How to Get a Visa for China

Oh China, this once mysterious and isolated country is now one of the most popular travel destinations in the world.  China has only had its doors open to foreign tourists for a small amount of time, and there are still many restrictions for people who want to visit.  Because of this, it can be a bit of a pain getting entry visas…but don’t let that deter you from visiting!  The country is enormous and there are so many things to see and do.  It is well worth the extra effort to get your visa for China.  Here’s what you need to know about getting a visa for China!

Beautiful China

 You MUST Have a Proper Visa for China – Yes, Even USA Citizens!

For the most part, every foreign visitor to China needs to have a proper Chinese visa.  As US citizens, we are typically very lucky when traveling to other countries and do not have to go through this process…but not China.  You cannot just show up at the airport and be let in.

There are a few exceptions to the visa requirement in China.

Recently, the country introduced a 72 hour transit visa exception for certain regions.  For example, if you have a flight with a layover in Beijing, but your final destination is another country, then you can arrange your flight so that you have up to 72 hours to explore — and you do not need a visa.  You are limited to where you go, and there are certain flight requirements.  So you will need to check details on the China Consulate website for specific details.

Also, if you are visiting Hong Kong or Macau and want to take a tour into the mainland of China, there are options available for you to book your tour through an official travel agent which will enable you to join the tour into the mainland without a visa.  Again, there are certain requirements for this – so be sure to check the consulate website for the most up-to-date information.  Regulations tend to change.

USA passport

What Types of Visas Are Available?

There are many visas available for China.  Primarily, our readers will be interested in the tourist visas, so that’s what we will talk most about in this post.  However, there are options available to visit friends and family who are living and working in China, as well as if you are invited by a Chinese resident.  There are also student visas and working visas.  Each type of visa has different paperwork requirements, so be sure to read the details carefully.

You can click here to review all the different types of visas and requirements on the Chinese Consulate website.

** If you plan to work in China (such as we are, as English Teachers), then you will need the Z visa.  There is a totally different process for this, which we will write a post about soon.  So stay tuned if that is what you are interested in!

How to Apply for a Chinese Visa

The idea of applying for a Chinese visa can be daunting, but we can assure you that the process is easier than it sounds.  First of all, you need to find the nearest Chinese consulate to you.  If you are in the United States, then you can go to the Chinese Consulate website to locate all the offices in the USA and the regions they cover.

As of the date of this post, there is an Embassy and a Consulate General in Washington DC plus are 5 other Chinese Consulates in the USA:  New York, NY; Chicago, IL; San Francisco, CA; Los Angeles, CA; Houston, TX.


Besides the Embassy and Consulate General in Washington DC, there are 5 other Chinese Consulate offices in the USA: New York, NY; Chicago, IL; San Francisco, CA; Los Angeles, CA; Houston, TX
Besides the Embassy and Consulate General in Washington DC, there are 5 other Chinese Consulate offices in the USA: New York, NY; Chicago, IL; San Francisco, CA; Los Angeles, CA; Houston, TX and they each support applications from specific regions.

Also, you will see that most all consulates say that they do not accept mailed applications.  However, this does not mean that you have to travel to the consulate in person.

For example, my parents are planning a trip to China to visit us in a couple months.  They live in Idaho and they are supposed to apply in Washington DC.  But of course, they don’t want to fly to DC to submit the paperwork.

This is where using a Visa Agency is most convenient.

Using a Visa Agency for a Chinese Visa

A Visa Agency can help you with this process by telling you what documents are needed.  Then once you have them, you will mail them to the agency along with your passport.  They will physically take it to the consulate for you and submit it, then they will pick it up when it is ready and mail it back to you.

When choosing a visa agency, be sure to check online for reviews.  There are many reputable agencies out there, but a few sketchy ones too.  Keep in mind that when you use a visa agency you will have to pay the normal visa fee to the consulate as well as the agency fee — so it will be more expensive (estimate around $100 visa agency service fee). 

Although, the price is still cheaper than if you had to travel across country to the consulate yourself!

However, if there is trouble with you application then the consulate could request you to show up in person.  Although, for most travelers this will not be an issue.

Example visa agency in DC
Example visa agency in DC

Applying for a Chinese Visa in Another Country

Residents of some countries are REQUIRED to apply for a Chinese Visa in their home country.  This is a real bummer for those spontaneous travelers who are on a long-term epic adventure.  But luckily, this isn’t the case for US citizens and many European countries.

