Changing jobs in China: the banking edition

Last year I changed jobs, and wrote about the ordeal here. I’ve recently changed jobs again, but it was a much smoother process:

  • 15 September: hand in notice
  • 31 October: final day, HR applied for the cancellation of my work permit
  • 14 November: work permit cancellation letter ready, take documents to the agency dealing with the process to start the online application for my new work permit
  • 28 November: online process approved
  • 29 November: counter application started
  • 3 December: apply to cancel residence permit and replace with stay permit
  • 12 December: stay permit collected ALSO work permit fully approved
  • 17 December: apply for residence permit
  • 26 December: passport with new residence permit ready

Everything went smoothly but you’ll notice I wasn’t allowed to work (no work permit = no working) from the day I left my old work (31 October) and mid December. Just as well I had some pennies saved up!

Speaking of pennies, obviously I do not work for free and I prefer to get paid. In China it’s pretty standard practice that your employer will specify which banks they will pay your salary into, and if you don’t already have an account with one of those banks then you need to open one. There are four big banks in China (all state owned, of course): Bank of China, ICBC, Agricultural Bank of China and China Construction Bank. I have accounts with Bank of China and ICBC, but don’t really use the ICBC account as my name is written differently to wherever else it appears on official documents and this causes issues.

On my first day at work I was told I could only be paid into ICBC or China Merchants Bank. As I can’t use my existing ICBC account, I would have to open a new account at either bank – and have heard so many horror stories about ICBC that I chose CMB.

First of all, I had to wait until I had my passport back from getting the residence permit. Once I had this I went to the nearest branch (right by my office, luckily). They immediately listed all the different things I would need to apply: residence permit? work contract? housing contract? police registration form? Shanghai phone number? Yes, to all these. They asked me to fill in a form while they photocopied my documents and then told me they would be in touch once they had authorisation from head office.

I went away and waited. HR messaged me several times asking me what was going on. Eventually I got a call to say I’d been approved.

I went back into the branch and the lady I’d been dealing with wasn’t there, so I explained the whole situation again. The new cashier got out all my documents and some more forms. She gave me a tax form to fill in… which is when things went bad.

I’ve been hearing things about tax changes here in China – essentially foreigners can now be taxed on global income, so they want our tax numbers. My ICBC account has actually been frozen because I haven’t supplied them with this number. But that’s beside the point. It’s never been particularly clear whether they want our Chinese tax numbers or the ones from our home country. After lots of hassle last week, I managed to almost get my Chinese tax number, but it turned out they wanted the home tax number (the form actually said the tax number where we are tax residents, which for me is only China currently, but hey).

I filled in the form – the first I’ve seen with a box for middle name. This caused some problems as China generally assumes I have two first names. The cashier was also confused that my middle name didn’t match what was on my passport but it turned out she was looked at the words “Eireannach/Irish”. The biggest problem was that my passport is Irish and my tax number is my UK national insurance number.

“You need to put your Irish tax number”, she said.

“I don’t have one, I’ve never worked in Ireland,” I told her. “I have only worked in China and the UK, so the only non-Chinese tax number I have is a UK one.”

“I don’t think we can open your account,” she told me. “It has to match your nationality.”

“But I also have British nationality…” I nearly said, before I thought better of it, dual nationality being an alien concept in China.

Eventually, after making some phone calls and involving almost everyone in the branch, it was decided that I could use my passport number as my tax number, and that they didn’t need my UK tax number.

Next up, my phone number had to be verified, by calling the phone company to check that the number was registered to me (and my passport number). I also got sent a 6 digit code to enter.

Finally, I signed my name several times on the screen, ticking “I agree” to things I hadn’t read (does anyone read these things?), set up my PIN, set up the PIN for the app, signed my bank card and got the bank to write down the SWIFT code for me.

1.5 hours later, I had a new bank account!

I went back to the office and let HR know, then downloaded the app. Of course, having a bank card in China is not that useful as it’s not like you can use it to do very much. Most of the time I do everything using Alipay or WeChat Pay. Amazingly I was able to link my new account to both these apps! I transferred some money to test it out and now I just have to hope that I get paid with no drama next week.

To think that in the UK, I’ve had the same bank account since I was six… I’ve been in China less than two years and I already have three! Still, a good test for both my patience and my Chinese skills.

How to change jobs in China

First of all, a disclaimer that is a long post and may be out of date already (things change quickly), and may also be specific to Shanghai – but I thought it might be useful to document the process of changing jobs in China, and to let you all know what I’ve been dealing with, work-wise.

