Landing an Internship in China: The Ultimate Guide

Hi there! This is Brandon, the founder of SmartIntern here. In this post, I'm going to break down literally everything you need to know about landing an internship in China. I will do my best to make concrete recommendations, share in as much actionable detail as possible, and suspend my own personal bias.

Note: I am writing this in May of 2016, some of the sections below haven't been added yet but they are coming soon. So if you have a burning question that isn't addressed here, email me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. OK, back to our regularly scheduled programming...

In the next 6000 words (this is a big one!) I willl answer some of the most commonly asked questions that I get, such as:

Are internships in China legal?

What kind of visa do I need for an internship in China?

What is the best city in China for me to work in?

What are my prospects of finding a full-time job after I complete an internship?

Will I get paid during my internship?

Where can I found housing, and how much should I expect to pay?

What is the internet in China like? How censored will it be? What tools (VPNs) can I use to get around The Great Firewall?

Am I better off just staying in my home country and not doing an internship in China?

And many many more. This post has turned into the single longest piece of writing that I have ever published on the web, so I hope you find it of value and that you are able to use it to better guide yourself in your decision to undertake an internship in China?

To make this massive post easier to digest, you should check out our table of contents (coming soon) just below so that you can jump to a particular section should you want to.

First, we'll start with an overview of internships and who they are for and who they might not be for.

The Internship As Investment

Once, not too long ago, internships were a luxury that only a minority of college students and recent graduates participated in. You could intern for the summer, or you could spend that summer working at the sandwich shop in your college town. Either way, the expectation was that, upon graduation you would have a relatively easy time of landing a job.

Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on how you look at it, this started to change about 10 years ago. When the Great Financial Crisis hit in 2008, jobs became scarcer and competition fiercer. For many employers, an internship on a potential employee's resume from being a "nice to have" to being a "need to have". Actually, it was worse. Many recent graduates worked for years in internships, some of which were reasonably well-paid, many of which were unpaid. But hey, anything to gain that experience, right?

While the effects of the global recession aren't felt nearly as acutely today as they were 8 years ago, when I graduated university, the fact is that the world economy has entered a sort of new normal in which most employers consider some sort of work experience essential even for their entry-level positions.

Now, this is not to say that an internship is the only way to gain experience that will look great to an employer. In fact, for a certain type of person, it might not even be the best way. There are lots of ways to gain this experience:

-You can start your own company. Even if it turns out to be an abject failure, the reality of TODAY is that technology allows us to start businesses for very little start up capital. If during college you started your own company, failed, or succeeded, and are now looking for a job, email me your resume at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. You are EXACTLY the kind of person I am looking for.

-You can freelance. Platforms like Upwork and Freelancer.com mean that this has never been easier.

-You can spend your summer building an amazing portfolio. If you want to be a programmer, you should have a repository at Github. If you want to land a job as a designer, you should have a portfolio to show any prospective employers.

-You can work remotely for a mentor for free. Stop for a minute and think about the person in the world whose work you admire most. Would you be willing to spend a summer working for them for free in exchange for their mentorship and to gain priceless insight into how they work? The answer to that should be yes. Admittedly mentorships/remote working arrangements are NOT the easiest things to work out (though they are becoming more and more popular), and this might not be the best option for you. Which brings me to my next option...

-You can do an internship. This is a viable option and, for the majority of people in the world, this is probably the best option.

The reality is that internships remain the single biggest opportunity for young, inexperienced students and recent graduates to gain experience and ultimately secure a better paying job in the workforce upon graduation. This is why I should repeat, an internship is an investment and should not be analyzed based on the amount of money it will make you TODAY. Because the reality is that it probably is not going to make you much money and when you include the housing, travel, etc. that will go into making this internship happen you will be lucky to break even.

Yes, of course there are exceptions and if you are interning in private equity in NYC for the summer you are going to be paid a very healthy salary for somebody with no work experience. But for most people, an internship is an investment in their future that will hopefully enable them to land a better job come graduation.

