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Mar 5th, 2022 by David O Connor

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

What is a release letter and why is it important

A cancellation letter is one of the documents you will need to get from your employer once your teaching contract has ended or if you wish to terminate your position early. This letter is pivotal to your ability to move on, be it out of the country or onto a new teaching position with another school. It isn’t always difficult to get this letter from an employer in China but, sometimes, it can be. It’s for those times that you need to be informed of all the ins and outs of release letter securing. Because your professional and personal life in China, without a release letter, could get really messy, quickly.

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.

What is a release letter?

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.

Why do you need a release letter?

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

Is a release letter the only document your employer should give you when you terminate your contract?

No, your employer should also give you a Cancellation Letter, which they will secure from SAFEA (State Administration of Foreign Experts Affair) or the FEB (Foreign Experts Bureau).

Given the fluidity of requirements by city and/or province, it’s worthwhile asking at your local FEB offices what they need from your employer to cancel your current work permit. At the end of the day, they are the ones who’ll cancel your permit and ‘set you free’ so check with them first and then go to your employer to request the documents.

How do you ask for a release letter?

“Dear soon-to-be former employer, may I please have my release letter?”

Something along those polite lines will ensure that, in 99% of cases, foreign teachers receive their letter 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.

Are schools obliged to give you a release letter? Yes! 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. It could see you in an impossible position of being 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 happens if you break a contract in China?

China imposes penalties to foreign teachers who break their work contract. Most of the time, this comes in the form of a steep fine and if that’s where it all ended, it might be OK. A problem arises if you don’t manage to end things on an amicable note. Why? Because not only can your employer impose exit fees as stipulated in your contract (which you should study carefully before signing!) but they can also withhold that all-important release letter. And that’s the most painful part of all.

Should you find yourself in the unfavourable position of having to break your contract, try your hardest to do so in the nicest way possible. Give your employer plenty of notice, be apologetic and agreeable, don’t start haggling on the exit fee and just pay them outright, and hope to the heavens that all this is enough to secure you a release letter.

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. 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 , 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.

For more in-depth info on relative laws regarding foreign employees in China, and their rights to receive a release letter, read .

What’s the difference between a release Letter and a 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.

Ideally, you will be given both once your teaching stint is over. A reference stating your fabulous/acceptable/terrible overall performance, and a release letter stating you are now free of your binding work visa.

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 your return, 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.

Do you need to bother if you’re leaving the country anyway?

Yes, you absolutely should. If you’re leaving the country, you will need to show your release letter to be allowed to leave. Again, this is a document that confirms you are not defaulting on a signed, legally-binding teaching contract with a local school. You will also need it if you wish to switch your residency work visa to a tourist visa if, say, you wish to tour the country a little before departing.

Whatever circumstance you might find yourself, at the end of your teaching tenure, you will invariably need a release letter.

What happens after you receive your release letter?

Once you are officially let go by the school, you will receive a permit for 30 days. In that time, you either need to find another job or leave the country. For this reason, most teachers will have another teaching job secured before they hand in their notice. A month isn’t a super-long time to find and secure a good job. The last thing you’ll want, at this stage, is to get ‘stuck’ with yet another position you don’t like because you’re in a hurry.

When you receive a job offer and contract, make sure it states how much notice you must give to cancel your contract. One month is the usual time given.

What other options do you have?

If you really cannot stand staying in your current position any longer and need to quit, your priority should be on getting your release letter. Yes, even if you don’t yet have another position waiting. Worse case scenario? Leave the country and start the visa process from scratch elsewhere. It may seem drastic but nothing is as bad as burning bridges in China: always keep within the legal/required parameters, it will pay off in the long run.

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 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.

One last note: you may be a ‘foreigner’ in China but don’t fear fighting for your rights. Laws are strict in this country and, sometimes, that can also work in your favour. On the other hand, it pays to remember just how much work the school has poured into your recruitment. They not only offered you a position but they helped with all your needed visa documents and, if you negotiated right, reimbursed some or all of your moving costs. This doesn’t mean they ‘own’ you, of course, but if it all goes belly-up in the end, it is worth remembering that it all started with (hopefully) very good intentions.

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.

At China by Teaching, we go to massive efforts to ensure we collaborate with the most reputable schools in the country. It is infinitely easier (and a lot less painful) when professional, dedicated and eager foreign teachers are placed in the right hands, from day one. We also recommend you think long and hard about any offer you receive: you will be signing a binding contract and can’t easily get out of it if you receive a better offer down the line. Commitment and professionalism, at the end of the day, goes both ways.

Need help finding the right teaching job for you, anywhere in China?

Contact us here to know more.

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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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