised by a legitimate professional who understands the local procedures and regulations.

This article originally appears on Horizons Corporate Advisory news and information blog at

For more information about the employment of foreigners in China or other related corporate matters, send us an email at, and we’ll have a Horizons professional contact you. 

Horizons Corporate Advisory helps clients solve complex problems, thrive and be inherently responsible in their business activities worldwide. The countries we operate in include Belarus, Belgium, China, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cyprus, Ecuador, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Italy, Lichtenstein, Luxemburg, Macau, Malta, Mexico, Mongolia, The Netherlands, Nigeria, Portugal, Russia, Singapore, Spain, Switzerland (French and German-speaking cantons), Turkey, United Kingdom (England and Wales) and the United States of America.

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