Update: There's a new policy requiring applicants to leave China to get a Z visa. I was wary of further hassles and expenses, so I ended up getting an F visa. That means in six months, I might go to Hong Kong!
"Thin ice is only a problem for those who choose to go skating."
Once I did get a job, getting a visa became the main priority. I absolutely had to get one before my tourist visa ran out. My employer offered two options: an F visa or a Z visa. The F visa is the business visa, which lets someone stay in China for 6 months as a "consultant." Not strictly legal, but I've heard of many people getting these and having no problems. The Z visa is the true work visa. It can easily be renewed for up to 5 years, making it a favorite for longer-term expats. For those who want the complete lowdown, I've written a detailed comparison at the bottom of this post.
Although the Z visa grants more rights, it's much more of a pain in the ass to get. In order to get one, I had to do a full medical examination. One English teacher told me not to worry: "You'll only fail it if you have AIDS."
My usual doctor in Hawaii got me scared about going to a hospital in China. She had warned me that I should have taught in Japan instead, because it's cleaner there. My worst nightmare was that the Chinese hospital would look like a biohazard zone, littered with the dead bodies of SARS victims.
I shouldn't have worried. Medical exams for foreigners and overseas Chinese (usually from Taiwan and Hong Kong) take place at the Shanghai International Travel Healthcare Center, a state-of-the-art facility on the west side of Shanghai.
Thinking I was smart, I made an appointment in advance. I also made sure of what I had to bring: passport, photocopy of passport and Chinese visa, 3 passport-sized photos, and a letter of introduction from my employer. (Hot Tip: bring a lot of 2 x 2 photos of yourself before going abroad to work)
I was totally prepared when the receptionist asked for my documents, one by one. When she was supposed to ask for the letter of introduction, she said something else:
"Where's the photocopy of your employer's business license?" she asked.
"The what?" I said. She never said to bring that when I called her.
She repeated the question.
I whipped out my cell phone and called the company office. Michelle was the one in charge of visas for employees. When someone got on the line, I asked for Michelle. Guess what happened. Yes, it happened to be her day off.
Time to think fast. I asked the person on the line to transfer me to someone who spoke better English. While he was doing that, I whispered to the hospital receptionist, "Could I get your fax number?"
A minute later, my company's business license sputtered out of the fax machine. I'd get to be a human lab rat after all.
I was surprised at how hi-tech the hospital was. While a nurse entered the info from my forms into a computer, she took my photo with a webcam. The weight scale was completely electronic. I stepped on it for a second and stepped off. When I get on a scale in Hawaii, I still have to wait for the nurse to balance the fulcrum by hand.
After that, I was shuffled from one room to the next. A blood sample here, a chest X-ray there. The EKG was the most fun. They strapped these bands of electrodes around my wrists and ankles. It was like I was Frankenstein! The one I didn't get was why I had to do an ultrasound. I knew I wasn't pregnant. Or was I?
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The Visa Report
Disclaimer: Although I've read a lot of John Grisham novels, I am not a lawyer. The following information may be incorrect and is subject to change. A lot of it depends on the company sponsoring the visa and how good their connections are. Look for changes to this report if I get more updated information.
F Visa -- Business Visa
Pros: Easy to get, fast processing (about 1 week), and costs only 600 RMB. Very little paperwork. Just provide the passport, 2 photos, and temporary residence form (it's yellow).
Cons: Lasts only 6 months, unsure legal status, only 2 entries back into China, and cannot be renewed within China. That means a "visa run." It's only a 2-hour flight to Hong Kong, making it the most popular place to get a new visa.
Z Visa -- Work Visa
Pros: Full rights, official status, multiple entries, lasts for 1 year, easily renewed for up to 5 years.
Cons: Paperwork. Must provide passport, 10 photos, temporary residence form, original college degree, resume, employer's business license. Takes 3 weeks to process. Costs 2000 RMB. Requires a full medical exam, which costs another 702 RMB.
There is a third option: a 12-month, multiple-entry, business visa. With the rush of foreigners pouring into China to strike it rich, a lot of "visa assistance" companies have sprung up to meet the demand. They use their connections to get visas for foreigners. Or they set up dummy corporations that will hire foreigners as consultants, when the foreigners are really working somewhere else. Many of them have a more boring approach: they'll fill out the necessary forms in Chinese for you and hand them on to a myriad of government offices. One of my friends got a 12-month business visa. She said it was really expensive, much more than a Z visa would have cost.
Even Z visas aren't quite what they seem. Some of my friends were surprised when they got back their passports and checked their visas. Instead of seeing their ESL company, they saw the name of a Chinese school they'd never heard of. What some ESL companies do is partner with government-affiliated schools that have the authority to issue visas. They add their ESL teachers to the school roster when they're really working for a totally separate company.