Josh and I actually applied for our Chinese Visas while in Chiang Mai, Thailand.  We had been visiting Thailand for a few months when deciding to come to China.  The process was super easy, and quick.

Luckily, there was a Chinese Consulate in Chiang Mai, Thailand - so we were able to get our visas easily and it only took a couple days.
Luckily, there was a Chinese Consulate in Chiang Mai, Thailand – so we were able to get our visas easily and it only took a couple days.

What Documents Do You Need for a Tourist Visa to China?

Depending on the type of visa you are applying for, there are different documents to provide.  For the purpose of this post, we will talk about the documents you need to apply for a tourist visa to China.

First, you must have round trip airline tickets purchased.  China wants to know that you plan to leave!  Also, you should have your itinerary typed up which shows the dates and cities / places you plan to visit.  Lastly, you should have hotels booked — they want to know that you have a place to stay!

Related Post:  How to Travel between Hong Kong to Mainland China

If you are taking an organized tour through a company, then they will take care of providing some of this documentation for you.  ** It is OK if your plans change.  They aren’t going to follow you in China to see if you stick exactly to your itinerary during your visit.

Here is a general list of items — but be sure to check the Chinese Consulate for the most current information!

  • Passport:  Original signed passport with at least six months of remaining validity and blank visa pages, and a copy of the passport’s data page and the photo page if it is separate.
  • Proof of legal stay or residence status
  • One completed Visa Application Form with a recently-taken color passport photo (bare-head, full face) against a light background attached
  • Photocopy of previous Chinese passports or previous Chinese visas (applicable to foreign citizens who were Chinese citizens and have obtained foreign citizenship)
  • Documents showing the itinerary including air ticket booking record (round trip) and proof of a hotel reservation, etc. or an invitation letter issued by a relevant entity or individual in China. The invitation letter should contain:
    • Information on the applicant (full name, gender, date of birth, etc.)
    •  Information on the planned visit (arrival and departure dates, place(s) to be visited, etc.)
    • Information on the inviting entity or individual (name, contact telephone number, address, official stamp, signature of the legal representative or the inviting individual)

The Cost of Getting a Chinese Visa

The cost of the Chinese Visa is set, regardless of the type you get and the length.  For current prices, check the consulate website.  But as of the date we write this, the price is $45 for most countries.  However as US citizens, this is where they get us.  We have to pay $140 for our visa.  Yes, it’s crazy expensive.  But whatcha gonna do?!?!

My Chinese Visa along with my boarding pass -- ensuring they will let me in when I arrive!
My Chinese Visa along with my boarding pass — ensuring they will let me in when I arrive!

When To Apply For a Chinese Visa (How Long Does it Take)?

The thing to keep in mind when applying for a Chinese Visa is that it is effective the date it is issued.  So depending on the length of the validity, you may not want to apply to early prior to your trip because you don’t want it to expire before your trip!

If you book your trip well in advance, say 6-12 months, then there is no rush to do your visa.  Based on our experience, you don’t need to worry about doing your visa until about 1-2 months prior to your trip.  This ensures that you don’t have to rush it, and it gives you time in case there is a problem.

If you are worried about spending money on airline tickets and tours before getting your visa, then just be sure to book refundable tickets.  They will be more expensive, but you will have peace of mind.

The typical visa process only takes a few days, and you can pay to expedite service if you need to.  If you are planning to use a Visa Agency to get your visa from a consulate, then you need to add in some extra time for processing and mailing documents back and forth.  But overall, the standard process shouldn’t take more than a week or so.

Read Also:  72 Hour China Transit Visa

Of course, if there are difficulties processing your application then the process could take longer.  However, most of you should be just fine.

** NOTE:  Some travel agencies and organized tours will tell you it can take 6 months to get your Chinese Visa.  This is not necessarily true.  Our guess is that they are just trying to cover their butts in case there is a problem with your application.  Or perhaps this is just a sales technique to make people feel a sense of urgency and book their trip well in advance.  Rest assured, it really doesn’t take that long for the average traveler.

chinese visa

Getting a Visa for China Isn’t that Difficult

Overall, it can be overwhelming when you start to look at all the details about getting a Chinese Visa.  Some people will make it seem difficult, but in reality, it isn’t. Anyone can do it.  You can have a travel agent do it for you, if you would prefer to save yourself the headaches.  But in the end, it is entirely possible to do it on your own.

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