Employers prefer employees with some sort of experience because it reduces risk for them. No employer can determine with 100% certainty whether a hire will go on to be a success within their company, but a candidate who has past experience is seen as less risky than one who doesn't. Internships are also a great way for employers to get to know an employee before hiring them full-time. It's a kind of trial period where the company gets to assess you and you also get to assess the company, and if the fit is right and the company you intern at has plans to hire in the future, guess who they are going to look to first? YOU!

For many people, the internship that becomes a full-time job is the ideal that they are seeking. But you know what can be even better than a good internship? A bad internship! Let me explain...

At the risk of sounding self-indulgent, I'll share my own story here. For a few years in college, I thought I wanted to be a lawyer. I love the written word, I fancy myself a decent debater, and as a natural born people pleaser I wanted the prestige associated with a career in law. So, at the encouragement of my parents I started to pursue internships in law in Washington DC and was eventually able to land a paid internship at a prestigious law firm on K-Street. Well guess what?

I HATED IT! I spent an entire summer making photocopies and searching through manilla folders. I was bored out of my mind!

But during this time, I had the chance to speak with several associates working at the firm. At least 2 of them told me that they had wished they had completed an internship prior to going to law school, and that if they had, they never would have gone into law in the first place. Instead, they were each over 100k in debt and basically forced to work in law until they could finally pay that debt down.

I think back to this time and I am seriously grateful that I was able to figure out I hated law BEFORE becoming a lawyer. Had I not had this experience, I can all-to-easily imagine myself in a parallel universe, working a job I turned out not to like just to pay off my student debt.

Enough about me. Think about yourself and your aspirations. Are you sure you really want to pursue a career in {insert field here}? Well, the best thing you can do for yourself is to be completely honest about why you want to enter a particular field, and work to test the assumptions you have about why it will be so great for you. The best way to do this is through an internship.

So Why An Internship in China?

People come to China for internships for a number of reasons. I explain some of those reasons here.

If you are adventurous and like getting out of your comfort zone, then you might be the type of person who would love an internship in China. The reality is that there are many places in the world that are easier to travel in than China. English still isn't widely adopted, especially outside of major Tier 1 cities, and the past century in China has been about as tumultuous as they come, whatwith the Culural Revolution, Mao's Great Leap Forward, and the rapid and largely unregulated transition into the world's second largest economy. China is dynamic, and because of its closed-off history still retains a sense of exoticism that many countries no longer have in this age of global communication.

It also helps that China has world class food and tourist sites, including of course The Great Wall as well as the Terracotta Warriors. And the language is not only exceptionally interesting to learn, but also a practical investment in a system used by over 1.5 billion people worldwide.

That's the cultural aspect of China's appeal. Of course, if you are reading this you are probably not just adventurous, but ambitious as well. You are probably wondering what sort of professional opportunities an internship in China will afford you.

One of the most valuable aspects to an internship in China is that you will work in a fast-paced environment that is almost certainly more dynamic than what you would experience back home. The "organized chaos" of China's economy can be frustrated, exciting, and will teach you a lot about the world and yourself. China offers those who work their the opportunity to work "above their level". During an internship, for example, you might be tasked with responsibilities that you would simply not have back home.

An internship in China also stands out nicely on one's resume. In this era where internships are almost a pre-requisite for employment, an internship undertaken in the world's second largest economy gives you an opportunity to stand out. We have had clients come to China, finish an internship, then return home and parlay their experience into China into a much better offer than they would have otherwise gotten. A China internship tells any companies that you are worldly, flexible, and able to think outside the box. These are all skills that employers value.

Who can get an internship in China?

The short answer is that internships are not necessarily hard to find in China, but finding the right internship can be challenging. China experiences to be a popular market for global internships (the world’s second largest, in fact), as economic growth here has continued while stagnating in many western economies.

