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The Great Fapiao Mystery

A subtle guide to getting the money (and documentation) you’re owed


The Great Fapiao Mystery

A subtle guide to getting the money (and documentation) you’re owed


It is something everyone eventually runs into in China. You come out of a subway station, and the entrance is blocked by several furtive middle-aged women. When you come close enough, they glance sideways or stare at their shoes, murmuring in a listless whisper, “Fapiao, fapiao. Do you want fapiao? Real fapiao.”

If you don’t understand the word, you’d be forgiven for thinking they were trying to sell you drugs, but what they are selling is less fun and probably more precious: the elusive invoice (发票 fāpiào). A popular online joke says that Chinese folks are so obsessed with fapiao that in the red light districts of Europe, prostitutes lure in potential Chinese clients with the simple greeting, “Hello. We can give you fapiao. (你好,有发票。Níhǎo, yǒu fāpiào.)”

It’s hard to overestimate the importance of the invoice, i.e. fapiao, if you work in China. It is an important way for the Administration of Taxation to monitor a company’s costs and revenue. Therefore, if you spend money on business matters and expect reimbursement (报销 bàoxiāo) from your company, you have to get the right invoice. However, most places will bend over backwards to keep you from ever getting near a fapiao, so it’s important to know a few tricks.

First, you need to know the difference between a fapiao and a receipt (收据 shōujù), a mistake expats in China can all-too-easily make. Often a receipt looks deceptively like a fapiao; the difference being that a fapiao has its own very particular stamp, 发票专用章 (fāpiào zhuǎnyòngzhāng).

It is an oval-shaped red stamp that catchily says “Standard Invoice Stamp Nationwide” (全国统一发票监制章 Quánguó Tǒngyī Fāpiào Jiānzhìzhāng) in the upper line and “Supervised by State Administration of Taxation/Local Municipal Office of SAT” (国家/地方税务局监制 Guójiā/Dìfāng Shuìwùjú Jiānzhì) on the bottom line.

Fapiao have various forms. Printed fapiao (机打发票 jīdǎ fāpiào), the most common, state the payer and the payee. To encourage people to ask for a fapiao (so that the tax bureau doesn’t lose money) a lot of fapiao include a scratch prize (刮奖 guājiǎng) in the top right corner. Another kind of fapiao, a rarer one, is called a “ripped” fapiao (手撕发票 shǒusā fāpiào), which is pre-printed with fixed sums and is ripped off from its binding. No matter what they look like, make sure your fapiao has the SAT stamp.

Train and plane tickets are the exceptions. Train tickets are fapiao themselves, no stamp needed. With flights, however, the flight ticket is useless; you need to ask for a paper called 行程单 (xíngchéngdān, literally “itinerary sheet”) from the airline office or your agency, which is also sanctioned by SAT as valid for reimbursement.

If you ask for fapiao after dining in a restaurant, the conversation often goes something like this:

Diner: I need a fapiao.

Wǒ xāyào fāpiào.


Waitress: Here it is.

Zhè jiùshì.


Diner: No, it doesn’t have the fapiao stamp. It is just the receipt. What I need is a fapiao.

Zhè méiyǒu fāpiào zhuānyòngzhāng, zhǐshì shōujù éryí. Wǒ yào de shì fāpiào.


Waitress: If you don’t have a fapiao, you can have a free drink.

Rúguǒ nǐ bú kāi fāpiào dehuà, kéyǐ sòng nǐ yǐnliào.


Diner: Ok, make it a treble scotch.

Nà hǎo ba, gěi wǒ láige sān fèn de Sūgēlán wēishìjì.


Ok, the last line is a joke, but conversations will play out like this because restaurants are simply reluctant to give out fapiao as they are taxed on their revenue. If you do insist on getting your fapiao, the waitress will give you a pen and paper.

Waitress: What is the title, please?

Qǐng wèn táitóu xiě shénme?


Here comes the second largest obstacle: the “title”. It refers to whom the fapiao is addressed, i.e. the name of your company. Because it is a Western business term, the Chinese word 抬头 (táitóu) is actually a phonetic translation of “title”. This can be tricky; if you get a single character wrong, you won’t get reimbursed. No matter how well you know your company, never be over-con dent that you know its full legal name. So, make sure to confirm with the company’s accountant on this, and memorize it well or print it out and put it in your wallet.

After nailing the title, she may ask for another specific:

What kind of invoice do you want?

Nín yào kāi ná yī lèi fāpiào?


Here, you need to choose the “genre” of your fapiao. Most frequently, these include: catering (餐饮 cānyǐn), food (食品 shípǐn), sports equipment (体育用品 tǐyù yòngpǐn), stationary (办公用品 bàngōng yòngpǐn), books (图书 túshū), and boarding (住宿 zhùsù). Different companies have different accountants, and accountants have their own tastes; make sure you know what they are.

I want it to be “catering”.

Wǒ yào kāi “cānyǐn”.


Now, I’m sure we can all agree that whoever designed the fapiao system deserves a thorough and endless beating or perhaps a little light torture, but getting the right fapiao is only the first tiny step in getting reimbursement. Next is getting it signed by everyone necessary.

I need to have my fapiao signed by four superiors.

Wǒ de fāpiào xūyào sì gè lǐngdǎo qiānzì.


And then, finally, you must come face to face with the almighty Chinese accountant who, like everywhere else in the world, ranges from a finicky jobsworth to a borderline megalomaniacal fascist. With a few lucky exceptions, getting reimbursement from the accountant is going to be a long, long wait for a variety reasons.

I submitted the invoice to the accountancy department a month ago. Why isn’t my reimbursement here yet?

Fāpiǜo yī gè yuè qián jiù jiāogěi cáiwù le, wèishěnme xiànzài hái méiyǒu bàoxiāo?


In response, you’re sure to hear a litany of excuses:

You can’t have it because the amount on your fapiao is bigger than the company’s allowance.

Yīnwèi nǐ de fāpiào shù’é chāochūle wǒmen de guīdìng, suóyǐ bào bú liǎo.


Because there is something misspelled in the title.

Yīnwèi táitóu lǐ yǒu yí gè cuòbiézì.


Because we cannot reimburse fapiao for the “electronic appliances” genre.

Yīnwèi wǒmen bùnéng bàoxiāo “jiādiàn” lèi de fāpiào.

因为我们不能报销“家电”类的 发票。

If you find yourself in any of these situations, remember this adage:

You can offend anyone in your company,but never the accountant.

Gōngsī lǐ nǐ shuí dōu kéyǐ rě, dànshì bié rě kuàijì.