  • Hand in notice (8th July)

Almost four months into working at EF I’d had enough. It was a terrible place to work, and I was fortunate to be offered an interview at a much better company. I jumped at the chance, they offered me the job and I resigned from EF. Chinese labour law stipulates a one-month notice period, but EF wanted me to work for two months, claiming that they have an agreement with the police here. I have no doubt that this is a lie.

  • Get documents notarised by the Chinese embassy in the UK (July/August)

When I applied for my work permit for EF, I needed a police background check and scanned copies of my degrees. The rules have now changed and I needed to get all these documents notarised by the Chinese embassy in the country that issued these certificates – which meant applying for a new police background check (they’re only valid for six months) and FedExing all the documents to an agency in Coventry, who could deal with the whole process for a hefty fee. They then said that the Chinese embassy wouldn’t be able to notarise my degrees as they don’t state my middle name – a new rule, another hurdle to jump through. Eventually this got sorted out by a solicitor writing a statement to say that I am me, middle name or no. Finally, the documents were sent back to China, notarised and ready to be used in the application for the new work permit.

  • On final day at your old company, get a release letter (5 September)

One thing to remember is that foreigners can only work in China with a work permit, which is for a specific employer only. Your employer basically owns you.

If you leave a company, they have to cancel your work permit so that your new company can apply for a new work permit for you, armed with an official ‘release letter’ from the old company. What your old company DOESN’T have to do is cancel your residence permit – the page in your passport that allows you to stay in the country – but my previous employer did this. My residence permit was replaced with a 30 day ‘humanitarian stay visa’, which was backdated to a date in August, giving me 14 working days from when I picked it up (oh yeah and I had to pay for this new visa). This was the most stressful thing, and totally unnecessary – your old company doesn’t need to do this! However mine wouldn’t give me the release letter without handing over my passport to get my residence permit cancelled.

  • New company can apply for a new work permit (5 September)

Your new company needs to already be registered on the system to start this process, which apparently takes a week or so, so ought to be done beforehand. The work permit application process takes minimum 15 working days – five for the online check and then ten for an in-person check. Remember how I said I had 14 working days…

Two weeks after applying for the work permit, the HR guy at my new company called me to say the application had been rejected. It was still at the online stage and had taken this long as the whole computer system had crashed. My application was rejected because one of the forms had printed over two pages and they wanted it one page. I was in a hotpot restaurant with a good friend and didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

The next day, 21 September, we submitted a revised application. My visa was due to expire on 24 September, so I flew to Hong Kong that weekend. It was lovely to be in HK and great to see my uncle, but quite stressful to leave my home and not know if I would be allowed back in the country. I applied for a new visa while in Hong Kong, and picked it up a few days later, flying back to Shanghai later that week, and feeling extremely relieved.

The following week was an 8 day national holiday so nothing could happen with the work permit application – leaving me worried that I’d run out of time on this visa too.

  • Physical health check (18 September)

This is necessary to get a residence permit, and involves going to a health centre out near Shanghai Zoo and doing a whole bunch of checks: height, weight, chest x-ray, ultrasound, ECG, blood tests, blood pressure, eye test. Basically they’re trying to make sure you won’t die while in China and that you don’t have HIV.

My results were sent directly to my new company and HR sent me a message to say they had the certificate. I was intrigued to see what the notes said – I’d passed the test but it said I had a heart abnormality, which freaked me out a little bit (I’m fine! I checked with people who know more about this kind of stuff and it’s okay!).

  • Apply for new residence permit (25 October)

Finally, on 24 October, my work permit was ready. I went to the Entry-Exit Bureau in the depths of Pudong with my HR colleague to apply for the residence permit. This allows you to live in the country, and it takes seven working days to process. I finally got my passport back last week and am so happy to feel settled once again in this crazy old country.

I’ve actually left out a couple of things from this long-winded tale, because they’re specific to my application. Happy to answer any questions about it.

Conclusion

Changing jobs in China is hard. There are a lot of hurdles to jump through. Even though I’m highly skilled and experienced, there’s so much paperwork and confusion, and changing rules and regulations. It had to be done, however, as I couldn’t have stayed at my old job. And now – nearly four months after resigning from my old job – I’m happily working at my new company. Long may it last!

Costs

Document notarisation: £500

FedEx documents to the UK for notarisation: 300 RMB (£35)

Humanitarian visa: 160 RMB (£18)

Health check: 461 RMB (plus 15 RMB for posting results) (£54)

Flights to Hong Kong: 1500 RMB (£173)

Visa in Hong Kong: 750 HKD (£73)

(most of these costs I can claim back from my new company, but it’s certainly caused some temporary cashflow issues!)