Apart from for citizens of Japan, Singapore and Brunei, all visitors to China require a visa. A Chinese visa covers virtually the whole of China, although there are still some restricted areas that require an additional permit from the PSB. Permits are also required for travel to Tibet, an area of China that the authorities can suddenly bar foreigners from entering.
At the time of writing, prices for a standard 30-day visa was US$50 for US citizens and US$30 for citizens of other nations. For double-entry visas, it’s US$75 for US citizens and US$45 for all other nationals. For multiple-entry visas for six months, it’s US$100 for US citizens and US$60 for all other nationals. A standard 30-day single-entry visa can be issued from most Chinese embassies abroad in three to five working days. Express visas cost twice the usual fee.
A 30-day visa is activated on the date you enter China, and must be used within three months of the date of issue. Sixty-day and 90-day travel visas are less likely to be issued, although travellers have reported obtaining them with few problems. You need to extend your visa in China if you want to stay longer.
You normally pay for your visa when you collect it. You can get an application form in person at the embassy or consulate, or obtain one online from a consular website (try www.fmprc.gov.cn/eng – click on About China, then Travel to China and then Visa Information). A visa mailed to you will take up to three weeks. Visa applications require at least one photo (normally 51mm x 51mm).
In some countries (eg the UK and the US), the visa service has been outsourced from the Chinese embassy to a visa-issuing centre, which levies an extra administration fee. In the case of the UK, a single-entry visa costs £35, but the standard administration charge levied by the centre is a further £30. In the US, many people use the China Visa Service Center (In the USA 800 799 6560; www.mychinavisa.com), which offers prompt service. The procedure takes around 10 to 14 days.
Hong Kong is still the best place to pick up a visa for China. China Travel Service (CTS) will be able to obtain one for you, or you can apply directly to the Visa Office of the People’s Republic of China (3413 2300; 7th fl, Lower Block, China Resources Centre, 26 Harbour Rd, Wan Chai; 9am-noon & 2-5pm Mon-Fri). Visas processed here in one/two/three days cost HK$400/300/150. Double-entry visas are HK$220, while six-month/one-year multiple-entry visas are HK$400/600 (plus HK$150/250 for express/urgent service). Be aware that American and UK passport holders must pay considerably more for their visas. You must supply two photos, which can be taken at photo booths in the Mass Transit Railway (MTR) or at the visa office for HK$35.
Five-day visas are available at the Luóhú border crossing between Hong Kong and Shēnzhèn. They are valid for Shēnzhèn only, however, and at the time of writing US citizens still had to apply in advance in Hong Kong or already have a visa. Three-day visas are also available at the Macau–Zhūhǎi border (MOP$150 for most nationalities, MOP$450 for British) between 8.30am and 10pm. US citizens have to buy a visa in advance in Macau or Hong Kong.
Be aware that political events can suddenly make visas more difficult to procure or renew. In the run-up to the Olympic Games in 2008, restrictions were imposed on certain types of visas; multiple-entry visas were not issued; some travellers were only given seven-day travel visas; extensions became difficult to procure; and other travellers were flatly denied visas. Embassies were also insisting that travellers provided details of their air tickets and accommodation in China.
Similarly, when asked about your itinerary on the application form, try to list standard tourist destinations such as Běijīng and Hángzhōu; if you are toying with the idea of going to Tibet or western Xīnjiāng, just leave it off the form. The list you give is not binding in any way.
When you check into a hotel, there is a question on the registration form asking what type of visa you hold. The letter specifying what type of visa you have is usually stamped on the visa itself. There are eight categories of visa (C – flight attendant, chéngwù, 乘务; D – resident, dìngjū, 定居; F – business or student, fǎngwèn, 访问; G – transit, guòjìng, 过境; J – journalist, jìzhě, 记者; L – travel, lǚxíng, 旅行; X – long-term student, liúxué, 留学; Z – working, gōngzuò, 工作). For most travellers, the type of visa issued is an L.
FOR HONG KONG
At the time of writing, most visitors to Hong Kong, including citizens of the EU, Australia, New Zealand, the USA and Canada, could enter and stay for 90 days without a visa. British passport holders get 180 days, while South Africans are allowed to stay 30 days without a visa. If you do require a visa, apply at a Chinese embassy or consulate before arriving. Be aware that if you visit Hong Kong from China, you will need to either have a multiple-entry visa to re-enter China or get a new visa.
Most travellers, including citizens of the EU, Australia, New Zealand, the USA, Canada and South Africa, can enter Macau without a visa for between 30 and 90 days. Most other nationalities can get a 30-day visa on arrival, which will cost MOP$100/50/200 per adult/child under 12/family. If you’re visiting Macau from China and plan to re-enter China, you will need to be on a multiple-entry visa.
The Foreign Affairs Branch of the local PSB; Gōngānjú) – the police force – deals with visa extensions.
First-time extensions of 30 days are easy to obtain on single-entry tourist visas, but further extensions are harder to get and may only give you another week. Offices of the PSB outside of Běijīng may be more lenient and more willing to offer further extensions, but don’t bank on it.
Extensions to single-entry visas vary in price, depending on your nationality. American travellers pay Y185, Canadians Y165, UK citizens Y160 and Australians Y100; prices can go up or down. Expect to wait up to five days for your visa extension to be processed.
The period of extension can differ from city to town. Travellers report generous extensions being decided on the spot in provincial towns and backwaters. If you have used up all your options, popping into Hong Kong to apply for a new tourist visa is a reliable option.
The penalty for overstaying your visa in China is up to Y500 per day. Some travellers have reported having trouble with officials who read the ‘valid until’ date on their visa incorrectly. For a one-month tourist (L) visa, the ‘valid until’ date is the date by which you must enter the country (within three months of the date the visa was issued), not the date upon which your visa expires. Your visa expires the number of days that your visa is valid for after the date of entry into China.
The ‘green card’ is a residence permit, issued to English teachers, foreign expats and long-term students who live in China. Green cards are issued for a period of six months to one year and must be renewed annually. Besides needing all the right paperwork, you (and your spouse) must also pass a health exam (for which there is a charge). Families are automatically included once the permit is issued, but there is a fee for each family member. If you lose your card, you’ll pay a hefty fee to have it replaced.
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