By the way, I have been told that the exact process I have gone through is not necessarily typical, however many of the steps are the same; they just may not be in the same order or may have to take place in different locations (explained in more detail below). I have also been told that the visa regulations have changed recently here in China, so it is sometimes confusing on what the exact process is these days. I found it difficult (impossible?) to find all of the information online in one nice and tidy package. And please feel free to comment if you have any questions or think I am mistaken on anything here. The last thing I want to do is give misinformation for a process that is already somewhat difficult to navigate. Thanks!
First off, I can't thank my school enough for their guidance throughout this process and for handling most of the planning, coordination and expense. I was told early on by a good friend who has been living and working in Beijing for years now that I should find an employer (a school in my case) who will handle the visa process and expense for me, and I'm glad I listened to his advice. I was deciding between two different schools -- one in Haikou and one in Beijing -- and one of the reasons I chose the school in Haikou was because they offered to handle everything for me. Now after experiencing the process first-hand, I'm very happy about this decision.
Secondly, you can never have too many passport-sized photos. I've probably gone through about 15-20 throughout this entire process, no exaggeration.
Here's a quick summary of the steps I've gone through. Again, you may not be subject to all of these and maybe not in this order...
1) I entered China on a 30-day tourist visa (L Visa). This is the step I'm told is not typical. I applied for and obtained the tourist visa while I was in Nepal, and I paid extra for same day service. Even though I applied for a tourist visa of longer than 30 days and for multiple entries, they told me they could only grant me a 30-day 1-entry tourist visa. If you intend to work in China, you should apply for and obtain the work visa (Z visa) in your home country before traveling to China. Due to a rushed timeline (the new semester was starting in two weeks at my school, so I needed to arrive in China and start working in a very short time) I was allowed to enter on a tourist visa and handle the rest from inside China. I was also not in my home country when I applied for and accepted the position. I was living and studying in Nepal, and it would have been extremely expensive and time-consuming to travel back to the US to obtain the Z visa before traveling to China.
2) The invitation letter is prepared by your employer in China. I don't know much about the details of the letter itself, but it's an official-looking document that provides proof to the authorities that you have been officially invited to China for some purpose, whether work, study or business. I think this is one of the documents you are required to present to the visa office when applying for the Z visa. I also had employment contracts with my school, but I'm still unclear if these were required during any part of the paperwork processing for the visa or foreign expert certificate.
3) The physical exam. I'm still traumatized (half joking here) and in awe of the experience. I wrote a little about it here: http://shes-taking-notes.blogspot.com/2012/02/chinese-physical-exam.html. The final result is the clinic giving you one of these, a little booklet that contains the results of all of the tests performed...
If the clinic doesn't provide a fancy little booklet, then they should prepare the medical form as required by the visa office. Either the booklet or medical form will be required by the visa office when you apply for the Z visa. If applying for the Z visa in your home country, I assume you need to get the physical exam in your home country as well. Make sure it is a Chinese government approved hospital/clinic.
4) Once I had the results of the physical, and my school had the official invitation letter prepared, they flew me to Hong Kong to obtain the Z visa. This process was pretty straight forward because I had all of the appropriate documents completed and in order (passport-sized photo, invitation letter and physical exam). I overheard other foreigners in the visa office having a not-so-easy time due to incomplete paperwork. The visa office makes no exceptions from what I hear, so be prepared. Oh and a side note, be sure to have some sort of medical insurance and have the policy number and provider with you, as it is required on the application. Since I no longer had medical insurance from my previous employer, I purchased a cheap traveler's policy online right before traveling to China. I paid extra for rush service for the visa, which in this case was the next business day. The Hong Kong visa office does not provide same day service.
5) A few days after returning to Haikou from Hong Kong, my school took me to the local police station to be registered. I'm not even sure what is involved or required, if anything, other than showing up at the station and saying hey, I live here now. The Vice Principal of my school took me, and she spoke with the police officers in Mandarin, and I had no clue what was said or done. All I know is they spoke a lot of Chinese and typed a lot into their computers, and took my photo with a digital camera. I'm not even sure if this is required throughout all of China or just here in Hainan Province. It's worth inquiring though, because there could be fines associated with not registering if they find you first.
6) After returning from Hong Kong with my Z visa, and a few days after registering with the local police, my Principal took me to the Foreign Affairs Office here in Haikou for an interview with the Director. I wrote a bit about it here: http://shes-taking-notes.blogspot.com/2012/03/starting-to-feel-homey.html. I'm told this is a fairly new requirement by the Foreign Affairs Office here in Hainan, so I'm not sure if this applies anywhere in mainland China. Again, worth inquiring.
I have yet to go through the next two steps, but I'm told they are happening in the next week or so. I'll update this with more detail soon...
7) Foreign Expert Certificate
8) Residence Permit