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Requirements & Visa Information for (Teaching English) in China: 2014

Do you need a degree, experience, a certificate? What kind of visa do you need to work in China?

What are the minimum requirements for teaching in China?

There are three general requirements:

  • A bachelors degree
  • Two years relevant experience (i.e. teaching)
  • English as a first language

(Although the two years experience can vary, more on that in a bit).

On job applications you'll often see age requirements, for the bottom end usually 24 - 25. This is because a 4 year degree (a bachelors in America is 4 years. It's only 3 in England.) plus two years experience puts you at 24. Usually the age restriction is simply an attempt to limit the candidates to those who fit the conditions we mentioned above.

There are also no upper end age restrictions in the visa system, as Gary Chodorow points out in his excellent China Visa FAQ, the age restrictions come from local Labour Bureau rules and they're based on China's mandatory retirement ages:

  • Men: 60 - 55
  • Women: 50 - 55

These are being revised although there's been no concrete plans released at the moment (here's Bloomberg's estimates on it).

Do you need two years experience to teach in China?

This is the biggest barrier for a lot of people who want to work in China. Especially as a lot of the entry level positions don't have the benefits or salary you would give to a teacher with two years experience.

Once again Gary Chodorow comes to the rescue with some genuine knowledge, this time given in an interview with Atlas China.

The two year work experience rule is one set by cities not by the Ministry of Labor, so while it definitely exists in places like Beijing, Shanghai and other tier 1 cities, in "smaller" (smaller by China's standards) cities this isn't the case.

There are two ways to get a Z visa (see below), one requires an employment license, the other a Foreign Experts certificate. Language teachers usually end up with a Foreign Experts Certificate. As he points out, the requirements for a Foreign Experts Certificate for a language teacher are a bachelor's degree AND: two years of work experience OR a certificate of a language teacher qualification.

So the two years experience is not a hard requirement. Of course there's no official list of which TEFL certificates are counted as valid and what it comes down to is different companies will be able to get you a z visa with different requirements, for example if you take a look at the EF English First China requirements they want 1 years experience and a TEFL certificate (preferably CELTA or equivalent).

If you don't have two years experience then start searching for jobs in the smaller tier 2 and 3 cities, contact recruiters or companies who do provide Z visas and have lower requirements. You should be getting the Z visa before you leave for China, because that way you know your employer is allowed to legally hire expats.

Which visa do you need to teach in China? Z, L, F (or M)?

As you might have spotted in the previous questions, only the Z visa is mentioned. If you want to teach and work legally in China you need a Z visa.

We'll come to this in the next step, but one of requirements of the Z visa is it can only be issued in your home country or in Hong Kong. So if you're looking to teach in China you either have to get a Z visa before you leave and enter the country on it, or some companies will try to get you to come in on a L, F or M visa (F visa is no longer the business visa, it's now M) and then have you to convert to a Z visa on a Hong Kong visa run when you're already in the country.

We'd always recommend getting the Z visa before arriving in the country. Why? The most obvious benefit is that you know your employer is legally allowed to employ teachers before you even have to step on a plane.

The other large benefit is all of the delays, frustrations and organisation that go into trying to organise your visa inside China are avoided (see this teacher interview for an example).

Sometimes people will still take the second option however and there are a couple benefits. The main one is the time involved in getting a Z visa. Depending on how practiced and well connected your school is, getting a Z visa can take some time. Coming in on another visa allows people to get to China and get started quicker. For the school this also has two benefits, it gets them a teacher quickly and forces them to commit.

The main problem with this second way is its illegal (assuming you teach before getting your Z visa).

Many people do work illegally China, whether it's arriving on a tourist visa and starting work while waiting for their employers to convert their visa, or just coming in on a tourist visa and never changing to a work visa. The demand for English teachers is high enough that the incentives are there.

We'd never recommend it. The worst stories of teacher exploitation in China (or really anywhere) come from when someone is working illegally. Your contract is worthless (if you're working illegally how can either party uphold it?) and in 2013 when China last updated it's Visa laws it added stricter penalties for those working illegally. If you're considering it make sure you know the risks!

How to get a Z Visa

How do we get this wonderful legal Z visa then? Read on.

Actually before we do, a quick point. The Z visa just gets you into China, it's not what legally allows you to continue living in the country. It instead sets you up for the two documents that will keep you legally living in China, that's your residence and work permit. Normally getting these isn't so bad though because it has to be done in China (within 30 days of arriving) and your employer should walk you through it.

The whole process from start to working in China is listed below.

Depending on which documents your employer gets you, you’ll need to take one of two paths, the Foreign Experts Certificate path skips the work permit. As a teacher you'll typically take path 1.

Path 1

  • Foreign Experts Certificate (SAFEA) + Invitation Letter
  • Work Visa (Z)

----------------Enter China----------------

  • Residence Permit

Path 2

  • Employment License + Invitation Letter
  • Work Visa (Z)

----------------Enter China----------------

  • Employment/Work Permit
  • Residence Permit

The first step in both paths should be done by your employer. You'll send them a number of documents to prove who you are and what your qualifications are, and they'll then go through the bureaucratic process at their end. They’ll go to the Ministry of Foreign Experts and the local government office, get the Foreign Experts Certificate (SAFEA) & Invitation Letter or Employment License & Invitation Letter then mail them to you.

You'll then need to go to an embassy and apply for your Z-Visa. You’ll have to present the documents your school has just sent along with a number of other things (here's a full list of what you'll need to bring to apply for a visa, it's possible this might vary from country to country).

The application has to be done in your home country or in Hong Kong. The latter is only possible if the invitation letter from your employer and the government says you’ll apply in Hong Kong.

Basically your employer has to tell the government you’ll be applying in Hong Kong or you’ll have to apply in your home country. Confusingly the official stance on whether you're allowed to apply in Hong Kong is slightly mixed, however reports seem to be that it's still possible.

Hong Visa Report Thread

This thread on the Chinese forums is updated quite regularly with Hong Kong visa reports, the last Z visa reported as of writing is June 27th, 2016 and was successful. Click here to read it.

Once you've been issued your Z visa and have arrived in China, you have 24 hours to register at your nearest police station, which your employer should take you to do.

There are two final things you need to do. The health check is no longer mandatory for visas, but if you're getting a residence permit for a year or longer it's still necessary and you need to get your single entry Z visa converted into a one year residence permit. Like registering within 24 hours your employer should take you to get both of these done.

And that's it now you're legally working in China. Congratulations.

Image Attribution:

"Tianjin Skyline" by Thomas Fischler is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
"VISA for entry into China" by Heidi Strean is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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