An Unofficial Guide to Moving to China for the First Time (Pandemic Edition)

Relocating to another country is never supposed to be easy. It means leaving the familiar behind and adjusting to the novel ahead. But once you accept that course of life, standing between you and the new world now is a daunting task that is immigration. In an era defined by uncertainties of Covid restrictions, its difficulty is multiplied tenfold. And if that country to which you are moving is China, the only place maintaining the zero Covid policy, then be prepared for strict border regulations. It’s probably best to remind yourself that it’s a privilege to be able to move for life’s opportunities at a strange time like this.

Pictured is the Summer Palace (颐和园), Beijing in August 2015.

This post is a by-product of my own experiences with the Chinese immigration process when I moved to Beijing in early 2022 for a two-year postdoc stint. While applying for my visa, I discovered that the challenges that Covid has brought to China’s newcomers haven’t been recorded, most likely since China has limited entries by foreigners since the pandemic began.

So, below you will find a sketch of each step that I have taken since I accepted the job offer. Although the most ideal audience is probably a Thai person who’s going to work in China on an R visa, I still hope it will provide helpful references for others who might find themselves in a similar situation.

Caveats: With Covid situations constantly changing, your most reliable source is the Chinese embassy having jurisdiction in your area. The HR staff should also be able to help you navigate domestic regulations.

Let me emphasize that this is NOT a comprehensive or official visa guide by any means. If you find any mistakes or if you have recommendations, please let me know. For background, I am a Thai citizen with my academic degrees from the U.S. pursuing a postdoctoral opportunity in Beijing in 2022. Unfortunately, my Chinese is nothing much beyond simple phrases, but I’m slowly learning to speak and recognize the characters.

Before departing for ChinaAfter arriving in China
1. Prepare your documents5. Undergo a quarantine in a hotel for 21-28 days
2. Apply for a visa and book a flight6. Find a place to live
3. Pack and pray that entry regulations won’t change7. Apply for a work permit and a residence permit
4. Get a green Health Code

Before departure

The timeline before your departure might look something like this (click to expand).

  • T – ~ 2 months: Find a flight and start preparing for your documents
    • 2 weeks for confirmation letter of high talent
    • 2 weeks for police clearance and degree authentication form
  • T – ~ 45 days: Book your flight and schedule a visa appointment
  • T – ≤ 30 days: Visa issued
  • T – 7 days: First RT-PCR test; daily temperatures self-monitored for the next 7 days
  • T – 3 days & T – 2 days: Second and third RT-PCR tests (vaccinated with Chinese vaccines) OR T – 2 days: Second RT-PCR test with IgM/IgG antibody and N-protein tests (vaccinated with other vaccines).
  • T – 0 days : Departure date

1. Prepare your documents

After accepting a job offer, you’ll soon have to start the immigration process. The first step consists mostly of paperwork. If you’re a non-Chinese citizen without a valid Chinese residence permit, you’ll definitely be required to have a visa to enter the country legally for work. As each individual case is different, it’s best to confirm (1) your eligibility to apply for entry and (2) a list of most up-to-date required documents with the Chinese embassy or consulate in your area. The document lists below are necessarily incomplete, because I only note those that required some extra work on my or my employer’s part.

1.1 Visa-related documents

    1. An invitation letter from your employer

    Your employer must provide you with an invitation letter with your personal and job details as specified by the embassy. It must be dated and sealed with the company’s official stamp.

    2. A confirmation letter of foreign talent

    This letter is issued by a local bureau of the Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs (in my case, the Beijing office). Your employer should take care of this, but you may have to prepare supporting documents to demonstrate that you are indeed qualified. For me, along with my application, I needed to provide my PhD diploma and a letter from my department certifying my work experience. It took about two weeks to be approved. The letter is valid for 6 months.

    3. A proof of Covid-19 vaccinations

    If you have been inoculated with Covid-19 vaccines, you will need to provide a proof during your visa interview.

    4. Travel history record.

    For me, the embassy asks for a list of cities that I visited from July 2020 until the visa interview date.

