In the Garage

Chinese vs German Bureaucracy: A Comparison

March 28, 2015 | 11 Minute Read

The New York Times recently wrote an article about the Chinese middle class and the maze of red tape citizens here experience. For example, the article talks about married women having to get a mandatory birth permit whichactually expires after two years, and applying for student loans require as many as 26 official seals on various documents. Although I've only been here for five months, I totally get that article. And the funny thing is that I thought German bureaucracy was terrible. It really isn't. Here are some of my observations comparing the two, though of course this is only just scratching the surface.

Bureaucratic documents

Registering yourself at the local authorities

German government: Before you come to the registration office, make sure you bring your original apartment lease and your passport.

Chinese government: Before you come to the police station to register, make sure you bring your original apartment lease, your passport, a copy of your landlord's ID, and a copy of your landlord's house ownership certificate. And when you get here, we'll tell you that what you need is actually your original apartment lease, your passport, a copy of your landlord's ID, a copy of your landlord's house ownership certificate, and a residence certificate from the estate management or neighborhood community. You won't have any idea what any of it is, of course, but you need to have it with you, otherwise we'll send you away to come back when you have all of it.

Commonality: You'll probably be given a grumbling look regardless of what paperwork you do or don't have. I actually didn't have all the paperwork when I re-registered myself here in China after changing my visa type, even though I looked at the list my visa agent had given me about 20 times. I basically just waved all my paperwork at the guy's face and told him in my basic Chinese, "I don't know what you mean!" He rolled his eyes and registered me anyway. Lesson learned: Just be sassy right back at them, even if your language skills are basic.

Getting a work permit as a foreigner

German government: You can't work in Germany as a non-EU citizen unless you have a special skill that nobody else can offer and you're getting paid at least this very specific amount of euros. We do make the exception that if you're a "highly qualified professional," which we deem are scientists and engineers because you know, this is Germany, or if you've gotten a degree at one of our free universities, you can find a job here of your choosing. These are the rules and you must follow them, but we've outlined them clearly so you can figure it out yourself.

Chinese government: You can't work in China as a foreigner unless you have a special skill, though it's kind of a grey area. We have multiple business visa types and some companies will offer you one visa and not the other, but you should make sure you have the right one. How do you know which one is the right one? Google that. Oh wait, haha, Google's blocked. Baidu it even though the search results are rubbish if it's not in Chinese. And because that won't work, you'll probably hire a visa agent anyway.

Commonality: Basically you need to offer some skill that the locals can't provide, which is why so many people wind up teaching their native language. This isn't really that surprising.

The difference though is that Germany has very clear-cut rules that are outlined on an official website somewhere in both German and English. China's rules are very grey and not really outlined well at all. I've also found many of their websites just don't work properly or aren't updated regularly. Looking it up on the internet, you'll find so many different answers that it seems like finding the right one is as easy as spotting the Loch Ness Monster. What people say in forums versus what you hear people talk about versus what you actually experience can be very different.

Changing your visa from one to another when living in the country already

German government: As an American citizen, you can just change it here in Germany. But we'll need to see your marriage license, your passport, a copy of your partner's German passport, a copy of your apartment lease, proof of your insurance, a biometric photo, and this very specific application form which is available in German, English, French, Italian, Greek, Turkish, Serbo-Croatian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Russian. It'll take up to six weeks to process and will cost you 110€.

Chinese government: Brace yourself because this is going to take at least two months to complete if you have all the correct paperwork, but you're also going to have to go back to your home country or try your luck in Hong Kong. If you go to Hong Kong, it's not guaranteed you'll actually get the visa you need because they could turn you down. But first, you need to apply for an alien employment license and invitation letter of Duly Authorized Unit. We won't explain to you what exactly that is. Then you'll have to leave the country and get a visa from your local Chinese consulate or go to Hong Kong. Once you come back into the country, then you have to apply for your residence permit. We'll need at least 12 documents from you: your passport, your resume, copy of the company business license where you want to work, a copy of the company's organization code license, a copy of the company approval certificate, copies of your university degrees, reference letters from foreign companies that prove you have at least two years' experience in the field where you're working, your employment contract, your temporary residence permit, a health test that you have completed here in China, seven passport photos, your alien employment license, and an invitation letter of Duly Authorized Unit. You can't possibly do any of this by yourself because you're a foreigner and we won't provide any forms in anything but Chinese. So just go find yourself a nice visa agent who will guide you through the process.

Commonality: Not much. I did indeed have to leave China and chose to go back to Germany to apply for my new visa. I was only allowed to do this and didn't have to fly back to the U.S. because I still have permanent residency in Germany.

When I first arrived in China, I was on an S1 visa that allowed me to be in the country as the spouse of a foreigner working here, but I wasn't allowed to work. After finding a job, I had to change it to a Z visa. Luckily the company I'm working for has a visa agent (whose name is Magic, I kid you not) who helped me through the entire process. I had to first apply for some documents here in Shanghai that would then give me some new documents that I would submit to the Chinese consulate in Germany. Then the consulate in Germany would give me a new visa, with which I would use to come back to China and then apply for the residence permit. Does that sound confusing? It is.

I was so happy that I didn't have to go through the medical test again and was pleasantly surprised that I could use the one I originally went through when I first got to Shanghai. The medical test makes you feel like you're on an assembly line just going through all the different rooms and it's really far from where I live. And it was just one less thing to worry about, though admittedly I was nervous that Magic would come back and tell me that he made a mistake and that I would have to go through the medical exam again.

Back in Germany, I always complained about my visa costing 110€ or so. I shouldn't have because the visa and paperwork for it in China alone probably cost a little over 500€. That doesn't include the cost of my flight back to Germany; even if I had gone to Hong Kong to do a visa run, the cost of the flight and hotel together all adds up quite a bit. Add on the stress of hoping that the Frankfurt consulate would give me my passport back on time so I didn't have to change my flight back to made for a very annoying experience.

View of the apartment complex

Opening a bank account

German bank: You have to show us your passport, your residence permit, your registration form and depending on the bank, maybe even your job contract. There will be some forms to fill out, but it shouldn't take all that long and we can explain them to you since they're in German. We'll sign you up for online banking if you want, but it's really easy to do transfers at the banking terminal without a real live teller anyway.

Chinese bank: You have to show us your passport, your residence permit, your temporary residence permit, and your job contract. You'll have to fill out these forms, none of which you can actually read nor will we explain them to you, but it's fine because nobody reads them. We won't tell you about online banking at all since you probably won't use it anyway; the website only works using Windows and Internet Explorer. And transfers? Good luck on figuring that out, but everyone just asks for cash anyway. Oh, and sorry, we're having problems verifying your American social security number with your passport number. You'll have to come back some other day because we can't open your bank account right now. Lastly -- why can't you speak Chinese? You look Chinese. Aren't you Chinese? What's wrong with you?

Commonality: I find it weird that you have to ask for online banking in either country and that it's not a given. It's even worse that online banking here only works on Windows and IE, but apparently it's a very common issue here in Asia.

I did actually have problems opening a bank account here because there were issues verifying my social security number and my American passport number. I don't really know why, and I did have to go back and spend another hour of my life trying to open the account. And yes, they actually asked Ningxin, who was helping me open the bank account, not once, not twice, but three times what was wrong with me and why I couldn't speak Chinese.


Chinese bureaucracy is bureaucracy at its best, and by "best," I mean the worst. You need paperwork to get more paperwork to submit and get more stamps and pay this fee and it's just a never ending whirlwind of documents. Everything also seems a bit grey; the websites never detail anything and you just sort of do what you're told, no questions asked. Part of it is not being able to speak the language and having to blindly trust the visa agent. I've been fortunate enough that my job has covered the expenses for me and they were already in touch with Magic, but I can't imagine having to do this all on your own. In Germany, it's completely possible to get your residence permit and visa on your own, even if you don't know the language. It's a little more accommodating there, but it's probably because of the EU and Europe is such a small place. When my friends who used to live in China tell me it became tiring to have to renew their visas every year, I believe it.

If and when I leave China, all I know is that there is also paperwork involved to make it official. In Germany, I don't know how it works, so maybe someone can enlighten me. But friends living in Germany who are not German: really, the bureaucracy in Germany isn't that bad.