Important: U.S. citizens are exempt from the requirement of a visa IF they are going to Hong Kong, Macao, or Taiwan*. Americans are allowed in Hong Kong and Taiwan for 90 days visa-free, and Macao for 30 days visa-free.
The Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) has special permits for tourist travel. These can be obtained through a Chinese travel agent. If you enter the TAR without the required permit, you can be fined, taken into custody, and deported for illegal entry. You can find more about entry requirements for Tibet here.
So, you're planning a trip to China!
Remember to always be aware of local laws and customs, and take a look at the "Laws & Special Circumstances" section of the US State Department website. But don't let that discourage you from visiting! Read these suggestions carefully, and remember that being ignorant of a law does not exempt you from being arrested for violating a law. That goes for any country you visit!
So, anyway, you need a tourist visa! Here's how to get one.
Getting a Visa - Here's What You'll Need:
1. You'll need an invitation letter, and a copy of your itinerary.
That means your flight information and hotel booking confirmation, but you'll also need an "invitation letter" from your hotel or tour company. You can ask them for it, and they will provide it for you. If you're staying with a friend, they need to write your "invitation letter," including your name, date of birth, gender, how long you'll be visiting, your planned sightseeing, and the total duration of your visit. They'll also need to include their own information, such as their name, telephone number, address, an official stamp, and their signature.
2. Fill out this application form
If you don't fall under one of the following categories, you'll be applying for an L visa, or a tourist visa. If you are going for any other purpose other than tourism, you'll need to click that link.
You need to have 2 blank pages in your passport, and your passport needs to be valid for at least the next 6 months. To be safe, make sure it's valid 6 months after your departure date from China.
You'll need to bring along a passport-sized photo printed on glossy paper to glue to your application. Make sure it fits the requirements.
Bring a copy of the data page on your passport (this is the page with your picture on it).
IMPORTANT: Do not print it double sided. You must type the application and print it. The embassy/consulate will not accept handwritten applications.
LOS ANGELES CONSULATE: The LA consulate has its own form and will not accept the standard form above. That means anyone from California, Arizona, New Mexico, or Hawaii will need to use this form.
3. Additional Documents.
Those applying for a tourist visa from the following states who are currently employed in the USA must complete this additional form: AL, AR, DE, FL, GA, ID, KY, LA, OK, MD, MS, NE, NC, ND, SC, SD, TN, TX, UT, VA, WV, WY and Puerto Rico. Attach it to the 2nd page of your application. Remember, this is only necessary if you are employed AND reside in one of the above states.
4. Submit the following documents to a Chinese embassy or consulate for approval:
- invitation letter (from the hotel or tour company, or the friend you are staying with), photocopy
- flight information, photocopy
- application form (standard OR LA Consulate form)
- a 2x2 passport photo printed on glossy photo paper
- a copy of your driver's license or state-issued ID card. (If you are not old enough to drive, a copy of your parent's driver's license or state-issued ID and a copy of your birth certificate are required.)
- additional documents if necessary
You have the option to use a third-party service, but they will charge you fees for handling the application process for you. They will also deliver your documents to the embassy/consulate for you, so that is a plus.
You must submit the documents in person, or a trusted individual or third-party service may go on your behalf (a power of attorney is not required).
An appointment is not required for the submission of your documents or for picking up your visa.
Mail-in, online, or fax applications will not be accepted. You must go in person.
Once you submit your application documents, you will be given an receipt and a slip that tells you when you can pick up your visa.
You'll pay for your visa once it is processed and approved, so bring along either a credit card (Visa or Mastercard only), money order, cashier's check, or company check when you pick up your visa. Make your check or money order payable to "Chinese Embassy" for applications submitted to the Embassy, or to "Chinese Consulate in XXX" for applications submitted to the Consulate General in XXX city. Make sure you have the exact and correct amount written on your check or money order!
Cash, personal checks, and online payments are not accepted.
Regular processing time is 4 business days, and Express Service is 2-3 business days. There is a Rush Service, which processes your visa in 1 business day, but this is only available in extreme emergency cases, and subject to approval by a consular officer.
The fee is $140, no matter how many entries you are applying for. The Express Service has an additional $25 charge, and the Rush Service has an additional fee of $37 per visa.
You made it to China with your brand new Visa! Now what?
Hooray! You've arrived! All the paperwork was worth it, right? Tag us in your pics.
Local regulations require that tourists carry around both their passport and visa at all times.
Next, you need to register with the local police station. If you're staying at a hotel, they will likely do it for you, but ask to make sure. If you're staying with a friend, you'll need to go to the local police station yourself. Failure to do this within the first 24 hours could result in fines, or even deportation from the country.
Keep in mind that visa restrictions are called restrictions for a reason. If you leave to go to Hong Kong or Macao and try to re-enter mainland China, but didn't apply for a multiple-entry visa, you might run into some problems. The Tibet Autonomous Region has special visa requirements that are not covered by the visa you've just applied for, too. For example, the Tibet Autonomous Region does not usually authorize U.S. government officials to travel there, even to assist a U.S. national in consular issues.
Don't overstay your visa! You can apply for a visa extension, but don't wait until the last minute. Processing times cannot be expedited, so it's best to plan ahead.
Are there any exceptions?
Actually, yes! U.S. citizens are exempt from the requirement of a visa if they are going to Hong Kong, Macau, or Taiwan*. Americans are allowed in Hong Kong and Taiwan for 90 days visa-free, and Macao for 30 days visa-free.
*Taiwan? Why is Taiwan mentioned here? Isn't Taiwan it's own country? This page explains it best.
This is also a 144-hour visa free transit policy that you can take advantage of in Shanghai, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Liaoning, Beijing, Tianjin, and Hebei. As of January 1, 2019, Chengdu, Xiamen, Qingdao, Wuhan, and Kunming will also adopt this policy, and Guangdong is likely to as well.
This means, that as long as you have a ticket to a further destination, you are allowed in any of the above places for 144 hours without a visa.
Take a look at this list to see which ports, train stations, and airports you can travel into for this exception. To apply for 144-hour visa free transit, follow these steps:
- Inform the carrier (ship, airplane, etc)
- Fill out an Arrival/Departure card
- Apply for the 144-hour visa-free stay permit upon arrival
- Claim your luggage
- Go through customs
Here's what you'll need to qualify for the 144-hour visa-free stay:
- Passport valid at least 3 months from the date of entry to one of these Chinese cities
- A ticket to a third country with a confirmed date and seat (for example, if you are traveling from London, arriving in Beijing, and then traveling further to Singapore in seat 3A at 5:00PM)
- Fully completed Arrival/Departure card
The 144 hours counts from midnight the day you arrive to China, so you actually get to stay a bit longer than 144 hours! Check out this site for tips on what you can visit within your time limit.
Note About Dual Nationality: China does not recognize dual nationality. This doesn't really matter to you if, for example, you have dual US and British citizenship; just be aware of which passport you've applied for a visa with. The main takeaway here is, if you are a dual national of the US and China, the Chinese government will usually not permit the US Embassy to provide you with assistance unless you entered China on a US passport with a valid Chinese visa. Regardless of your travel documents, if you are a dual citizen, or otherwise have ties to China, it's possible that Chinese authorities will assert that you are a Chinese citizen and deny your access to US consular representatives if you are detained. If you have a possible claim to Chinese citizenship, and you're traveling to China even on a tourist visa, inform yourself about Chinese laws relating to Chinese citizenship. Check the note on Dual Nationality under Entry, Exit, and Visa Requirements on the US State Department website.
Now you're all set! Need help finding a flight deal to get you to China? I know a great website.