Foreign workers and employers weigh in on China’s new visa system

By Zhang Xinyuan Source:Global Times Published: 2017/6/20 17:43:40

Some foreigners think the new unified work permit system still has room for improvement. Photo: Li Hao/GT

On April 1, 2017, the State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs (SAFEA) rolled out a unified work permit system nationwide to replace the old ones and make it easier for foreigners to work in China.

Under the old system, foreigners could apply for two types of work permits: an employment license for foreign employees and a foreign expert work permit for top talent, which were issued by the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security and SAFEA respectively.

Compared with the old system, the new one requires fewer supporting application materials, provides a more transparent evaluation process, and shortens turnaround time, according to a September Xinhua News Agency report.

As early as in September 2016, China announced its decision to implement a new work permit policy for foreigners to simplify the approval process to work in China and encourage more high-level talent to come the country, according to the Xinhua report.

The same report claimed that foreign applicants would benefit from the restructuring of the foreign work permit system due to its simpler, clearer, and less time-consuming application process.

All under one roof

Under the old system, there were two government entities, the Human Resources and Social Security Bureau (HRSS) and the SAFEA, governing the foreign work visa application process.

The HRSS issued the employment license and alien employment permit to Z visa (or Employment Visa, issued to foreigners who are to take up a post or employment in the country) applicants, while the SAFEA issued the foreign expert license and foreign expert certificate to R visa (issued to high-level personnel and much-needed highly talented people who work and stay in China) applicants.

However, starting from April 1, the SAFEA became solely responsible for processing all foreign work visa applications. In other words, both Z visa and R visa applicants now only submit their applications to the SAFEA.

The new system has merged the two visa systems to create a work permit ID card for foreigners. Each ID card has a unique ID number that will not change regardless of permit renewal or change of employer.

"Compared to the old system, the new system is definitely a step up," said Peter Mu, the founder of Boto Education, an English-language school in Beijing.

"In the past, we had to identify which foreign teacher belongs to which bureau and run between the two bureaus; it was very confusing."

Mu said the new system has reduced the amount of paperwork he would usually need to submit by about half, which has "made the application more convenient for both the employers and the foreigners."

More streamlined

Under the new system, the employer and foreign applicant can apply online and submit the necessary supporting documents electronically. An online management service system was created solely for this purpose. The amount of paperwork required has also been cut with submissions like personal CVs and application letters no longer necessary.

Under the old system, the companies and the expats had to go to the bureau and submit the materials in person, and if something was not done properly, the applicant or their company would need to resubmit the documents.

"A lot of time was wasted on the road and waiting at the bureau," said Jean Liu, the senior vice president of EF Corporate Affairs.

"But now, with the online system, the companies and the employees can upload their documents directly for preliminary checks, and once they passed online, they can send the paper document to the bureau again for a final check, which leaves little possibility for mistakes and resubmission. It's more efficient than before."

It's also convenient for the government to learn about and share data on foreigners in China, according to a report by Bloomberg in May.

The online system makes it easier to keep track of foreign nationals as well.

The system also caters to foreigners who have not yet arrived in China, making it easier for them to start the ball rolling on their application process.

"Foreigners who are not currently in China can upload their documents from abroad to get ahead the application process. They can get the electronic version of the work permit, and apply for a Z visa," Liu said.

The new unified ID system will make it easier to process and track foreigners, experts say. Photo: Li Hao/GT

Room for improvement

One drawback of the system, however, is that it is only in Chinese.

"It's not convenient for foreigners who can't read Chinese. But I hope they can launch the English version in the future," said Liu.

Although there are noticeable improvements to the visa application process, some foreigners and their employers still feel that there is still room for improvement.

"It's a big development for the Chinese government to manage expats in the country, but I think there are still some loopholes that need to be fixed," said Cleve Lloyd McKenzie, the founder and CEO of Sunrise International, which provides a range of educational programs and services for kids and their families.

The application can only be partially completed online, and some employers think the online aspect is repetitive and unnecessary.

In the past, employers could bring all the required documents directly to the bureau to get the process started, but now all applicants must first apply and submit their documentation online before going to the bureau.

"Now employers need to get a registration number first from the management service system and upload five different documents, such as an industry license document, and then upload 10 documents for the applicant," said McKenzie. 

His company has hired three foreign employees since the new visa system came into effect.

"After you upload all the files online and they have been approved for a preliminary check, the applicant or the employer still needs to go down to the bureau and hand in all the papers again for another check," he said.

According to McKenzie, filling out the application online is also a hassle, and the machine is a little rigid compared to people.

"The online system requires the applicants to fill out all the required info before they can go to the next stage. It's not flexible," McKenzie said. "Say for information such as current address and home country address, if the applicants don't have all the information yet, then the application process has to stop, which is time-consuming."

The new policy also requires a stamped employment verification letter from the prior employer of applicants with only a bachelor's degree, regardless of where they last worked, which might be problematic for some foreigners.

"In many cases, the applicants worked in other countries before they came to China, and it would be difficult for them to get a stamped employment letter. Other countries don't require that," said Linda Wu, who works in the human resources department of an English language educational agency in Beijing.
Newspaper headline: Navigating approval


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