If you are applying for a Z visa (work), #2 above is replaced with a PU invitation letter (see Chengdu Expat’s blog) and a notification letter of foreigner’s work permit (see Beijing govertment’s guide). Both are official documents issued by a provincial government and your employer will have to apply for them on your behalf. In the process, you might also need an authenticated police clearance and a degree verification form, see 1.2 and 1.3 below. However, I have no first-hand experience with a Z visa.

1.2 Permit-related documents

While you won’t need the documents below during your visa interview, these will later be required as part of your application for work and residential permits once you arrive in China. More documents might be needed depending on your specific situation.

    1. A police clearance from a local public security authority (Turns out this was not needed for me.)

    This document should demonstrate that you have a clean criminal record in your country of residence and will pose no threats to security and order of the Chinese state. The form should not be more than 6 months old when used. If it is not in Chinese, have it translated as well.

    In Thailand, it is issued by the Police Clearance Service Center in Bangkok. If you don’t want to do this yourself, you can pay an agency for added fees, which can be quite hefty (4500 THB when I inquired!). See the website for required documents. It takes about one to two weeks to process.

    2. A degree verification certificate.

    To use your academic credential in China, you must first verify with relevant Chinese authorities that your degree is from an accredited institution.

    The process is extremely lengthy to do offline, requiring multiple notarizations, so I opted for the online way via the Chinese Service Center for Scholarly Exchange, an organization under the Chinese Ministry of Education: http://zwfwbl.cscse.edu.cn. You will need to upload a scanned copy of your diploma and your transcript. Be aware that the website is in Chinese and that you will need a Chinese mobile number to sign up as well as a Chinese payment method to pay for the fees (360 RMB). Ask your employer or your friend for assistance. The result is available on the website’s portal in about 14 days.

1.3 Authentication of documents

In order to use an official document from another country in China, you must provide proof that it is indeed a true copy. To do this, you must have the document authenticated, first by the government issuing it and then by the Chinese embassy in that country. Contact relevant authorities in your country for specific instructions.

In my case, my police clearance form must be authenticated, since it is not issued by a Chinese government agency. The steps to confirm the authenticity of a Thai official document for use in China are (in order) as follows:

    1. Legalize it at the Department of Consular Affairs (กรมการกงสุล)

    The Department of Consular Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is responsible for legalizing documents (รับรองนิติกรณ์เอกสาร), meaning that they will verify whether the signatures on the documents are authentic. An appointment must be made in advance online. The fee is 400 THB for same-day service and 200 THB for 2-day service. If it’s inconvenient to go yourself, you can hire an agency for a fee.

    2. Authenticate the now-legalized document at the Chinese embassy.

    The Chinese embassy (via the Chinese Visa Service Center) will authenticate only the documents that have already been legalized in Step 1 above. Make an appointment online in advance at https://bio.visaforchina.org. The fee is 700 THB per document plus 749 THB for the visa center. This is done independent of your visa interview. It currently takes about 6 working days. You may also hire an agency for a fee.

2. Apply for a visa and book a flight

If you haven’t already, this step is where you will certainly feel the effects of the pandemic on your plan. Try to remain calm and proceed one step at a time.

When I applied for my visa in Bangkok (late 2021), the restrictions below–which I believe would be in place for a while so long as the pandemic continues–made it a headache to coordinate just when to schedule a visa interview and book a flight.

  • In Bangkok, visa appointments are accepted only two days a week and must be scheduled about two weeks in advance. You must first meet the criteria set by the embassy.
  • The embassy announces that it only issues emergency visas, which are valid only for 30 days. You must fly before the visa expires! (I was lucky that R visas have a longer validity period, but I wasn’t told this at the time. On the other hand, Z visas expire in 30 days.)
  • China requires that the flight into the country be direct; no third-country transit is allowed. But during this time, direct flights to China are extremely scarce and thus very expensive.
    • To illustrate this point, there are only about 10 direct flights to all of China from Bangkok each month! That number is only a tiny fraction of what it used to be daily pre-pandemic! The cheapest 5-hour flight from Bangkok to Beijing costs about $1,500! In contrast, a roundtrip Boston – Bangkok usually set me back just $1,200.

This means it’s almost impossible to fly whenever you would like under $1,500. Flight availability will chiefly determine your travel schedule. While a plane ticket is not required as part of your application and the visa center recommends that you book a flight after your visa is approved, be aware that by that time the flight you want could be either exorbitantly priced or fully booked. Again, remember that you have to fly before your visa expires!

