China’s borders closed to almost all foreigners starting March 28 with only about 20 international flights being allowed to land in the country each day.
However, while the situation is fluid, China is in communication with the rest of the world, allowing cross-border movements to handle personnel exchanges under the special circumstances.
What are the new relaxations to international travel restrictions?
The sudden imposition of travel restrictions impacted most businesses with foreign investors and staff in China, affecting not only the foreign citizens who work in China, but also Chinese citizens who work in those businesses.
Consequently, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and the Shanghai Municipality Government issued various measures that would facilitate the re-entry of employees ‘essential’ for business operations into China. The ‘essential’ part, however, is still very much under discussion.
At present, there are a few authorities that will take this into consideration when they determine which of the two available application channels can be accessed by the visa applicant – the normal channel or the fast track channel.
The fast track option is only available to employees of companies whose country of origin has signed a fast track agreement with China.
There are still some uncertainties about how the fast track process works and its logistical implications. Foreign travelers will need to show proof that they are not infected before making their trips.
This includes getting tested at approved centers, as per recent feedback. There are restrictions to travel within China too, with some provinces and cities mandating quarantine for people who have traveled from places designated as more at risk to the virus.
What do we know about the normal channel procedure?
1) The company (foreign or Chinese) must apply at the district-level Foreign Affairs Office (FAO) or the municipal-level authority that it usually deals with.
For example, if the company is based in the Huangpu district of Shanghai – they can apply to Shanghai Municipal Commission of Commerce (SCOFCOM), Huangpu district, or Shanghai Municipal Science and Technology Commission, Huangpu district etc.
2) The district FAO or municipal authority will examine the application, and if the invitee is deemed to be essential to business operations, it will forward the application to the province-level FAO and notify the company.
Taking the above example of a Shanghai-based company, (Shanghai city being equivalent to the province-level of administration), if the inviter is located in Shanghai, the district FAO or municipal authority will examine the application first and then forward to the Shanghai FAO.
However, if the inviter is located in another city of another province, for instance, Nanjing, then the Nanjing FAO will examine the application first and then forward it to the Jiangsu province FAO.
3) The Shanghai FAO will review the application and issue a visa notification to the MFA and the relevant Chinese embassy or consulate in the country where the invitee is located, as well as a hard copy of the notification to the company.
The company will fax or scan this to the employee for him/her to present themselves at the Chinese embassy or consulate for the visa application.
The hard copy has a bar code that allows the embassy or consulate to access all information collected by the Shanghai authorities. Additional information may still be required by the MFA and embassy or consulate.
4) With the visa, the employee will be able to board a commercial flight or a chartered flight to China.
5) When the plane arrives in Shanghai, Customs officials will board it to screen passengers. After the passengers disembark, a nucleic acid test will be carried out at the airport.
Passengers with symptoms, such as fever or coughing, will be subject to further medical observation at the airport.
If he/she has no such symptoms, the employee will be directed to the representatives of the district of the company that made the application at the airport. The employee will be taken to a designated facility to wait for the results of the nucleic acid test – which can take up to 24 hours.
6) If the nucleic acid test result is positive, the employee will be taken by representatives of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to designated facilities for medical observation and treatment.
If the nucleic acid test is negative, the employee will be subject to a 14-day quarantine at the designated facility, the cost for which will be borne by the company or the individual.
What do we know about the fast track channel procedure?
The company needs to apply to the FAO (province-level office) of the district/city where it is located. Municipal authorities are not entitled to process fast track applications.
In addition to detailing why the invitee wishing to travel to China is essential for business operations, the company will have to explain in detail how it will comply with the requirements of a closed circuit for the invitee, which will have to be followed for 14 days.
Closed circuit includes requirements with regards to:
Residence: For example, the employee will not be allowed to live in a residential compound, the residence will have to have separate toilets and ventilation, etc.
Transportation: There will need to be a designated car and driver to transport the employee to or from work. The employee will not be allowed to take public transportation.
Workplace: Safety measures must be implemented at the workplace to avoid contamination.
We look at Shanghai as an example below:
1) The CDC will inspect and checkthat all the required safety measures are set up at the places of residence and work. The company will be required to guarantee in writing that these measures will be adhered to.
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2) Once reviewed by the district FAO, the application will be sent to the Shanghai FAO.
3) The Shanghai FAO will assess the application and issue a visa notification to the MFA and the relevant Chinese embassy or consulate in the country where the invitee is located.
The Shanghai FAO will also send a hard copy of the notification to the company, which will have to be sent to the invitee for him/her to present themselves at the embassy or consulate for the visa application.
The hard copy has a bar code that allows the embassy or consulate to access all information collected by the Shanghai authorities.
4) The invitee’s visa application at the Chinese embassy or consulate will be subject to further requirements that will depend on the bilateral fast track agreement between China and the respective country.
A general requirement is that the employee should not have travelled to any high-risk country within the 14 days prior to departure and a nucleic acid test that is not older than the period of time specified in the fast track agreement (for example, it is 48 hours for Germany and for South Korea 72 hours).
5) With the visa, the invitee will be able to board a commercial flight or a chartered flight to China.
6) Upon arrival in Shanghai, Customs officials will board the plane to screen the passengers. After getting off from the plane, a nucleic acid test will be carried out at the airport, as well as an additional serological test, which will require CDC representatives to draw blood samples. The CDC will also check the validity of the nucleic acid test from the country of origin.
The results can take up to two days during which the employee has to wait at the designated facility. Passengers with symptoms, such as fever or coughing, will be subject to further medical observations at the airport.
7) If all tests are negative, the invitee will have to be picked up by a designated car and driver and will be subject to the closed-circuit requirements for 14 days.