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The Representative Office in China

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[ Open a representative office ]
China Representative Office registration certificate

Opening a Representative Office remains, for a foreign company, the choice of a flexible legal form to set-up a first presence in China. In return, it supposes to abide by significant limits on an limited scope of authorized business activities.

The following presents the most common case of China offices attached to a foreign commercial enterprise. The specific situation for non-governmental organizations (NGO), international associations or highly regulated business fields are subject to a prior approval.

China set-up advisory services
  Publication updated on January, 2, 2023      


Why and how to open a representative (liaison) office in China ?

Since the early 1980s, the registration of a Representative Office has been authorized by the Beijing government to allow foreign companies to prospect and establish a link with the Chinese market at low cost. The purpose was to help them conduct basic activities like market intelligence, sourcing, establishment of relationships before considering a transformation of their China presence by having commercial or industrial activities. Meanwhile, the Chinese foreign investment regulations gradually authorized the registration of sino-foreign joint-ventures and early 2000 the incorporation of wholly owned companies or subsidiaries (WFOE) by foreign investors.

In the 90s, many western enterprises set up their office in China in order to have a base of contacts with their Chinese suppliers or manufacturers. Operationally, these entities were most often considered a sourcing office or a quality control office.

Since early 2000, other companies aimed to register their China office in order to have a base of dedicated employees capable of prospecting local customers for products or services sold by their overseas parent company. From an operational point of view, the Representative Office is viewed as a commercial representation or remote sales office. In 2023, this legal form is still permitted and remains the lightest option of a legal corporate presence for a foreign company in China.


The key pros and cons of setting up a Representative Office in China

Key advantages (pros)

Key disadvantages (cons)

Relative quick registration (1 to 2 months for the complete formalities after the application file are submitted to the authorities.

Non authorized direct commercial activities, nor invoicing.

No registered capital needed.

No import export Rights. No possibility of being an importer or exporter in China.

A taxation method most often based on total expenses ("cost plus" method) related to activity in China. The taxation level is a variable rate currently of 10 to 15% of the monthly expenses. Another calculation method (called "deemed profit") taxes the representative office on a portion of the estimated profit made outside China.

Possibility to legally hire Chinese employees via an authorized HR third party agency.

A regulation of March 2011 increases the obligations of current management and also imposes reinforced annual audits. It is still valid to this day.

These measures aim to check that a China Representative Office is not engaged in any commercial activity or any activity deemed containing an added value.

Possibility of hiring foreign nationals and obtaining a work permit and resident visa. Following a Directive dated January 2010, the maximum number of resident foreigners attached to a representative office is officially limited to 4 people. In some provinces, this number of authorized foreign expatriates may be lower.

A Representative Office’s bank account can be used for cash withdrawals and pay for expenses only. The only income authorized on its bank account is a bank transfer paid by its parent company. The payments received in foreign currency (USD, EUR, HKD) are converted into CNY. They are used to pay the Office’ operating expenses.

Capacity to pay local welfare costs for employees from China.

A Representative Office is a legal entity but does not have legal personality. Accordingly, it can not be a direct signatory of business or employment contracts.


Tightened controls over Rep Office's authorized activities

Early 2010, the Chinese authorities imposed that a Rep Office's parent company must be registered since at least 2 years. In Shanghai, this measure is particularly controlled until today.

Following a March 2011 regulation, the administrations apply tighter control over the activities conducted in China are well consistent with the authorized scope of activities at the time of Registration. This control is annual and occurs at the time of the accounting and tax audit is conducted. A declaration must explain in detail the China activities. It shall prove the activities involve no added value and are in line with the authorized scope. The Chinese administration reacts with heavy penalties & fines to any evidence report of discrepancies.

In 2023, opening a Representative Office remains a flexible set-up option still authorized and relatively quick to test the Chinese market. Still, at sight of obvious business restrictions on commercial activities, it is not an option suitable for a long-term or profitable establishment.

As soon as a business prospective justify, most companies decide to set-up their sales office as a commercial subsidiary (usually a fully owned WFOE). In this case, the China legal entity becomes a profit center able to import, export, sign purchasing and distribution contracts.

You may also check here the current chinese regulation on foreign investment also called negative list.

Finally, since March 2022, a new regulation allows to legally place a Chinese legal entity under a dormant status. This flexibility allows to suspend the local activities for an pre-approved period, in case of economic difficulties for example linked to the impact of Covid-19.


Steps to register a Representative Office in China (Shanghai)

The procedures and requirements vary quite much according to the Chinese provinces considered. Still, the overall administrative logic remain as follows :

  • Online pre-registration + formal application for an official registration + obtain the Registration Certificate :

Shanghai representative office registration certificate

| Registration certificate of a Representative Office (liaison) in Shanghai |


  • Apply for additional and mandatory registrations with other administrations (Customs Office, Tax Bureau, Human Resources, Labor Bureau, Police, and get the official Chinese chops (seals).
  • Apply for and obtain the (Chief) Representative work permits and visas for the resident expatriates.
  • Finally, open a bank account in local currency (CNY) and foreign currencies. The Chinese Banks will agree to open accounts only after all the required certificates are issued by the authorities.


The professional preparation and optimization of your China set-up project is one of our core business. Upon request, we keep at your disposal numerous examples of registration & licensing deliverable for representative offices or commercial enterprises (B2B or B2C services, import-export trading, wholesale & retail distribution, online sales (eCommerce), assembly and industrial production.

why choosing us to register your rep office in China?
Our added value for your China office registration services
Our accreditation and experience in rep office opening & licensing in China
A management resident for over 25 years in the Chinese world
The complementary of a Western and Chinese multicultural team
Our direct contacts with the administration + recognition from institutional bodies
An sound knowledge of local practices and cultural codes to conduct serious negotiations
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