Getting Expats Back to China During COVID-19

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An Omni Air International plane, chartered by Universal Studio, touches down in Tianjin after flying in 159 employees from Orlando

Towards the end of March 2020, China was turning the corner on its effort to bring the COVID-19 epidemic under control. Having significantly invested in combatting a COVID-19 outbreak within its borders since January, by March it appeared those efforts had started to bear fruit. At the same time, COVID-19 was already spreading globally by late March, and the situation was worsening in multiple countries around the world. In an effort to limit the prospect of “imported cases” from abroad, the Chinese authorities released the Announcement on the Temporary Suspension of Entry by Foreign Nationals Holding Valid Chinese Visas or Residence Permits in China on March 26. Per this announcement, effective March 28, China suspended entry for all foreign nationals into China, including those holding valid work and/or residence permits, until further notice.

For the AmCham China community, this announcement continues to pose a significant challenge. The Announcement provided foreign nationals outside of China with only 48 hours to re-enter before the ban went into effect, an unrealistic timeframe for many with families. Many foreign nationals had already left China for the Spring Festival holiday at the end of January, while others had departed and chose to remain outside of China given the spread of COVID-19 domestically in February and early March. Some even enrolled their children in local schools in response to the widespread closure of schools in China. Consequently, in the wake of the announcement, many in the AmCham China community suddenly found themselves stranded outside of China’s borders. Expatriate staff and executives were unable to return to the office, and their family members had their lives placed on hold indefinitely. Families have found themselves separated from their pets, which can be, as one employee with Dow Chemical described it, “devastating.” With the new school year due to resume in the fall, some AmCham China members are having to arrange alternative plans for their children’s schooling to contend with the very real possibility that they will not be able to return to China in time for the start of the fall term.  

A Step-by-Step Guide to Returning to China

Beyond the direct impact on those affected by these policies, AmCham China has also been closely tracking the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on business operations for our members through a series of monthly surveys. The most recent survey, conducted in May, revealed two important trends. The first being that operations of the foreign business community in China are increasingly returning to normal, as compared with survey results collected earlier in the year. At the same time, the survey also revealed that global travel disruptions caused by COVID-19 have impacted or continue to impact the operations of 90% of our members. In particular, 55% cited the inability to repatriate foreign staff as a key challenge hindering their business operations. Similarly, nearly one in five of AmCham China’s members reported that allowing foreign business executives with valid work permits to return to China is a key action that could be taken to support the foreign business community.

Given the widespread impact on the AmCham China community, helping members return to China has been a top priority of the Chamber through much of Q2 this year. Since early April, AmCham China has been in close contact with our counterparts in the Chinese government at both the central and local levels to understand and influence the process to return to China. We understand that many of the procedures and necessary approvals for return have been devolved to the local and/or municipal level. Consequently, application procedures and approval processes vary widely. With that in mind, this article attempts to provide some insight into the return process based on information AmCham China has gathered and testimony provided by AmCham China members who have successfully returned to China since the ban.

What does the return process look like?

Make sure to have all your paperwork in order.

Step 1. The Application: How to Initiate Your Return

The Announcement rendered any existing visas and residence permits held by those outside of China invalid for entry into China. Therefore, any foreign nationals seeking a return to China are required to apply for a new visa, regardless of the status of their existing visa and residence permit. Visa applications require a government-issued invitation letter. The application for an invitation letter should be made on behalf of the applicant by a sponsoring entity in China, such as the applicant’s employer. The application must then clear several rounds of approval from the local Commerce Department, the local Virus Control work Office and the local Foreign Affairs Office. One member who is currently applying for their visa noted that the employer should apply to and obtain an invitation letter from the local district in China where the employer is located.

The timeline for an application’s approval varies depending on the local government receiving the application; some AmCham China members have received approval after one week to one month after applying. Once approved, the applicant receives their official invitation letter which can be used to apply for a visa from the local Chinese embassy or consulate. If there is no Chinese embassy or consulate where you reside, you will need to either mail your passport and invitation letter to an Embassy/Consulate to be processed or make travel plans to do it in person. Keep in mind that travelers across borders may be subject to local quarantines upon arrival, which will further delay the application process. Some AmCham China members have indicated that you must also show evidence of booking a flight to China as part of your visa application at the Embassy/Consulate.

