China's Green Card: Demystifying an Urban Legend (Part 1-Basics)

Source: David von Schwerin

Back in December 2018, the day I first held my foreigner's permanent resident ID card in hand, was also the very first time I had ever seen one in real life. 8 months I had waited from submitting my application in Shanghai until receiving the mysterious and much talked about "Green Card" (Ill use the abbreviation GC going forward).

A card that is so rare - or used to be - that in the 13 years I've spent in China I had failed to meet a single person that actually had one. Touching it felt like an urban legend magically turned real. Two days later a friend, who had waited almost two years, got his. And over the course of the past year so did a handful of others. 

Meanwhile, within a year, a small and diverse WeChat group of GC holders all over the country (where I started out as only the 14th to join) has almost hit the 100 member milestone. While this is a far cry from a mass development, it certainly shows that - as promised - the application process has been made easier, faster and more transparent than it used to be.

Especially in places like Shanghai, where recently a dedicated service center for permanent residents opened the gates in Pudong. As a bit of a Shanghai snob myself I am well aware of my bias, but when it comes to dealing with all things "alien" the city does set the gold standard for China. And this is especially apparent with the GC. From the transparency of requirements for application on the entry-exit-authority's official WeChat account to acceptance and use in daily life once you have it.

Nevertheless, anybody that has tried to skim the net for information on actual "user experience" with the Chinese green card can testify that there is basically zero information available out there. Zip. Nada. 

There are rare official announcements from authorities and governmental institutions and there is only the occasional superficial, sensationalist English language news article on either a) how great or b) how useless or c) how hard-to-get the card is. Most of which are based on hearsay and lack practical applications or new information.

In as little as a year we have collected an abundance of experience from people all over the country in our little "self-help" group, which we have combined into a working document. I have always played with the idea to edit it into clean, publishable version one day when the content reaches a certain depth. And I believe the day has come where we have enough to share not one, but a whole series of articles on a variety of areas the GC covers.

At this point I would like to emphasize that not the application requirements or process thereof shall be described (you can look those up anywhere on the net), but the actual experience with a GC in everyday situations.

Before digging into details in later articles, I need to explain two basic challenges with the GC at present. And in a for typical-for-China contradicting way Ill have them followed by the two main reasons why the two issues don't really matter, but are tiny nuisances in comparison to the overall benefits.

The 2 main challenges 

Any challenge that one encounters in daily life with a GC can be distilled down to two root issues that are easy to explain. It helps to take a step back every now and then to appreciate these explanations without any emotional investment. It's all very simple actually.

Foreigner's Permanent Resident ID Card vs. Chinese Citizens ID Card 

The hardware with chip of the 2017 upgraded version of the GC is more or less exactly the same as the ID for PRC citizens. But there are two distinctive differences that create a technical obstacle using the GC for some services in daily life: your own name, and the card number.

Chinese ID card reading hardware, connected software and (online) systems are notoriously spoiled to cater to one single national standard: names with 2-4 Chinese characters and an 18-digit number. (6 digit info on province/city of birth + 8 digits birth date + 3 digit number with the last indicating gender + 1 calculated control number or X for 10).

Into this homogeneous environment now enters the GC sporting a fancy Roman letter name in the format of "FAMILY NAME, FIRST MIDDLE" (note the empty spaces and comma, empty spaces will play significant supporting roles in some of the unfolding stories), an optional Chinese character name and a 15 digit number. (3-letter country code + 3 digits for city of application + 1 space digit + 6 digit birth date + 2 digits) 

Whether this was done intentionally or by oversight we will never know for sure. Fact is that the data on the two cards is not based on the exact same standard and it creates small and annoying inconveniences similar to those using a passport in China - a disappointing issue that I had hoped to finally have surpassed receiving the card.

The amount of cards issued so far 

The last time official numbers were published in articles in 2018 they held at around 10,000 GC holders in the country - with around 90% of the holders being ethnic Chinese and/or former PRC citizens. Even with the perceived large increase in the last two years - and even if it has doubled or tripled since then - the number is still ridiculously small in comparison to the population of the country. Understandably, the country has bigger problems to solve than the need of an - lets be honest - entitled minority.

But with tiny numbers come not so tiny challenges for the few. Like myself when I received my card, most staff at railway stations, airports, banks, hotels or even police stations see this card for the very first time in their life when you proudly pull it out of your holster and shoot at every target asking for identification.

You will encounter the full scale of reactions: from saucer-size eyes of awe ("Woah, is this really real!?") to professional seen-it-all indifference ("Just another form of identification. Move on! Next!"), from helpless panic ("Senior supervisor, please!") and hot-potato-syndrome ("Would you mind going to another branch, we are experiencing an unexpected temporary system outage that seems to be caused by a button on your shirt.") to uninformed and unjustified robot-like rejection ("Passport, please.").

