Tourists beware: New China Visa Rules!

I really don’t like the sound of this:

If you’re planning a trip to China and don’t have an up-to-date visa in hand, you may encounter some additional red tape.

On Aug. 1, the Chinese government started requiring that travelers seeking tourist visas, officially known as L visas, submit a letter of invitation and photocopies of the traveler’s round-trip ticket and hotel reservations.

To obtain a business, or F Visa, applicants must now have an invitation letter or “confirmation letter of invitation” issued by an authorized Chinese agency. This is in addition to an invitation letter issued by a Chinese local government, company, corporation or institution.

For tourists, the invitation letter can come from a “duly authorized tourism unit” or it can be issued by a company, corporation, institution or individual in China. If the letter comes from an individual, a photocopy of her or his identification must also be provided.

The new, more complicated rules, unfortunately, don’t completely spell out what is considered a “duly authorized tourism unit” or what constitutes a “letter of invitation.” Consulate officials did not respond to our request for additional clarification.

The new requirements have thrown many travelers for a loop, especially those who filled out the four-page visa application form in July but whose documents didn’t reach the consulate until August. The result has been confusion, communication challenges and, in some cases, a scramble to meet deadlines and travel itineraries.

You don’t need a visa to go to Singapore or Japan or Hong Kong (or most other places I’ve visited over the decades). Why does China have to make it such hell to visit their country? Visas are a cash cow, a way to milk tourists and enrich the national coffers. Okay, I can deal with that, and getting a visa for entry into the US for a Chinese person is not necessarily a walk in the park either. But why does China have to add more barriers and make a process that is already a pain in the, um, neck even more nightmarish?

Despite the hassle, I had learned how to get a visa relatively quickly and painlessly based on the approximate dates of my trip to China. Now, “Travelers arranging their own trips…must lock in their travel dates, purchase their airline tickets and make hotel reservations before they know whether their visa applications will be approved.” Good grief. What’s the point?

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Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 25 Comments

I have to hope this is a temporary thing, like they did during the Olympics, and that once the Party conference is over, they’ll ease up again. But wow. Way to depress the tourist economy, guys.

I don’t have a problem with having to get a visa, not at all. But I do have a problem with these kinds of draconian restrictions.

August 21, 2012 @ 10:55 am | Comment

Frankly this is bad, nonetheless I’m sort of happy to see these new rules. They don’t have to really serve a purpose. Just annoy the hell out of people, and pay back the torture every other country has been placing on the Chinese thus far.

Even with these rules added, a foreigner, say American, getting a Chinese visa isn’t half as hard as a Chinese getting a US visa. Aside from letter of invitation, the US embassy *might* also want to check several items from an applicant, including:
- Proof of substantial amount of money in a Chinese bank, usually needed to be sitting in the account for several months.
- Proof of being legally employed in China.
- Proof of property ownership in China.
- Entire itinerary in the destination country (US in this case).

In short: anything that could say loudly “I’m extremely well established in China and have no sensible reason to become an illegal immigrant in the destination country”.

Worst is that they don’t say what’s definitely required. Better prepare everything possibly helpful. In my case I prepared a whole dossier of stuff according to the dim instructions on the US embassy website. Never thought my idiotic I-am-innocent-like-shit smile worked surprisingly well, and 95% of the stuff went unchecked. Nice try making me running between banks for a week preparing for stuff that might be useful yet might be not as well who knows better have them ready anyway.

And US is the “more friendly” countries to the Chinese. Because although they might possibly check 1001 stuff of yours, you could slip through without submitting many things too. Can never be sure. A tourist visa to Japan definitely asks for proof of money in bank though, deposited at least 3 months in advance, and not touched ever since. The required amount used to be 200K CNY as I recall. The bar has been constantly lowered over the years, now at 50K CNY I think.

My point is that we as countries should all grow up. If that’s not possible, at least we make each other’s life equally miserable. That’s the spirit of fairplay.

August 21, 2012 @ 11:06 am | Comment

I guess I got spoiled going to so many countries in Europe and Asia without ever needing a visa. I remember I needed one for Vietnam and Cambodia, but getting it was so simple. Only when it comes to China does it become a nightmare, as it was for the Beijing Olympics. People were in despair. And to what end?

August 21, 2012 @ 11:18 am | Comment

The most probable guy to ask this question is Zhou Yongkang. But don’t expect answers, because they are all state secrets.

