Monday, 11 August 2008
New China visa rules
The opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics have been accompanied by a lot of hype (some of it justified) about the new China, as well as a lot of bad press about the Chinese government's efforts to keep political activists and other "troublemakers" out of the spotlight, away from the Olympic venues, and if possible out of China entirely.
Surprisingly, there's been little straight information about the changes in China's visa rules for ordinary tourists -- some of which are probably temporary but others of which may continue well after the Olympics are over, perhaps permanently.
The changes have been made in several stages, over a period of several months. Most press reports have focused on some of the intermediate stages. And China continues to obfuscate, saying some types of visas are (theoretically) still available, when in fact they aren't being issued except perhaps to those with extremely good connections. I'll try to describe what is actually happening, now.
Listen up, around-the-world and long-term independent travellers: In the short to medium term, the changes in China's visa rules are most likely to affect those who aren't on a tour, and/or who are travelling for a long time (more than a couple of months) outside their home country before they get to China, or who decide to add China to their itinerary only after leaving home. Hong Kong, the place that many years ago was the easiest place to get visas to (the rest of) China, is now the hardest place of all, unless you officially and legally are a resident of Hong Kong.
I got caught up in these changes myself, for just these reasons My partner and I had planned to spend two months in China, starting in April 2008. But if we had applied for visas before wee left the USA in June 2007, they would have been valid a maximum of three months. So we planned our trip to enter China through Hong Kong.
Unfortunately, we arrived in Hong Kong on a local holiday at the start of a long weekend in April, which happened to be the weekend that the news -- even outside China -- was dominated by the protests of the Olympic torch relay in London and Paris. Over the weekend, other headline stories in the South China Morning Post discussed the panicked changes being made by China to keep protesters away from the Olympic events in China proper (and the devastating impact of those changes on business people in Hong Kong who work with people and companies in mainland China). On Monday, as the torch headed for San Francisco and more protests, we presented ourselves at the office in Hong Kong that issues visas for foreign visitors to the rest of the People's Republic of China (PRC).
Hong Kong is now a "Special Administrative Region" of the PRC, and "part of China". But Hong Kong still has its own entry system, with different rules. So an entry permit for the Hong Kong SAR (issued on arrival for most foreigners, without a visa) is valid only for the SAR. To cross from Hong Kong to "mainland" China requires a visa (there's almost no visa-free entry to China for foreigners) and is considered an "entry" to China for purposes of counting the number of allowable entries on your China visa (single, double, or multiple).
My partner was given a visa, but only for a month (not the two we had planned). And I was told that my application would not be accepted in Hong Kong at all: I would have to apply at a Chinese embassy or Consulate in the country of my citizenship and residency, the USA. I had no trouble getting visas in San Francisco for my previous visits to China, but there was no way, without actually going back to the USA and trying, to find out would happen this time.
So I hung out on Lamma Island in Hong Kong for a few days while my partner went to some of the places (Guangzhou and Shenzhen) that I had visited without her in 2002. By the time she got back to Hong Kong, the rules had changed again, and even she would have been required to apply for her China visa in the USA, not Hong Kong. Giving up on China, at least for this trip, we went on to Plan B: five weeks in Australia by way of brief stops in Singapore and Malaysia.
So what are the rules now?
- No tourist visas to China are being issued now without proof of paid reservations for accommodations. Basically, the Chinese government wants you to be on a tour -- not wandering around on your own, where you might make trouble or meet Chinese troublemakers. This is a huge step backward: China hasn't required tours or proof of hotel reservations for visas for about twenty years. They sometimes used to ask for an itinerary, but it could be pretty vague, and didn't have to be paid or confirmed. I haven't seen any reports of whether, or how, they verify the evidence of reservations that you submit with your visa application. It's probably possible to get a visa on the strength of forged vouchers or confirmations. But I wouldn't want to do time in a Chinese prison for lying on a visa application. The big question for independent travellers is when, or if, it will once again be possible to get a visa to China without reservations. In the meantime, see my tips on reserving hotels in China. But I don't know if confirmed hotel reservations will suffice to get you a visa if they aren't paid for in advance. You may need fully paid hotel vouchers, or proof of payment for an inclusive tour, to get a visa. [Update, 31 December 2008: This new rule has been rescinded , at least in San Francisco.]
- No multiple-entry visas to China are being issued to anyone, anywhere. Only single or double-entry visas are currently being issued. This doesn't affect many tourists, but is a catastrophe for foreign business people, especially those who live in Hong Kong and have regular business in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, or further into mainland China. Off the record, Chinese functionaries were quoted as saying that they expected to start issuing multiple-entry visas again around October 2008, after the Olympics.
- No long-stay China visas are being issued now. The maximum duration has been steadily reduced as the Olympics approach. The most recent reports are that few, if any, visas are being issued for more than 30 days stay in China. Applications for longer-stay visas will most likely begin to be approved sometime after the Olympics, but may remain subject to heightened scrutiny -- be prepared to give a good reason why you need a longer-stay visa. "Tourism" alone is unlikely to suffice as a reason for a longer stay.
