CASE STUDY Q&A: UK Nationals Returning to Shanghai

Published on 2020-07-09

In early June, we have published an update on the process for UK nationals returning to Shanghai, Beijing and Guangdong. Over the past a few weeks, we have heard some good news that applications have been approved and things are moving forward.

At the end of June, one of our members, Jonathan D, has successfully landed in Shanghai. Upon Jonathan’s permission, we have compiled the following Q&A. We hope this information would possibly help members in the future that wish to come back. 

Note: To protect personal privacy, we are not revealing Jonathan’s full name. 

Phase I: Apply for the invitation letter

Q: Who shall we submit the application to?

A: In the first instance, the employer needs to approach their local district Foreign Affairs Office (FAO 区外事办). The local FAO will then advise the employer the corresponding departments they shall contact as well as the paperwork that needs to be prepared. 

In Jonathan’s instance, his employer needed to first apply to the management committee of the industrial park his company locates to start the whole process. 

Q: Who is most likely to be approved and how long will it take to receive the invitation letter?

A: As China is currently focusing on work resumption, so the following two points are most valued by the government in regards to issuing the invitation letter:

  • Records on taxes paying in the previous years
  • Whether the person can be justified by their employer ‘essential’

In Jonathan’s instance, his company is one of the top 100 taxpayers in the district. He is the legal representative of the company, and there is an upcoming urgent big project waiting for his return to move forward.

For companies and applicants who meet the above two mentioned requirements, it would take about three to four weeks to receive the approval and get the invitation letter.

Q: What others need to be done during this phase? 

A: While applying for the invitation letter, the employer also needs to decide how long they want to apply for the period of staying.

According to Jonathan’s employer, you also need to provide a detailed work plan for the period.  Returnees will be able to stay for a maximum of 180 days.

Phase II: Apply for Visa

Q: How long will it take to get the visa?

A: Upon receiving the invitation letter, you shall contact your local Chinese embassy immediately and understand the visa application process – which could vary in different countries. The issued visa will be single-entry M visa. 

In Jonathan’s instance, he was in Los Angeles. The Chinese embassy there by that time only accepted mailed applications. It took about ten days for Jonathan to receive the visa.

Q: What others need to be done during this phase? 

A: Jonathan’s company suggested that once receiving the visa, the employer in Shanghai shall consider contacting the Exit-Entry Administration Bureau at the same time, which is to save time to understand and prepare for the follow-up work on renewing the work permit for foreigners, etc. 

Phase III: Returning and upon arrival

Q: When shall I book the flight tickets? 

A: The visa is only valid for three months; therefore, once you receive the visa, you shall start booking a flight. 

In Jonathan’s instance, there were no flights between the US and China at that time, so Jonathan flew back to the UK first and then took a Finnair flight back to Shanghai. Jonathan’s company has secured him a one-way business class ticket via an agent. At the time there were no tickets available to be booked directly through any airline, and only Chinese Airlines were flying with one flight a week from various major cities in the world. Very few airports allowed transit connections so choices were extremely limited.

Q: Do I need to take a nucleic acid test (NAT) before departure?

A: Jonathan took the NAT test two days before departure in London and received the negative certificate. But neither the airport/flight or Shanghai side checked at that time. 

Q: Do I need to obtain an International Health Code (防疫健康码国际版)?

A: Although it only suggests that the Chinese nationals shall obtain the code, Jonathan filled in the forms daily and got his code as well, which the Finnair flight crew did check when he boarded. This could vary for different airlines. 

Please note, the international health code requires at least 14 days of continuous reporting. 

Q: Upon arrival, how does the whole process look like?

A: According to Jonathan, “I was the second off the plane, so I went through all the checkpoints without a wait on arrival. Masks were required in airports and required at all times on the flight and on arrival. No lounges, shops or cafes were open in any airport that I passed through and food on the plane was a very minimal meal of bread rolls in a carton. There is no cabin service – it would be recommended to travel with snacks and eat a good meal before going to airport to start travel.

“The first step was scanning then getting passport photocopies to go along with some forms, then a lab test tube issued with details of name and passport number, barcode etc. 

“Then go downstairs to a temporary building outside to get nasal swabs taken with three up the nose to the back of the throat and two more through the mouth into the back of the throat. Not painful, but it’s invasive and not something I would want my young kids to have to do - could be challenging. Then several temperature checkpoints along the way. I was told that there would be a blood test, but it’s not the case, just the swabs.

“After that, back upstairs to the regular passport control point, out through the Custom. Everything is walled off. Once exited the Custom Hall, there was another checkpoint to scan QR code and fill in an airport authority form with all details of name, passport number, contact details and address to isolate. 

“Walking out towards parking garage is still under controlled area, I went to a section for my district, filling out forms, confirming details, having QR code scanned. Then I was waiting for a shuttle bus from my district to take me to the isolation hotel. ”

Q: Will I be allowed to choose my isolation location?

A: In Jonathan’s instance, the answer is yes, but this shall be done while applying for the invitation letter. Jonathan was able to choose his isolation hotel between his company’s district and home district. 

Q: Will I be able to bring my family with me? If so, how would this alter isolation measures?

A: In Jonathan’s instance, his family received a single-entry business visa as well. However, considering other issues such as flight tickets booking and NAT test, Jonathan decided not to bring his family back for this time. 

While at the airport, Jonathan learned from the epidemic prevention staff that, according to the latest policy, if you do plan to bring your family back with 65+ years old elders or less than 14 years old kids, you could try to apply for home isolation when applying for the invitation letter. 


We very much appreciate Jonathan and his colleague Carina for sharing the above experience with us. For a standard update, please click here. If you have further questions, please email   


The above content is based on a personal case and is for your general information and use only. The relevance of practices given may vary between districts, cities and countries. It is important that you comply with the guidelines and regulations of national and local authorities regarding the coronavirus outbreak. Please continuously check with national and local authorities for updates on related rules and guidelines, as they are subject to regular change due to the developments of the outbreak. Although all information is generated or selected and revised with the utmost care, no liability will be assumed for the completeness and the accuracy of the contents.