Visa processes for China are notoriously difficult to navigate. Immigration procedures are further complicated by the fact that they are largely carried out at a local level and each locality has its own unique structure. This means the visa requirements will vary according to where an expat will be based. For this reason, most expats consult a qualified immigration practitioner.

Foreign nationals are required to apply for the relevant visa before arriving in China. Because immigration regulations in China are subject to change at short notice, expats should consult their local Chinese embassy for the most recent list of requirements for each type of visa.

F visas are issued to applicants who are visiting China for non-commercial purposes such as conferences, cultural exchanges and study tours. Single-entry F visas are usually only valid for 30 days but multiple-entry visas can be valid for a period of up to 24 months.

Single-entry tourist visas for China are generally valid for 90 days, although it is possible to apply for longer periods. Multiple entry visas can are granted for periods of between six to 24 months.
These are granted to those travelling to China for commercial and trade activities. Applicants are required to have a formal letter of invitation from a Chinese host company or documentation to show that they’ll be attending a trade event.
Business visas are generally limited to stays of up to 30 days. Those who have utilised an M visa more than twice in two years and are in possession of a certificate of investment or business licence are allowed to apply for a multiple-entry M visa, valid for up to a year.

Once an expat has arrived in China on a Z visa, they will then need to start the process of applying for a work permit. Each case is unique and there are differences in each city’s immigration and labour process. In general, a work permit application has to be sponsored by a locally registered company in China and expats will be required to live and work in the same location as this company. Furthermore, the applicant will need to have a medical examination at an authorised hospital.

Expats who want to take up employment in China for more the six months must apply for a Z visa. This visa can also be used by family members that are accompanying the expat. It is generally valid for up to 90 days and expats need to apply for a residence permit at their local Public Safety Bureau (PSB) within 30 days of entering the country.

Within 24 hours of arriving in China, expats must complete a Temporary Residence Registration Form and produce their passport at the nearest PSB. Some cities require expats to do this after every trip they make out of the country.

In addition to applying for a work permit and registering their temporary residence, expats need to apply for a Working Foreigner’s Residence Permit at their local PSB within 30 days of arriving in the country.

This is an expat’s proof that they're legally living in the country. Permits are valid for up to a year and can be renewed for a year at a time, usually when a work permit extension is applied for.

If someone wants to move to a different region of China, they'll have to get permission from their local PSB and apply for a new residence permit at the PSB in their new destination. Furthermore, if any changes need to be made to the residence permit, such as a change of address, they have to be applied for within less than 10 days after the change takes place.