I have traveled to China two times. My husband, whose good friend and business partner is Chinese American, has been there many more times. We are planning a trip later this year, and for the first time, I am in charge of figuring out how to get a Chinese Tourist Visa.
There are different visa rules for U.S. citizens than for a foreign citizen holding a green card. For U.S. citizens, getting a visa on arrival is often possible in many countries, but this is not usually the case for China.
Don’t Delay Applying for Your Chinese Tourist Visa
Planning and preparing your visa application up to a few months before your planned trip is essential. You must collect all required documentation, complete the visa application, and then take it to the Chinese Embassy or consulate designated for your region in person. Visa applications are not accepted by mail.
China has one Embassy in Washington, D.C., and five consulates. The consulates are in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Houston. Your state of residence determines which office you must use when making your visa application. You can find your consulate office here.
Fortunately, we live outside San Francisco and can quickly drive to this consulate. However, this consulate covers Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, and Northern California. If you live in Alaska, you will most likely use a travel agent or visa agency to submit your application.
Understanding the Types of Chinese Visas
There are five different types of visas for China: 1. Tourist visa; 2. Business visa; 3. Work visa; D. Student visa; and 5. Transit visa. I will only be discussing the Tourist visa in this article.
The tourist visa has fewer requirements than the business or work visa. For other types of visas, you may be required to show things like your business purpose or a letter of invitation.
The visa you will receive is only valid for “Mainland China.” Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan all have independent border control policies, and you need to apply for separate visas if you will be visiting any of these countries.
Additionally, there is the autonomous Tibetan region of China, and this area requires a separate visa. The application process for a visa to Tibet can take a while.
Researching China Visa Requirements
Visit the official Chinese embassy website. From the home page, click on Consular Services in the menu area. From there, click the “Visa Application” button. Here, you will see a list of informational links. The top link is Requirements and Procedures for Chinese Visa Application (Updated January 2024). This is where you start.
This page is a table that will help you identify the specific requirements for your type of visa. In our case, the Tourist Visa. Column A on this page gives you the basic documents, and Column B has the General Documents.
Further down on the page is a link to Visa Processing Fees for the U.S. (i.e., application fee). Previously, you could only get a 1 year, single-entry visa, or multiple-entry visa. Now, most people opt for the 10-year unlimited entry visa.
Note: While you can go to China many times on a 10-year visa, each stay is limited to 90 days on a Tourist visa. Additionally, there may be a limit on the number of days in a 180-day period, much like the Schengen Policy.
Further down in column B, you will see the link https://cva.mfa.gov.cn; this takes you to the online application page. Here, you can choose where you will apply for your visa. Once you’ve picked the correct location, click the “Start an Application” button.
Before completing the application, I suggest you read “Annex 1” on the visa application page. This is your best guide to filling out the application correctly.
You can print out the application or fill it out online. If you fill this out online, you can upload many documents, like your photo. This may speed up your time at the consulate when submitting your application.
Note: Before January 1, 2024, you had to show proof of round-trip airline bookings and proof of a hotel reservation. These requirements are no longer enforced at the San Francisco Consulate (and possibly all consulates).
Gathering Documents Necessary To Get A Chinese Tourist Visa
You will need the following documents when applying for your China tourist visa.
- Passport: Your current passport with an expiration date of at least 6 months after your planned visit to China. If you have received a previous Chinese visa that has expired, you will need a copy of that visa. If you have a current Chinese visa in an expired Passport, you will need to have that passport or a photocopy of the passport and visa available.
- Passport-sized photos: These are the standard 2″ x 2″ color photos on a white background. No glasses, no hats, no smiles, full-face. You can obtain these photos at your local post office or take them yourself. Many online apps aid in formatting a good “passport photo.”
- A copy of your current driver’s license or state-issued I.D. We weren’t aware of this requirement until we were at the visa window. Fortunately, the person reviewing our applications offered to make copies for us. There was a copy machine in the lobby of the visa waiting room, so we could have made copies if we needed to. But it is better to have everything than to have to come back.
- While not asked for in the visa application process, you may be asked for copies of your birth certificate or marriage certificate.
- Miscellaneous information you want handy: Employers and dates of employment going back 5 years. Educational Information (ie, college/degrees). Family information: Spouse, Parents, and/or Children and their date of birth. Places you have traveled to in the past 12 months. Military information, if applicable
Finally, you are ready to complete the visa application form with everything in hand!