Most interns in China are either still in university or are recent graduates. As China visa law stipulates that a foreigner must have two years of work experience before they can gain a Z-visa and corresponding residence permit, which enables them to work in a full-time, salaried position, many without the requisite two years of work experience find themselves in internships instead.

Another “type” of person who sometimes seeks an internship in China is someone who has accumulated work experience outside of China and is looking to make a career change.

No matter your profile, undertaking an internship in China will allow you to gain international work experience, build up an international network of contacts, and even learn a new language in the process. An added bonus are the skills in cross-culture communication that one can develop while interning in China, and the ability to operate effectively in the face of uncertain or ambiguous situations. 

It is actually illegal for foreigners in China to receive a salary while interning. This is something that is done to prevent foreigners from working full-time in China without paying into the tax and social security schemes, and also preserves jobs for local Chinese in key industries.

All this means that you should expect your internship to be unpaid. Some companies do elect to offer a monthly stipend or reimbursement for costs incurred by things like meals and transportation, but ultimately whether they do or not will come down to the company.  

Determining the right internship position

As mentioned earlier in this article, the challenge isn’t finding just any internship. The challenge is finding the internship that is right for you.

This means that you should approach the internship search in a focused manner, and think deeply about your goals before beginning the hunt. You might discover that an internship in China actually isn’t the right fit for you at this time in your life, which is of course something you want to figure out before you step foot onto your plane!

Ask yourself the following questions as you begin your search for the perfect internship:

  1. What are your specific career interests?

If you want to define your career goals, then an internship can help you with that. For instance, if you're majoring in politics, but you think you might want to pursue a career in marketing, why not spend a summer working in a marketing before making that switch?

Having an academic interest in a subject is well and good, but that does not necessarily translate into having an interest in that same subject that will carry you through the day in, day out monotony of working on that subject 5 days a week for years.

As I mentioned above, there are way too many lawyers who hate what they do, but they didn’t realize it until AFTER they had already graduated from law school. It’s hard to walk away from a career like that when you are $200,000 in the hole.

This means that having a refined idea of what you want to do before beginning an internship is important, but don’t be surprised or disappointed if the focus of your internship turns out to be something that you don’t want to do long term. That’s perfectly normal!

So dive in and get your feet wet, and remember- there is always next summer to try something new. If you are a marketing major and are still debating between going into public relations or advertising, try to get an internship in both areas and see which one of them suits you best.

  1. Why do you want an internship?

…and what do you expect to can gain from one? There are many reasons why you'd like to obtain an internship, and some are better than others.

Do you want an internship in investment banking because your parents are pressuring you to do so? If you happen to hate investment banking, that’s a sure recipe for a miserable summer.

People undertake internships for a variety of reasons, including to build their resume, build their network, learn new skills, and also use it as a means of “getting their foot in the door” by an employer who they hope will hire them after upon graduation.

I believe that building a network and skillset are the two most powerful reasons to undertake an internship. Try not to focus too much on cosmetics (i.e. don’t sacrifice an opportunity to build a better skillset for a company with a more recognizable name), and understand that the point is not to build a resume that looks great, but is instead to build a great skillset that is reflected by your resume.

  1. What type of organization are you interested in?

From not-for-profit to Fortune 500 companies, internships are available in organizations of all sizes. Think about the type of work experiences you have had in the past and what you have enjoyed and haven’t enjoyed.

Glassdoor can be a great start in researching companies, but keep in mind that most SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) in China are not on there. And even if they are, you need to understand that company culture can vary immensely from region to region. The Ogilvy office in London is probably driven by a very different set of personalities and incentives than Ogilvy Shanghai is.

That said, do your best to suss out the corporate culture at your target companies by reading reviews of that company and similar companies and researching and even reaching out to those in senior management positions to get a better sense of what the day-to-day looks like.

  1. What industry would be best for your needs?

There are many applicants who have a very clear idea about the capacity they’d like to work in but are unsure about the industry that suits them best. For instance, if you're a natural born computer programmer, you can work in any industry you want, but programming simple smartphone apps is very different from writing code for AAA games.

