Hukou System in China

It is not easy to realize how strange it is when you live in an existing system, but when you have the chance to talk with people from other countries, you realize the huge difference.

I enjoyed my talk with my great friends tonight, and we talked about the Resident Permit (Hokou) system in China. To be honest, I didn't feel it too strange before I explained it with my own mouth. After that, even I think it is not reasonable at all, and astonished to hear what came out of my own mouth. Let me explain it to you.

What is Hukou

Hukou is basically a resident permit given by the government of China. It is issued on family basis. Every family have a Hukou booklet that records information about the family members, including name, birth date, relationship with each other, marriage status (and with whom if married), address and your employer...

Everyone has a Hukou in China.

Hukou before 1980

Before 1980, Hukou is extremely important. People are required to stay at the small area they were born (where the Hukou is), and stay there until they die. They cannot move around. They can travel, but there is no access to job, public services, education, or even food in other places. It is just like visiting other places with a B-1 (business) type of visa - you can visit, but cannot work there (it is illegal), cannot go to school (not accepted), cannot go to hospital (without a hukou, you are not treated). For food, in those old days, you cannot buy food no matter how much money you have. You need to use Liangpiao (The currency for food) with money together to get food. Liangpiao is only issued by the government of the place your Hukou is registered. So basically, you can survive with the Liangpiao you get for some days, but not long (especially taken the consideration that Liangpiao issued by one province or city cannot be used in another province or city).

So basically, at that time, without Hukou, people cannot move. There are very few people move around in the country, but their status is practically the same as illegal immigrants in U.S.

To move Hukou from one place to other is very hard - just as hard as getting green card for U.S. It is even harder to move from rural area to city - basically, there are too types of Hukou, one is rural Hukou, and the other is city Hukou. To move from rural to rural is easier, but to move from rural to city is very hard - it takes years. Only in very few situations does the change happen: 1) You enter a university in city, or 2) You marriage someone in city. Both of the cases, you need to wait for a long period of time to get it. There is limited Hukou open every year, so you need to compete to get it.

Hukou after 1980

After the year of 1980, a lot of things change. In practice, Hukou is not enforced as strong as before. The starting point is that Liangpiao is not required to buy food - money along work. For work, there are still huge difference for people with a Hukou or without a Hukou (the same till today), but it is possible to move.

This made it possible for many immigrant workers to leave their land and go to cities to seek for labor-intensive work. Typical works are workers in texile factory, consitruction workers, and nannies. However, the education of their children is still a big problem. They cannot receive education as other children, so some places, they setup school only for people without Hukou (immigrant worker school). Personally, I feel it even bad than the old "black and white seperation" policy.


Today, Hukou does not play that important role as before, but there are still a lot of difference. Here are some examples:

1) Medical Insurance. For example, people living in Shanghai without Shanghai Hukou are not covered by social medical insurance. If the person get ill, he/she needs to pay for it by him/herself. This is not a big deal though, since more and more commercial insurance can help on this.

2) Job. Many job only opens to people with Shanghai Hukou. This is some type of discrimination, but some employers have to do that because there are still difference by the regulation.

3) Safety. Guangzhou is an extreme case. Four years ago, when I visited Guangzhou, my friends told me to bring my national ID card with me at any time. Police may stop anyone at any time on the street to check the ID card. If they find the address of the ID card is not in Guangzhou, and the person don't have a temp resident permit, they have the right to detain the person and return him/her to their place of origin. This is the common practice in many cities. This regulation was abandoned as late as 2003, when a guy named Sun Zhigang was beaten to death during the detain period of time.

Hukou and Me

Hukou has a high impact for me. I didn't go to kindergarten in my whole life, since at the time I moved to city at the age of 5, I didn't get my Hukou yet. It took long time to get it, so the kindergarten refused to accept me. I stayed at home until I am 7 and got Hukou. If I didn't got Hukou at that time, the risk was, I could not even go to primary school. This is a real story.