Flights to China are more limited than usual given that China’s current “Five-One” Policy limits the number of international flights arriving in China. The process of actually obtaining an airline ticket has proven to be incredibly challenging. According to an employee with Dow Chemical who is applying to return to China, they have booked tickets on no less than 10 flights to China, none of which ultimately ended up departing for China. This employee told AmCham China that the uncertainty around their travel plans is “exhausting,” and imposes a significant personal financial cost as ticket fees are paid out-of-pocket, and refunds for canceled flights can take months to be processed given the sheer demand at present.

The number of successful returnees under the new application process is small but growing. Young Ahn, who works for an AmCham China member company in the healthcare industry and successfully returned from abroad via Shanghai noted that “a strong HR team is important,” because “many levels of approval are needed.” AmCham China member Lee Allen, a Professor of Trombone at the Tianjin Juilliard School who is currently applying to return reaffirmed this sentiment, noting that “scenarios [on-the-ground] are changing quickly.” He further emphasized that a “strong relationship between the company [applying for the visa] and the city” is important and that it helps if the company emphasizes its contributions to and investments in the local economy as part of the visa application.

Echoing that point, the Chairman and CEO of Microsoft Greater China, Alain Crozier, who returned to Beijing via Tianjin said that having “essential business activities in China” is a key factor in influencing the government’s decision to issue an invitation letter. He noted that his application listed several projects he is leading with Microsoft’s joint venture partner in China and emphasized his return was critical to the continuing implementation of these projects.

Another important aspect of the visa application process is to ensure that foreign nationals returning for work include their family members together in the same application, otherwise, it is unclear whether families will be permitted to travel to China together. This situation in itself creates the prospect of some difficult decisions.

Step 2. Traveling back to China: You are Halfway There!

At this point, you have obtained your visa from the local Embassy/Consulate and secured your flight. The day of your flight to China has arrived! We recommend giving yourself ample time to check-in for your flight, as it will require the normal check-in procedures, and could include additional verification of your documents, and a pre-departure health screening, including temperature checks.

In addition to the limited number of commercial flight routes to China, charter flights can also be arranged, though approval will be issued on a case-by-case basis by the Chinese aviation authorities. Certain US-based airlines are available to work with individuals, companies, or organizations that wish to charter flights to China. In general, we understand that the deplaning and quarantine procedures described below will apply to those returning to China via either a commercial or charter flight. AmCham China is aware of some members who have successfully chartered flights to China, and any passengers on a charter flight will be required to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test prior to boarding a flight in the country of origin.

A lengthy deplaning, testing, immigration, and transportation procedure upon arrival awaits the lucky passengers who arrive in China. One AmCham China member on a commercial flight told us that nearly four hours passed between touching down and departing for the hotel to complete quarantine. Another reported the same process took two and a half hours. However long it is, be prepared for a long haul!

The airport arrival process involves registering your health status via mobile QR codes, submitting to a COVID-19 test, standard customs and immigration procedures, and collecting your belongings at the baggage claim. These mobile QR codes link to apps used widely across China to track the health status of the general population. Both foreign nationals and Chinese citizens in China will often be required to produce their health status via these QR codes in order to enter restaurants, offices, and other public buildings in China. COVID-19 tests are conducted by medical staff in the airport and results will be analyzed on-site. Once you reach the arrivals hall, the final step is to register with officials from the district in which you reside. AmCham China member Young Ahn, who returned via Shanghai Pudong Airport, told us that the regular arrivals hall had been converted into a “district center triage,” with all arriving passengers shuffled along to register with their home district.

Those who have experienced the arrival process found the staff to be as helpful, professional, and as efficient as possible given the circumstances. All airport staff is dressed in full personal protective equipment (PPE). COVID-19 has created an unconventional and unprecedented situation, and every individual or family’s experience is likely to be different.

