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2020-08-12 | All chapters

European Chamber welcomes improved policy for foreign residents returning to China, calls for greater clarity and consistency


Since 28th March, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and the National Immigration Administration (NIA) suspended the ability for foreign nationals holding valid visas or residence permits to return to China. In the intervening months, foreign nationals needing to return were required to apply for a new visa at the Chinese embassy/consulate where they were currently residing. Among a wide range of other required documentation, applicants needed an invitation (PU) letter from the provincial authority of their place of residence in China.

On 10th August, several Europe-based Chinese embassies published a notice on Visa Facilitation for Some Foreign Nationals with Valid Chinese Residence Permits (Notice) (examples can be seen here for the Chinese embassies in Denmark and Germany).

According to the Notice, foreign nationals of the listed countries[1] who hold valid residence permits (for working purposes, family reunions or personal matters) may now apply for return visas, free of charge, at any Chinese embassy or consulate in these countries. According to the Notice posted by the Chinese embassy in Germany (Chinese language only) and also confirmed by the Chamber’s government contacts, a PU letter is no longer required for visa applications. However, it is the understanding of the Chamber that those applying for a visa under one of the various bilateral ‘fast-track’ agreements between China and countries will still need a PU letter.

Although there was some variation in the announcements made by different Chinese embassies, leaving room for interpretation, the Chamber has had it confirmed by its government contacts that visa applications will be accepted based on both an applicant’s nationality as well as their current place of residence (both have to be on the list of 36 countries). In other words, a Swedish person currently residing in France will be able to follow this process, but a Belgian residing in Jamaica will not, nor will an Indian residing in Spain. This will mean that a number of employees of European companies will still be prevented from returning.

The Chamber also understands that only those with a current permit can apply for a return visa, which further excludes those whose valid documentation expired during the pandemic.

There are also capacity issues that need to be addressed. A common estimate finds that around 250,000 foreign experts remain stuck outside of China. With a quarter of aeroplane seats kept empty for social distancing, around 1,250 flights are needed to return them all – which would take around 16 weeks to accomplish under the current framework. Even if the regulatory framework is loosened to expedite their return, two key bottlenecks remain: the capacity to process visa applications at China’s embassies/consulates, and the number of flights going to China.


The European Chamber has for some months been strongly advocating better mechanisms to facilitate the timely and safe return of foreign residents to China, and is encouraged by this positive development.

While an important step, the remaining barriers are still too great for this to completely mitigate the significant impacts on business operations in China. In a recent survey conducted by the Chamber’s Shanghai Chapter, 40 per cent of companies missing employees overseas report a drop in sales, and 30 per cent forecast decreased revenue. Under the current system, it will still take months to bring back all of the foreign experts that European firms in China rely on. The Chamber therefore calls for timely follow-up measures to the Notice, to build on the progress made. This will first entail a detailed and unified clarification of the policy, translated into key European languages, as the information so far published by various Chinese embassies has not been consistent.

The European Chamber also asks for this scheme to be expanded beyond just the European nationals currently residing in Europe (from the current list of countries specified in the Notice) to include all personnel that work for European companies based in China, regardless of their nationality or where they currently reside. In addition, consideration should be given to those whose documentation has expired since they have been stranded outside of China.

There is a further significant issue regarding international schools in China, which constitute crucial infrastructure for the international business community. Roughly 4,000 teachers and their dependents need to return promptly for these international schools to run classes sustainably. Many of these personnel are not European nationals and would therefore not be covered by this policy. If schools are unable to function, many foreign nationals in China may be put in the challenging position of either leaving or sending their dependents back home.

“Although we are encouraged by this progress, we still need to dismantle the remaining barriers, which includes expanding this policy to all overseas foreign nationals that work for the European Chamber’s member companies,” said Joerg Wuttke, president of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China. “Greater clarity and swift follow-up to expedite the return of those still stranded overseas would help to stabilise the business sentiment, which has been in a downward spiral throughout 2020.”

[1] Albania, Austria, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Montenegro, the Netherlands, North Macedonia, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom

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Yichi Zhang