There are three primary types of visas that you can get to stay in China for any length of time. These are: tourist, student, work. What are they and what do they include? How do you get it? When should you get it? These are all questions anyone wanting to come here for any amount of time needs to get answers to.
The first, and most important answer is…it depends on where you’re coming from. Your home country or the country whose passport you hold will make a big difference in the answers to the above questions. China has different requirements for visas for every country, and these change from time to time, depending on many factors. For that reason, we can’t answer too specifically the above questions because it would be impossible to keep up with all the rules and changes for every country. What we CAN do is tell you the basics of all visas, and where you can get the info you need for your particular situation. First let’s talk about the types.
The Most Common Visa Types
The tourist visa is for those who intend to stay just a brief time. It allows you a limited time in the country, usually 1-3 months, before you have to leave. It is good for 1-10 years, depending on the type you get and the country you are from. Prices for these vary quite a bit. Most tourist visas are multi-entry, meaning you can leave and enter the country as often as you like.
The student visa is for those who intend to come here to attend school. Most of the smaller independent schools get these visas for 6 month or semester length. If you will attend a bigger school or university you should be able to get a year or more. Costs vary depending on your home country. Some might be free, as the cost would be included in your school fees. Some (but not all) student visas are multi-entry. You need to make sure the type your prospective school will give agrees with your needs before paying for anything or agreeing to any arrangements.
Work visas are for those who plan to work in China. They can be the most complicated to get, but also offer the most convenience. To get a work visa you need to have some type of contract or work for a company that has permission to get visas for it’s employees. A common type of work visa is for those who teach English. To get this type of visa you must a) work for a school that is authorized to issue visas and b) have a bachelor’s or better degree. Just working in China is NOT enough to get a visa. The cost of a work visa is usually zero, as your employer generally will pay for it as part of your contract. Most work visas are multi-entry.
Details of Getting Chinese Visas
How much do visas cost? As mentioned, it varies by country of origin. But I can at least give you some idea. The visa for Americans is one of the most expensive. We have paid as much as 1700 RMB ($255) per person for a tourist visa, and as low as 700 ($105) for (spousal-see below) work visas. School visas are in the same range. Don’t forget though, that these visas have to be paid each time you renew. So even though a school visa might be $150, if you are signing up for 6 months and then again another 6 months after, in the end you will be paying $300 for the year.
When should you apply for a visa? At least 6 weeks to 3 months before you plan to travel. Why so long? Because the process is at times complicated and requires many documents. In the USA, you have to deal with at least 3 different government offices. Mailing documents to them, then waiting to get them back, then mailing to the next, all takes time. And all of this assumes that you already have a passport. If not, you need to start even earlier by getting you passport first.
Where to Get Chinese Visa Information
There are four basic sources. The first and best is the Chinese embassy or consulate in your home country. The fastest way to find them is to look online. Do a search for ‘Chinese embassy (your country name)’. You should find a website address something like one of these:
The second best place to find out about visas is from a friend (only ones you trust) who lives in China. Usually they can tell you not only about the visa, but about particulars to your situation that might help you decide which type to get. Also, they might be able to help you make arrangements with a school or company/employer. This also can save you some money, depending on your circumstances.
The third way to get visa info is through a travel agency. If you find one that has experience with Chinese visas, they can walk you through the whole process. This can be the most expensive way to get your visa. Of course, they are a business and should be paid for their time and expertise. Just beware, some charge high fees for this service. Find out their fees in advance. If they seem to high, look elsewhere if you have options.
Another option is to send an email to the passport office or a government office in your home country. For example, in the USA, the US Dept of State has information about international travel that can help you get started.
Final Steps to Getting Your Visa
The next steps are pretty much the same in every country. After you contact the Chinese embassy and get the visa application, you need to fill it out. This will mean gathering any documents needed to answer all the questions. Some of these will or might include: passport, passport type photos (make sure to follow the directions in the application to get the right type and size!), proof of airline tickets, proof of accommodations in China (school, work, or friend’s address), invitation letters from employer if you have arrangements with some company. The documents needed will vary depending on which type of visa you are applying for.
Next you will start the long mail-in process. Make sure to make personal copies of any originals you send in. Check which documents can be sent in as copies and which ones require the originals. Sometimes you will be required to submit documents in person. If you are using a service, like a visa service or a travel agent, sometimes you only have to give the documents to them and they will handle the rest. It is at this point that you will have to pay application fees.
Also, some places require a personal interview. The interview usually happens after all the papers are submitted and before you are given a visa.
