Most foreigners will need a visa to enter China. Visas are categorised by a letter according to applicant characteristics – this can seem confusing at first, but once familiar with the appropriate titles, visa application processes will become clearer.

However, visa regulations can change suddenly and without warning. There is often a degree of inconsistency between online resources, consulates and the local Public Safety Bureaus (PSB), where newcomers will have to register within 24 hours of arriving.

Expats are advised to be as thorough as possible with their documentation and, where a minimum requirement is stated, to go over and above that. For instance, it's a good idea to ensure that passports are valid for more than the six-month minimum required by Chinese authorities, especially for longer stays.

Applying for a Chinese visa

We recommend starting the visa process at least one month in advance, but no earlier than three months before the intended date of travel.

To apply for a visa, applicants can start the process by using the Chinese Online Visa Application (COVA) service. Applicants are also typically required to visit an official Visa Application Centre or embassy in person. This is to obtain biometric fingerprint scans, which may be checked and collected again when registering with the PSB after an expat's arrival in China. Visa applications can be tracked online.

Tourist visas for China (L visa)

Tourist visas, categorised as L visas, are issued for tourist visits to China. These come in single-, double- and multiple-entry variants. Single-entry visas are valid for three months from the date of issue, while double- and multiple-entry visas are valid for six or 12 months for stays of no longer than 30 days at a time.

The Chinese government requires proof of travel itinerary or an invitation letter, as well as proof of funds, a visa application fee and evidence of a return or onward ticket.

Non-commercial visit visas for China (F visa)

Under the revised visa system, F visas are issued to applicants who intend to visit China for non-commercial purposes such as conferences, cultural exchanges and study tours. Single-entry F visas are usually valid for 30 days, while longer multiple-entry visas can also be applied for.

Business visas for China (M visa)

The M visa, or commercial trade activities visa, is issued to applicants going to China for commercial and trade activities. In addition to the standard documentation, applicants will also need a letter of invitation from their host company in China or documents such as an official trade fair invitation.

M visas are generally limited to stays of up to 30 days, but are eligible for extensions.

Dependant visas for China (Q and S visas)

Relatives of Chinese citizens or foreigners with permanent residence in China can apply for a Q visa. Q1 visas are for stays over 180 days; Q2 visas are for stays 180 days or less.

Relatives and dependants of foreigners working in China can apply for S visas if their reason for travel is visiting or for personal matters. S1 visas are valid for over 180 days, while S2 visas are valid up to 180 days.

Five and 10-year multiple-entry visas for China

Under certain circumstances, expats can apply for visas valid for five or 10 years. This includes holders of business, tourist, short-term family visit or personal affairs visas (M, L, Q and S visas, respectively). Expats who have previously held multiple-entry visas can typically explore their options for a five-year visa, and once granted this, they may be able to apply for a 10-year visa.

Work visas for China (Z visa)

The Z visa is typically issued to expats taking up employment in China for more than six months, though shorter-term entry permits are also available.

Note that expats working in the journalism field should apply for a separate J visa, and expats deemed to be highly skilled and urgently needed will need to obtain an R visa.

Chinese authorities require extensive documentation for Z visa applications, usually including a confirmation letter of invitation issued by the Chinese company.

Expats should note the difference between a work visa and a work permit for China. Although they are closely related, the former allows the applicant to enter the country for work, while the latter enables them to stay and work in the country.

*Visa regulations are subject to change at short notice, and expats should contact their nearest embassy or consulate for the latest information.

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