Purpose: The welfare system in China has historically been segmented between rural and urban people. This institutional arrangement results in unequal welfare entitlements and program participation among rural migrants compared with their urban counterparts. Several pilot reforms to expand welfare coverage have been implemented in urban China. However, the participation rate among rural migrants is still low. The objective of this paper is to examine the contributory factors to the low welfare program participation among migrants and provide recommendations for further welfare reform. Key literature/ theoretical perspective: This paper is mainly based on the theoretical framework of social exclusion, which considers social exclusion as a process of including some individuals and excluding others from benefits of membership. Originality: In addition to the discussion of institutional inequalities that have been identified in the existing literature, this paper makes contribution to the literature by introducing the important factors associated with market constraints and individual choices in understanding welfare participation in contemporary China. Methodology: The paper is mainly based on the analysis of qualitative data collected from a rural village (N=20) and in-depth interviews (N=53) with rural migrants in Guangzhou and Shanghai. Major Findings: The paper finds that low welfare program participation is an outcome of interactions and negotiations among several parties. Institutional legacy and reform uncertainty directly or indirectly affect the motivation of welfare program participation among rural migrants. The pattern of informal employment and enterprises’ noncompliance of labour law make the welfare reform more difficult. Unwillingness of contribution to the welfare pool discourages the expansion of welfare program coverage. Furthermore, the individual settlement intention and rural land reform also influence migrants’ welfare program participation at the destinations. Implication: The paper examines welfare program participation issues among rural migrants in China. Limitation: Restricted by a small-scaled data, the paper could not provide information on to what extent that those factors influence the welfare program participation. And further study on how to balance the interests among parties of state, enterprises and individuals is needed.