How Not to Get a Z-Visa

Okay, I didn’t want to go into detail while this was all going on. And I didn’t want to talk about work either. But now I’ll try to fill in some details that I skipped.

Like how I was deported from China.

The irony is I was deported because I wanted to do things legally. I didn’t want to work on a tourist visa. My tourist visa was good for a year. The only problem was I had to leave the country every 60 days. But had I stayed on my tourist visa, it would have still been valid today, through March in fact, and none of this would have happened.


Lake Erhai, Dali

When I started working at Sammy English School in May, my tourist visa expired in mid-June. Or at least I’d have to make a quick run across the border and then and come back in. I told this to Sammy, the director of the school, how I much preferred not to leave the country. He assured me they would know about my work visa in a week or two. Maybe even after the weekend. Definitely before my tourist visa expired. “Everything’s on the computer now. We will know right away,” he said.

A few days later Grace, a teacher/administrator, called me to come down and sign a contract. And to give her a copy of my resume, diploma, and TESOL certificate. The ones I already gave Sammy? Yes, those. And to make a copy of my passport. Again? Yes. This was before I learned that the resubmitting of documents would be a monthly—sometimes biweekly—ritual. The school was notoriously bad at keeping track of paperwork. And worse at keeping personnel.

I got a call from Sammy in mid-June. “Good news! You’ve been approved, brother.”

I took this to mean I’d sign a couple of papers, and viola, get a new visa stamped on my passport. What I didn’t know—what I wouldn’t learn until months later—was that this call signified I had been approved by the government to begin the visa application process.

It was Aaron, a fellow foreign teacher, from England, who broke it to me that the Director had no idea what it took to get a work visa. The chances of getting it in a week were slim to none. In truth, I needed a state-approved Medical Exam, which I could only get in Kunming, five hours away.


Xi Yang Yang (Pleasant Goat) at Wal-mart, Xiaguan

In addition, Grace explained, I would need a Residence Permit, which fortunately I could get at the local police station.

So, while I should have been getting ready to head to Kunming for the medical exam, and from there leave the country, I spent my last day in Dali trying to secure this elusive “Residence Permit”. As a public service of this blog, for all future visa-seekers, here is…

How to Get a Resident Permit

  • 1. Go to the Police Station to get the blank residence form. No, not that Police Station. The one surprisingly well-hidden in a courtyard on the opposite side of town. It will be pouring rain. You’ll find it thanks to Aaron, the other foreign teacher, acting as your personal GPS on the phone.
  • 2. You will get there at noon, right after it closes for lunch.
  • 3. When it reopens two hours later, you’ll know you’ve come to the right place because they’ll inform you you’ve come to the wrong place. First you must get the residence form at your hotel, have them fill it out, and bring it to the station to get stamped.
  • 4. You’re not staying at a hotel—you live in an apartment—so at the school’s instructions, check into a hostel on the other side of town for a night that you’re not staying, and have the hostel fill out the form for you, proving you’re staying there.
  • 5. Return to the Police Station in order to have the form stamped—this time wisely taking a taxi through the rain. Much faster. And drier.
  • 6. By the time you arrive at the station at 4:30, it will be closed.

You have forgotten the cardinal rule of running errands in China. Errands that would normally take an hour or two back home will take a day or two here. Don’t try to recharge your phone card and open a bank account the same day. Phone card: Monday. Bank account: Tuesday. Residence permit: Wednesday and Thursday. And so forth.

Oh, I forgot Step 7.

  • 7. You find out, months later, you don’t need a residence permit to get a z-visa. In fact, getting a Residence Permit is actually the last step in the process, after you get your visa.

Even without knowing Step 7, standing there in the pouring rain in front of the closed police station, I should have taken it as an accurate indicator of every hoop I’d jump through over the coming months. Instead, I returned to the apartment and informed Daniel that my work visa hadn’t gone through, that I had to leave the country, and hence was moving out immediately. Understandably, he couldn’t give me much of my deposit back, on account of the late notice, but he was nice enough to offer me a place to store most of my things in the meantime.

I packed my wet clothes (I had just done my laundry, and during the rainy season, clothes take weeks to dry) and hopped on a bus to Kunming.

This time I stayed at a place called “Cloudland”. Back in Jinghong in March, a Turk from Germany had warned me Clouldland was “a dump”. But I was pleasantly surprised to find I preferred it to the Hump. Though the Hump wasn’t bad, and had a great, central location, Cloudland was cozier and more personal, and served a surprisingly delicious penne pasta.

The following day I taxied to the medical examiner’s building and amazingly was not turned away for insufficient paperwork. In fact, after a call to Grace to clear things up, and refilling out my forms only once, they saw me that very day. The medical examiners did every sort of test imaginable, including—I’m not making this up—a sonogram, I assumed to determine whether I was pregnant and if so, by how much.

I would have to wait to learn whether or not I was expecting. The report wouldn’t be ready for several days and I had to hightail it out of the country before my visa expired. With one day left, it was too late to take a bus to Laos, or to get a visa for Vietnam, so I hopped on a plane to Hong Kong just in time to catch the world famous Dragon Boat Festival.


Dragon Boat Festival – Hong Kong

I remember feeling upset at Grace for taking so long to get the visa process underway, and for not knowing how the process worked. I later learned that a teacher named Christine, whom I’d only met a few times, had originally been in charge of my visa. But right after I started work, Christine was fired and took with her all the school’s knowledge of foreign visas.

By the time I returned to Dali, Grace would be long gone as well, and a new employee would be in charge of my application, thus beginning the process anew.

I would learn to miss Grace.

About sinestor

Originally from Los Angeles/Long Beach, California, I'm currently spending a year exploring the amazing world known as China. My main website is Every Day's a Holiday.


  1. It is very clear to me that you should have read “Iron and Silk” before you ever went to China. It was written by an American many years ago. It was a good book. gzn

  2. I did. But I will have to read it again when I come back. He went to China to study martial arts from what I remember.

    The first book I finished this year was “River Town”. It was written by a Peace Corps teacher in Sichuan Province in the late 90’s. VERY good—and I think more similar to my situation (although I’ll have to reread Iron and Silk to see. I think Saltzman went to China in the 80’s).
    I just finished the second book of the River Town author, called Oracle Bones. I learned a lot from both.

  3. Who’s the genius who fired Christine?

    Red China Blues is a must read about one of the two first foreign exchange students in China in the 1970s.

    • Thanks for the recommendation! I’ll have to read Red China Blues. I don’t remember why Christine was fired, but all decisions were made by the school’s owner and director, and I think that may have been part of the problem. Also, it wasn’t an attractive place for locals to work, so by the time they got enough experience, they tended to move on.

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