Out of all of the traveling we have done over the last thirty years, traveling to China has definitely been the most difficult. In addition to all of the usual document preparation for traveling, like getting a passport, Americans will also need to apply for and receive a visa before arrival. Below, we’ve put together a short article to help Americans prepare for a trip to China.
It is slightly more work to travel to China than it is to Europe (for US citizens, anyway), but it’s not nearly as bad as some other countries. To prepare for our trip to China, I started working on all of our necessary documents about three months before departure. To fly into China, Americans need a passport that has been valid for at least six months.
Passports are a great item to have regardless of whether you plan to travel to China. As long as the applicant is over 16 years old, issued passports will last ten years! With a passport, Americans can visit Canada and Mexico for up to six months at a time without any additional travel I.D.
How to Get an American Passport
It is important to start on this process early as the processing time is four to six weeks. To apply for or renew a passport, visit the U.S. Department of State – Bureau of Consular Affairs.
The process requires:
- Completed application
- Evidence of citizenship
- Passport photo
- $110 fee (as of April 2018).
Every time I have my passport photo taken, I like to collect at least five copies. To prepare for a trip to China, I needed to send one photo out for the passport, one to the Chinese consulate for my visa, and two for my emergency folders (more on this later).
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A Visa is an additional, mandatory travel document that is glued onto one of your passport pages (no, it has nothing to do with credit cards). It explicitly states how long I can stay within the country and how many times I can come back. There are many types of visas including those for Work, Study, and Travel. This article will be focusing on the Travel (L) Visa.
The Chinese Travel Visa (Category L) is for visitors who are visiting China for tourism. These travelers are invited to travel throughout the country, but forbidden from purchasing property, getting a job (including tutoring), or applying for schooling. It’s possible to do all of these as a foreigner, but they require a different category of visa.
How to Get a Chinese Travel Visa
Chinese visa’s must be collected directly from a Chinese consulate. There are only five such consulates throughout the United States (April 2018). Unless an applicant happens to live close to one or is willing to travel to one, they will be required to use a service. Online services or traditional travel agencies can help applicants prepare for a trip to China. Start by checking China’s Embassy website to see which consulate your state is associated with.
After researching, I ordered our visas from Chinese Visa Service Center rather than flying to the consulate in San Francisco. The company was slightly more expensive than some of the others, but was fast and provided me with a very suitable visa that fit all of my needs.
The process requires:
- Passport* with at least eight months remaining and two blank visa pages
*Yes, we had to send our actual passports, so beware of the discount companies. Stick with businesses that have a good reputation.
*I have read a lot of mixed reviews on this piece, so I am guessing this is a major deciding factor. As I have received a work visa from China previously, I was able to simply write the address of my first hotel and the day I planned on leaving. For first time visitors to China, I suggest making the supporting documents as detailed as possible. I would send a day-by-day itinerary along with photocopies of airline and hotel reservations.
- Consulate Specific Items
- Proof of Residency (for California consulates)
- Additional Visa Forms (for Houston consulate)
- Employer Letter (Washington D.C. consulate)
- Fees (depending on collection method)
The processing time varies depending on the collection method. We used the Chinese Visa Service Center. After the embassy fees, service fees, and shipping fees, our visas cost us $270 each and were returned within six weeks.
How to Read The Chinese Visa
Unfortunately, applicants rarely know which kind of visa they will receive until it arrives in the mail. I once requested a 60 day visa and received a 30 day visa, requiring me to adjust my plans. Most recently, I applied for a 60 day single-use visa and instead received a 60 day, multiple entry visa that is good for 10 years!
Once my visa had been approved by the Chinese consulate, I had my passport returned with a sticker that looked like this attached to one of my visa pages:
- Category: “L” means Tourist Visa. This allows the holder to visit China as a tourist. Tourists are not permitted to work or attend full-time classes.
- Enter Before: Double check this date! This is the absolute expiration of the visa.
