After almost 10 years of traveling and living in China, my passport is now full of expired visas of all lengths and types. It’s to the point now where it takes me a few minutes to find the one that’s currently active!
Over that period of time I’ve had different experiences applying for a Chinese visa: sometimes the process was simple and smooth while other times it was difficult and painful. I have applied for a tourist visa, a student visa, and a dependent visa and will soon be applying for a business visa. Each and every experience was different than the one before.
Through it all I’ve learned a lot about the China visa requirements which I hope will be helpful as you prepare to apply for your own China travel visa.
Requirements for a China Tourist Visa (L)
For most people coming into China you’re going to be applying for the L-Visa. These are not terribly difficult to receive and unless you plan to pay extra for expedited service you should expect the whole process to take about 1-2 weeks worth of time.
China lays out its requirements for a visa on its embassy website but frankly it’s mind-numbing to read. For those who are a bit more visual, here is a quick look at what is required to apply for a Chinese tourist visa:
As you can see in the illustration above, usually there are only four things you need: a valid passport, a copy of the passport information page, the China visa application form, two (2) recent photos and proof of reservations. If you decide to provide an invitation letter instead of proof of reservations, make sure that the letter provides your full name, date of birth, gender, dates of arrival/departure, and all the information of the agency.
Click this link to download the China visa application form.
You can double-check the requirements using the free tool on the right, but generally speaking there are only two big exceptions to this visa requirements list, including:
- Minors Under 18: minors may be required to provide a birth certificate as well as a copy of both mom and dad’s passports.
- Those of Chinese Origin: if you were born in China or at one point held a Chinese passport, you will need to provide a copy of that passport.
At this point it’s prudent to note that using a visa agency to handle your visa application is a good investment. Why? There are many reasons, but the biggest one is that different Chinese consulates have different variations of these requirements that have been known to change from time to time. For example, if you’re applying for a Chinese visa in San Francisco you don’t need to send in hotel reservations whereas New York requires hotel receipts to be paid in full, not just reserved. An agency will know this and can help you arrange accordingly.
There are quite a few visa agencies vying for your business so here’s a helpful list of the best China visa agencies.
China Visa Application Tips & Warnings
Applying for a Chinese visa can often be an art. True to China form, they tend to push people to game the system by setting up unreasonable expectations and rules. While I don’t recommend doing anything illegal, here are a few things to consider:
Tip #1: Purchase “Dummy” Itineraries
As part of the visa process, China requires a copy of your round trip flight tickets. But what if you’re coming in on a ferry from Taiwan or crossing the border at Hong Kong? What if you change your itinerary? China doesn’t care, they just want tickets because…well, because it’s the rule. That’s how China bureaucracy works.
What most people end up doing is either booking the flights without paying for them (some consulates accept this, some don’t…you’ll need to check) or just booking extremely cheap flights from Taiwan or Hong Kong. Same goes for the hotel reservations, although if you do your research well you can find cheap Beijing hotels or Shanghai hotels that allow complete refunds.
Tip #2: Beware the School that Won’t Offer a Work Visa
For many people that are coming to China to teach English, it’s been a common practice for schools to ask recruits to enter on a tourist visa after which it will be changed to a work visa. The legality of this is questionable but the practice is so commonplace that most schools won’t do it any other way. It’s just too much hassle for them.
The bigger problem is when schools ask you to teach on tourist or student visa, which most certainly is illegal. If a school or university is not willing to offer you a work visa, that’s a good sign that you need to find another school.
China Visa FAQ
Below are some of the most commonly asked questions I receive about the visa application process.
- When should I apply for my China visa?
- What are the requirements for travel to Xinjiang or Tibet?
- Can I apply for a visa without an agency?
- I’m just passing through China…do I need a visa?
- How long does a China visa last?
- Do I need a multiple-entry visa?
- Do I need a visa to enter Hong Kong or Macau?
- Can I mail in my visa application?
When should I apply for my China visa?
If you’re in a rush, it is possible to get your visa turned around in less than 48 hours – sometimes less. It will cost you dearly, though, so I would try to avoid this at all costs if possible.
As a general rule, it’s best to start the visa application process anywhere between 30-60 days before your departure date. Normally, it should only take about 1-2 weeks for everything to go through. Based on my personal experience, I recommend using VisaHQ to process your visa application.
What are the requirements to travel to Xinjiang or Tibet?
For those travelers who are planning to travel to Xinjiang or Tibet – both somewhat sensitive regions in China – it is best not to make note of this in your visa application if you can help it. Although it’s not a surefire way to get your visa application denied, there have been many travelers who have complained that this was the reason.
Can I apply for a China visa without an agency?
Yes, it is definitely possible to apply in person at a Chinese consulate, although it can potentially be difficult. Not only do some consulates limit the number of appointments each day but they aren’t very sympathetic if you don’t have exactly what they need.
Also, consulates aren’t always convenient to visit unless you live in Houston, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York or Washington D.C. You can no longer mail in your visa application, it must be handed over in person.
I’m just passing through China…do I need a visa?
For most counties including the U.S. and most all European countries, you can be granted a 72-hour visa-free transit if you land in the Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chongqing, Chengdu, Dalian, Shenyang or Xi’an airports.
How long does a China visa last?
Most Chinese visas are issued for 30, 60 or 90 days depending on the consulate. You can specifically request a certain period of time on your visa application – even a period longer than 90 days – but there are no guarantees that the consulate will grant your request. What’s worse, if it ends up being denied, you will not get a refund.
Do I need a Multiple Entry Visa?
While most people won’t need a multiple-entry China visa, there are some odd cases in which it would be useful. For instance, if you plan to make Hong Kong or Macau part of your trip, a multi-entry China visa would be a good idea. Even though both of these administrative districts are technically part of China, as far as China border and customs is concerned you are leaving and entering China when visiting either of these districts.
Do I need a visa for Hong Kong or Macau?
If you hold a North American or European passport, chances are that you can enter both Hong Kong and Macau without a visa. You can stay for up to 90 days on a single entry into Hong Kong and anywhere between 30-90 days in Macau (it varies based on your country).
Can I mail in my visa application?
I answered this above but I think it’s important to say again – you CANNOT mail in your visa application. There is some confusion on this most likely because the China consulate still has yet to update their website (which still says on certain pages that you can mail in authentication applications).
If you call the embassy however – and I have had to do this – they will tell you emphatically that they no longer accept any type of application via mail. All of them must be delivered. If you can’t do that in person, you’ll need to have a recommended visa agency do it for you.