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How to Get a Chinese Visa

No expat assignment in China can begin without a visa! InterNations introduces you to the most relevant Chinese visa categories for expats, for both long-term and short-term stays. Learn where and when to apply, which documents to file, and what “single-entry” means when it comes to Chinese visas.
Make sure to check the “enter before” date of your Chinese visa!

Depending on the reason for your visit or move to China, there are various Chinese visa categories available. Apart from diplomatic, courtesy, and public service visas, there are a number of other types, broadly termed ordinary visas. In this article, you’ll find a brief introduction of the categories that are most relevant for expats, as well as learn how to apply for your Chinese visa.

Chinese Visas for Short Visits and Transits

For short trips to China, e.g. to get a first impression of your future host country or in order to conduct business with a local company, one of these Chinese visa categories should apply to you:

Commercial Visit (M Visa)

If you are planning on going to China just for a short-term trip to conduct business, this is the right visa category for you. Note that you need to provide an invitation letter (e.g. from your Chinese business partner) to apply for this type of Chinese visa. The M visa typically allows for a maximum duration of 30 days per visit (sometimes more, depending on your nationality).

Tourism (L Visa)

Expats who would prefer to check out their future host country in advance on a private trip need a tourist visa. In addition to your travel itinerary (e.g. flight tickets), you need an invitation letter (e.g. when visiting friends) or proof of hotel reservations when applying for an L visa.

Cultural Exchange (F Visa)

Previous to the changes made to the visa and immigration regulations in 2013, the F visa was used for business trips. Nowadays, it is meant for short-term, non-commercial visits, such as cultural exchanges, lecture tours, or research trips. The maximum duration of stay is typically 90 days. Please note that students at a Chinese university should get an X visa instead!

Transit (G Visa) and Transit Visa Exemption

If you are just passing through, but would like to leave the airport and stay for a couple of days, you should also apply for a Chinese visa prior to your travels. However, depending on your nationality and your port of entry, you may be able to stay for up to three days without this transit visa, thanks to the 72 Hours Transit Visa Exemption Program.

At the time of writing, nationals of over 50 different countries (including, among others, most Schengen Agreement member states, the USA, Canada, Mexico, Australia, Japan, and the UAE) could take advantage of this visa-free transit when arriving in China by plane. As conditions are subject to change, however, best double-check your eligibility for a visa-free transit with your local Chinese embassy and inform your airline of your intentions to transfer without a visa when checking in.

For both the G visa and a visa-free transit, you have to provide proof of your continued journey to a third country within those 72 hours, so printing out your travel itinerary is always a good idea. Furthermore, under the visa exemption you are not allowed to leave the administrative region where you arrived.

Chinese Visa Categories for Long-Term Stays

Here, we take a closer look at the most important visas for expats. However, further visa categories are also available, e.g. for family members of Chinese citizens, or crew members and their accompanying family.

Long-Term Workers (Z Visa)

Most expats, including English language teachers, will find themselves applying for this Chinese visa category when taking up a long-term post/employment, or any other commercial performance. The exception to this rule are media representatives and journalists who need a J visa.

For the application, you need to provide several additional supporting documents next to the usual paperwork, such as your passport (cf. applying for a Chinese visa). For the Z visa category, this includes an official invitation letter, as well as one of the following documents:

  • a Permit for Foreign Experts Working in China (e.g. relevant for language teachers), or
  • a Foreigners’ Employment Permit (also known as an Alien Employment License), or
  • a Registration Certificate of the Resident Representative Offices of Foreign Enterprises, or
  • a Letter of Invitation to Foreigners for Offshore Petroleum Operations, or
  • a document of approval for commercial performance.

Your employer is usually responsible for providing these and might therefore need certain documents to obtain the employment permit for you (e.g. proof of your EFL-teaching qualifications). While your Chinese visa application is being processed, you may also be asked to hand in further supporting documents or to attend an interview.

Families of Expats (S Visa)

The families of Z visa holders need to apply for their own, separate Chinese visa if they want to join their loved ones in China. Depending on the planned length of stay, they need either an S1 visa (more than 180 days) or an S2 visa (up to 180 days).

While only spouses, children under the age of 18, parents, and parents-in-law may apply for the former (S1), siblings, adult children and their spouses, grandparents, and grandchildren can get a visa for a shorter visit (S2). During the application process, you will need to provide proof of the relation (e.g. birth or marriage certificates).

Qualified Talents (R Visa)

If you possess a skill that is in high demand in China, qualifying as a “high-level talent”, this is the Chinese visa category for you. Regulations don’t specify which jobs qualify as high-level talent positions, though. Therefore, it’s best to enquire at your local embassy or consulate or at the relevant government departments whether your occupation is currently in high demand and what kind of requirements you need to meet. During your application, be prepared to provide certification of your competency and work experience.

Students (X Visa)

Students who are planning to study at a Chinese university need an X visa. Two subcategories (X1 and X2) denote the planned length of stay (more than or up to 180 days respectively). To get the student visa, applicants need, in addition to the usual application documents:

  • an Admission Letter, and
  • for X1 applicants only: an approved Visa Application for Study in China (JW201 or JW202)

Your educational organization provides you with both and you should take along both the original documents and photocopies. Also note that you are not allowed to take up employment with this type of Chinese visa!


We do our best to keep this article up to date. However, we cannot guarantee that the information provided is always current or complete. 

David Thyne

"At the first Shanghai Get-Together I met several American expats. I am very grateful that they shared their experience with me."

Diana Anhaus-Brey

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