For some reason I take some inexplicable, masochistic joy in getting into all these situations and I know I'll feel totally nostalgic from the day on when it will indeed be "just another form of identification". Nothing that being polite cant normally solve anyway. 

But small numbers of card holders make for a low demand for creating actual solutions to overcome technical issues. A problem that only time and numbers will change. Until then it is a constant emotional struggle between occasional frustration and disbelief and endless gratitude for actually having one. Which brings us to the bright side and killer features.

The 2 main benefits...

that make up for... basically everything! 

Overall it boils down to putting up with daily bureaucratic annoyances for the sake of the big picture. And there are two features of the GC that make up for everything. And I mean it. Even if you stripped the card from all other conveniences (and it has a lot of conveniences youll get used to!). 

Gone is the need for a work permit 

Not having to apply for a work permit to work freely in China and therefore not having to depend on a single employer and their HR agents skill to navigate the muddy waters of legal employment for foreigners beats basically everything. Knowing the arduous process of going through that procedure every one or two years - grounded for the time of 1-4 weeks it takes - was one of the main reasons I applied for a GC at the first possible opportunity.

And this works fairly well, even though we had first-hand reports of members in our group whose HR departments in some remote (and not-so-remote) cities didn't really know how to deal with GC holders. There's nothing to deal with actually, as labor contracts work the same way as for PRC citizens and no "permission to work" needs to be registered anywhere. The original work permit is simply the means to a visa anyway.

Except in the cases of provincial Foreign Experts Departments that would prefer you to still apply for an A level work permit so they meet their quota. Or some dubious local tax benefits as investors or talents tied to work permits in some cities. Or agents that have an interest in charging fees for every work permit they can apply for you. You catch my drift.

Ignore all that. All that needs to be done by the employer replacing your passport number with the GC number when submitting taxes and social securities. And that should work in every city and province. The right for GC holders to work freely without a work permit is clearly stated in the laws from central government. The rest is cosmetics.

Gone is the need for a visa 

Not needing a visa to stay is priceless in itself. The right to abode is permanent as long as you spend an accumulated 3 months per year in China and are not considered a "threat to national security". The card itself is valid for 10 years (5 normally only for children under 18) and is to be renewed shortly before the expiry date. The lack of actual experience of people having stayed the full ten years yet led to a popular rumor (and feeling of insecurity) that the card is nothing but a ten-year visa. However, when GC holders of the old card version renewed their cards in 2017, the new cards' expiry date was 10 years from the issue date of the new card and not up to the expiry date of the original card. The same was the case for those who lost the card and had to apply for a replacement. Consequently it is safe to say the handling of renewal of the card appears to be following the same pattern as with Chinese IDs. 

Similar unfounded rumors have it that youll lose the GC in case the status upon which your application was done has changed. This would be highly illogical even for China standards. Cases of people receiving the card based on marriage to Chinese citizens and subsequent divorce negate that rumor easily, though. These cards have not been revoked. Once the card is awarded, all card holders have the same status. It is irrelevant whether you applied through marriage or as talent, as investor or as dutiful tax-payer like myself.

Upon receiving the GC the visa in the passport normally gets immediately cancelled. At least that is common practice nowadays in Beijing, Shanghai and other major cities. In smaller cities it is not unheard of that they left the visa in there until it expired. Having said that, no visa sticker in the passport has had no impact on entering/exiting the country so far. Immigration officers deal with the accompanying card matter-of-factly and the yellow immigration card does not need to be filled out anymore. And for the frequent travellers with short, simple names (no empty spaces) theres the E-Channel anyway.

To sum it up

Having said all that and in preparation of the upcoming articles content, we must not forget where we are coming from. In a country that has been notoriously closed to foreigners and has a minuscule number of immigrants in comparison to most other significant global players worldwide, the Chinese GC seems like a small thing, but is actually a major leap forward.

For immigrants like myself (and I deliberately use that term instead of the somehow arrogant expat - whats the difference anyway?) that have spent a large part of their lives in this country to contribute, build bridges and have grown to call China home, the GC is the first real token of recognition as foreign citizen that is more than just a visitor or guest.

Stay tuned for "Part 2 - Trains" next week...

David von Schwerin


Note: This series of articles was first published on Linkedin and on my personal German language blog ( which for many reasons has been more or less dormant since they heydays of personal blogging several years prior. Having been holder of a China permanent resident card since 2018 I will tackle some popular green card topics in detail one by one, covering areas like travel, banking, online services and many more we have come across over the course of the last two years. Should you be a card holder and interested in joining our WeChat group, please send me a private message. I would like to extend my special thanks to Majdi Alhmah and Jurriaan Meyer for the support on the content, cross-reading and additional fact checking before publication.