China is not an easy country to travel. From the time you arrive to the time you depart, you will struggle. But the struggle starts early. China requires travelers from most countries to apply for a visa before you even arrive. This is not as easy as filling out a form and mailing it in. The process is complicated and time consuming.
Hopefully I can make it easier for you.
I went to China in 2014 and since then I have had several inquiries from friends and strangers asking about the visa application process. This blog post aims to inform and advise you on the process and make your application process a little bit easier.
This is the process to apply for a Chinese visa for US Citizens. It may be the same for travelers of other countries, but I don’t know that for certain.
Step 1: Make Sure Your Application is Timely
This is super important. If you apply for the visa too close to the time of your trip, you may not get it back in time. If you apply too early, it may expire before you enter the country. Generally, you have 90 days to enter China once your visa has been issued. It’s advised that you apply for it 6-8 weeks ahead of time.
Step 2: Fill out an application.
You can find the application on the Chinese embassy website or on the website of whatever Chinese visa service you use. The visa application MUST be typed, so you can’t print it out and write in your answers.
You don’t have to use a visa service, but I would recommend it as they will do all the legwork for you. The Chinese embassy does not accept mailed applications, someone must take them there in person. With a visa service, all you need to do is send the correct forms and items and wait for them to send them back to you. I can’t vouch for any other company except the one I used, USChinaVisa.com. I would definitely use them again.
The application is pretty standard, asking for your personal information, passport information, the reason for your trip, how many entries you want (I’d recommend asking for multiple entries. After all, the visa is good for 10 years now),. It also asks you for your itinerary in China. This is the first thing that usually freaks out applicants. What happens if you don’t know your exact itinerary? Don’t worry about this. Just put in one or two cities you think you’ll visit.
The application will ask you for a letter of invitation. This is the second thing that will freak out an applicant. Don’t worry about this either. If you’re going to China as a tourist, and are just traveling and not working or studying, you do not need a letter of invitation. Why? See Step 3.
You also need a recent passport photo that needs to be attached to the top of the application.
Step 3: Have flights booked
Your flights in and out of China are used in lieu of a letter of invitation. This is a little unfortunate if you have a loose itinerary because your flights MUST be booked when you apply. You could always book refundable tickets and cancel them once you receive your visa, but they are usually extremely expensive. Just try to use your best judgement on what you think your itinerary will be.
FYI: Flights to Hong Kong or Macau count as leaving China. If you go to one of those cities and then plan to go to another Chinese city, make sure to get multiple entries.
Step 4: Book Hotels
On the China visa application, you must give your detailed itinerary, including the addresses of hotels you will be staying in. What happens if you don’t know your exact itinerary???? This question comes up again. And again, I will say don’t worry about this requirement. Not in the sense that you can ignore it, because you can’t, but don’t worry about it. Here’s how to meet the requirements and not have to tie yourself to a specific hotel or city: Find a big hotel chain and book several nights at the beginning of your trip. Most big hotels do not require a credit card to make a reservation, so you can reserve your room, get a confirmation code, print it out, send it to the Chinese embassy, and never spend a dollar. Once your visa is in your hand, you can feel free to cancel the reservation and stay elsewhere.
Step 5: Write a Check
Right now, a Chinese visa costs $140. Just for the visa. You will also have to pay your visa company, as well as the shipping costs to get your documents to and from them (or you will have to pay to go to the city with the nearest embassy if you don’t live near one). I spent $211.99 total for the visa, the service, and the FedEx shipping.
Step 6: Print Labels
If you use a visa service, they will send you printable labels that you attach to the package. They are prepaid so when you arrive at the FexEx/UPS office all you need to do is drop it off.
Step 7: Make Sure You Have Everything Before Mailing
If you don’t send everything, you will not be able to get your visa. If you use a visa service, they’ll let you know what you’re missing, but it will delay the process. Check, double check, then check again to make sure you have everything you need. Here’s a helpful checklist for you:
- Passport (yes, you need to mail your passport away for the visa)
- Completed visa application form
- 1 passport photo
- Service form from your visa company
- Confirmation of flights in/out of China
- Confirmation of hotel booking
Step 8: Mail Package and Wait
Once you’ve gotten everything together and mailed it away, there’s nothing else to do except wait. You will get a tracking number when you ship it, and your visa company will send you another tracking number when it is finished. The process does not usually take long. They told me it would be 2 weeks but I got my passport back in about 10 days.
Step 9: Go to China!
Once your visa has been issued, you are ready to explore one of the most fascinating countries in the world…China!
ONE LAST EXTREMELY IMPORTANT DETAIL: When you arrive in China, you MUST register with the local police station within 24 hours of arriving in country. Most hotels and hostels will do this for you by scanning your passport and sending it electronically. If you are staying with someone, or doing Airbnb, you will have to go to the police station to register. If you do not register, you will find yourself in trouble when you are leaving.