August 21, 2012 @ 11:36 am | Comment

Hopefully getting a visa from here in NZ isn’t so onerous! Getting into the US, even without needing a visa, is the shits. Well, in Detroit it was, anyway. Such stupid questions…”You ever been arrested?” “No” “Are you sure?” I didn’t know what to say to that – just gave him a WTF look which seemed to suffice :-)

August 21, 2012 @ 12:26 pm | Comment

Second Mike on the US’s “Visa waiver” (AKA ESTA) being in fact just a visa in disguise – you have to make an application before you travel, pay a fee, fill in a form (including lovely questions about whether you worked for Nazi Germany or are a terrorist) and agree not to challenge their decision if they deny you entry. Theoretically this can happen at the border if the immigrations official just doesn’t like the look of you, and since you signed a document saying you wouldn’t challenge their decision (which you have to do), your only option is just to get back on the plane. Definitely not visa-free travel as I understand it.

What makes it worse is that US immigration people are some of the rudest I’ve encountered. Travelling through O’Hare I saw one official repeatedly berate a line of travellers for not standing in single-file in a line dozens of people long. The worst example was a Korean friend of mine, a lady from a prominent political family, who was asked “who is your pimp?”.

Visas (including ESTA) are in the main just a way of making money off travellers and I’ve never seen much point in them beyond that – pretty much everything nowadays that might require a visa can be done just by checking your passport number. I’m also not under the impression that getting a visa to the UK for those countries which have to get them is a piece of cake, in fact I know it’s not.

August 21, 2012 @ 1:55 pm | Comment

What you probably remember about Vietnam is that you were able to buy your visa at the airport upon arrival. The same is true even of Myanmar. China is the only country in the world (of which I am aware) that requires Americans to get visas in advance. Heck, even Papua New Guinea allows you to buy your visa at the airport.

August 21, 2012 @ 2:26 pm | Comment

as a naturalized citizen of the u.s., i believe that one of the most underrated privileges of being born american is this: never having to apply for an american visa. before complaining too loudly about the chinese, it may be worth reading “How Not to Attract Tourists”, an op-ed piece in the new york times from a few months ago in which the author writes “Whatever foreigners think of the American experiment, though, it’s unlikely the experience of crossing our border has made them think better of it.” (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/16/opinion/the-unwelcome-mat.html).

i have traveled to china many times over the last couple of decades and have found the visa process to be largely painless, mostly because the likelihood that you’re going to be arbitrarily rejected seems pretty low if you follow the procedures. when i first applied for an american visa, i was rejected for no reason and i can say that with certainty because i returned a week later with exactly the same papers and got a visa.

btw, our daughter had to apply for a chinese visa recently (after aug 1) so my wife (formerly a chinese citizen, now an american living in shanghai) issued a personal invitation letter. after some hemming and hawing, the consular folks in houston accepted it and issued a visa. no hotel reservation was provided because she would be living at home here.

yes, “you may encounter some additional red tape”, but no, saying that they’ve turned “a process that is already a pain in the, um, neck even more nightmarish” is a bit over the top in my experience.

August 21, 2012 @ 2:44 pm | Comment

I’m wondering how this is going to affect ABTC (APEC Business Travel Card) applications / holders. Anyone know?

August 21, 2012 @ 9:22 pm | Comment

@NV – The process of entering the US by air as a foreigner is a bitch-slap to the face of every self-respecting person who goes through it, which is a pity because the actual country itself in the main couldn’t be friendlier. My parents were almost denied entry simply because they had forgotten the address they were staying at (my sister’s place) and she didn’t have a mobile, in the end my sis over-heard the matter being discussed from outside immigration and gave them the details. Even if everything goes smoothly, at the end of the process you will likely have waited for hours to be finger-printed and questioned in a brusque fashion like a common criminal.

August 21, 2012 @ 11:26 pm | Comment

How horrible.

August 21, 2012 @ 11:31 pm | Comment

In this case I think a tu quoque is actually warranted. Post-9/11 the USA is a bitch to enter, even from a developed country. We probably lost the Olympics in 2016 over it, even. Something really needs to be done to make it easier. And from what I hear every single female under the age of 40 from a developing country is assumed to be a prostitute until proven otherwise, which is just absurd.

August 22, 2012 @ 1:00 am | Comment

No question that entry into the US is a grim and absurd experience.

August 22, 2012 @ 1:32 am | Comment

“Post-9/11 the USA is a bitch to enter”

T’was a horrible experience before 11/9 too when using Detroit as my point of entry. Using LA wasn’t too bad, though, when flying to Canada. Just sitting in a dingy lounge, nothing open due to the time I arrived and with a constant stream of beggars asking me for money (I do hope that has changed!) – liveable with as the officials were human and processed my transit OK.