The hotel check-in process back in China

Step 3: Prepare to Quarantine

Now you have your baggage, your passport, and are on your way to the hotel to undergo quarantine. All passengers arriving in China from abroad are required to quarantine in a government-sanctioned hotel upon arrival. The duration of any given quarantine varies, depending on the local regulations. We understand that the typical quarantine period is 14 days upon arrival, however, AmCham China is aware that quarantine periods can last up to 21 days. Passengers on a charter flight into China who provide a negative COVID-19 test prior to departure and a negative test upon arrival may only be required to undergo a 14-day quarantine.

The quality of quarantine accommodations can vary widely. For most, the hotel experience would best be described as “suitable for the purposes of quarantine,” but it is no Ritz Carlton, and you probably would not leave a five-star review on TripAdvisor. Meals are prearranged and delivered to the hotel room at least three times a day; obtaining outside food can be challenging. The meals are not likely to be Michelin-starred cuisine or as good as some of the dishes from your favorite neighborhood spot, but they will fill a hungry stomach.

Reflecting on his experience in quarantine in Tianjin, Microsoft’s Crozier recalled that “I had to stay in my room exclusively and was not even permitted to go out into the corridor for 14 days.” As the hotel services were limited, he joked “I had to do everything myself. It was like being a bachelor again!”

A typical meal during quarantine.

Step 4. Home… Nearly

Upon completing quarantine, individuals and families are then transported to their homes. For those returning foreign nationals whose point of arrival and quarantine in China differs from their final destination (i.e. home city), they may be required to have transportation arrangements approved in advance and to undergo an additional seven days of quarantine in their home upon arrival in their final destination.

Conclusion

If you have made it this far in the story, one of the key themes that have hopefully emerged is that a return to China at the moment is an arduous, fluid, and evolving process. The entire return process from the initial application to the end of quarantine in China is likely to take several months, and as Professor Lee Allen told us, returnees will benefit from a healthy dose of patience and a little good luck.

Below are some of the overarching reflections from members of the AmCham China community who have successfully completed the long march back to China:

  • Proactive HR Department. Much of the authority for visa approvals and quarantine regulations have been concentrated in the local government. Given the situation’s evolving nature and the authority given to local governments, it is essential to have an involved and proactive HR department throughout the entire return process. Crozier also stressed the importance of “explaining what role you can play in China’s [economic] recovery” during the visa application process.
  • Local staff is trying to make the best of a tough situation. Once you arrive in China, all airport staff that you interact with will be fully dressed in PPE. Frequently working in a hot and uncomfortable environment may take a toll on the staff’s mentality. At the same time, airport staff are kind, efficient, and working to minimize the hassles of this process to the best of their ability. According to Ahn, “everyone is really trying their best with this process.”
  • Develop contingency plans if you are traveling with family. If a family member tests positive for COVID-19 upon arrival, it is possible that families will be forced to separate. If a child tests positive, one parent is allowed to accompany him or her to the hospital, but that same parent will have to stay with the child throughout the entire treatment process. Additionally, local hotel quarantine regulations advise against the entire family living together during quarantine. Typically, one adult and one child can stay together in a hotel room; other family members will need to stay in separate room(s). Given these circumstances, Ahn advised that families should develop contingency plans for how to handle any of the above situations should they arise and consider their risk tolerance for any potential separation among family members.
  • Prepare for the conditions of your hotel quarantine. Hotels may be less clean than the standards to which some guests are accustomed. Reflecting on his quarantine experience, Ahn told us that it is helpful to pack your own bedding, including bed sheets, pillowcases, shower slippers, and disinfectant wipes. If you are traveling with young children, it is helpful to pack games and activities that keep them occupied during quarantine. Others have noted that the quality of their hotel Wi-Fi was not great, even with a portable Wi-Fi unit. Thus, it is best to plan accordingly.

AmCham China will continue to follow this situation closely as it unfolds and to provide our members with the latest information to help them return to China.

Andrew Scott is a Manager with AmCham China’s Government Affairs and Policy Team

This article was originally published in the AmCham China Quarterly, the Chamber's executive-targeted magazine focused on policy, business, and technology, driven by C-suite perspectives and insights. To subscribe or contribute to the Quarterly, contact our editor at: mdreyer@amchamchina.org

To download the full Quarterly, click here.