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September 24, 2012

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Visa, permit services in Shanghai improved as minor kinks remain

EDITOR'S note:

As the city recaps its achievements in the past five years and maps out the blueprint for the next period, Shanghai Daily will run a series of reports exploring how expat life has evolved accordingly. The series, "Expat and the City," will focus on many aspects of expat life, ranging from the city's English language environment, visa applications and employment to medical services, children's education and social adaptation. We welcome our readers to participate in our interactive polls and surveys on our website: www.shanghaidaily. com or write to us through: metro@shanghaidaily. com.

The clock ticked past four in the afternoon. One hour to go before the Shanghai Entry-Exit Administration Bureau closed for the day, and a crowd of foreigners clutching ticket-machine numbers was still waiting to be summoned to a service window.

Finally, a security guard standing nearby brushed aside the ticketing system and motioned for those waiting to just go to any windows they could find. The crowd surged forth amid a sigh of relief that their logjam seemed to be broken.

"I didn't expect it would be that fast," said Gilles Lenglemetz, a French businessman who went to the exit-entry bureau in the Pudong New Area for a new visa after losing his passport at Shanghai airport only days earlier.

"They really helped me out and did their best."

Visas, work permits and other residency matters are the scourge of any foreigner living overseas almost anywhere in the world. Long lines. Paperwork. Bureaucracy. Frustration.

Getting easier

Expatriates who have lived in Shanghai awhile seem to agree that the red tape for permission to live and work in the city is getting easier and the endless queuing getting shorter.

Facilities and services are more organized nowadays, and an online application service has been instituted for expats to extend residence permits and visitor (F) or tourist (L) visas.

"It was messy before," said Samantha Siepe, a senior employee with Fluor (China) Engineering & Construction Co, who came to Shanghai four years ago.

Siepe said she remembered having to cart numerous documents and paperwork from one office to another to get her visa and labor certificate.

"Things started to get much better about two years ago," she said. "My information has been automatically recorded so I don't need to keep proving all over again who I am."

Like many professionals, Siepe has been helped in visa and related matters by a Chinese colleague. Zhang Wen, who often collects documentation from expat employees and does the standing in line at the exit-and-entry office, is also pleased by the smoother system.

"I've seen it with my own eyes," said Zhang. "Better communication and understanding have borne fruit."

Zhang said the circumstances of Fluor Engineering often make visa applications more complicated. In many cases, the company employs engineers from the United States or other countries. They arrive at company headquarters in Shanghai and then are dispatched to projects in other provinces. The shifting geography makes residency and work requirements tricky to navigate sometimes, but common sense usually prevails, she said.

The Shanghai government is trying to attract more seasoned foreign professionals in its campaign to modernize technology, communications, finance and other sectors. It has promised highly sought expats help with housing, visas, education and other lifestyle amenities to make the city a more desirable place to live and work.

That doesn't mean it's all smooth sailing. Governments will always want to keep track of foreigners living in their jurisdictions. In July, immigration authorities announced a campaign to clear out foreigners who illegally enter, live and work in China.

"The application itself is not difficult, but it's very time consuming," Russell Warriner, who has been working in Shanghai since 2007, told Shanghai Daily.

Warriner, a native of North Carolina and a marketing strategist, said it took him three months to get a work permit, even with the help of his company. There was a lot of paperwork to organize. He even had to send his fingerprints back to the US to get verification that he had no criminal record.

Language, distance issues

Some foreigners complain that entry-exit bureaus don't always have windows designated to handle visa applications of foreigners and staff sometimes lack the language skills to answer their questions or make information requests clear.

In the exit-and-entry office in the Changning District, a South Korean who declined to give his name said he lives in Minhang District but had to go to Changning to file his application. There is an entry-exit bureau office in Minhang, he explained, but it doesn't have a window handling expats.

"I had no other option but to come here and stand in line for a long time," he groaned.

The trip for Kader Ibraham, a sophomore at Shanghai Dianji University, is even longer. The Comoros native studies in the seaside new town of Lingang and has to travel by long-haul bus and then subway for more than an hour to reach central Pudong for the nearest exit-and-entry administration office.

"It would be nice if we could get a visa for the whole four years of study instead of having to keep coming back to have it renewed," said the native of the African island nation.

Shanghai began granting foreigners long-term residency permits of up to five years in 2009, but the program applies only to top tier foreign professionals, such as executives in foreign-owned companies.

Those who stay a long time and have qualifications sought by the government may eventually apply for a permanent residency card. Since 2004, only about 1,400 expatriates in Shanghai, about 10 percent of the total number, have managed to secure that gold card.

"I think if you are contributing member of any society, you should have the option to become a permanent resident," said Toby Raworth, an Englishman working in China as a consultant to expats for eight years. Raworth has yet to qualify for permanent residency.


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