The challenges of acquiring a Chinese Visa

I picked up my passport containing my brand new visa to visit China from the Consulate in New York City this morning. I didn’t use a service or expeditor to handle my request; I did it in person. And it was most definitely an interesting experience.

China Visa-1

For starters, the application must be completed digitally rather than by hand. This policy change went into play a few months ago and it is reasonably well publicized on the web site. That apparently doesn’t stop many people from showing up with hand written copies. As I waited in line to drop off my visa application last week I saw no fewer than three folks turned away before they even got to the security checkpoint because they had handwritten applications. One of them was rather frantic about the situation, nearly attacking the guard outside when he refused to let her in to the building. Fortunately, I made it past that little fracas and inside before things got too out of hand.

It is also worth noting that a few enterprising folks have seen the plight of these applicants who are turned away with their handwritten applications. Running out of a rental van parked on the side of 42nd Street they have a print service available. Assuming you have your paperwork in hand and can fill in the form quickly the process to get it typed into the computer they’ve got in the back and printed out on the attached printer isn’t all that bad. I didn’t stop to ask how much they charge for the service but they had a line of folks waiting to pay them so it definitely isn’t a horrible business to be in.

Next up is the application submission process. The application is four pages long and includes very detailed instructions. Apparently, however, those instructions are not complete. Each application requires a photocopy of the passport even though that isn’t noted anywhere. If you have a previous visa to enter China a copy of that is required, too. But no one tells you that until you get to the front of the line. Oy.

There is a copier in the building so you can make the copies needed and then fight back to the window to finish the application submission but it is ancient and ornery. Copies cost 25 cents each, which isn’t really all that bad considering that they’ve basically got you over the barrel at that point. And the machine takes dollars but doesn’t always manage to give change. Needless to say, the three folks behind me in line all got free copies while mine cost a buck.

Once all the paperwork is in order and you get to the front of the line the process is actually pretty easy. An agent quickly flips through the papers and hands you a receipt. Come back in a few days to collect your passport and pay the fees.

As I left the Consulate – roughly two hours after I started my morning there – I chatted with the aforementioned security guard to find out if it was always that crazy inside. He assured me it wasn’t, though I’m not all that convinced. I was back today to collect my passport and the lines were better, but still not great. There is also a distinct lack of signage inside so figuring out where to go was a bit of a process. Basically I stood around looking dumbfounded until others who had just done the same explained where to go, a favor I paid back a few minutes later.

First you drop off your receipt and collect another receipt from one agent. That’s assuming you can figure out which line you’re supposed to be in, but let’s not get caught up with such a trifling detail. After making it through that line it is off to another line – now with your new receipt – to await the opportunity to pay and recover your passport.

The payment is apparently another problem for some folks to figure out. The Consulate has been only accepting credit cards, bank checks or money orders for roughly 18 months now. They stamp the receipt they give you with the words "No Cash" in both English and Mandarin in really big, red letters. And the woman in front of me was fighting with the agent behind the glass to pay for her visa with two crisp, clean $100 bills. Literally shoving the bills under the little window thing and not letting the agent push them back. It was nuts.

This trip was only about 30 minutes to get my passport and pay the Visa fees. Now I’m all set for my visit. But, wow, was there a lot of crazy involved. And that doesn’t include the various other folks choosing to ignore the lines, shouting at each other in various languages and all sorts of other fun that kept me entertained during my waits.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


    1. I was actually somewhat surprised that the experience was worse than 6 years ago when I got our visas to visit India, Sandeep. There were still plenty of lines and waiting that time but folks were much more respectful and polite it seemed. I’ll get that experience again soon as we’re going to need Indian visas for our Christmas trip.

  1. It’s always pretty crazy – I had to go back a second time because I didn’t have cash for the head-shots or the exact address of my hotel.

    Beijing is a lot like the consulate. It’s a great city, but you’ll be wanting for personal space.