From my primary school to the end of my high school (1982 - 1995), my Hukou is at Luoyang. When I entered Shanghai Jiaotong University, my Hukou was transferred temporarily to SJTU for four years. When I graduated, it was a critical period of time that I have to find a local high-tech job, and I was qualified for the limited number of open Hukou positions. The standards are high - you have to be in certain major, with good record, and hired by compaines in certain area. It works exactly as how immigration works in Canada or U.S. Back to my story, I obtained the Shanghai Hukou. Then I transferred my Hukou from the university to a place in Shanghai (I even don't know too clearly about what that place is). Only after I bought my own apartment three years later could I transfer my Hukou from that place to the address of my apartment. That is the long story. My current resident permit is at Shanghai, at my own apartment.

If I go to Beijing, I will have some trouble. According to the regulation, I need to obtain a temp resident permit in Beijing. The "temp resident permit" is a big step ahead from the original Hukou system, since at least, I can get something to proof I can legally stay in that city (v.s. previously there is no way to do that). However, it is still a very bad thing. People cannot help asking "Why I need to TEMPERARILY stay in my OWN country"?

Challenges it Brings

Although the current system is widely regarded as unfair and inhumane, I do see the challenge to remove this system. The benefits the government gives to people with different Hukou are so different, especially in city and village. I believe if it is abandoned, a short time chaos will happen - many people move from village to city, and from smaller city to larger cities. If it is not handled well, it will cause big problem. It is just the case like if all the borders in the world is opened and people can move freely from one country to the other over night, you can imagine what will happen.

How to solve this historical problem is a big challenge for this generation of people in China.

P.S. When we discussed about business, I said, in history, people in China don't move as frequent as in U.S., so the demand for selling and buying houses are not that big. People asks: "Why? Why people don't move". I said "Well. It is a long story to tell." You have seen the whole story here. Pretty long, isn't it? :-)

P.S.2. I drove to my friend's house in San Francisco tonight. It is 51 miles. It is hard to believe in China - to go to a place 82 km away for dinner and get back the same night? It is crazy.

"Hukou System in China" was posted by Jian Shuo Wang at June 10, 2006 3:59 PM under (China) category. Copyright: You are free to redistribute this work, as long as you keep this disclaimer and this link:

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Comments on "Hukou System in China"

JSW its good to see you enjoying my old hometown. Next to Shanghai San Fran is my favorite City!

It is hard for USA to understand this system. My Girlfriend lives in Shanghai with her father's family. However she was born in Chongqing. Her Hukou is there. To get a passport, get married we have to go back to where she was born.

I live in Phoenix now but was born in NYC. Imagine everytime I needed to do something with the government I had to fly back to NYC and go to my old neighborhood. My Girlriend's father needed serious medical treatment. He is from Shanghai but was married and lived in Chongqing. He had to come back to Shanghai to get medical care and separate from his wife for one half year.

Its unlikely the government will eliminate this system. It acts more as a security system so the government can track everyone carefully and favors regionalism which is very strong in China for thousands of years.

It was worse before. When I first went to China in 1993 Foreigners had to use certificates and could not use chinese currency. If we traveled and there was no International Hotel you had to register with the police. The government discouraged people from moving around and different regions did not welcome migrants. Things are definitely more relaxed now. Shanghai has literally millions of migrants who come there for work but call another province there home.

Posted by: Nick on June 10, 2006 6:08 PM

This is very interesting.Never heard of such a thing before.Just kinda curious, do we need separate visas for each city, when we visit Shangai.

Posted by: Sekhar Sirigiri (external link) on June 10, 2006 6:29 PM

Thanks a lot for explaining the Hokou system. I have wanted to know more about it since 2000.

Back then, my company (a MNC IT co) hired a programmer in Shanghai. He was playing a key role. I was so surprised that he could resign one day and disappear the next -- one day notice. I really caught me off guard. I asked the local manager why it was possible and whether the employement contract allowed such a thing. The reply I got is that somehow the guy's Hokou was not in the hand of the company, and that we couldn't do anything even with the presence of the employement contract. I have wanted to verify this statement since then. But no one seemed to have an answer...

