What this all boils down to is that there really aren't many hard and fast general rules when it comes to getting visas and permits. The rules can change from consulate to consulate, from province to province, from city to city, from time to time, from person to person...making it pretty difficult to know what's true in any particular time and place.
So, this post is dedicated to telling you what I and others DO know about these matters, and these will cover the most basic and important of your bases. What we say won't steer you wrong, but it's still very important to work closely with your employer and find out the specific current conditions your future home city will require in order to get you into China and settled in for your job.
Here are two very important truths you need to know:
1. The ultimate document you need is NOT a Z Visa, it's a Residence Permit. The Z Visa just lets you enter the country and start work, so that your employer can start applying for your Residence Permit.
2. The ONLY document that lets you live and work legally in China is the Residence Permit. Any employer who tells you otherwise is lying to you. They're putting you in jeopardy for their own gain. NEVER take a full-time job that doesn't offer you a Residence Permit!
Now, let's look at some of the documents in question:
A Tourist (L) Visa, as you might expect, is usually carried by turistas who stay in hotels while in China. However it's also sometimes used in cases such as foreign spouses of Chinese citizens. No L Visa gives you the right to work or, unless you're a Spouse, rent a local apartment.
A Business (F) Visa is generally used by foreigners who work in China for a foreign company and get paid at least in part in a foreign currency. Although it's occasionally used for such people as Guest Lecturers, in general it does not convey the right to work for a Chinese company. It used to also require living only in approved company housing, but this restriction seems to be relaxing.
A Work (Z) Visa is for foreigners coming to China to work for a Chinese company. Its primary role is to get you into China so you can obtain a Work Permit and a Residence Permit. Once you've entered China, it must be converted into the Permits within 30 days or it will simply expire. Once you have the Permits in hand, the Z Visa ceases to have any meaning.
There are many other Visa categories- students, diplomats, journalists, and so on- but most reading here never actually encounter them.
A Foreign Expert Certificate (FEC) is basically a certification that you have qualifications useful for work in China for a Chinese company. For most teachers, this will stem from your college degree, although for some workers (not teachers!) it can come from experience, professional certifications, or other such sources. This small passporty booklet with state your name, your occupation, and your employer. In many cases it also has an entry indicating the amount of Chinese money you can convert to another currency. You may have to show it in order to legally change money, but otherwise it has little use to the foreigner once obtained, other than a source of amusement at finding one suddenly an “expert.” However, in most cases this document is a prerequisite for the Work Permit, so it is important to obtain and secure the FEC.
A Work Permit (WP) is pretty much just what it says- it conveys the right to work legally in China for a Chinese company. If you don't have a WP, you would be an illegal migrant worker in a very authoritarian country...not a position you want to be in. Although you probably won't be given a WP to hold for yourself, it is a prerequisite for the Residence Permit and is extremely important.
A Residence Permit (RP) signifies the right to live legally in China for a particular period of time. It essentially subsumes the role otherwise played by a visa. It usually takes the form of a sticker on a page of your passport. If you don't have an RP (which implies you also don't have a WP), you're pretty much boned in China, and you need to leave the country before any visa you may have expires. Again, some employers (and some rather clueless foreigners) will tell you it's OK to be in China and hold down a job without these permits. They're wrong, wrong, wrong. Getting caught working in China without an RP can easily, and often does, result in very heavy fines, detention, forcible sodomy, and deportation out of China. This is a risk you just don't want to run.
The Residence Permit is obviously the only way to go. So, how do you go about getting one?
At some point in the process, you will be required to submit certain documents. Your Chinese employer will need things like a copy of your passport information page, proof of college graduation (diploma, transcript, or college issued confirmation; whichever you use needs to have the school's official stamp on it...), a letter of introduction, a copy of your vaccination record, the results of a preliminary health check, and possibly more. Your employer should specify exactly what they need and when; be sure to get everything they need and bring it with you to China. They will add an invitation letter and other documents to your information.
The most common way to a Residence Permit is to get a Z Visa while still in your home country. You and/or your employer will send or take your passport and documents from the employer (and they'll tell you exactly what to do!) to a Chinese Consulate. The Chinese Consulate will paste a Z Visa into your passport, and send the passport back to you. Then, you head out to your destination city in China. There, you will likely be asked to take another medical exam. Finally, your passport, along with both your and the employer's documents, will be sent off to the Labor Bureau (usually in the provincial capitol) for a Foreign Expert Certificate and a Work Permit. Then it goes to the Public Safety Bureau (PSB; basically the police agency you will see everywhere in China), who will put the Permit into your passport. Finally, the completed passport is sent back to the school and to you. You're all done! It's a good idea to photocopy your passport info page and your Permit, keep the copies to carry with you, and put the actual documents somewhere very safe.
Another way to get your Residence Permit is less common (although apparently being seen more often with time), and has a bit more risk for you. However, it generally works fine and is not cause for undue worry. In this scenario, you will get an L (Tourist) Visa, and bring it and the documents your school asks you to bring with you to your destination in China. They will then send you (usually) to Hong Kong to get the Z Visa. From this point on, it's exactly like the first method- your passport will be sent off to finalize your permits and returned to you. You can get a Tourist Visa through any local travel agent in your home country, and that process is quick, easy and cheap compared to a Z Visa. In Hong Kong, there will be visa agencies (China Travel Service was always my personal choice) to help you get the Visa, or you can get it yourself if you really want to spend a day or two in lines in the Chinese Consulate in HK. If your school takes you on this route, they should cover your travel and hotel costs and at least a chunk of your expenses...you're doing all this for them, after all. BEFORE you accept a job like this, get a written agreement that the Permits will be gotten for you on arrival, and that they will cover your costs on the visa trip. If you can't get these assurances up front and in writing, DON'T TAKE THE JOB. But with these things cleared up, you should be fine. The risk I mentioned before takes the form of possibly not having a job when you arrive in China- even if you have a contract. This risk is very real...but also very unlikely to happen to you. The vast 99+% majority of Chinese employers will be happier than you know to have you there.
Note that when getting your Permits, you will have to turn over your passport to your employer so all this can happen. This is normal, reasonable, and required, and nothing to worry about. The time to get the Permits can be up to about one month. However, this is the only time you should ever let your passport out of your kung fu grip! They should give you your passport and your Foreign Expert Certificate right away after the Permit process is done. If they don't, stop working immediately, and contact your country's nearest Consulate in China.
Also, note that in 99.999% of cases, a college degree, any subject, is now required to get Work and Residence Permits in China. The various TEFL/TESOL Certificates available out there will NOT substitute for a college degree; nor is such a certificate a requirement for the Permits. This is a fairly new development in China, or at least its enforcement is, but it's now the law of the land. I'm afraid that this means that if you don't have a degree, you probably won't be able to get teaching work in China...at least not legally, and you definitely don't want to work in China illegally. I'm sorry.
One thing to watch for with these documents: Have a Chinese friend- NOT someone from your employer!- examine your Residence Permit and your Foreign Expert Certificate. You should be listed as a Teacher, and the company listed should be your employer. If not, you have a problem. It used to be common for schools that did not have a license to hire foreigners, and therefore were unable to provide Permits themselves, to buy the Permits from another institution that was able to provide them. In recent years, though, this has become illegal (or at least started being enforced), and the authorities have started cracking down on the practice. Getting caught in something like this can have dire consequences for you- even if you didn't know it was happening. I had this happen to me once, and I was damn lucky to not get hauled off and deported!
Once you have all this stuff settled, you should be set for the remainder of your current contract. If you decide to stay another year, getting the Permits renewed should be much easier than getting them the first time. If you stay with the same employer, they just send your passport off again for a process similar to what took place on the first round. If you go to a new employer, you must be sure to get a Release Letter from your old employer when you've settled with them. With this, your new employer can easily and quickly get you new Permits. Without it, you're back to Square One: exit the country (at least to Hong Kong), get a new Z Visa, and go through the whole rigamarole again! Sometimes Chinese employers will balk at providing this Letter, but you need to press the point until you get it. Your former employer can't legally deny you a Release Letter, but sometimes in China legalities don't mean very much. Make noise, if you need to!
Whether you return home or stay in China at the end of the contract, you must either leave or get a new Permit before the expiration date on your old Residence Permit. The fine for being in China with an expired Permit (or visa) is 500 RMB (around $75 US) PER DAY, plus arrest and other hassles are possible. It is therefore very important to take care of these things promptly.
Let me end this article by repeating a plea I made early on...and if you can only learn one thing from this article, please make it this: Please, never work in China without having the proper Permits and being fully legal. Never accept any full-time job that doesn't offer the Permits. It's just too easy to come to grief by doing so. Once you have the Permits in hand, you can go ahead and work part-time just about anywhere...but you MUST have that one full-time gig that provides your documents. Again, some sleazy schools may try to convince you that you can work for them on an F or L Visa. They do this because they aren't licensed to legally employ foreigners...and they're desperate because without native-speaking teachers, they won't be able to attract many students or get a high price for their classes. Sadly, such places are only too happy to use you for their own profit, regardless of the risk it places upon you. They may smile and give you endless assurances, but they're lying to you so you will make them some money. And if it all collapses, you be left holding the bag...in the eyes of Chinese law, you will be held responsible even if it's all your employer's fault. Please, please, please...don't wish this on yourself.
I want you to have the best possible experience living and working in China...that's part of why places like Raoul's China Saloon and ESL watch were started in the first place. And being legal, and staying legal, is an essential part of making that happen.
Raoul F, Duke
Raoul's China Saloon