All About the Z-Visa
I've been in China for over three months now, and it's phenomenal how quickly that time has sped away. With three months left in this term, potential English teachers - maybe even you - are getting their paperwork together, trying to cut through their school's bullshit and preparing for a life-altering move. Maybe you've got your packing-list situated, been poked in all the right places with vaccines and even began learning a bit of Mandarin. But there is one thing that no one will have checked off their list of preparations with ease.
Maybe you know what I'm talking about without even saying it (or because of the title). It's your visa. This grand pain in the ass has been the subject of roughly 80% of comments and questions I've received since arriving in China, therefore I will attempt to give you a comprehensive guide based on everything I know and the stories of other teachers. I wrote about my own experience a while back, but a lot of the usefulness was probably lost in my attempt to spice up what is usually a boring bureaucratic process.
Z-Visa...not X, not F, not L
Firstly, "Z-visa" is in the title because, for English teachers, this is truly the only legal visa you can come to China on. When you are searching for a school to work for, the Z-visa is the first thing you should look for, even before the salary. If a school does not offer to help you acquire it, run, and run hard. If the benefits on offer are simply too hard to pass up, email them about it. If they do anything other than tell you up front that, yes, they help all teachers with their Z-visa, then they are trying to screw you over. It's as simple as that.
Common tricks, whim-whams and bamboozles are to tell the prospective teacher that he or she should come over on a L-visa (tourist) or an F-visa (business) and that his or her visa will be converted to a Z once they arrive. Don't agree to this because:
a) It's illegal. If you're caught working on it, then the government is well within its rights to deport you, making it more difficult to work anywhere abroad until you get a new passport.
b) Once you arrive, they will keep putting off converting the visa or they will simply deny they ever promised this. Why? Because they can. You can't really complain to anyone because you're working illegally. You are now the school's bitch.
c) If the school does have enough friends in high places, they will ask you to do a visa run to Hong Kong, or maybe Mongolia, to have your illegal visa converted. While many teachers have done this successfully, it's a highly stressful and unnecessary process.
So, as if I haven't made this clear enough in a stern, fatherly tone, make sure you are getting the goddamned Z-visa, and nothing else! Not doing so will open the door to so many unnecessary future stresses when the Z-visa is already bad enough!
The Foreign Expert Certificate
Let's come back to the Z-visa in a bit. There's some other hoops you'll need to jump through first before making your grand and hopeful trip to the embassy (or sending an agent to do it for you). As a teacher (and I think any other profession), you need to hold a Foreign Expert Certificate, which is basically proof that you are qualified to be doing what you're doing in China. I find this hilarious because the amount of teachers in China that have a bachelors or more in English/Teaching/TEFL and also have any relevant teaching experience (i.e. an actual classroom, not summer camp, volunteering, etc.) is probably less than 1%. No one is really qualified. The classroom is going to be your teacher.
The quest for the Permit for Foreign Experts (which you need to submit for your visa application; you'll get the actual Foreign Expert Certificate in China) will be mostly done through your school. You'll learn a lot about them through this process. Mostly, how helpful, organized and honest they are. Get ready for email tennis. These are the things that you should prepare to hand in to them:
Copy of your passport information page
Copy of your degree(s)
Copy of your TEFL certificate(s)
Resume and cover letter
Work reference that indicates you have taught before, and were good at it - there's some leeway here
Physical Examination Record for Foreigner form completed by doctor - basically indicates you're healthy enough to work
A color photo of your face - you'll quickly learn that white is right and that China as a whole is quite racist
Criminal background check - I got one from the county courthouse; no FBI check required. Murderers welcome!
This is sort of a mixture of what the government requires and what your school wants. Another requirement for anyone working in China is that you have 2 years of work experience after graduating university, but I'm not sure if this is actually enforced because I myself only had about one year on my resume and many teachers I know came over straight after graduating. Either it isn't enforced, or your school will simply fake the information (this is quite common). Speaking of forging documents, I have heard tales of degrees and TEFL certificates being faked by schools as well, but I'm not sure if the government has been cracking down on this more or not. If the leaders in your school have power with the government, they can do a lot for you if they like you enough.
Requirements for the Z-Visa
After getting all of the right stuff to your school for your Foreign Expert Certificate, they will mail you an Invitation Letter with the Permit for Foreign Experts. Make sure they get these two things to you! Once they do, you're pretty much in the clear as far as getting your visa is concerned. You now have all of the information to complete the forms, and because so much checking up on you has already been done for the Permit for Foreign Experts, getting your visa is really as simple as turning in the correct forms. Here is what you will now need to submit for your Z-visa:
A black/white copy of your passport information page
A passport-sized photo with a white background
Invitation letter from your school (needs to have your full name, date of birth, and mention you are offered an ‘English teaching position’)
Permit/Confirmation Letter for Foreign Experts
Optional – Your flight itinerary. They ultimately didn’t take mine, but the woman processing my application sure scrutinized it for a while
Applying for the visa
There are six locations in the United States where you can apply for your visa. The main Chinese embassy is in Washington, DC. There are five other consulates in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Houston. If you're pressed for time between getting the documents from the school and the day you depart and are also lucky enough to live nearby, you can simply go to the embassy and apply in person. DC is about a five-hour drive for me in North Carolina, so I did this for my Swedish residence permit as well as my Z-visa most recently. It's a good road-trip if you can wrangle a friend into going with you.
If you do apply at the embassy/consulate, make sure you get there early. The visa office in Washington opens at 9:30. I read several reports of people getting there on time and not being able to do same-day service because of the wait. So we rolled up at 8:00 and I ended up snagging the first number. If you've been to the DMV then you'll be at home in this atmosphere. There are three windows for applying that will display your number when it's your turn. Pay attention as they will skip right over you to the next in line if you take too long. Apparently, they do not offer same-day service any longer, which was what I was counting on as my flight was two weeks away and I can't exactly afford to spend three nights in DC. Which brings me to your other option...
Hire an agent
If the embassy/consulates are out of reach, you can hire a travel agency to apply for you. Basically you will just ship the documents to them and they will take them to the visa office on your behalf. Because I couldn't get my visa the same day, I had to do this so it could be shipped back to me. Oasis China Visa Service is located a couple floors above the visa office, almost too conveniently. I used them to receive my visa on my behalf and then ship it back home via FedEx. They charge a $20 service fee and it was another $20 for the shipping. It was an easy process and I had my visa in my hands a week later.
I have written everything above from my experience and here I am sitting in China, using a VPN to bypass the firewall and all. So if you keep these things in mind, stay organized and be persistent with your school, you will get passed the headaches and...begin to enjoy the headaches of living in China! This post is probably incredibly boring for many, but I've had so many questions about Chinese visas that I was compelled to help anyone who needs it. There's a lot of conflicting information online and it can be really frustrating to wade through the bullshit. This should be quite comprehensive, and you too will soon be able listen to your roof leak into a metal bowl while you work in the computer room.
Other stuff to remember...
Make sure your school stays on the ball! I was surprised how often I had to remind them that I needed this or that and even explain what "this" or "that" is. Maybe I was naive in thinking they would know everything having already dealt with getting several foreign teachers here before me. Well, that was before I found out my boss is completely incompetent...but that's another story.
Make copies of all your documents before you go to the visa office/send them there.
The DC visa office is in a different building from the main embassy a few blocks away. I found this out literally the day before heading over. Here is the address.