It is interesting to know the Liangpiao system also. I didn't know it wasn't ceased until 1980. I was born and raised in Hong Kong. But there are still many things about China that I didn't know. It is great that I can learn more from this blog here. Keep it going.

Posted by: Eddie Wong (external link) on June 10, 2006 9:16 PM

Great post Wang Jian Shuo!

Posted by: Ji Village News (external link) on June 10, 2006 10:22 PM

It sounds like China is just like Europe, filled by many state-size (wrt US) countries. To my understanding, visiting different provinces in China, one has to hold the corresponding _permits_. But hey! Even to travel inside europe one only have to get a general visa, isn't it?

Hum...Strange China...I'm Lovin' It.

Posted by: Jeremy on June 11, 2006 10:57 AM

Eddie Wong, my observation from your story is, your local manager is telling the truth. The story is very likely to happen. Let me explain why to you.

Currently, China is in a stage when the old system is broken, and the new system is not setup yet. What you experienced are the gap of the two systems.

In the old system, whenever you change a job, your Dang'An (Personal Document) will be transfered from one company (we call it Unit instead of company) to another. Please note: Dang'An is not Hukou. It is an envolop with lots of information about the person in it. Dang'An has been a very effective way to control the move of people within the same city. If the employer does not agree to release your Dang'An, you basically cannot work anywhere, because it is required to hire a person.

Since 1980, Dang'an is not that important. It still exists, but the actual employer and the one recorded in Dang'an can be very different. When this old system is broken, the new system of employeement relationship based on employeement contract SHOULD be established, but unfortunately not.

The police and legal guys are used to use the old ways to do their stuff. If they cannot control their Dang'An, they cannot control the person. So basically, there are not too much you can do in this situation. That is the chaos between the transition of the two systems.

Sekhar, you don't need to have seperate visa for different part of China. Hong Kong, Maucau and Taiwan are special case, that you need to get speical permits.

Posted by: Jian Shuo Wang (external link) on June 11, 2006 10:58 AM

Jeremy, you don't need different visa. There are some restricted areas, like Tibet, and border areas, though, but you don't need different visa.

The situation I described was before 1980. At that time, don't even think of visa. In the old "closed" policy, no foreigners are allowed to enter China, so don't worry about what kind of visa you should take.

Posted by: Jian Shuo Wang (external link) on June 11, 2006 11:08 AM

Hi Jianshuo

I would like Xiuying to go with me to Hongkong.
But it takes 2 photos, her ID-card, her Hukou book and 800 RMB (mostly for the bribes, I think, not for the actual work) And of course she have to go all the way back to her hometown to get it ! AND it will take one week.
AND she can only stay in Hongkong for 7 days.
It is much easier for her to go to Europe than to go to Hongkong ! (A photo, her passport and my guarantee for the finances during her stay, and 300 RMB only.)

Another thing, can you legally drive in US on your chinese driving license ?

Posted by: carsten on June 11, 2006 2:43 PM

Yes, carsten, I have the same experience. To go to Hong Kong is not easy, and takes longer than to many countries. It is complicated process and only stay for 7 days - and it is only single entry.

For driving, it is legal to drive with Chinese driving licenses. I still didn't find the documents, but all people I asked said yes: "Tens of people I know in Microsoft and eBay drive there, Avis, and the SFO guys". I didn't check with police yet, since I wasn't stopped by anyone yet.

Posted by: Jian Shuo Wang (external link) on June 11, 2006 4:02 PM

Something more to add besides HuKou, DangAn and LiangPiao

DangAn is only established beginning at a certain stage of your life. I believe it is either college or your first employment. So, for some farmers who never entered school or employed by any unit (working in the field does not count), they will never have a DangAn. For those who have a DangAn, they are separated into different status either as GanBu (a white collar clerk) or GongRen (a blue collar worker). To transfer between these two statuses is difficult also. To transfer from a GongRen to GanBu is just difficult and from GanBu to GongRen is considered a demotion and no sane person would want to do that.

