Am I Working Legally In China?


This sounds like a pretty simple question. However, due to the stringent work permit requirements in China, many employers go around the laws in a number of ways. You may feel like you are legally working, but you are in fact, not. So be careful and double check your documents because you are going to be the one who gets in the most trouble.

When you work illegally in China, three things can happen:

  1. Fine: you and/or your “employer” will be fined a certain amount.
  2. Detention: you and/or your “employer” with be detained.
  3. Deportation: you will be deported under serious cases.

Illegal work in China is very common and many foreigners actually don’t even know they are working illegally in China. There are four common ways that we have seen people work illegally in China.

1. What Visa Do you Have?

The only visa you can legally work for someone is a Z visa. The Z visa turns into a work permit. Usually (not always), you receive a card that you can keep in your wallet along with your work permit. Outside of updating your visa where your employer keeps your passport and sends it to the proper authorities, you should always have your passport with you. This is easy to check: just make sure you apply for a Z visa when in your home country and make sure that is in fact what you got when you picked up your passport. In your passport, the sticker should have a category that says visa type and that will say Z. Once your employer converts the Z visa to a Work Permit within a month of arriving in China, the new sticker in your visa should say 工作 (work). Some people believe that working under a Chinese business visa (China F visa or China M visa) is legal. It is not. Those visas are meant for short term visitors to China wanting to learn about China, do business, or give a presentation or something like that. Particularly if you are a teacher, you cannot be a freelance teacher in China. You are only allowed to work for one business, your visa will be a Z visa, and your stay in China will be linked to that business/school and that business/school only. No exceptions for foreign teachers in China.

2. Are you working in the same city as your work permit states?

Another way that schools or companies get around the strict work permit requirements is by going to a state with more lenient requirements. Although there is a national immigration policy, each state implements it slightly differently. So, check your work permit and make sure that the location matches your city. Our teachers, for example, all have a location of 保定 (Baoding), where they work. If it states something different than your location, you are probably working illegally and I would speak to my boss about the inconsistency.

3. What Company is tied to your work permit?

This is a little more difficult to check. However, you can see this by looking at which company sent you the official, government-sanctioned invitation letter. Does it match the company name where you are going to work every day? Does it match the company that is paying you? You are only directly allowed to work for that company. You are not allowed to be loaned out to another company. So, if it doesn’t match, you are working illegally in China. This happens often as it is very difficult to qualify to hire foreigners in China, so many people use a consulting company that finds foreign teachers for them. The employee is technically a consultant for the company and is loaned out as a teacher to a small training school who doesn’t qualify for the proper paperwork. This is probably the most dangerous position to be in and you are likely getting a percentage of your salary deducted and going strait to the consulting company. If this happens to you, my best advice would be to leave China immediately and report the company once you are safely out of the country.

4. What job are you doing? Is it the same as your contract and your work permit?

This is similar to what is mentioned above. Most Chinese work permits just state that your purpose is 工作 (work), however, because there are so many teachers in China, if you are a teacher, it should say 教师 (teacher). One way to check if you are doing the work the government thinks you are doing is to look at your contract. Is it between a school (学校 or 培训学校) and a teacher? Another way to check is to see your employer’s business license, which is a document that is regularly checked and it should be easily presented when asked for. The business license will be in Chinese, however, you can use a document translator to double check that one of the business purposes listed on the license should match what you are doing for the business.

5. Are your documents legitimate?

If you don’t have a four-year university degree, you are working illegally in China. There is no way around that. If you didn’t present a degree to your employer and you have a Z visa, your employer created a fake diploma for you. Another common problem is if you don’t have two years of relevant work experience and you still got a Z visa, that means that your employer likely made up some experience for you. This is, first of all, completely illegal. Secondly, if you are planning on changing employers, they will not know what forged documents your previous employer used and will upload different documents. When that happens, they will catch the error and you will be blacklisted from ever teaching in China or working in China again (and maybe even ever getting a Chinese visa again).

When coming to work in China, particularly to teach in China, make sure to double check all of your documents and work with your employer to make sure you are doing what you are supposed to be doing. Even if you unknowingly are working illegally, the authorities will not take that into account. These tips above are definitely suggested to be done before you even accept a position or get to China. Good luck!

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