In most cases, tourists require a visa to enter China. And frankly, compared to other countries, the Chinese visa application process is quite onerous and costly. But it’s perfectly doable with a bit of planning. To give you an overview of what’s involved, I’ve put together a step-by-step guide for getting a tourist visa for China.
Step 1. Do your research
I strongly recommend to anyone who is thinking of travelling to China to familiarise themselves with China’s visa policy first, as it could impact your travel plans.
There are several things to bear in mind with regards to a Chinese visa:
- The cost. A visa to China is pricey and adds considerably to the overall cost of your trip. For example, a single entry visa for UK citizens costs £151. There is no distinction between adults and babies, a visa is required for everyone. You can find out more about costs in this schedule of China visa fees.
- The process. In the UK you can only apply for a visa in person, which means booking an appointment at the nearest Chinese embassy either in London, Manchester, Edinburgh or Belfast. Everyone travelling has to be present at the appointment.
- The paperwork. There are endless forms to be completed and documents to be submitted. You also have to present a booking confirmation of your return flight to and from China, as well as details of accommodation throughout your stay. Visitors who plan to stay with relatives or friends in China have to present a personal invitation.
Step 2: Check visa requirements
If you’re booking a China trip through a travel agent, chances are they will help you with the visa process, possibly for a small additional fee. If you’re travelling independently, organising the visa yourself is usually the cheapest option.
Visa applications are processed by the Chinese Visa Application Service Centre and issued by the Chinese embassy. The centre’s website (www.visaforchina.org) provides a detailed step-by-step guide for the application process.
Note that Hong Kong and Macao are Special Administrative Regions with their own visa regulations. Short visits are visa-free for tourists from many countries, including the UK and Germany. Here are the links to visa requirements for Hong Kong and entry regulations for Macao.
There are many different types of visas for China, so read carefully through the list to ensure you apply for the right one. For a holiday like ours, starting in Beijing and finishing in Hong-Kong, a single-entry tourist visa is required. If you plan to leave China for a period of time (to visit Hong Kong for example) but then return, you will need to look at double entry visas.
Tourist visas for UK applicants are now automatically valid for two years, 3 months for German applicants.
Step 3: Booking an appointment at the nearest visa centre
While it used to be possible to apply for a Chinese visa via post, this service isn’t currently available in the UK. A face-to-face appointment at the Service Centre is required, and all applicants need to attend. In the UK there are Chinese visa centres in London, Manchester, Edinburgh and Belfast. Appointments can be easily booked through the website.
As I found out it is not uncommon not to receive a booking confirmation – it happens and doesn’t matter, but make sure you make a note of your appointment at time of booking and don’t rely on a confirmation email.
Make sure you time your appointment right, I would suggest around one month prior to departure. It is likely that by then you have all your flights and accommodation sorted (confirmations of which you need to append to your application). Remember that the Chinese embassy will hold on to your passports until you collect them or they are returned by post – just in case you plan any trips abroad around the time of your appointment! Standard turn-around time for a tourist visa is four working days, but an express service is available.
Step 4: Prepare your application documents
The Chinese Visa Application Service Centre provides very detailed information on all documentation required for the application. Read this carefully and follow each step. A couple of things to note:
- Application forms have to be completed on the computer, hand written forms are not accepted. Make sure you print everything off and don’t forget to affix a recent photograph and sign by hand afterwards.
- Children of all ages need to submit a full application. Read carefully through the requirements for children’s applications as parents / guardians need to provide additional documents and signatures.
- Applicants cannot share documents so each individual application has to have a copy of the flight booking confirmation, each hotel booking, etc. Make sure you have enough copies.
- Dual nationals who hold citizenship of the country they submit the application in, need to apply with that passport. For example, Rosie has a German and UK passport and given the cost difference I was trying to be clever by submitting her application as a German. But the centre advised us that, as we applied in the UK and she held a UK passport, she needed to apply as a UK national.
- If you prefer your passports to be returned by post, you need to provide a pre-paid special delivery envelope and additional fees apply.
Step 5: At the appointment
When you get to the Service Centre, the receptionist will check your appointment, ensure you have all the necessary documents with you and give you a queue number.
I did see computer facilities in the London office for last minute print outs, but I wouldn’t rely on it. It will definitely be less stressful to make sure you have everything you need before you arrive at the centre.
When your number is called, proceed to the relevant counter where your documents will be checked in detail. The whole process was surprisingly quick and our appointment didn’t take much longer than 15 minutes. The officer handed us a (sizeable) bill, which we had to pay at a different counter and then we were good to go.
We were surprised to find out that the Service Centre didn’t actually confirm whether our application was successful. The centre only reviews documents and ensures all applications are in order, the final decision remains with the embassy. We were told that all looked ok and that the embassy shouldn’t have any issues with our application, but no guarantee was given.
Step 6: Collect your passport and visa
Passports are ready for collection at the centre after 4 working days, at which point applicants find out whether the visa is granted. Postal service is available for passport return, but comes with not insignificant additional fees.
Once you’ve collected or received your visa stamped passport, you’re ready to go to China!
If you’d like to find out more about my experience with planning a family trip to China, I keep this post updated as we go along.