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My friend and I are American citizens and college students who are both studying Chinese. We would like to go to China this summer to improve our Chinese, and have been looking into private work exchanges (à la HelpX, Workaway) as a way to accomplish this. Is this possible to do legally, and what type of visa would we be looking at getting? We wouldn't be there longer than three months, and probably more like two. The idea is that we will arrange to stay with hosts beforehand and once there work a certain number of hours a week in exchange for room and board, so money would not be changing hands.

We also obviously don't want to commit any immigration violations/do anything that would make it harder for us to obtain visas on future visits for work or study.

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Depending on the short-term arrangements you make, you would want to apply for an F visa (tourist visa), issued to those who intend to go to China for exchanges, visits, study tours, and other activities, including volunteering in exchange for room and board. Those who go purely for tourism are issued an L visa.

On both HelpX and Workaway.info, there are listings that include the notation that they will assist with obtaining a work visa. Generally, this means providing you with supporting documents.

One-Stop Global Times has an excellent outline of who needs what, and how to get the right visa for your volunteer activities (志愿者 zhìyuàn zhě).

Do I still need a Work Visa if I’m working in China for a short time (a “short work stay”)?

When a Z Visa (Work Visa) is required

Foreigners must apply for a Work Visa if they will be staying in China for up to 90 days for the following five reasons:

  1. They have been invited by a Chinese company or the Chinese government to complete tasks involving technology, scientific research, management, guidance or cooperation;
  2. They have been invited to participate in athletic tryouts at a Chinese sporting institution such as a school, club, sports association etc.;
  3. To shoot films, including advertisements and documentaries;
  4. To perform in fashion shows, including car modeling and print advertisements;
  5. To participate as performers in commercial performances (eg. a band playing at a bar or nightclub).

> When an M Visa (Business Visa) is required >

Foreigners must apply for a Business Visa if they will be staying in China for up to 90 days for the following reasons:

  1. Providing services such as maintenance, installation, commissioning, disassembly, guidance or training associated with the purchase of machines and equipment;
  2. Guiding, supervising and inspecting a project that has been won in a bid and will be carried out in China;
  3. Being sent to work short-term at a Chinese branch, subsidiary or representative office of a foreign company;
  4. Performing a role as an athlete, coach, medical staff, assistant and or related staff participating in most sports competitions.

When an F Visa (Tourist Visa) is required

Foreigners must apply for a Tourist Visa if they will be staying in China for up to 90 days for the following reasons:

  1. Volunteering (eg. at an orphanage), whether for free or for money, as long as the payment comes from a foreign entity;
  2. Participating in commercial performances noted as “foreign-related non-commercial performances” by the cultural authorities in the Approval Letter.

How to apply for a Work Visa for short-term tasks

Foreign entertainment individuals or entities will need to gather the following documents – your employer/inviter should provide you with copies of 1, 2, 3, 5 and 6 in this list. Once you have the documents, you can follow the application process as seen on this page.

  1. An Approval Letter from the relevant local cultural authorities, noting whether the visit is for commercial or non-commercial purposes;
  2. Get the Approval of Short-term Employment for Foreigners Working in China, which is a stamped form, from the relevant local cultural authorities. “Entertainment groups” such as a band, circus or choir, can use one Approval Letter and Approval of Short-term Employment for their whole group (non-entertainment groups should follow the guide below for “Other foreigners”);
  3. Invitation letter from the inviting company;
  4. Original passport (with at least six months to go before expiration at the time of application);
  5. Copy of inviting company’s business license and tax certificate;
  6. Cooperation agreement/project contract between the inviting company and the invited group/individuals.

Other foreigners will need to gather the following documents – as above, your employer/inviter should provide you with copies of 1, 2, 3, 5 and 6 in this list. Once you have the documents, you can follow the application process as seen on this page.

  1. A Work Permit from the local Human Resources and Social Security Bureau (see this page for list of addresses);
  2. Approval of Short-term Employment for Foreigners Working in China, which is a stamped form, from local Human Resources and Social Security Bureau;
  3. Invitation letter from the Chinese partner company;
  4. Original, signed passport (with at least six months to go before expiration at the time of application);
  5. Copy of Chinese partner’s business license and tax certificate;
  6. Cooperation agreement/project contract between the parties.

If the foreign parties intend to stay in China for more than 30 days, they need to apply for a residence permit within 30 days of arrival.

The Work Visa for short-term tasks can’t be extended. Anyone who wants to work for more than 90 days should apply for a regular Work Visa. You can check our guide here.

If you are found on wrong type of visa, you might face penalties. For more information see this article.

Grace Yang's China Law Blog article on Short Work Stays In China: Work Visa Now Probably Required is worth reading for the coverage of China’s Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security (“MHRSS”), Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Public Security, and Ministry of Culture jointly published the Circular on the Issuance of Interim Processing Procedures Regarding Foreigners Who Enter China to Complete Short-Term Tasks (人力资源社会保障部 外交部 公安部 文化部关于印发《外国人入境完成短期工作任务的相关办理程序(试行)》的通知), effective January 1, 2015.

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