Once you decide when you can fly, schedule a visa interview to submit your application. Bring along supporting documents to the interview. An official at the visa center will review your application and collect visa fees. My R visa took about 6 days to process and turned out to not incur any fees at all, so the money was refunded. This varies by the visa type and the citizenship of the applicant.

When searching for a flight, try to go beyond online marketplaces and ask a local booking agent (Counter Service for me), since some flights are not available to book online. My Air China flight to Beijing was booked through a travel agent, but never showed up on Google Flights.What did I do?

After estimating the market price of the airfare (roughly 1,500 USD), I decided to book a flight online before scheduling a visa appointment just so I could pin down a date, taking the risk of losing the airline’s cancellation fee. I ended up losing the fee (about 200 USD), since I later found a better destination with a similar price through an agent. A small price to pay in the grand scheme of things.

3. Pack and pray that entry regulations won’t change

Hopefully, you have now secured a visa to enter China. In this era, your visa will probably be valid for 30 days, during which you must depart for China. Prior to your boarding, you must also obtain a green Health Code to certify that you pose no Covid risks at the time. See Section 4 below.

There’s quite some time for you to pack. Be prepared for the two or three weeks of hotel quarantine awaiting you. For what to pack, I find these recommendations (pages 2-3) by FHSU to be extremely helpful. So, I will then list only items of note here.

  • ⭐ Passport with a valid Chinese visa
  • ⭐ Printed flight ticket and boarding pass
  • ⭐ Original copies of the documents that you have prepared above, with translations for the non-Chinese documents
  • A smartphone with an international data roaming plan or a Chinese SIM card
  • ⭐ A green Health Code on your phone with original hard-copy Covid test results (see Section 4 below)
  • ⭐ If you haven’t already done so, download and set up two powerful apps, WeChat and Alipay. A domestic Health Kit, which checks whether you can enter a public space, is a feature embedded in these two apps. You can also make payments, call a taxi, and pay for public transportation through them.
  • ⭐ Methods of payment, e.g., cash or the two giant mobile payment apps, Alipay and WeChat Pay. Read here for how to (temporarily?) set up Alipay with a foreign credit card. I wasn’t able to set up WeChat pay without a Chinese bank card.
  • ⭐ You are probably aware that Gmail, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, LINE, and some English news sites are blocked in China. If you need to use these services in China, be prepared. iMessage and FaceTime will work, albeit with a some what slow speed and shoddy resolution.
  • ⭐ Translation apps if you don’t know Chinese. Install Google Translate extension in your browser to translate a webpage; the phone app won’t work without a VPN. Baidu Translate (web, app) is a good alternative. WeChat also has in-app translation for texts and images.
  • A power bank for your phone
  • Your destination address in China printed out in English and Chinese
  • Face masks
  • Your regular medications in original packaging
  • A black ball pen to fill out forms
  • An electrical outlet adapter for China. The two-pronged flat ones will fit without an adapter. Most outlets look like this.
  • Some non-perishable food for your quarantine
  • Comfortable clothes and hand-washing laundry detergent just in case.

Be careful to abide by China’s customs regulations, see more details here.

Since flight cancellations are not uncommon, the only thing you can probably do now is, well, pray… Sometimes things are beyond your control. You might also consider purchasing a travel insurance before you settle down. Carefully check the insurance plan for coverage.

4. Get a green Health Code

In order for China to keep imported Covid cases away from its border, it has created a color-coded electronic Health Code system. Passengers who enter China must be issued a green (i.e. Covid-negative) Health Code before boarding. This section is devoted to the process of getting it. Consult the Chinese embassy/consulate in your area for regulations that apply to your situation.

Update (May 20, 2022): The most recent notice is on May 18, 2022. It is only available in Chinese. It seems that they have replaced a PCR test 7 days prior boarding with a rapid antigen test 12 hours before boarding instead. Please check the notice carefully. What’s below is possibly outdated.

For passengers departing from Thailand, the requirements depend on (1) whether you have been infected with Covid and (2) which Covid vaccines you have received. What’s below is updated as of January 22, 2022; see all relevant notices by the embassy in Bangkok here.