Besides LiangPiao and HuKou, JieShaoXin (meaning introductory letter literally) is used to control the traveling of people also. It is issued by your Unit (employer) if you have one or the governing committee of the village you belong to. JieShaoXin serves as an approval by the issuer that you are traveling with a legitimate cause. Without one, it is very inconvenient or even dangerous to travel. You will need the JieShaoXin to buy train/air/(long trip bus) tickets, stay in hotels. You can be stopped by the police at anytime and detained if you donít have a JieShaoXin. I've learned that even the baggers bear JieShaoXin. JieShaoXin was abandoned somewhere in late 80's or early 90's.

China is not the only country to use a system like this. North Korea is still using the same system and even stricter. Vietnam use to have a system like this also but abandoned it already.

Posted by: xge on June 12, 2006 8:23 PM

I got married to a Shanghai woman about month ago and have now experienced the importance of HuKou. They pretty much checked it everywhere where we needed to show the marriage book. The funny thing is that to get a spouse visa to EU is not that difficult but to get the documentation that my wife really is Chinese is taking couple of weeks and several trips to different offices. In general I'm finding out that the local government really doesn't know much about their citizens, only the local offices do and even they rely on the people to show their HuKou.

If I understand right my wife's data will be added to my home country's database by the consulate and when they input her name in the visa application a visa sticker will be printed out automatically. I have a US passport and that didn't cause any problem but I will need to get a EU ID card when I go back home so that I don't need to carry my passport everywhere in EU.

China still needs lot of work on their HuKou system which I'm now part of it seems. I can work in EU and USA but not in China unless I get a work visa, but I can still stay here as a family member of my wife (L-Visa). In US they want you to have the Social Security# and Green Card as soon as possible so they can start collect taxes and fees, and track what you are doing.

Posted by: Zep on June 15, 2006 4:29 AM

Why HuKou? (for non-Chinese guys)

As most of people know, the Gini coefficient of China is larger than the threshold for a so called "stable society". But, from world wide perspective, the Gini coefficient is also large. Why the world is still peace today? Because people can no go anywhere they want because of the VISA control by each country. The HuKou system plays the similar role. It prevents people from moving around inside the country, especially from poor region to rich region. However, HuKou is much weaker than most VISA control, and it is still weaker and weaker. When the HuKou system can be cancelled depends on the country wide Gini coefficient.

Posted by: hammer (external link) on June 15, 2006 2:55 PM

Not a very convincing argument mate. In fact, I would say it's VERY flawed.

Firstly, it is unfair to deny only SOME people access to PROPER education and BETTER healthcare within a country where they pay the SAME tax, speak the SAME language, belong to the SAME country, call the SAME place their home, and still be treated DIFFERENTLY. We all know the Black-White seperation policy in USA in the 1960s is unfair which is why it was removed...

Secondly, this is a form of DISCRIMINATION which the whole of the nation has turned a blind eye to. China claims to be "developing" but is indeed backwards not only in economical sense but more because of its backwardness in its democracy and other "cultural" practices (which China call it's "home affiar"). Please bear in mind that people in differnt country pay their taxes to different governments, pleadge their loyalty to different nations and believe in different laws/ systems. In China, this is not so. So could you please tell me why ONLY CERTAIN PEOPLE are treated UNFAIRLY in China when all their factors such as nationality, beliefs, tax rates etc. remains the same?

Posted by: Jeanie on June 16, 2006 1:13 AM

Blothug wangjianshuo, Taiwan is NOT part of China. Stop day dreaming and get some life.

Posted by: bellevue on June 18, 2006 11:29 AM


Taiwan is not a country, it's a part of China (PRC or ROC). You should get a life.

