Bureaucracy in any foreign country is often murky waters for the unsuspecting expat, and China certainly is no exception. Since 2017, China has stepped up its effort to clean out the low-level foreign English teachers by significantly tightening the qualifications for foreigner work permits. Prior to 2017 it was almost a formality for your Chinese employer to apply for your work permit, whereas now it is a lot more difficult (and annoying), and you are sent around hunting for documents like notarized copies of your university diploma and police record check from your home country.
With all the inconveniences that now exist, it is almost imperative that you should make seamless work permit transfers when switching jobs, rather than having to waste weeks of your time to start over a new application process. Those weeks of waiting for papers from your home country, waiting in line at the consulate to get them notarized, waiting for the bureau to process your application, and the day spent at the health checkup, are weeks you will never get back. The good news is that now in 2018 most of the process have moved online, which saves you a lot of trips to the bureaus.
If you do not work for a multinational with a full-fledge professional HR team, then you’d better pay attention to this process yourself, because chances are the Chinese HR at your company will have no clue about how the process works or she/he may not even care about you. I have heard several horror stories lately of foreigners in Shanghai who entrusted their company’s HR only to find out months later that their visas were never even transferred, or worse, actually getting caught by the police for working without a valid permit and getting banned from the country for life.
Here I will outline the process of switching employers and transferring your work permit and the corresponding resident permit (“visa”), and make the distinction between the two documents. Having had to totally take responsibility and go through this process myself, I realized that the internet needs a clear guide like this. Note that this guide applies only if your job title at your new employer is the same as it was at your previous employer. If you change job titles/fields, then you must restart the permit/visa application process from scratch, as if you were applying for a job in China for the first time.
Distinction Between the Two “Permits”
1. Work Permit – This is the little plastic card that your employer might have kept or they might have given to you (you should ask to keep it yourself). This is the actual permit proving that you pass the qualifications as a professional alien and are eligible to work in China. See photo below:
2. Residence Permit for the Purpose of Work – This is the “visa” that you get in your passport. This document is obtained after you have obtained your work permit, and basically shows that you are legally allowed to stay/live in China, serving the same purpose as a visa. It is usually valid for 1 year from the day of your work permit application.
Step 1: Cancellation of Your Old Work Permit
First you and your former employer need to cancel your existing work permit, and ideally this is supposed to be done within 10 days of you leaving your job. Your former employer needs to do this by logging into their company’s account at http://fwp.safea.gov.cn/ and submitting the required documents. Upon preliminary approval of the online submission, your former employer will then need to go to the work permit bureau to physically drop off the original documents. When it’s approved you will get a cancellation certificate stating that your work permit has been cancelled and what was the reason for cancellation.
Your former employer will require the following documents for this step:
- Application Form for Cancellation of Foreigner’s Work Permit (obtained by employer and stamped, signed by you)
- Letter of termination (produced by employer and stamped)
- Your current work permit (you or your employer should have the card)
Time Required: up to 10 working days in total.
Your passport is not required at this step, and your existing residence permit on your passport will still be valid.
Step 2: Application for Your New Work Permit
Your new employer needs to go into their SAFEA account (link in Step 1) and fill in your information. They should be able to type in your old work permit number and see most of your information auto-filled from the previous applications, and can update certain details as suitable. They will generate the application form based on your information and you will need to sign the form, followed by the company stamping with its seal. They will then upload the signed copy along with other required documents, including:
- Application form for Foreigner’s Work Permit (above, signed and stamped)
- Labour contract or proof of employment (from employer, signed and stamped)
- Passport photo page (scan/photo)
- Passport current residence permit page (scan/photo)
- Cancellation certificate of previous work permit (end product of Step 1)
Note that when you are doing a transfer between employers within 1 month of the old work permit cancellation, the other tedious documents are not required (notarized police record check, notarized diploma, proof of previous employment abroad, and physical examination). This is why you should absolutely do a visa transfer (with same job titles) instead of quitting a job and then reapplying for everything later — you save 70% of your time!
After the submitted electronic documents are preliminarily approved online, you or your new employer will need to again physically go to the work permit office to physically submit the documents. As of November 2018, the work permit office did not require photocopies of any of the documents, unlike stated in the official guidelines. But, you should go with photocopies of the application form and labour contract, just in case. You should also take a 2” photograph if a photo of you was not already in the system and automatically printed onto the application form.
Time Required: up to 15 working days in total, but can be very quick if you are Class B or higher and had gotten previous work permits comfortably.
Once you successfully receive your new work permit card, you must then go do Step 3 and apply for the new residence permit in your passport.
Step 3: Application for Your New Residence Permit
This step requires you to gather a bunch of documents from yourself and your new employer, and submitting them at the Entry & Exit Bureau of your city, including:
- Residence Permit Application Form*
- 2” portrait photo*
- Police registration form for temporary residence (original + photocopy; make sure it’s from AFTER your latest entry stamp!)
- Company application letter (produced and stamped by employer)
- Individual application letter (produced by employer or yourself, signed by you)
- Company registration “营业执照” (original + photocopy, from employer)
- New work permit card (original + photocopy)**
* Normally you can print the form online and fill it in, sign and get company stamped, then attach the 2” photo. However, as of November 2018, in some first-tier cities (e.g. Shanghai) they have moved to an electronic system at the Entry & Exit Bureau where you take a photo in a booth and then scan your passport to get the application form printed on the spot. You then fill in some remaining information on the form and sign it, without needing the company stamp.
** As of November 2018, in some first-tier cities (e.g. Shanghai), you need to also scan the QR code on the new work permit card and print out the list of information associated with you and your permit, and submit this printout at the window along with your card photocopy.
Note that when you are doing a transfer between employers within 1 month of the old work permit cancellation, you are not required to do a new health exam for this residence permit application! Once again, this is why you should absolutely do a visa transfer (with same job titles) instead of quitting a job and then reapplying for everything later.
After submitting these documents (including your actual passport) at the window without problems, you will be rewarded with a temporary ID in the form of a piece of paper/receipt (see below). Supposedly you can travel domestically with this piece of paper while your passport is gone, but I have not tested this hypothesis myself. The pickup date of your passport is noted on this piece of paper, and you should come back to the Entry & Exit Bureau with this paper on that date (alternatively you can choose to have them mail your passport to you). You will need to pay a fee when you pick up your passport, and this fee is typically several hundred up to one thousand CNY (depending on length of visa), and is written on the receipt.
Time Required: 7 working days.
When you pick up your passport, make sure to bring the receipt (above) and the cash required (as of November 2018, in first tier cities like Shanghai they are accepting Alipay/WeChat too). You’ll receive your passport with the old residence permit stamped with a cancellation stamp, and you’ll have a sparkling new residence permit valid for 1 full year. Congratulations!
All in all, you should allot a comfortable 10+15+7=32 working days for this entire transfer process, from beginning to end. This means you shouldn’t have any major travel plans during this time, as it could disrupt the process significantly, or you might be caught without your passport and can’t travel!
Note that 32 working days is roughly the maximum number of days you should allot for this process, but typically it goes faster than that. Personally, for my latest visa transfer (November/December 2018), the whole process only took 8+4+7=19 working days.
I hope you find this guide to be detailed and helpful. Your FAQs are answered in the Comments section below.
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