  • You must fly directly from Thailand to China.
  • If you have tested positive for Covid, you must wait for at least 90 days after you recover and test negative before you apply for a Health Code.
  • Now, to apply for a Health Code, be prepared to get multiple tests in the week before your flight:
    • if you have received Sinovac or Sinopharm shots, then there are test days ahead:
      • 7 days prior to your departure date: an RT-PCR test and
      • within 72 hours before boarding: two more RT-PCR tests at least 24 hours apart (so best at 3 and 2 days prior).
    • if you have received other vaccines (Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca, etc.), there are two test days ahead:
      • 7 days prior to your departure date: an RT-PCR test and
      • within 48 hours before boarding: an RT-PCR test, an IgM/IgG antibody test, and an N-protein test.
    • if you also have been infected with Covid and already waited for at least 90 days, you must also provide medical reports that include results of your chest CT or X-Ray.
  • All tests must be administered by medical institutions recognized by the embassy or consulate in your area. The two/three RT-PCR tests must be conducted at different institutions for the approved list.
    • Costs add up. In January 2022, an RT-PCR test costs between 2,800 – 4,500 THB, not including extra fees for express service. Most results are available within 24 hours.
  • Upon receiving a negative result from your first test (7 days prior), start monitoring daily temperatures and fill in the personal health monitoring form to be uploaded with your application.

Once you have filled in the health monitoring form and have your test results in order, you will need to submit photos of the originals (not scanned copy or electronic copy) online at https://hrhk.cs.mfa.gov.cn/H5/. You will also need your passport with the visa, flight itinerary, and your vaccine certificate for the Health Code application.

If everything goes well, meaning all tests are negative and your application is approved, within a few hours, your Health Code will turn green temporarily for 24 hours for you to fly. It looks like this. You will now be allowed to board your flight!

After arrival in China

5. Undergo a quarantine in a hotel for 21-28 days

Update (May 20, 2022): It seems that Beijing has shortened its inbound quarantine requirement to 7+7 days of centralized quarantine plus home isolation if you have a residence in Beijing and fly directly here. Otherwise, it’s 14 days of hotel quarantine. Double check before you fly.

The strict zero Covid policy made itself felt even before my Air China flight to Beijing Capital Airport (PEK) took off. It felt like I traveled back in time to 2020 with all crew members and many passengers in hazmat suits. Certainly, no one wanted to catch Covid on the plane after having stayed away from it for so long.

Beijing was then getting ready for the 2022 Winter Olympics, the airport’s arrival terminal had been walled off into a walkway of checkpoints: nucleic acid tests (nose and throat swabs), immigration, and customs. There was no other international arrival around the same time, and a bus had been waiting at the baggage claim to carry the passengers on my flight to a pre-assigned quarantine hotel that was unbeknownst to us.

My quarantine hotel turned out to be the fine 4-star Holiday Inn Beijing Airport Zone. I was quite lucky that my room was spacious with high ceiling. The food ranged from OK to good, and outside deliveries were not allowed. There is really no way to know where you will be assigned and how the hotel manages the quarantine. What is certain is that you have to physically isolate by yourself (unless you travel with a small child) for 21 days and only open the doors to retrieve food and get frequent covid tests. (I was supposed to be tested 6 times, but the actual number ended up being 15 plus two environmental swabs of surfaces in the room.) Body temperature is also recorded at least once daily. By this time, you should update the HR staff so they know where you are.

The centralized quarantine isn’t free. For me, the total expense was 7,700 RMB. When I checked in, cash was not accepted (which I assumed was for sanitary reason). Fortunately, the hotel processed my Visa card; they also accept WeChat Pay, though curiously not Alipay. This fee also varies by hotels and cities.

Your contact with the outside world won’t be cut off during quarantine, as you will have WiFi and a TV. But know that many services like Google, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, major English news outlets, etc. are blocked in China. You might need prepare for a way around the firewall.

After three weeks, you will be issued a piece of paper with an official red seal stating that you have completed centralized quarantine on arrival. If your destination is another city, you may also have to undergo another weeklong quarantine there.

