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How to Successfully Switch ESL Jobs in China


Having spent a fair amount of time in the English teaching trenches, I know that switching teaching jobs can be stressful at best and a dejected plane ride back home at worst. Nevertheless, changing schools can be done with minimal complications. What follows is a step-by-step guide to help you through the process. While the guide is primarily directed towards those switching between “official” ESL jobs, there are still many people who take teaching gigs at schools that don’t provide a work visa, and I’ll do my best to offer up some tips for them as well. In addition, please note that most of the following job-switching tips also applies to non-ESL teaching jobs.

Switching between official ESL jobs

1) Notify both employers
To insure a stable transition, start by notifying both your present school and your future school of your situation and make sure that the dates are perfectly aligned so you don’t have a week/month where all of a sudden you’re without a visa.

2) Get your release letter
The release letter is very important because without it, it looks to the authorities like two companies are sponsoring your Z visa, which is illegal. Your present school must give you a release letter so that your future school can begin applying for your new Z visa. Ideally, the school will give the release letter as soon as possible. However, if you broke the contract or accrued some bad guanxi during your time there, schools will likely drag their feet on getting the documents to you. See #6 for tips on what you can do if this happens.

3) Get a temporary L visa (possibly)
During this transition period, you’ll most likely need to switch to a temporary, zero-entry tourist visa in order to have enough time to file the paperwork for the Z visa with the new school. While it is possible to transfer directly from a Z to another Z visa, it depends heavily on how fast your present school is with getting your papers to you. In the event that you do need to get a temporary L visa, you won’t need a release letter to obtain it; you only need the letter for when you apply for the new Z visa. According to the most recent Visa guidelines (as of August 2012), you can still switch from a Z visa to a 30-day L visa at your local police station.

4) Applying for your new Z visa and Resident Permit
After (finally) receiving the release letter from your former school, the new school will apply for your new Foreign Expert Certificate and, once that is done, submit the application for the new Z visa. Thankfully, when you are switching Z visas, there is no need to leave the country, even if there is a temporary L in the middle. Once you receive your new Z visa, head back to your local PSB to re-update your temporary residence permit slip, then head to your city’s Entry-Exit Management Bureau to apply for a Residence Permit for your passport. Once you get that back, head back one last time to your local PSB to update your temporary residence permit slip. The total process, starting from getting your release letter to applying for and receiving a new Z visa and Residence Permit could take anywhere from a few weeks to a month depending on how fast you and your new school handle everything, hence the reason you may need a temporary L visa.

5) Extra steps when switching apartments or cities
If you’re residing in the same apartment as before, after getting your new Z visa, bring your old temporary residence permit slip and housing contract with you and simply update it. If you’ve switched apartments, then you’ll need to go through the extra step of registering at your new address, which is usually handled with the assistance of your real estate agent or landlord. You’ll have to get your new Z visa and you’ll have the normal thirty days to register your new place under your new visa. Also, if you’re changing jobs within the same city, you won’t have to go do another health check to apply for your new Z visa, according to what an official at the Entry-Exit Management Bureau in Shanghai told me. However, if you’ve moved to a different city, you’ll most likely be required to (in addition to registering a new address).

6) Dealing with difficulties
Unfortunately, even at legitimate schools and companies you may encounter some difficulties getting your money at the end of the contract or getting your release letter (click here for tips on quitting without “burning bridges”). For ESL teachers, the two main ways a school can make this process difficult are by refusing to pay you or refusing to give you a release letter. The official way to deal with payment issues is to sue them for your money. As is often the case here though, going to court, is no guarantee that you will get your money, and it may even cost you more money in the long run. Alternatively, you can contact the Labor Administration Department in your city ( 劳动行政部门), which handles cases regarding back wages. However, as previously noted in the above-linked article, the best way to avoid this fiasco is simply to try and leave on “good terms” and schedule your resignation near a payday. As for the second difficulty, the official way to deal with getting your release letter is by getting your local PSB involved and having them ask the school for the release letter. You’ll have to take several documents with you including your contract with your previous employer and your current visa/residence documents. Explain to the officers that you need your release letter for another job and, if you fulfilled the requirements for your previous contract, they will call the school and obtain the letter for you. Depending on the situation, once the PSB gets involved the school should come up with the document within a week.

Switching from an unofficial ESL job

If you work at a very small school, it’s likely that they don’t have the resources or capabilities to provide you with a proper Z visa. In these instances, they tend to find clever ways around the pesky issue of giving Z visas to their foreign teachers. With whatever kind of visa they get you, you’ll still have registered with the police for a temporary residence permit slip, but you won’t have a Z visa or Residence Permit in your passport. And as such, the school won’t need to provide you with a release letter or any other official documents regarding your visa when you quit, since you’re not employed by them legally speaking (seeing as how you have no legal recourse in this situation, it’s all the more important that you end the relationship on good terms if you’re expecting to get paid, and even then, then chances of getting stiffed out of money is still incredibly high). When it comes time to “switch” jobs and visas, you’ll actually just be applying for a first-time Z visa (follow the steps outlined here).

Have more questions about switching jobs? Did we miss something above? Let us know in the comments section below or head over to the Answers section!

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