  1. Where do you want to have your internship?

If your internship is during a quarter or semester of college, of course you are going to have to stick relatively close to campus. Summer is the time when your schedule will open up and you'll hopefully have the opportunity to get an internship closer in a city that you are interested in getting to know better. You may want to get an internship in a location where you've never lived before just to experience how it feels to live in a different culture or maybe a location where you may want to land a full-time position after graduating.

  1. Do you want college credit for the internship?

The majority of colleges will at the least offer you some college credit for internships. Apart from earning the credits, the big advantage is that there's generally an internship program with an established list of internships and employers available to you. There's also a disadvantage though and that's the possibility of more restrictions on the amount and type of work you can do based on the program's guidelines.

The best place to look for internships in the PRC

Business in China is booming and relationships are king. If you have a personal network to leverage, then I would recommend that as your first step in your search for an internship. However, if you are reading this there is a good chance that you don't yet have an established network in China, in which case you'll want to look to our other recommendations below. Absent a personal network, here are the three main resources you can leverage to land an internship in the Middle Kingdom: the internet, your school, and internship providers like SmartInternl.

The Internet

There are two ways to leverage the power of the internet to land an internship in China: The OK Way and the Good Way. We'll start with the OK Way.

The OK Way consists of browsing the many websites that have internship opportunities posted on them. You browse sites such as City Weekend, Smart Shanghai, and The Beijinger, since they all have classifieds with open internships listed. If you're from the US, you might also check out listings on the official website of the Chamber of Commerce.

When you find an interesting internship, you read the job description, think, "this could be a good fit", and apply for the internship. Usually you apply by sending an email to a generic email address, like This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. The reason this method is only OK is because everybody does this. You have heard of the importance of "standing out" when applying for a job. Well, sometimes standing out means not just creating a resume that stands out, but actually using a different communication channel that other applicants aren't using.

The Good Way requires you to think more creatively and is more work upfront. That said, it has a higher success rate too, and can be done from anywhere with an internet connection. Sound good?

The Good Way consists of creating a list of companies you believe you would be a great fit for. This is a lot of homework to do in the beginning of your search, but it's worth it. Once you have your list of companies (say 20 or so to start), you are going to work backwards and figure out which department you think you'd like to work in in those companies. From there, get on LinkedIn and figure out who works in the department that you would like an internship in. Reach out to them and try to start a conversation. Most people won't respond, but remember- you just need one person to say yes!

Your School

Your school is one of the first points of contact to consider when looking for an internship in China. Start by discussing about interning in China with any mentor or professor you have a solid relationship with who you think can help you achieve your goals. This may include your advisor, the head of your business department or your Chinese teacher. Try to tap into their knowledge of opportunities and networks and you'll greatly increase your chances of getting a Chinese internship. It's also possible that there may already be a type of "deal" or "contract" between your home institution and various Chinese companies that may help you with your internship. Make sure to also pay the Career Center a visit and see how they can help you in this regard.

Third-Party Internship Providers

If this all sounds like a lot of work, it is! It's time-consuming and full of dead-ends. I know because I navigated these corridors myself on several different occasions while looking for jobs in China. This is where a third-party provider like SmartIntern can help. If you don't have the time to find an internship yourself, or you aren't confident in your ability to land the right one within a given time-frame, we can help.

Other Ways to Look For Internships: Books and Periodicals

There are many other ways to find an internship in China and one of them is the annual directories of internships. Checking out newspapers and trade magazines for your career field or major can also help you find an internship. On the other hand, it's also a good idea to check out your college library, since they may already have subscriptions to these publications where you could find vital info regarding internship programs.

The US Chamber of Commerce in the PRC:

Hosts a monthly social and publishes a directory of all American firms that operate in the country, making it an excellent launching point for researching and networking companies. The ACC in PRC also provides a resume service which allows students to advertise to firms in the PRC that they're in search of an internship.

