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What is a release letter in China and why is it important?

What is a release letter and why is it important

If you’re just starting your search for teaching jobs in China, you may not yet understand the importance of a release letter. This document is something you need only worry about at the end of your working tenure yet it’s imperative you know all about it before you even start your job.

In essence, a release letter in China is an official document, issued by the school, that confirms you have been teaching there legally. This document essentially ‘releases’ you from your commitment with the school and also confirms you do not owe them any money (or working hours), that your standing is still legal and that you are now free to teach in another Chinese school, if you so wish.

Some sources make a fuss about ensuring a China release letter is favourable. They may state it’s important that you leave your position in very good terms with the school. Although we agree that leaving on good terms is always a good idea, we don’t think this is a deal-breaker. Glowing accolades should be reserved for a reference letter yet a release letter in China simply needs to be factual. It need not be either favourable or unfavourable: it just needs to state that you are legally free to move on.

The importance of a release letter cannot be understated – this is the document you need to:

  1. Secure another teaching job in China, with a different school
  2. Transfer your residency permit to your new employer, who’ll become your new sponsor
  3. Switch from a working visa to a tourist visa if you want to stay in China, as a tourist (ie.no longer work but still stay an extra month or two)
  4. Leave China altogether

Here are the most important things you need to know about a release letter in China:

Most of the time, you’ll get one without issue

In 99% of cases, school principals in China give release letters without any problem. However, you may run into issues if you quit your teaching job early, before your contract expires (see Can I Quit My Teaching Job Early?) or if, for whatever reason, you are leaving on bad terms. If an employer has any reason to make your life very difficult, they are certainly in a position to do so. Part of your job is to ensure you give them none, which is also why it’s important to know what a release letter is before you even start your teaching job.

Schools are legally obliged to give you a release letter, but…

Schools may well be obliged by law to give teachers their release letters yet this doesn’t mean they can’t drag their feet. If your school withholds this out of spite, it can cause you (a lot) of grief, possibly putting you in an impossible position of being either without a valid residency permit and unable to start a new teaching job with another school.

If they want to be a**holes they can be and, unfortunately, they are the ones holding all the cards. Or, in this case, the important release document.

What should you do if your employer won’t give you a release letter?

Should you find yourself in this difficult position, the most important thing you should do is remain calm and not blow your top. If your employer merely wants to annoy you, the delay will be short.

If, however, you have an inkling this may take a torturous while, you ought to schedule a meeting with the school administrators ASAP. This is likely to piss off your employer even more, so please consider this your last resort should no amount of persuasion have any effect. When meeting them, you should have all the applicable laws printed out (you’ll find this resource helpful). The administrators will no doubt know the laws already but showing that you know them may be the incentive they need to give your employer a right royal shove to get that letter out to you.

Should this fail, it may be time to file an official complaint with SAFEA, the State Administration of Foreign Experts Affair. As a foreign teacher, you are the expert and this government body is there to ensure your rights are protected.

Insider tip: More often than not, a mention of SAFEA during your meeting with the school administrators is enough to spur on some release-letter-action so don’t forget to drop in a line about filing an official complaint if it looks like your meeting won’t end well.

Getting your new employer involved in the negotiations isn’t a bad idea, especially if you’ve been offered a job with a reputable school and they’re keen to have you start as soon as possible. Your new school will have a vested interest in helping you secure your release letter (they’ll need it to sponsor your residency and have you work for them legally) so they may have good sway. It’s certainly worth a try.

Understanding the laws regarding teaching residency permits in China is vital to your understanding of the importance of a release letter. Having said that, note that these laws differ depending on where you are – SAFEA is still the best resource for the latest laws in regards to release letters.

What is a release letter and why is it important

Release Letter VS Referral Letter

As mentioned above, a release letter need not be favourable yet a referral letter should be – leaving with a glowing report on your performance as a teacher in China will obviously help you secure another job in the country.

Will you always have problems securing a release letter if you need to leave your job early?

Absolutely not. If you’re enjoying a great run at your school and have a good relationship with your employer but, say, there’s a family emergency back home that requires you to return home, most employers will be understanding. If your reason for leaving early and not completing your contract obligations are genuine and personal, don’t automatically fear your employer’s response. We actually find most of our teachers have had fantastic experiences in China although, to be fair, we do vet the schools we work with to ensure they are the best in the country.

Should a release letter in China cost anything?

Nope! Release letters in China are free of charge. However, you will find the odd sneaky employer who will ask for payment particularly if you leave your before the end of your contract – some may even go as far as including a clause in your teaching Contract stating you must pay for one yet both are completely illegal things to do. If you find yourself at a crossroad with an employer who insists you pay, because it was written in a contract that you signed, feel free to contact SAFEA and ask for help.

What else can you do?

In the strictest terms, you don’t need a release letter if you can get your employer to cancel your work permit instead. The official name of this process is the “Cancellation of Foreign Worker’s Permit” although here’s the conundrum: your employer is the one who can do this on your behalf so, if he/she has no problem with this step, then it reasons they wouldn’t have a problem giving you a release letter. In an ideal situation, your employer will help you with both steps.

When it comes to choosing your teaching job and school in China, it pays to know who you’re dealing with. Not only in terms of what they can offer you in remuneration but also – and perhaps primarily – they should have a great reputation for treating their teachers professionally, fairly, and kindly. Because, at the end of your teaching tenure, these are the attributes you’ll want in an employer when asking for your release letter.

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David O Connor

David O Connor

David is China by Teaching’s chief contributor. When not offering sage advice about teaching in China, David is a headmaster of a Bilingual kindergarten in Beijing. David is a lover of craft beers, book clubs and super long road trips.

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