Following the final quarantine, there will likely be a period of “health monitoring” for 7-14 days. How this is enforced seems to vary by neighborhoods, or more descriptively housing complexes. In my case, I was allowed to go outside but I had to report my temperature daily in a WeChat group and take two covid tests at the end of days 6 and 7. On the other hand, a colleague of mine in another housing complex had to stay inside the residence for the week. The HR staff may be able to help you clarify the policy if you don’t know Chinese.

  • What you might want to do during quarantine
    1. Get a Chinese SIM card! In China, a mobile number has to be registered and is essentially your login username for many services. You can ask a friend to send an already registered SIM under their name to your quarantine hotel. Or you can buy one from Nihao Mobile–a service for expats–and register it under your name with a passport. They ship it to your quarantine hotel too. (I’m still using a Nihao number and it has worked fine so far.) If you use someone else’s number, you might consider getting your own number at a store once you get out. When I opened a bank account, I was asked to provide a proof that the phone number is indeed mine.
    2. Figure out your housing situation following it. (See below.)
    3. Set up mobile payment if you haven’t done so. This also allows you to receive money, so you will have a way to pay rent and other move-in costs.
    4. Stay calm, rest, and maybe get some exercise in.

Before you go outside you might want to apply for a Health Kit of your city. Many public places ask you to scan a QR code to register and check if your Health Kit is green, meaning that you have no Covid symptoms, in order to permit entry. In Beijing, you can apply for the Beijing Health Kit (jiàn kāng bǎo 健康宝) on WeChat or Alipay with your phone number and passport. My covid test records from the hotel were already in the system when I applied and I didn’t need to provide anything else.

6. Find a place to live

When I lived in Boston, I’d always thought the rental market there was quite ridiculous with how quickly everything moves, the high realtor fees, and the substantial sum you need before you move in. Until I move to Beijing…

I needed a place to be after quarantine and decided to look for an apartment virtually during the quarantine. I contacted the secretary at the institute I would be working and was recommended a realtor. She was willing to work with me, a foreigner (something that you might want to check), through WeChat. Thanks to the immensely useful in-app text translation, my apartment hunting was in two languages with me typing in English and she in Chinese. The process itself was, I assume, the same as elsewhere in that the realtor quickly shows you an apartment that you’re interested in. You then make a decision to initiate the lease signing. (Apps or Websites like 安居客 or 贝壳 are a good starting point to look at listings.)

But here’s where it’s different. In Beijing, the landlord doesn’t collect rent monthly during a standard one-year lease—but every six months or one year all at once. You also have to add the deposit, realtor’s fee, property fee, and central heating fee. Together, these work out to be 8 or 14 months’ worth of rent that you need when you sign the lease. However, you’re only legally allowed to bring in 10,000 RMB with you into the country… I got around this by borrowing some money from a friend in China on Alipay and paying my rent with a combination of Alipay and cash. I made this payment after my paper lease was finalized, which took about two weeks after moving in.

A little bit about my area: I live near Yanqi Lake in Huairou district. It’s a scenic exurb about 2 hours from Beijing’s city center. My rent is 4,300 RMB for a furnished, modern, and quite well-maintained 89 m2 two-bedroom apartment (somewhat on the expensive side for the area). Apartment conditions as well as prices vary widely.

When moving in, you will likely have to report to the neighborhood committee. The smoothness of this step depends on the pandemic restrictions of the moment. Don’t forget to register your accommodation with the police either online or at a police station in your area within 24 hours. The latter is a legal requirement for foreigners in China. For how to set up utilities, ask your rental agent or your landlord. See also this post at China Expat Society.

Update (May 20, 2022): As you may already know, recently Beijing has been experiencing a small but persistent outbreak of Covid cases. Normal life may be interrupted as the city attempts to put the spread under control to avoid a citywide lockdown like Shanghai. Check with your neighborhood, employer, or colleagues about the current restrictions.

7. Apply for a work permit and a residence permit

Once you get here, the HR department will guide you through the domestic paperwork. Take instructions from them. Just make sure that you prepare all the documents required. I only needed to get a physical exam once in downtown (~650 rmb) and visit the exit-entry bureau in the district to apply for the two permits together (800 rmb). The process takes about 2-3 weeks. The residence permit replaces the visa you used to enter China and, as a result, you will have to apply for a new accommodation form.


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