August 22, 2012 @ 8:41 am | Comment

LAX has improved a lot, Mike. They’ve finally gotten most of the remodeling done, and I have to say, with all the traveling I’ve done the last couple of years, I think overall LAX personnel are decent, professional and friendly. Kind of a surprise, honestly! But I’ve had way better experiences there than say, SFO, which I’d expected to be better (I mean, SFO is a nice airport, don’t get me wrong. But I’m not so crazy about their security people — not even TSA; they’re private contractors. And it’s very hard to avoid going through the backscatter scanners any more).

August 22, 2012 @ 9:46 am | Comment

Regardless of what the original intention was for making this hurdle, now it’s just going to become another way for the foreign ministry to make some dough.

August 22, 2012 @ 10:00 am | Comment

Lisa

Way to depress the tourist economy, guys.

Thing is that the vast majority of tourists are (last time I was there) Chinese. I’m not sure the authorities really care that much about foreign tourists.

Richard

No question that entry into the US is a grim and absurd experience.

I should point out that I found my first journey to New York a few years ago to be very enjoyable. The queue at JFK wasn’t that long and the border control guard even managed some dry humour.

You don’t need a visa to go to Singapore or Japan or Hong Kong (or most other places I’ve visited over the decades). Why does China have to make it such hell to visit their country?

Because the US (like UK) doesn’t make Singaporeans or Japanese apply for visas when they want to go to America. But Chinese people need visas, so to avoid loss of face China insists on visas too.

August 22, 2012 @ 3:21 pm | Comment

@Raj – That explains why they require a visa, not why the requirements to get the visa are so non-sensical. The idea that a tourist should require an invitation to visit is ridiculous. How does a tourist visit the country if they don’t know anyone there? And if you can get an invitation letter from an authorised ‘inviter’, what does the invitation show except that you paid someone to invite you?

I’ve heard rumours that local PSBs have received targets for reducing the number of resident foreigners in their area. Anyone know anything to confirm/deny this?

August 23, 2012 @ 12:58 am | Comment

“I’ve heard rumours that local PSBs have received targets for reducing the number of resident foreigners in their area”

That’d be nuts. Are they *trying* to sink their economy? I don’t mean the tourist trade, even, aren’t a lot of investors in China foreign businessmen who reside there?

August 23, 2012 @ 2:48 am | Comment

@Benjamin – A good number of whom, at least the small-timers, are in the the country on tourist/student visas.

August 23, 2012 @ 3:25 am | Comment

The idea that a tourist should require an invitation to visit is ridiculous. How does a tourist visit the country if they don’t know anyone there?

I’ve looked into this further. The article linked to the Chinese embassy website.

2) Tourist Visa (L Visa)

One of the following documents is required:

- An Invitation Letter for Tourist Group of Invitation Letter for Tourist by a Duly Authorized Tourism Unit;

- An Invitation Letter issued by companies, corporations, institutions and individuals in China. If the invitation letter is issued by an individual in China, the photocopy of the ID of the individual is required.

- photocopy of the roundtrip airline ticket and hotel reservation.

Note where it says “ONE OF”.

Either the LA Times and/or Bloomberg didn’t read the website properly, or someone updated the website incorrectly and corrected the mistake.

August 24, 2012 @ 3:04 am | Comment

I too have gone from Beijing to HK to Taipei and was now thinking of heading back into China when I read this. So now what? Do I go for it or head back to Europe. The work is still there in China and I’m getting some interest there but none from the EU. I guess I’ll have to jump the hoops until I can get the Z visa.

August 24, 2012 @ 1:12 pm | Comment

@Raj – OR, the embassy staff don’t know what they’re doing and are asking for more than one of these things anyway just to cover their arses. Judging by the problems the guy over at Froogville is going through, this doesn’t look like a bad bet.

August 24, 2012 @ 4:13 pm | Comment

OR, the embassy staff don’t know what they’re doing and are asking for more than one of these things anyway just to cover their arses

The same information is currently requested for UK visas – an invitation or return ticket plus hotel reservation.

August 24, 2012 @ 8:30 pm | Comment

Went to china last year and got same day visa in BKK without problem. This time I bought my flights to and within china and made hotel reservations. Went to chinese embassy in Bangkok last week and waited for three hours just to be told that new rules require a letter of employment and bank statements for tourist visa. returned with the documents the next day. Three hours wait later I was told that german passport holders must wait 4 days to get the visa in retaliation to German visa requirements for Chinese. I couldn’t wait 4 days because I had only 3 days left on my thai visa… Lost my flights (no refunds) and will be standing up my friends who were to meet me in china…

October 15, 2012 @ 1:48 pm | Comment

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