Are you an A-level foreigner, and does it really matter?

Andy Boreham
The vast majority of expats working here have B-level – out of Shanghai's 215,000 foreign workers, only around 18,000 are A-level.
Andy Boreham

Shanghai is a pretty attractive city for expats — this place is home to nearly a quarter of China’s total foreign working population. But how many of them are A-level foreigners? And does it even matter?

If you’re making a living here then you probably know all about the city’s visa points system, unless you won an Oscar at some point in the past. For some reason, adding up my points became somewhat of an obsession — especially the idea of achieving an A-level grade — and it became indicative of my overall self-worth. Sad, I know.

The vast majority of expats working here have B-level — out of Shanghai’s 215,000 foreign workers, only around 18,000 are A-level.

I already qualified for an A-level visa during my first work visa application, after a lot of hard work while studying for my masters so that I could achieve enough points to sail past the 85 required.

That included passing HSK5, China’s official Mandarin Chinese skill test, since that offered the maximum points available for Chinese language ability: a whopping 10. The highest level is HSK6, but you get no more points for that.

We sent off all the documents and evidence to back up my 86 points, only to hear back a few days later that the rules had changed. Chinese language now only offered a maximum of 5 points, sending me plummeting to a disheartening 81, or B-level. The changes were made a hair-pulling four days before my application was filed.

So, there I was, feeling like all my hard work was for nothing.

Then out of the blue, when applying for my new work visa for this 12-month period, I was told that I qualify for the coveted A-grade — the excitement was palpable! Finally, I felt like I was wanted and needed here in Shanghai, even though simply being employed should be enough.

And that’s about it, to be honest. Having an A-grade visa really doesn’t offer many benefits, except it means you are technically able to apply for an R visa (the normal work visa is Z) which is called the China Talents Visa. It carries some massive benefits, including being able to apply for five-year work visas (as opposed to one year at a time) and being eligible for a Chinese green card after a certain period of time, which is definitely something worth working toward.

Are you an A-level foreigner, and does it really matter?

How to achieve A-level?

There are a few things you can do to try to squeeze some more points out of the visa system, some more difficult than others.

Simultaneously the simplest and the most difficult is just to wait. If you’re 25 years old or under, you will only be awarded 10 points, but the day you turn 26 you will instantly and effortlessly enter the most in-demand age bracket, 26 to 45, where you’ll earn a whopping 15.

As mentioned earlier, you could also up your Mandarin level, which you should be doing anyway — you live in China! But, as also mentioned earlier, the maximum points awarded aren’t as high as you might think.

Another way to pocket some more points in the Shanghai work visa points system is to earn more money.

It sounds a bit strange, but the more you earn the more points you will receive. I guess the notion behind that logic is that the higher someone is willing to pay the more valuable you are.

You’ll also collect more points, when the higher your level of education is and the more relevant work experience you have.

In terms of experience, though, there is an important caveat: the work needs to be related to the job you’re applying for a visa for. For example, if you worked for 10 years as a science teacher and you’re applying for a job as a translator, that experience most likely won’t count and you’ll receive no points for it.

You could also win an Oscar, if that’s easier for you, and then you wouldn’t need to worry about points at all!

At the end of the day, A and B-grade both allow you to live and work in China and don’t really make that much of a difference on a daily basis.

I have to admit, though, that achieving an “A” always feels good — remember getting your essays back at school?! — and knowing you’re valued in society is great.

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