  2. Looks like is another business opportunity in offering people to use your credit card in exchange for cash.

    1. I actually seriously considered making that offer to the woman, Oliver. I also didn’t have sufficient change to make it a reasonable transaction for her and I wasn’t going to be that guy. But I thought about it. If nothing else I’d have been happy for a few extra points on my CC. 🙂

  3. I picked up a Chinese visa from Chicago about two months ago and it was fairly painless with no copy of the passport required. Only bad thing was that they just left for lunch – never announced it or closed the doors, the people behind the windows just stopped calling numbers and left.

  4. anybody know the scene in the San Francisco branch, need toget a visa and need it fast, should i just pay a service? what is the quickest i can get the visa? do they have a 24 hr turnaround. wow this is a really useful post!!!

    1. You should still be able to get next day service in San Francisco or even NYC so long as you show up early. You do pay extra for that benefit. At least in NYC there is no longer a same-day option though other cities might offer such.

      If you end up looking for a service a number of friends have used and all speak quite highly of them.

  5. is is possible to get it while traveling in third countries? i am running outta time thanks to the slow service in adding extra pages to my usa pass… any experience with that?

    what is the best expediter service to use? and the quickest turn around?

  6. Sounds like the US consulate in FRA too. They have terminals to enter the application and submit it, copiers, postal vending machines, photo booths etc etc. You would think people read application forms before making the trip :).
    The indian visa application process has become boring since they outsourced it 🙁

  7. I had to get a Chinese visa when I was living in South Korea and the process was just as draconian. For example, you had to have at least six months left on your South Korean “green card” to be eligible for a visa. You also didn’t have a chance to go through a consulate, all the paper work had to be filled out by approved travel agents that took a healthy commission! And then it took two weeks to get the passport back.

    Regardless of how much of a pain it was, I loved my time in Beijing. I hope you got the double entry (when I filled mine out the double entry visa was the same price as the single entry visa for Americans).

  8. Picked up a Chinese visa last year for a long layover day trip to the Great Wall from Beijing. Researched it heavily, jumped through hoops, and paid much $$$. The embassy told us we definitely needed one to leave the Beijing airport for any reason. At the airport, as we departed to find our guide, everyone there told us that we most certainly did not need a visa, and seemed surprised that we had one as our stay in the country was under 24 hours. We did not need it to leave or enter the airport – does anyone know what the true requirement is? Based on my research, I would not have felt prepared without one, regardless of how it worked out.

  9. for me the issue is that my pass is stuck in the the mailing sys of pass agency in charleston sc, and its been there since oct 14th, and still usps does not have it…

  10. hola,

    if you can, fly to hong kong (no visa required), find a visa shop, drop your passport off at 9am and have it back by 5pm. Perfect!

  11. oh and of course this is hong kong, so they accept cash, take a hand written form, and do any photocopies for you included in the price.

    As for security guard, there isn’t one.

    It’s the only way to get a chinese visa 🙂

  12. some agencies say that it is still possible to get same day service in NYC, is this true?
    i will be in Porgtual, the website says they will not give visas to tourists there, but u think that in a pinch they would? or should i hire a service in porgtual to do it, that is if i can ever get the pass to get to porgtual first. from porgtual i go to china, so looking like i need a new tkt, if i am not off to china….
    thanks for your help

    1. I do not believe it is possible to get the Chinese visa same-day in NYC any more. I think overnight is the fastest they do now. Houston still does same-day as I understand it.

  13. so only overnight in NYC?
    how about san francisco? plus when does it have to be in to do a same day in san francisco?
    Does anyone know about spain or protugal for non residents?
    what a distaster this is turning out to be, 2 pass mailed at same time for extra pages, one took 2 weeks the other a month plus 1 week mailing delay…

  14. Thank God for Visa/Passport expediters. The convenience factor is worth the extra expense in some cases.

  15. can a expediter do a same day turn around even if its not offered on the website?

    at this point i am paying more for the visa than my MR flight.

  16. SFO has same day service,
    u can fedex it to a friend and they can have it done for u
    that was close…
    well off my MR to PEK

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