- Staunch Nationalist.

Posted by: Staunch Nationalist on June 19, 2006 8:48 AM

Staunch Nationalist: It will be after you invade and conquer it (if you win), like in Tibet. Not now. Good luck

Posted by: bellevue on June 19, 2006 2:32 PM

Taiwan is a country (full name ROC) whilst china is another country (full name PRC). Get a life and stop being a silly nationalistic communist.


Posted by: Nationalistic pig? on June 19, 2006 6:16 PM

My partner is chinese witha rural hukou. I've a work permit in Hong Kong. I'm Indian national. How could she join me in Hong Kong? What is the longest visa she could get if I sponsor her? She has Chinese passport. Does she has to return to her local area to get visa or could she get a visa on arrival?

Posted by: krrish on July 16, 2006 12:15 AM

Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Article 13. (1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.

Posted by: UDHR on November 8, 2006 11:37 PM

???="hukoubo", it means the householder register. it's important for chinese people.

Posted by: yekee on December 8, 2006 1:47 PM

For any one who may still stumble onto this site after discussions ended a year ago:
The HuKou system isn't unique to China only.
Very similar systems are found in South Korea and Japan as a social management method, of course in a less restricting forms. You will find that that while it no longer infringes on certain rights of individuals there, moving, education, healthcare and getting married means much much more bureaucracy associated with your Hukou, or change of Hukou.

Posted by: rio on February 12, 2007 4:49 PM

Hi, I have a question about the Hukou and how does it work for jobs... what are the diferences that you mention ??


Posted by: Anna on January 18, 2008 7:11 AM

First of all, the UN Human Rights do not apply to countries that deliberately object to them.

The Hukou system seems to be a very complex and nerve-racking practice indeed. However, I don't believe that "discrimination" is the most adequate term to characterize it. As everybody knows, China is regarded as a country full of disparities or even inconsistencies. Based on this assumption, I - when looking at China-related issues - look at China not as one country but as a large area enclosing many smaller regions, all of which may well be regarded as a country of their own. China is a territory much too large to be managed by one government, and the administrative structure in place (central vs. provincial governments) indicates that in practice, provinces have a country-like status. Thus, crossing provincial borders is virtually equal to crossing country frontiers. Crossing country frontiers is anywhere else in the world as difficult as in China. And this approach removes a lot of the accusatory sentiments against the Hukou system.

Some of the writers of the previous posts have already pointed out that similar forms of "discrimination" exist in other countries as well. A couple of years ago, it wasn't that easy to move across borders within the EU, so people there were facing problems just as the Chinese do when planning on cross-border healthcare, job-hunting, studying and so on and so forth. I admit that the extent is much more severe in China, but from an overall perspective, the underlying principle of the Hukou system is not uniquely Chinese.

Apart from cross-border healthcare, which is a matter to specific to be discussed in just a few lines, the rules applicable to cross-border movement and employment are the same in China as in other places and can be summarized as follows: If you're in demand at the intended destination, you will be pulled there. But if you're not in demand, you have to fight to get yourself pushed to that place.

Posted by: DB on January 18, 2008 4:57 PM

NOT strict as you said, MANY MANY people are actually staying and working in a place where his/her Hukou is not registered, even without "temp resident permit ". This is a problem of "entitled welware" rather than a problem of "beiing legal or not".

Posted by: My view on May 29, 2008 5:39 PM

It's called household registration system. You should read some articles about the history of Hukou system first. It was designed to regulate population redistribution, as well as to facilitate collecting population statistics. However, it created inequality and segregation between rural and urban areas at the same time.

Liangpiao, a food ration stamp, was issued in 1955 because of limited food supply at the time. It's just like gasoline ration stamp. ???????,?????????????????,????????????????????????????????????,????????? ?????????????????,?????????????


P.S. Your Hukou was transferred to ?????????????????? when you graduated from SJTU.

Posted by: Jas on July 27, 2008 8:27 AM