Can International Students Work in China?

Foreigners can enter and exit the Chinese mainland using one of eight visa types issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. These eight are marked with phonetic letters D, Z, X, F, L, G, C, J-1 and J-2 respectively. D is relatively rare and allows a foreigner to be a permanent resident of China. A Z visa is increasingly difficult to obtain. This is the visa required by foreigners whom work full-time in China. X visas are issued to students or those visiting China for some kind of training, typically for a period of longer than a couple of months. Those finally visiting for a month-long study course or a business meeting would rather enter on an F-visa. Finally, L visas are for tourists, G visas for those transiting China on route to a third country, while J visas are for journalists.

Obtaining an X-visa (as distinct from an F-visa for a period of short-term study) requires the appropriate documentation issued by the university to which a student has successful applied, and having paid the appropriate fees or confirmation of a Chinese scholarship. Some students may come to China on one visa, and change to an X-visa if their status shifts to full-time study after arrival.

Among long-term students, those undertaking multi-year degrees in particular, it is obvious that where time permitted they may hope to complement their China experience with internships and work experience. Where rules for international students working in the United States and Australia for example are widely understood, indeed, in America study opportunities often combine working at a university, in China these kind of arrangements are less understood, and perhaps even less developed given the historically much smaller numbers of such students.

So just what are the rules on international students working in China? In terms of can a student work, the answer is yes. The process requires formal clearance from the school and there are few known examples of students undertaking this process, and theoretically can even be arranged before arriving in China. The decision by the school to give permission for a student to work is based on ability to contribute to the given role. The level of income able to be earned by persons on a X-visa is less clear, with this source suggesting X-visa holders and even study-related F-visa holders are not able to receive any income from their internships. 

In practise there are many international students working in formally in teaching local students and families English. Others support the translation, editing and research work of Chinese and foreign enterprises alike. There may be some students wondering about the risks of working on a non-Z class visa. My research on the internet suggests that it is relatively low risk for someone seeking to teach English or intern. A writer on the China Law Blog hypothesises that two friends were caught by a disgruntled ex-employee. Disgruntled ex-partners have also been known to threaten their foreign partner with reporting the same.. Overall, it seems at this stage there are low risks for a teacher of English or an intern.

An alternative is to seek a Z-visa directly, or after graduation. Chinese regulations now however make it difficult for an inexperienced young foreigner to obtain a Z-class working visa. This is probably due to the paper work involved and the minimum qualification requirements. For instance, according to Chintravelguide for instance an English teacher would need a Bachelor Degree minimum to work in China. Moreover, the a business has to be approved to accept foreigners to work for it, and there may be restrictions on doing this depending on the industry The paper work for the business is very complex also (click here to see the steps involved in getting a Z-visa).

So it seems that as China’s role in the world grows, now as its second largest economy, so too will the country come to have parallel international migrant worker challenges, much as America and Europe had last century, and continue to do so. For the increasing number of young persons around the world seeking to spend some time experiencing the excitement and challenges of living in China, consider your visa options and employment prospects ahead of arrival to best position yourself to enjoy and make the most of your stay in China. In short, what spot does the X visa mark? It marks a whole lot of characters that you will have to learn as a student, and potentially also some less clear working opportunities.  

Disclaimer: This above article is purely an objective analysis of the working visa situation in China. By no means is it meant to be construed as  condoning the practice of working illegally in China and nothing in the above should be interpreted as advice when consi 

Lauren has worked in economic policy and research at the World Bank, World Economic Forum, EIU and for the governments of Sierra Leone and Guyana. She has learned Chinese since 1995, and lived in Beijing for almost six years, on and off since 1997. Lauren has a PhD in Economics from Peking University, an MSc in Development Economics from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and a B.A/B.Com from the University of Melbourne.

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