Doing Business in China: Visas Teach Life Lessons in ABZs

By Doug Young

(Beijing) — This week’s column takes us to the alphabet-soup kingdom of visas, which have almost legendary status among anyone who has ever worked or traveled in China. Nearly everyone here has a good visa story to tell, and the plot only gets thicker when it comes to the many hoops one needs to clear for a work visa.

As someone who recently went through that process anew when I changed jobs and moved from Shanghai to Beijing, I feel particularly qualified to talk on the subject. But some web surfing on the matter and discussion with our human resources expert made me realize just how complex the issue is, and grateful for the many procedures that are left to true professionals.

It doesn’t help that in China, everything seems to be constantly changing in the visa department, with the result that what was true yesterday may be completely different today. That was certainly the case when I learned that my latest application would require a criminal background check from my home country, something that definitely wasn’t necessary when I moved to Shanghai in 2011. Luckily, I hadn’t returned to my adopted hometown of Los Angeles and committed any crimes in that interval!

Before we delve into folklore surrounding Chinese visas, it’s helpful to step back and look at the big picture. It’s also worth pointing out that China certainly isn’t the only place that makes getting a work visa challenging, as I learned when I quizzed one of my former students about her own recent experience getting a work visa in the U.S.

The bottom line in China is that there is a bumper crop of 16 visa types, and that doesn’t even include diplomats, who have their own status. Each type has its own letter designation, hence my alphabet-soup metaphor, starting with F and then G, L, M, J, Q, S and X, to name a few.

The most important designation for most of us working here is the letter Z, and then there’s also the letter M for people who travel here frequently for business. Nearly all of my foreign friends and acquaintances have their own latest visa tales that make for great lunch or dinner conversation.

One told me over a recent lunch about how his passport was stolen when he was back in the U.S., forcing him to get a tourist visa, or L, to return without a huge delay. That meant he had to make a visa run to South Korea over this past weekend before re-embarking on the lengthy process of getting a new proper Z visa.

Another friend recalled over a recent dinner how the process of getting visas for the new crop of foreign teachers that arrive at his university each year inevitable occasionally drives the local woman in charge of the process to the brink of tears.

The latest wrinkle in this ever-evolving system is that China has decided to put all of us foreigners into three categories, creating yet another alphabet soup, with designations of A, B and C. An A is reserved for rocket scientists, Nobel Prize winners and CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, who are deemed highly desirable and thus get special consideration for visas. The big majority of us are only grade B, while the less-desirables such as manual workers get the C grade.

Anyone starting to feel like a piece of meat in this process would probably be justified, and it’s just slightly degrading when you know that you’ll end up as grade B no matter how good your credentials. That designation also seems to keep most of us confined to getting single-year visas with each renewal, though HR people continually tell me it’s theoretically possible to get a multiyear visa. Sure, maybe after I win my first Nobel Prize.

I also relearned about the document frenzy required for visas with this latest application, including the requirement of a criminal background check in addition to the older health check and academic credentials. I also learned that different cities in China appear to have different standards, since a letter from my university verifying my graduation was sufficient for my last application in Shanghai. No way, I was told in Beijing, where only my actual diplomas would do. Thanks, mom, for digging those documents out of a box gathering dust in the storage area of a U.S. apartment.

When all was said and done, my entire process took nearly five months, which I’m told is slightly long but not that unusual.

I was surprised to find the time frame for foreigners getting U.S. work visas could be even longer, as my student told me her H1-B visa, the local equivalent of our Z visa, took her around seven months. What’s more, she said, many people get rejected due to the lottery system that’s now used for a fixed quota of visas each year. Stories of such rejections are rare in China, with the exception of newly minted job seekers, who apparently don’t even meet Grade C standards and are routinely filtered out if they have less than two years of work experience.

But in terms of documentation, the U.S. is less demanding and requires only copies of diplomas, transcripts and the like. And there’s no requirement for a background check, which is one of the most cumbersome elements for foreigners coming to China these days.

At the end of the day, anyone who travels abroad to work should be prepared for a certain level of bureaucracy when applying for a visa. But China does seem a bit more demanding than other places, probably due to its natural penchant for bureaucracy and also an older system that didn’t embrace outsiders until the 1980s. Of course, all rocket scientists are exempt from anything I’ve just said. But for the rest of us, a healthy dose of patience and a willingness to dig through old boxes, visit doctors and get lots of notary stamps are invaluable traits when applying for a first-time work visa.

Doug Young has lived in Greater China for two decades, including a 10-year stint at Reuters, where he led China corporate news coverage. Send your questions or comments to

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