USAID Careers

Has various employment programs for students and while some of them are in embassies abroad, a number of them are in Washington DC.

Canada - PRC Business Council

Offers similar services to the ACC, but also hosts a social every 30 days, which is a great opportunity for networking and learning more about the availability of various types of jobs.

The UN

This is more of a longshot but the UN does have several fellowship and internship programs. Since each division has its own internship administration, you're required to get in touch with the specific department you're interested in. In the case of China, this would be the United Nations Development Fund in PRC.

The US - PRC Business Council

Not only has an HR link to many job sites in Asia, but is also an overall great source for company information.  This is actually the main organization of US companies involved in investment and trade in the PRC. The US China Business Council offers its own internships.

Internship and Career Fairs

During the academic year, the majority of college consortiums or colleges offer a minimum of one career fair which usually focuses on internships. Even though you may be looking for an internship in a specific geographic location, make sure to never miss going to the fairs where you can easily network with various recruiters. The majority of organizations have many offices, so even if you do change your mind later on, you can easily get in touch with them.

Network, Network, Network

Since Shanghai is the largest business hub in China, hundreds of thousands of people converge in it in order to meet and do business. In fact, the city is full of expats, entrepreneurs, moguls and high achieving interns such as yourself. It has the highest population of foreigners in China out of any Chinese city. Simply put, the people living here are focused, motivated and they certainly love challenges.

This is the exact type of people you should meet and try to build relationships with. No one denies that the experience you gain during your internship in Shanghai isn't important, but the connections you create can be even more so. If you're wondering about where you can go in order to network with people, you might consider: conferences, industry events, galas, volunteer events, or even the local bar. Expats tend to be a close-knit bunch and you never know who you might brush up against while getting a pint

The Application Process

When planning to start an internship in Shanghai, it's recommended that you apply two to three months prior to the starting date of your internship. In some cases, it may be even possible for you to apply earlier than that but in general around 30 days is the shortest period of time until a suitable placement will be found. You should also make sure that both during and after your internship, your passport is valid. A comprehensive travel insurance package is also necessary for the entire duration of your stay in China.

You should prepare for an interview that will be conducted over Skype, but understand that some companies actually prefer to conduct interviews over WeChat, as it often operates more reliably than Skype does from within the mainland.

Whether you are coming to China through a China internship service provider or on your own, here are a few things you might want to consider having in place:

  1. Official Internship Invitation Letter to help out with the visa application process.
  2. Airport pickup service.
  3. Assistance with finding accommodation.
  4. Temporary residence registration help. For this, you'll need to have ready the following documents: accommodation property ownership certificate, copies (photo) of the landlord's ID, signed accommodation lease, copies of your visa and passport).
  5. Assistance on your first visit and report to the internship company.
  6. Help with arranging Chinese lessons.
  7. A letter of reference or certificate of completion.

Choosing Your City

This section is going to be expanded later, so for now just a few short remarks. If you want to experience China's "frontier", where growth is fastest, head to an interior city like Chengdu or Chongqing. Be prepared to rough it a bit- while you will find expat communities in each of these cities, they aren't going to have the amenities of a Shanghai or a Beijing. But for some people, that is part of the appeal.

If you are interesting in physical products or manufacturing, you have options all over China but you'll want to take a look specifically at cities in the Pearl River Delta. The Big Three here are Guangzhou, Dongguang, and Shenzhen.

If you want to experience China's cultural heart, go to Beijing.

If you want to experience China's most international city, then go to Shanghai. As Shanghai is where we are based, we'll go into more detail here explaining why we think it's such a great city to live and work in.

Top 4 Reasons to Intern in Shanghai:

  1. It's a leader in finance and a massive business center.
  2. It's contemporary and modern and China's most international city, by far.
  3. Its work landscape is fast-paced and dynamic.
  4. It's more livable than most of China's other cities

About Shanghai

With a population of 23.9 million people, Shanghai is not only more populated than Beijing, but it's also the most westernized and developed cities on the continent. Because of this, it's a great destination for those who'd like to experience what it's like to live in a different culture, while having the flexibility of falling back on if things get too hard to cope with. Need some comfort food that reminds you of your hometown after a long day of work? In Shanghai you can find it, whether you hail from Boston or Belarus.

