Visas, residence permits, and police registration

China is a paper and red tape-loving country. All you have to do to figure that out is plan a trip to visit, and it gets even worse when you move here. We recently had a little issue with our paperwork and I wanted to pass on the info we found out so you won’t be stuck in the same awkward situation.

We’re coming right up on our one year mark here in China (crazy!) which means it’s time to renew the residence permits. But when we started doing some checking we found out that we were missing some of the paperwork that was supposed to be taken care of 9 months ago. umm. oops?

So I’m going to try and lay it out for you. I’m certainly no expert, but having recently done this (incorrectly) I’m hoping I can give a simple crash course in Chinese paperwork so you at least have an idea of what you need to do to be legal.

Disclaimer: I am no expert. Please do not rely solely on this explanation. As I mentioned, we did this wrong the first time. It is for your information only. You should probably find an expert to help you with all this mess. Yes, it’s kind of a pain, but necessary.

The simplified process:

  1. Get a visa in your passport that lets you enter China. There are several types including tourist, work, and student visas.
  2. Register where you are staying with the police station. Valid for 3 months. If you are staying in a hotel, they do this for you when they take your passport at check-in. You’ll need to do this yourself (or your realtor can help) if you move into an apartment or other type of housing.
  3. Get your residence permit by taking your police registration paperwork and your medical exam paperwork and your passport to… er, somewhere. Told you I’m no expert.
  4. Go back to the police station with your valid residence permit and register AGAIN. This time it’s valid until your residence permit expires. The expiration dates on the two should now match.
  5. These are valid for either 6 months or one year. To renew again you’ll start at step 3 taking your police registration to get a new “sticker”, aka. residence permit, in your passport. Then take THAT back to the police registration to update your paperwork there. Told you it’s lots of red-tape.

Now for a little more explanation if you care to read through it…

1. Visas

No matter if you’re coming to visit or moving here, you have to have some kind of visa to get in the country. A visa is really just a sticker that covers a page in your passport. It looks like this.

A tourist L visa is for touring China. They have several types depending how long it lasts and how many times you need to enter and leave. If you are from the US, they are much more expensive than if you are from other countries. Wonder why that is? Oh well…

You’ll need an Employment Z visa if you’re moving here to work. These let you into the country and will need to be changed to a Work and Residence Permit by following the steps I’m outlining now.

You can read more about the different visas on the Chinese Embassy site.

One tricky little thing about getting a Chinese visa is that you or someone working for you must present your application in person to the embassy or consulate. If you are working for a company who is moving you to China, obviously they should take care of this for you. Otherwise, you’ll probably have to hire a travel/visa agent to go in person with your paperwork. Yes, even if you’re just visiting.

2. Police Registration

Anytime you are in China, you must tell the police station where you are staying. If you are in a hotel, they will take care of this for you so you may not even realize you’ve done it. It’s the reason you must have a passport to check in at any hotel in China.

When and if you move into your own housing, you’ll need to go to the local Public Security Bureau with your passport to register your new address.

Technically, this is also true if you have family or friends come to stay with you. They are also supposed to register their address with the PSB.

The important thing to note here is the expiration date of your registration. You’ll need this paperwork BEFORE you go to get your Residence Permit, BUT it is usually only valid for 3 months. You’ll need to go back to the police station to reregister AGAIN after you get your new Residence Permit. (And also if you move at any point during your stay in China.)

3. Residence Permit

You’ll need this if you’re going to be living in China and you have a D, J-1, X, or Z visa.

From what I understand, (which may very well be wrong, as this is complicated) your Residence Permit replaces your visa. Your visa is a “temporary” entry pass and ours was canceled when we entered the country to move here. (This is not the case if you have a multiple-entry tourist visa or F-business visa.) The Residence Permit becomes your new entry and exit pass and essentially says “I live here” letting you come and go an unlimited number of times. They both are technically temporary I guess because they both expire, but the point is, you need one or the other to legally be in China, and to get back in again if you have to leave.

4. Police Registration AGAIN

Now, take your passport with the new residence permit back to the police station to get the expiration date ammended. When you finish this process, the dates on the registration and the permit should match. You’ll need this updated police registration when it comes time to renew your residence permit. At that point, you start over at number 3 and do it all again.

For a much clearer explanation of this process, read this article at

It is also a good idea to register with your local embassy/consulate (Anybody know the difference between an embassy and consulate? I have no idea.) The website for U.S. Consulate in Shenyang is You can register online and get updates via email.

In conclusion… (as a side note, I really hate when people type out “in conclusion”. It’s the end of the page, of course it’s the conclusion! But I just did it. What does that say about me? I’m not really sure.)

China loves their red stamps. And paperwork. And crazy loopholes. Sometimes you feel like you’re going in circles – hopefully you’ll find that those circles eventually get you to the destination as the journey is part of the adventure!


4 thoughts on “Visas, residence permits, and police registration

  1. I always thought that an Embassy was like the “main office”, whereas a Consulate was more like a branch office. I think you can do just about all the same stuff at both locations, but the appointed Ambassador usually works at the Embassy.

  2. Kristin: This will be helpful to so many! We had a visitor who had her travel booked and tours in place for her visit to us in China. When I asked her about her Visa she told me she didn’t need one ‘the last time’ she came to China! Well, honey, things change around here FAST! So she scrambled to get one expedited, thankfully! ~CAROL in Nanjing

  3. I am living in China. Now I am in a hotel.
    In 10 days I move in with my girlfriend into her apartment
    So I need to get a physical exam for a resident permit?
    Once I get the physical exam where do I go to get the resident permit?

    Thanks, Billy G

    • Did you come to China on a Z work visa? I think you’ll only be able to get the resident permit if you have one of these. (I could be totally wrong about this. It’s a confusing process.) Unfortunately, I’m no expert and I only know the process we followed. We did have to have a physical exam to get our residence permit.