Completing The China Visa Application Form
Whether you complete the application form online or by hand, ensure everything you enter is accurate and truthful. Double-check all information before printing the application for submission. If there is a need to clarify something, provide additional documentation when necessary.
Remember, completing the application form online is not submitting the application; you still need to do this in person.
There are three places on the application that require your signature. First, if you complete the application online, you must sign on Confirmation of Online Visa Application. Then, in two separate locations on page seven.
Note: the first signature on page seven has you affirming that you understand that according to Chinese law, even with a valid visa, you may be denied entry to China.
Going To The Consulate to Submit Your Chinese Tourist Visa Application
Do You Need to Schedule An Appointment?
As of this writing, visa application submittals are handled on a first-come, first-served walk-in basis at all consular locations in the United States. However, as you may be traveling quite a distance to submit your visa application, you probably want to check with your specific consulate location to see if an appointment is required before you head out.
Again, there are agencies that, for a fee, will handle the submission of your China visa application for you. The fees can be high, but possibly not as high as the cost of flying to the city the consulate is located in and any possible hotel stays while your application is being processed.
How Much Time Should You Allocate For Your Visa Interview?
We arrived at the San Francisco consulate location around 10:30 am on a Tuesday. There is the typical airport-type screening to enter the visa area at the consulate. Security checked our I.D.s to ensure we lived in the area serviced by this consulate. We went through a metal detector and were given a number.
The room was full; over 100 people were waiting to be called, and only two windows were servicing the applicants.
The wait time was about 2 ½ hours. Then, we spent another 30 minutes with the consular officer who reviewed our applications. Once the agent was done with their review, we were given receipts for each application and told to come back on Friday to either pick up our visa or learn if there were any issues or, in the worst-case scenario, our applications were denied.
It’s essential to understand that your original passport will stay with the consulate during this time. Your passport must have at least two blank visa pages, and the new visa is pasted onto one of the blank pages.
Note: Suppose you are well-traveled and your current passport does not have at least two blank pages. In that case, you should head over to the U.S. passport agency in your location to have pages added.
Processing The China Tourist Visa Doesn’t Take That Long
In our case, the wait time to receive our visas was just three days. The information on the Embassy’s website does say that wait times average four days.
The time sink for receiving the visa all lies in the wait times at the consulate. On Friday, when my husband went back to pick up our visas, he planned to arrive early, and he was there just as the office opened.
Here is a picture of the line wrapping around the block of people waiting to enter the Chinese consulate visa office that day. It took my husband 45 minutes to get inside. Fortunately, for people picking up visas, the queue moved quickly.
To pick up your visa in San Francisco, you start at Window 1. Here, you hand in the receipt from your previous visit. Next, you are called to Window 2 to either pay the visa fees or be told there is an issue, or you are denied.
Note: the acceptable payment methods for the Chinese tourist visa are: credit card (Visa or Mastercard only), money order, or cashier’s check. No personal checks or debit cards are accepted.
Fortunately, our visas were approved, D.H. paid the fees, and a few minutes later, he was called back to Window 1 and given our passports with the new visas with the official stamp from the Chinese government.
Don’t run out as soon as you have your passports. Take a few minutes to verify the details on the visa. You don’t want to discover an error in a name spelling or passport number when you arrive at border control in Shanghai.
The Chinese consulate does offer an express service for obtaining visas. However, from my reading on the website, this only shortens the wait time by 24 hours.
Final Tips And Considerations On How To Get A Chinese Tourist Visa
Be aware of potential challenges in the visa application process. Read through all the documentation on the Chinese embassy website.
Go To the U.S. Department of State website, review the travel advisories, and understand the current entry, exit, and visa requirements.
In addition to your passport, keep a copy of your visa and related documents in a separate location and a data bank (i.e., DropBox or Google Docs) while traveling.
Above all, ensure you understand and follow the local laws, rules, and regulations while staying in China.
How To Get A Chinese Tourist Visa: Anyone Can Do This
With much research and patience, anyone can figure out how to get a Chinese tourist visa. I estimate that visa applicants who do this work independently will spend about eight hours completing the application, submitting the application, and finally retrieving the visa.
Don’t let what seems like a lot of bureaucratic red tape stop you from getting this visa and taking a fantastic trip to this ancient and beautiful country.
With our new visas in hand, we plan to head out to China later this year, probably in May. Will we see you there?