China is among the countries in the world where you need a visa simply to enter, let alone to work, study or stay in the country for long periods of time. Although a valid U.S. passport with at least a few empty pages is your ticket to visa-free entry into most countries, this isn’t the case when it comes to China.
Hoping you can just get a China visa on arrival at an airport in China? Keep dreaming. Airlines won’t even let you on the plane without a valid China visa, so get the China visa you need in plenty of time for departure.
China Visa Types and Required Materials
The materials you need to apply for a Chinese visa depend upon which type of China visa you need. The most common types of Chinese visas are those for visitors, employees of companies operating in China and foreigners in China for general business purposes.
Chinese L Tourist Visa
The vast majority of visitors to China need the “L” tourist visa, available with a variety options — Single vs. multiple entry or 90 days vs. 6 months vs. one year, to name a couple. No matter which Chinese tourist visa you need, you need a passport with at least six months remaning validity, one passport-sized photos and a completed visa application.
The fee you owe ranges between $140-170, depending on which particularly “L” visa you need. Technically, you need to have a letter explaining the purpose of your visit if you apply for a multiple entry visa, although this is usually only the case if you apply directly through the consulate.
Chinese Z Work Visa
The first thing you notice when you see your “Z” visa stuck inside your passport is that the number of entires is “zero.” The reason for this is that the “Z” visa simply permits you to enter China for work purposes. Within 30 days of your arrival, you must have it converted to a residence permit and if you can’t, leave.
Since you must be hired by a company that operates within China to get a Z visa, your company provides you with most of the supplementary materials you need, such as a work permit and a “Foreign Experts” certificate. For your part, you must submit to a comprehensive medical exam, which you may receive after you arrive in China.
Chinese F Business Visa
The “F” visa doesn’t permit you to work in China but rather, to stay in China for long periods of time for business purposes, whether to build partnerships with Chinese individual proprietors or companies, work as a freelance employee for a company outside China or search for work with a Chinese company. No matter the number of entries of duration of the visa, a Chinese “F” visa costs $130, so long as you apply for it outside China.
If you want to change an existing tourist “L” visa to an “F” business visa within China, the process becomes much more difficult and expensive — I know this from firsthand experience.
Where to Get Your China Visa
You can get your China visa wherever it makes sense for you, be it directly from a Chinese consulate, through a visa outsourcing agency here or abroad or even in the special administrative region of Hong Kong.
Chinese Consulates in the United States and Abroad
China operates consulates in five U.S. cities: Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco. If you live in or within close driving distance of one of these cities, apply for your China visa directly at the consulate. As usual, common visa sense applies: Arrive as early as possible in the morning to get your passport back as soon as possible. Although Chinese visas usually don’t come back the same day, it isn’t outside the realm of possibility. You can also apply for China visas and Chinese embassies and consults abroad.
China Visa Outsourcing
If you don’t live close to a city with a Chinese consulate, you can get a Chinese visa through a visa outsourcing agency. Although these agencies usually assess a supplementary fee for their services, using one saves you a trip to your nearest consulate, which would probably cost more. I personally recommend VisaRite Services, based in New Jersey.
China Visa in Hong Kong
In Hong Kong and want to visit mainland China? You definitely can, although some restrictions do exist on the types of visas you can get. Read my article about how to get a China visa in Hong Kong for more information.
Robert Schrader is a travel writer and photographer who’s been roaming the world independently since 2005, writing for publications such as “CNNGo” and “Shanghaiist” along the way. His blog, Leave Your Daily Hell, provides a mix of travel advice, destination guides and personal essays covering the more esoteric aspects of life as a traveler.