- No China visa applications are being accepted in Hong Kong except from citizens and residents of Hong Kong, with Hong Kong resident visas or passports. Until recently, it was possible -- although more difficult, slower, and more costly -- for tourists to get China visas in Hong Kong. This might become possible again sometime after the Olympics, but I wouldn't count on it. At a minimum, have a "Plan B" if you are hoping to try for a China visa in Hong Kong, in case your application isn't accepted.
- No China visa applications are being accepted except in the country of the applicant's citizenship or residence. If you are a citizen of the USA, you can only apply for a visa to China in the USA or in a country where you have proof of legal residence (not just a country you are visiting or passing through as a tourist). I doubt this will change: Your only options will be to apply in the country of your citizenship, the country of your residence, or (maybe, eventually, if things change) Hong Kong. Don't waste your time trying to apply in some other country.
- Chinese visa forms and procedures have been standardized worldwide. Procedures used to vary from embassy to embassy and consulate to consulate. No longer. Now the process is being much more closely controlled from Beijing. Don't waste your time "forum shopping" for an obscure Chinese diplomatic mission that will be more lenient.
- A new question has been added to the Chinese visa application form : "Do you have any criminal record in China or any other country?" If you answer yes, you will be required to answer additional questions and provide additional information. I don't know what the chances are of getting a visa approved if you answer, "Yes". (If you have applied for a visa to China and answered "Yes" to this question, please share your experience in the comments, including: What was your crime: Felony or misdemeanor? Violent or nonviolent? General type of offense? How long ago was your crime? How was your application handled (delay, personal interview, referral to Beijing, etc.)? Was your visa application eventually approved? What country are you a citizen of, and when and where did you apply for what type of visa: tourist, student, etc.) I suspect this question will remain on the form permanently, even after the Olympics, but it might become possible to get a visa with a criminal record, depending on the nature of your record. I'd never been asked this question before, in more than 50 countries including previous visits to China, but it seems to be becoming more common. [The USA has long asked this question of all foreign visitors, but I haven't been asked this entering the USA, because I'm a USA citizen.] I'll have more about this question -- in China, the USA, Canada, Australia, Japan, and other countries -- in a separate forthcoming article.
- The fee for any type of visa to China for a citizen of the USA is now US$130. This is entirely reasonable and justifiable reciprocity for the US$130 fee for a visa to the USA for a Chinese citizen. (That's now the norm for citizens of most countries who want to visit the USA.) If you don't like paying that much for visas to other countries, get Congress to lower the visa fees, or eliminate the visa requirement, for foreign visitors to the USA.
- No Chinese visa applications are accepted by mail. You must either go to the appropriate consulate or embassy yourself to apply and again to pick up your passport and visa a few days later, have a friend or relative go there for you (make sure you have everything completed and signed for them!), or pay a visa service to hand deliver your application and pick up your passport with your visa.
- In the USA, you can only apply at the one Chinese consulate or embassy designated for the state where you reside. China has assigned each state to the territory of the embassy in Washington, or of a specific consulate. If you live in Denver, you can only apply at the Chinese consulate in Chicago. You can't apply at the consulate in San Francisco or Los Angeles, even if that would be more convenient for you. Once again, this is a matter of reciprocity with similar rules that divide up other large countries, and require their citizens to apply for visas to the USA only at the specific embassy or consulate of the USA designated for the place where they reside.
So is it worth jumping through all these hoops to get a visa to China? If you can only get a visa by joining a tour, maybe not. But if it becomes possible once again to get a visa to travel on your own, and you haven't been to China before (or not recently), I think the cost and hassle of getting a visa are a small price to pay for permission to visit what is, once you get there, a remarkably easy, safe, and affordable place to travel -- not to mention a big, interesting, diverse, and important place. The difficulty and discomfort of travel in China are grossly exaggerated in the public image of China as a Third World country.
Many of the new hotels built for the Olympics are empty even now (partly as a result of the visa rule changes), and they'll be even emptier and hungrier for business when the games are over. See my tips on reserving hotels and finding your way around in China if you don't speak Chinese.
China is already one of the best-value destinations in the world Many of the fixtures and materials that go into the construction of a hotel in the USA these days are made in China, and they are all cheaper for hotel builders in China who get them closer to the source. Labor is cheaper in China too. By keeping the value of the Yuan low against the U.S. Dollar, China's government not only has kept the price of China's exports low on world markets, but has kept the cost of tourist services in China low for foreign visitors. There are plenty of US$50 hotels in China that have at least the comfort and amentities you'd expect of a US$100 hotel in the USA, or a €100 (US$150+) hotel in Europe.
Most importantly, don't judge a country by its government. Most people in the world (including me) didn't choose the governments that rule over them, and don't like them. The attitudes toward foreigners of border guards and bureaucrats are rarely much of an indication of the attitudes of ordinary people you meet as a tourist. That's as true (or more) of the differences between ordinary Chinese people and the Public Security Bureau as it is of the differences between ordinary Americans and the Department of Homeland Security. I've found ordinary Chinese people consistently willing to go out of their way to help an ignorant, illiterate foreign guest.
[Update, 31 December 2008: China rolls back the worst of its visa rule changes (but leaves others in effect). See the update for details.]Link | Posted by Edward on Monday, 11 August 2008, 01:14 ( 1:14 AM)