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Working in China

The classic expat assignment is still common among many foreigners working in China. However, you may also want to start a job as a self-made expat without company support, due to the explosive economic growth. Our info on visas, work permits, and social security comes in handy in either case.
The Oriental Plaza in Beijing is the epitome of a new, forward-thinking China.

Even after the global economic recession of the past few years, China’s economy seems to remain on the road to success. In 2010, China overtook its rival Japan to become the second biggest economy in the world. In 2013, China’s economy generated a gross domestic product of around 9.5 trillion USD, which was almost twice that of Japan’s GDP and just over half of the USA’s GDP.

Recent figures show that growth has slowed down since 2010. But, with an expected annual GDP increase of 7.5% in 2014, it is still comparatively high.

Although the general population working in China is affected by the various economic crises, this does not necessarily impact highly skilled employees, middle managers, and executives working in China. The unemployment rates apply predominantly to rural areas as well as seasonal migrant laborers in the cities.

Visa Requirements

If you consider going abroad to China for work, you should have a carefully thought-out plan and down-to-earth expectations. Although the Chinese government has made travel and working in China far easier than it used to be, to qualify for an employment visa (Z visa), you need to fulfill several requirements. You must obtain an official invitation to the country, together with an employment license or special status as a “Foreign Expert”.

Some foreigners who dream of working in China might try to enter the country with an L visa for tourists or an F visa for business trips and attempt to start work within 30 to 180 days. Do not try this! First of all, there is no guarantee that you will find a job in time. Secondly, the longer you stay without working in China, the greater your need for a financial cushion: Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou can become quite expensive cities for foreigners even after only a short time without a job.

And most importantly, even if you do find work within that period, you may have to leave the country and apply for a proper work visa before you can return to start your job. Do not take up gainful employment with anything but a Z visa. Chinese government bureaucracy is not known for its leniency in such matters and negotiating in English is unheard of. For more details on getting a visa for China, see our Expat Guide on Moving to China.

Professional Qualifications

Unless you are feeling particularly adventurous or foolish, the most conventional way of working in China is actually the best. Start looking for a job in an FIE (Foreign-Invested Enterprise) where the vast majority of expatriates are employed. Try to be patient and build up a network of contacts to help you find a suitable position. Contacts are essential for job hunting and working in China.

With credentials and professional experience in manufacturing, engineering, pharmaceuticals, environmental technology, ICT, finance, production, or product and quality management, you possess valuable “hard skills” for working in China. Some highly-qualified expatriates may be offered a job in a Chinese company, for instance in the high-tech sector. However, this usually requires a decent knowledge of Mandarin. Chinese language skills will always give you a certain competitive edge for working in China.

Expat Assignments

Traditional expat assignments used to be typical for foreigners working in China. For example, Siemens might send a couple of engineers with experience working in the railroad construction industry to supervise the development of the new high-speed trains for the Beijing-Tianjin line. These highly-qualified employees would then stay in China in the role of project managers for one or two years. Language was not an issue because these foreigners were not expected to know Mandarin, i.e. Standard Chinese.

However, such assignments are gradually being replaced by so-called “flexpats”. Foreign employees working in China are often hired without the usual perks and expat packages to more or less local conditions, i.e. they work directly for a Chinese company. Further, language requirements have become more demanding: Foreigners finding employment in a Chinese business or a foreign company are expected to have at least some experience with Mandarin. Obviously, this is less relevant to those with jobs Teaching English as a Foreign Language.


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

"It is just so easy to find other international people and global minds with InterNations. I didn´t know there were so many in Shanghai."

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