If all goes well, a visa sticker will be put in your passport and you are good to go. Whew!
Valuable China Visa Tips
If you are planning a serious move to China, for more than a year, there are a few other considerations regarding visas that can make your life much easier and can save you a lot of money.
One way to work out visa issues is to come here on a tourist visa, and then work out the details of a school or work visa after you get here. Many people, myself included, don’t advise getting a work visa before coming. Unless you are 100% sure of the company/school and the situation you are coming in to, it’s best to get a work visa after you arrive. There are bunches of stories about people arriving in China only to find out the promises that the employer made were either untrue altogether, or not exactly what they though. For example, some arrive thinking they have accommodations because the school they were going to work for said they would provide an apartment. On arriving they found that it was an apartment…one or two rooms shared with 5 strangers and a bathroom down the hall. While most schools are ok, the standards and expectations here are not what you might be used to, and you could find yourself in a bad spot if you don’t have a backup plan. Coming on a tourist visa allows you time to check on all the details, talk to people, and look around for options.
If you are married, there is another wise thing you can do. While in your home country, you should apply for the Chinese consulate certificate of proof of marriage, shown here. For Americans it consists of 1) a copy of your original marriage certificate, 2) certificate of authenticity from the Secretary of State of your state, 3) certificate of authenticity from the US Department of State, and finally, all of that is mailed to the Chinese consulate and they add 4) Chinese seal of authenticity. Getting this certificate is very much like the visa process. The benefit of having this is that when you are in China, only one person needs to get a visa in order for both to have a visa. In other words, if the husband has a job that gives him a visa, his wife doesn’t have to get another job, go to school for a student visa, or get a tourist visa. While the spouse still has to pay the price of a visa, they don’t have to get a separate one. It’s worth the effort and cost to get this before coming.
The next consideration is the college degree. The minimum degree accepted for getting a visa is a bachelor’s degree. While this is a pretty big thing to think about just because you want a visa, there are situations when it’s worth getting. If you want to stay in China for a long period of time, the best way is to get a work visa. Unless you’re independently wealthy or have some very unusual or special situation, the work visa has several advantages over the others.
First there’s the convenience. Once you get a work visa, you don’t have to leave the country for visa runs or visa renewal. As long as you don’t change jobs, your employer can renew your visa without you having to do anything except give him your passport. The second benefit is money. The chart below shows the financial difference of the three basic visa types. The numbers are all RMB and are all approximates, as there are many factors that can cause them to vary, which we mention afterward. However, as you can see by this very simple comparison, the differences in the school and tourist visas compared to the work visa can easily amount to near 100,000 RMB or more per year.
visa runs 1000-10,000+
This chart assumes all other things are equal, such as rent, food etc. So in the end, you could be saving at least $10,000US per year. These are also conservative numbers. 8000RMB is fairly inexpensive for school, and if you don’t live near a border or Hong Kong, the cost of visa runs could be as much as 13,000RMB ($1868) or more for flights out of the country 6 times a year.
The point is, if you have the time and money to get a simple bachelors degree in preparation for moving to China, it will pay for itself fairly quickly, and make your life much more comfortable and convenient.
Finally, there is one more document that you need to know about that may or may not come up during your visa application process. A couple years ago the Chinese government added the requirement for foreign workers to show proof that they are not criminals in order for them to get a work visa. In America this is often called a ‘certificate of non-criminal record’ or similar. It’s makeup and method of obtaining it is very similar to the marriage license authentication document. This one is also 4 separate items. They are 1) a copy of the original non-criminal record certificate, 2) certificate of authenticity from the Secretary of State of your state, 3) certificate of authenticity from the US Department of State, and finally, 4) the seal from the Chinese consulate.
Whichever country you are coming from, the original certificate of non criminal record can usually be obtained from state or regional law enforcement offices. Sometimes it is free, but usually you have to pay a fee. The fees usually come because the document has to be properly authorized, which means it needs to be sent to all the government offices mentioned above, as well as the Chinese consulate. If you plan to work in China at any point in the future at a job that can issue you a visa, make sure you bring the original of this document with you.
All of the above might sound like a lot of paperwork and hassle, and it kind of is. But if you want to stay in China and have a hassle free time here, you have to do it. Personally I can say it was all well worth the effort. I have every document described above and have had every type of visa. I’ve made visa runs and spent time in Chinese schools. Having friends here telling me which documents to bring has saved my wife and I thousands of dollars and has made our life here relatively simple. If you are wise…you will take all of these comments seriously, and prepare carefully, because the Chinese government takes visas seriously, and will look carefully at all of your documents