Life in the city is fast-paced, but the city is knit together by the world's (!) largest subway network. And parts of the tree-lined Former French Concession are peaceful and downright idyllic.

In the last few years, the city's economy has grown a lot and therefore became very attractive to a wide range of offshore banks. Therefore, if you want to pursue a career in finance, then this is where you'll want to be. Full of large corporations, Shanghai has been called the country's "commercial powerhouse" and since it leads the way in business and entrepreneurship, it's in a constant state of economic boom and likely will be in spite of China's recent (as of May 2016) economic hiccups.

Prepping Your Resume For an Internship in China

When sending in your resume to a company you'd like to get an internship with, it's essential that you personalize it to match it as best as possible. This means that rather than making use of the same template for all your applications, it's greatly recommended that you consider writing specific cover letters that fully match the company you'd like to intern with. It's very important o add a personal touch for each application and the best way to do that is to research the company in question and become familiar with its mission and brand. Don't forget to also highlight the fact that you're willing to relocate to China and the amount of time you'll be able to commit. In most cases, interning for three to four months is going to look a lot more appealing in your resume than interning for just a few weeks. When committing for a longer period of time, it's not only you that gets to enjoy various benefits, but also your employer on both professional and personal development levels.

Great tips to help tweak your resume for your Internship in Shanghai:

Include a photo of yourself: When sending your resume to a Chinese company, it's very important that you include a headshot photograph of you while smiling. This is very important if you want to increase your chances for being approved for your internships. In the photo, you need to look both professional and employable.

Show off a little: If you're directly applying to a local company, then you may want to include "official looking" papers and certificates. The reason you should do that is because these face value certifications are highly regarded by Chinese companies. If the documents are written in your mother tongue (i.e. English), make sure to add some notes and explain the documents in Mandarin.

Recent achievements: It's recommended that your Chinese resume includes your most related and recent achievements. If you had any past experiences with Chinese work or classes, then make sure to highlight them. Don't forget to also show how committed you are to understanding Chinese culture.

Flaunt the numbers: It's true that your overall grades are very important for your resume, but so are any marks in Chinese related courses. If ever in doubt, some Chinese companies will select those that know the language very well or at least know something about China (its culture, the way business is conducted here, etc) they consider important.

Translate: Even if your grammar may not be perfect or your vocabulary is simple, it's a good idea to also send in your resume translated in Mandarin. This is going to be very useful if you'd like to practice your Mandarin every day while on the job.

After you finally managed to include every bit of info about yourself in the resume that you think it's necessary for Chinese companies to approve your internship, you have to proofread it. Read it once, read it twice, read it 3 times in a row and make sure to also send it to a friend or two in order to check for any types of mistakes. After you've made sure that the resume is impeccably written and structured, it's time to save it in .PDF format. Once that's done, you need to start creating the E-mail you're going to send out to the company.

The E-mail shouldn't be too long. In fact, all you need to do is introduce yourself, specify the position you're interested in and then mention that your resume and additional documents are attached in the E-mail. One last thing: A lot of people forget to attach their resume and other documents prior to sending the E-mail, so make sure that you do attach them before clicking the "Send" button.  

Final Words of Advice About Internships in the PRC

After you have finally found one or more internship possibilities and went on to apply to them, there's still work to be done. In the same way you would follow up with a company after you've applied for a job with it, the same rings true when applying for an internship. Be persistent, but know where to draw the line. As much as some people would like to call the companies on a daily basis, doing so is not going to get your internship approved. The old saying about the squeaky wheel getting the grease couldn't ring truer in this case. Therefore, make sure to follow-up your first contact with a phone call, send a thank letter after your interview and then follow it up with a phone call.