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The U.S.-China School Exchange Programs Handbook

The APEC Strategic Plan for English and Other Languages promotes APEC member sponsored international language exchange programs in order to expand the student's language skills and cultural understanding. The U.S.-China School Exchange Programs Handbook provides instructions to American educators who wish to establish an international exchange program specifically between Chinese and American students and teachers. Increasingly, both U.S. and Chinese governments promote mutual exchange of students and educators between the economies. Business, diplomacy, international health, and trade all benefit from enhanced communication between the two economies. To this end, this handbook summarizes recommendations from numerous principals and educators.

Handbook highlights:


So that Chinese and American groups act as both hosts and visitors, the handbook encourages administrators to arrange that one group to visit the other in the fall, and that they then swap with the first welcoming group studying abroad. Experience indicates that Chinese students often have had more English language instruction before the program, and therefore Chinese students are encouraged to study in the U.S. during the fall semester, followed by American students attending Chinese schools during the Chinese spring semester.

Academic Arrangements

Students usually directly matriculate into local high schools and are scattered among homerooms. Chinese students are often selected by school principals to represent them in the program for their high academic performance, meaning low track courses are not the best match. Rather, it is recommended to place them in middle or high-track courses with pass/fail status to accommodate the language barrier. An additional ESL class during the school day provides relief from academics, and builds a community between the visitors to sustain them during homesickness or feeling overwhelmed. Chinese students do not elect their courses at home and may not fully understand the process. Therefore, the handbook suggests that a guidance counselor help the student arrange their schedule in person after arrival. The host institutions will need to provide written reports that serve as report cards and future proof of experience abroad. For visiting teachers, the host institution should supply a written evaluation for the teacher’s professional files.

Intercultural Activities in the Schools

Students may also give cultural presentations on their home culture or traditions. This requires some help from the host teachers to prepare the visitors for interactive presentations about culture, daily life at home or school, demonstrations of music, dance, martial arts, calligraphy, chop-stick or jumping rope contests, etc., depending on the grade level. Such presentations on both sides give the exchange a high profile, and tend to be very popular at the schools. They may occur in local middle schools and elementary schools in addition to the host institution. Visiting Chinese teachers generally instruct Chinese language, history arts and culture classes, while American teachers similarly contribute to English instruction and cultural introduction to Chinese students in China.

Host Family

Programs that house students in local families reported the highest levels of cultural exchange and linguistic improvement among students. Administrators need not limit host families to families of participating high schools. Churches or community organizations also provide a reliable forum from which to recruit host families. Coordinators should select a family that eats dinner together every night, and has public transportation nearby for the convenience of a potential visitor. Host programs in China often provide visitors with bicycles, while American host programs often provide travel vouchers.

Application Timeline

The program should review applications and select participants nine or ten months before the projected departure. This allows the visa application time to be completed, and most importantly gives the participants time to mentally prepare for the program. It is recommended that accepted students then exchange letters describing home life in the school and community to assist visitors’ preparation.

Healthcare While Abroad

Chinese visitors will need to purchase international travelers’ health insurance (approx. 200$ per semester) and to bring inoculation and medical reports. For American visitors to China, many big cities have international hospitals such as Beijing United Family Hospital, Shanghai Renai International Center and Hangzhou SRRS Hospital. Visitors should check with health insurance providers before leaving for information on overseas coverage. If destined for a remote area, purchasing travel or medical evacuation insurance may be wise.

In the event of illness, host families should be aware that the Chinese customarily use hospitals for minor health issues. Cultural orientation should provide a careful description of the American health system to Chinese visitors to preempt mistaken impressions of neglect.

Pre-Departure Cultural Orientation

Programs have reported certain cultural differences about which coordinators should inform participants and host families before arrival. American visitors to China describe being adopted like celebrities, while Chinese students in American schools report comparatively quiet welcomes in American schools. Administrators should prepare American students for the attention they will receive. The handbook also advises that Chinese students should be informed of the heterogeneity of American schools, and not to take offense at the lack of attention since some students report being mistaken for Chinese-American students. Chinese students do not change classes throughout the day, and report stronger bonds with their classmates according to the handbook. Administrators should inform Chinese students that they may experience extra frustration developing friendships with American students since they usually switch classrooms for each class and work with various classmates throughout the day.

Equally important to communicate, Chinese social attitudes generally focus on the family and community, while American social attitudes typically focus on the individual. The handbook also describes contrasting political attitudes. The American system aims to limit government interference in private life, while the strongly nationalistic Chinese system strives to improve its international standing after two centuries of “humiliation and defeat by Western powers.” American culture commonly values innovation and mobility, while the Chinese culture typically strives for stability and praises caution. Relationships with elders and authority are typically more formal in China than in the United States. Additionally, the Chinese educational system honors study of classical texts and strives to prepare students for highly competitive national examinations while the American system emphasizes extra-curricular activities in order to produce well-rounded students. Religious systems vary between the nations and students should be introduced to the other country’s religious environment. For a comprehensive description of cultural differences between China and the U.S. visit: http://www.china-nafsa.aief-usa.org/culture/differences.htm.


Gift giving is an honored tradition in China, and American visitors are recommended to bring a group gift for the school and individual gifts for their host families. It is important for the U.S. visitors to China to take an inexpensive school-to-school gift that reflects the school community (or city), isn't made in China, and can be displayed in the Chinese school's "museum room." This could be a plaque, a book of school photos, a carving with a message affixed.

Financing the Program

The handbook cites the most significant expense to be the salary of a substitute teacher during the semester when the American teacher visits China. Expenses for travel, hosting pot luck welcome and farewell banquets, and some scholarship aid can often be raised through local fundraising efforts.

Attaining Official Status as Exchange Program and Visa Application Process

For school administrators who wish to initiate a program in a district where there is currently no exchange program, the handbook outlines the following steps:

  • If possible, administrators should visit each other prior to establishing the program to establish firm ties and increase the program’s credibility and visibility.
  • Either during a visit or through overseas communication, administrators may draft and sign a formal Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). While not required, many programs have found it helpful because The consular officials recognize that school-to-school exchange programs involve principals, who provide careful oversight. Thus there have not been any problems with visas. The MOU is also useful to the Chinese visitors, because it outlines the nature of the exchange program. The MOU may confirm their specific goals, financial arrangements and intent to host students and pledge that participants will not remain in the host country after the conclusion of the program.
  • Attain governmental approval of the program.
    • Chinese administrators will send the formal letter to the Chinese foreign affairs bureau to obtain official approval.
    • American administrators currently do not need to obtain permission for international exchange programs. For visits exceeding several months or programs of over five students or over five teachers, the school will need to complete the SEVIS (Student and Exchange VISitor) application. Most schools with exchange programs involving a partner school in china have not needed to apply for SEVIS approval.
      • Note: The procedure changes often. For the latest updates seethe U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement SEVIS website.
  • With this formal approval, administrators will need an official invitation to send to each participant of the visiting country to serve as proof of their participation in an exchange program during the visa process.
    • Once approved, the American host institution can download official letters of invitation to then send to the Chinese participants.
    • Chinese institutions will contact the Foreign Affairs Bureau for each invitation.
  • Students will apply for the visa.
    • American students will need to obtain the Chinese F-visa for study. The process may take several weeks
    • Chinese visitors will present their official letters as proof of their plan of temporary study in the United States during an interview during the U.S. visa application process.

Any violation of a visa will inhibit future students from attaining visas.


Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC)