Note: Separate guides (to be built later) apply if you are on a Residence Permit or have a Chinese Green Card. This guide also does not apply for the very few of you who are special enough to have a Courtesy Visa or are in China for government matters.
This guide does not replace official information and should be used in conjunction with official guidance.
You need a visa to enter Mainland China. These are divided into simple “visas”, stay permits (lasting up to 180 days) and residence permits (lasting over 180 days, usually a year or more; sometimes, up to 5 years), as well as long sought-after permanent residence permits, or Chinese Green Cards. The D visa, which permits permanent residence, is a de facto entry clearance.
- you hold a passport from Brunei, Japan, or Singapore (15 days visa-free)
- you hold a passport from the Bahamas, Mauritius, or Seychelles (30 days visa-free)
- you hold a passport from San Marino (90 days visa-free)
- you hold a Chinese residence permit or Chinese Green Card which is still valid
You may be eligible for visa-free entry if you hold a passport not intended for regular citizens (ie, if you are the bearer or a diplomatic, official, service, or special passport). However, as a rule, emergency or temporary passports do not qualify.
You will also only be allowed to enter China through its visa-upon-arrival service if this has been arranged well in advance. Never take its mere existence as something for granted, however, as more often than not, you will be sent back if you are discovered to be without valid entry documents.
You need a visa to transit through Mainland China.
- you hold air tickets to final destinations outside of China (seats must be booked), where you may remain in the transit airport for less than 24 hours (you will usually not be allowed to exit the airport); or
- you transfer through a qualified 72-hour transit stay programme (certain passports only)
Here’s how the qualified 72-hour transit stay programme works.
- You must hold a passport from a qualified country (see below); and
- You must have confirmed tickets (seats booked) for a final destination outside of China; and
- You must land and depart from the same city / province airport; and
- You must not exceed the 72-hour limit and must be in transit through the country
Qualifying countries currently include:—
- All EU, EEA countries and Switzerland (note: does not include Liechtenstein or Norway)
- All NAFTA countries (Canada, United States, Mexico)
- Australia and New Zealand
- Bosnia and Herzegovina
- Korea (South)
- Macedonia (FYROM)
- United Arab Emirates
The following airports currently take part in this visa waiver arrangement:—
- Beijing (Capital Airport)
- Chengdu (Shuangliu Airport)
- Chongqing (Jiangbei Airport)
- Dalian (Zhoushuizi Airport)
- Guangzhou (Baiyun Airport)
- Guilin (Liangjiang Airport)
- Shanghai (Hongqiao and Pudong Airports)
- Shenyang (Taoxian Airport)
- Xi’an (Xianyang Airport)
There are further visa-free arrangements for entry to the Pearl River Delta Zone, and to the island of Hainan.
Different regulations apply for Diplomatic, Official and Courtesy visas, as they are issued by the Chinese foreign ministry instead of the police body (Public Security Ministry).
Chinese visas come with a letter which, to many of us in the English-speaking world, makes little sense; they also do not come in a strict A-Z order. However, they will make sense when you order it by Chinese Hanyu Pinyin initials.
For general visitors:
- G visa: This is only for those transiting China (note: you may be able to enter China even without this visa, if immigration regulations permit you to do so). You will need: confirmation of onward travel (seats booked).
- L visa (individual or group): This is the most often-seen visa for those landing in the country. You will need: travel plans and evidence; and if entering in a group, a valid invitation letter from the travel agency.
For family members:
For Q1 and Q2 visas, letters of invitation must be issued by the PRC citizen or the Chinese Green Card holder. For S1 and S2 visas, letters of invitation must be issued by the expat in China who is working or studying. S1 visas can only be issued to a spouse, parent, or child under 18, or to the parents of the spouse.
- Q1 visa: This is for long-term residence (at least a year or so) if married to a PRC citizen or Chinese Green Card holder. You will need: evidence of family ties, ID documents from both parties, a letter of invitation, and for entrusted children only, a letter of entrust.
- Q2 visa: This is for short-term residence (six months or so). You will need: a letter of invitation.
- S1 visa: This is for long-term residence (at least a year or so) if married to an expat who is working or studying in China. You will need: evidence of family ties, ID documents from both parties, and a letter of invitation.
- S2 visa: This is for short-term residence (six months or so) if married to an expat who is working or studying in China, or for those entering, then leaving China on personal matters. You will need: evidence of family ties, ID documents from both parties, and a letter of invitation, or evidence you need to attend to personal matters in China.
For permanent residents:
- D visa: This highly rare yet equally very much sought-after visa is issued as an entry clearance for those whose application for a Chinese Green Card has been approved. You will need: official confirmation of authorised permanent residence from the Chinese Public Security Ministry.
- X1 visa: This is for long-term studies (at least a year or so). You will need: a letter of accepted studies plus evidence from the authority in charge.
- X2 visa: This is for short-term studies (six months or so). You will need: a letter of accepted studies.
For people in employment or on work / business:
- C visa: This is for crew and immediate family only. You will need: a letter of guarantee from the overseas transport enterprise or a letter of invitation issued by a Chinese entity.
- F visa: This can be considered a “general business” visa and is issued to those on general business trips. You will need: a letter of invitation issued by a Chinese entity.
- J1 visa: This is issued to foreign journalists stationed in China. You will need: all evidence as required both by Chinese and foreign authorities (press cards, approval letters, etc).
- J2 visa: This is issued to foreign journalists who will be visiting, then leaving, China. You will need: all evidence as required both by Chinese and foreign authorities (press cards, approval letters, etc).
- M visa: This visa is for those entering China on business (most will be those living near Chinese borders). You will need: a letter of invitation issued by the Chinese cooperation partner.
- R visa: This visa is issued to foreign talent — especially those in high demand in China. You will need: to comply with requirements and to present documents required by the Chinese authorities (international HR, etc).
- Z visa: This is a general work visa for China. You will need: your work permit for China (often a confirmation letter, but at times this can also include an official government invitation letter).
INVESTORS: China does not have a “general investor visa” (yet); however, you are entitled to a Green Card if you invest a substantial amount of money in the country for a few years, and come out with good results. For that, one is easily looking at around a million dollars US just to start the procedures. Inquire at a Chinese visa or business location for more details.
The Chinese government may require you to present other documents as needed. If coming from an area where there are health risks, you may need extra health-related documents.
ENTER EARLY. Chinese visas “die” in a different way if not used: their validity is counted on when they are first used. Do not enter China any time after the “Enter Before” date. However, you are OK inside China even if you are past the “Enter Before” date, provided you entered the country before that date.
For example: Your visa’s “Enter Before” date was 29 December 2012. It is not illegal to be in China on 05 January 2013, provided you entered on 27 December 2012.
CASES WHERE YOU MIGHT NEED AN INTERVIEW
China has tightened entry regulations. As a result, you may need an interview. Please don’t feel like you’ve done something wrong when you’re called for one, as they may be needed even if you are just seeking residency in the country.
The Law states that a foreign national who:—
- applies for residence in China
- must have his or her identity further verified
- has previously violated immigration laws (denied of entry / forced to leave within a set period of time)
or whom needs to be interviewed “due to other reasons”, must attend the interview.
You do not need to meet all requirements as listed above to be interviewed; “hitting just one item” is enough.
There are no hard and fast rules about character tests in China; however, if you have a substantial criminal record, it will probably be to the detriment of your entry document application.
NAMES OF CHINESE REPRESENTATIONS IN CHARACTERS
Somewhat unhelpfully for the foreigner, Chinese visas have their issuing post written in Chinese characters. This can be a problem, as your Arrival Card will need this bit of information in English.
Below are ten of the most often-seen issuing posts:
- Amsterdam: 阿姆斯特丹
- Beijing: 北京
- Berlin: 柏林
- Copenhagen: 哥本哈根
- Frankfurt: 法兰克福
- Hong Kong: 香港
- London: 伦敦
- Los Angeles: 洛杉矶
- Moscow: 莫斯科
- New Delhi: 新德里
- New York: 纽约
- Paris: 巴黎
- San Francisco: 旧金山
- Seoul: 首尔
- Sydney: 悉尼
- Tokyo: 东京
- Vancouver: 温哥华
- Vienna: 维也纳
- Washington DC: 华盛顿
- Zürich: 苏黎世
It is not impossible that you may need to submit biometrics, as this is provided by Chinese immigration law. If you must submit these, please comply; in particular after 9/11, security worldwide has been visibly tightened.
LANDING IN CHINA
Some airlines may require you to supply additional information about your trip to China. It is in your interest to complete these ahead of time.
Holders of foreign passports must complete forms upon landing and at exit. The form can be split into two, so that an Arrival Card be presented upon landing, and the Departure Card given back when leaving the country. You must fill the form in English. It is in your interest not to lose the Departure Card to avoid delays, although at some airports (notably in Beijing), spare Departure Cards are available even before you pass entry gates to Passport Control and Customs.
Passport Control formalities will be completed at either your first port of entry or last port of exit. For example, if you are travelling by air from Beijing via Shanghai to San Francisco, exit checks will take place in Shanghai, not Beijing.
In general, expats and visitors will use one queue whilst Chinese use another. If you are from Hong Kong, Macao, or Taiwan, you are considered as “Chinese”.
It is against the law to hold Chinese citizenship in conjunction with any other foreign passports. You risk having a nationality (most often your Chinese one) cancelled if you are discovered to be a de facto dual citizen. Holding more than one passport where a Chinese one is not involved is not a problem, although it’s not smart entering with one nation’s passport, then exiting with another, as you risk secondary checks.
Chinese stamps placed upon entry and exit are in red ink. Square stamps indicate exits; round ones indicate entries. Dates are given in the Year-Month-Date format, so that 29 December 1996 is read as 1996 12 29.
Enrolled users with registered biometrics who are a Chinese Green Card holder can take advantage of e-gates at Passport Control at selected ports.
Chinese immigration law can refuse a foreign national entry document for one (or more) of the following reasons, if the applicant:—
- has not reached his or her period of exclusion from China after being deported
- is seriously mentally ill, has communicable TB, or could cause serious harm to public health
- could pose a threat to Chinese national security or interests, or disrupt public order, or commit offences or crimes
- attempted to obtain the entry document by providing incorrect information, or is unable to support him or herself economically whilst in China
- is unable to produce a document required by the visa authorities
- is regarded as an individual which the visa authorities regards as not fit being in possession of an entry clearance.
Chinese law also states that the visa authorities have the right not to offer reasons for denial of entry documents.
Furthermore, in addition to the above list regarding when a Chinese visa authority can refuse the issuance of visas, a Chinese port of entry is further permitted to refuse entry or exit if a foreign national:—
- is not in possession of entry / exit documents, or refuses or escapes inspection
- might be engaging in activities not compatible with the visa obtained
- is restricted by law
- for exit restrictions only, cannot exit due to civil or criminal cases, in particular where a court has clearly refused exit; or where a government authority refuses exit due to unpaid incomes to China-based employees