- Entries: This is how many times the tourist can leave and return to China using the same visa; on the example above, A. ABC is only allowed one entry. This means that Ms. ABC can not leave mainland China for quick trip to Hong Kong or anywhere else. Once she leaves China for any reason, she will not be able to return without applying for another visa.
- Duration of Each Stay: This is the maximum amount of time the tourist can stay in China per visit. In the example above, Ms. ABC only has one entry and can only stay for a maximum of 30 days. If Ms. ABC were to stay for 31 days, she would be subject to heavy fines or worse. I have a 60 day, “multi” entry visa. This means I can come and go from mainland China as often as I would like, but I can only stay for a maximum of 60 days at a time. This year, I visited China for 57 days, then left for 70 days. Then I went back for 28 days before leaving again.
China does not require any medical documents for Tourist Visas. However, there are some safety measures that are worth considering when preparing for a trip to China. Before leaving on our RTW trip, we visited our local Travel Clinic to get up-to-date information on all of our health needs. The CDC provides a helpful website to help link Americans to local travel clinics around the country.
Vaccinations and Medications
There are no vaccination requirements for China, although the Hepatitis series and Typhoid cycle is recommended by CDC and our travel nurse. For our most recent trip to China, we ended up getting both, along with all of our other boosters. The Chinese government does not require any proof of these vaccinations.
As for the usual medicine bag, I suggest saving all receipts and paperwork for any prescriptions. After our trip to China, we continued on to explore more of SE Asia for the rest of the year. This required me to pack a year’s worth prescription medication, which kind of made me look like a drug mule. Fortunately, I wrapped each prescription bottle with the doctor’s note and my receipts for buying them. I did not run into any trouble, but better safe than sorry.
We purchased travel insurance from World Nomads. For a little over $1,000 each, we are covered for most accidents that happen at least 100 miles from home for the next year (there are shorter plans as well). It includes emergency medical assistance, evacuation, and even little things like lost or stolen luggage. Travel insurance will not cover our usual preventative doctor visits and does not count on our taxes as medical coverage.
It is difficult to prepare for a trip to China without considering some of China’s quirks. Compared to the USA, daily life can be quite different and a little less… structured. Travel insurance helps ease my mind about not getting my camera stolen, having my train trip cancelled at the last minute, or being re-routed to a layover in Beijing then expected to fly out of Shanghai a few hours later (yes, that actually happened). We can’t prepare for everything, but it is nice to have a backup.
China does not require travelers to have medical insurance and will provide medical assistance to anyone for a fee. Like many other countries, there are pharmacies readily available just about anywhere that provide most of the products one might need. Some common items that won’t be found are: anything with antibiotics (including creams like Neosporin), deodorant (Chinese genetics don’t require it), tampons, mint flavored toothpaste, and floss.
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Moral of the story, once I had my passport and visa, I was set to go. However, I never go on a vacation without organizing a set of emergency documents. We make three sets of everything: one set we bring with us, one set we leave behind with a trusted friend, and the other set is digital.
For some examples, my sister once lost her ID in Florida two days before leaving on a cruise that required an ID. I’ve been in hotels where the front desk took my passport for the night because their scanner was broken and they had to register me in person. I have also been locked out of the internet for more than a week during which my credit card bill became overdue. These things DO happen and I like to be prepared.
Emergency Travel Documents
- Photocopies of passports and visas
- Additional passport photo cut to size
- Day-by-day Travel Itinerary
- Emergency contact information (local and foreign)
- Additional items for Trusted Friend Folder
- Check books
- One valid credit card
- Copy of online banking passwords
- Last Will and Testament
It may seem a little bit of overkill, but this helps us to cover all of our bases in case we run into trouble.
Hopefully this helps make sense of everything and you feel like you can prepare for a trip to China. Feel free to leave comments if you’ve got any other questions about my travel prep. Or, you know, if you want to come visit us, I might be able to give you a hand!
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