I’ve got a few family members coming to visit me in China this year, and I couldn’t be MORE EXCITED. I’ve been writing up some notes about traveling in China for the folks who will be coming on vacation, and thought that it might be a nice thing to have here as a reference for future friends who want to travel in China. (Perhaps this can help inspire some folks to make the leap to see me in Asia? A girl can always dream.)
I’ll be breaking these into a couple of sections to keep any one post from getting too long, and have them organized with some pre-departure details (covering some stuff about visa and banking in China), general health (water and air pollution, emergency health), traveling around China (trains, planes, and automobiles), and tech recs (what is the firewall, getting a VPN, and some helpful apps to have while traveling).
Other folks have definitely written about all of these topics in the past, so if you’re looking for more in-depth information before you go, know that there are tons of resources online! I’m trying to compile a few things that have helped me personally, and hope that it can be a good jumping off point for loved ones to learn what to expect when coming to visit. Always feel free to ask me specific questions if you have any, and I’d be more than happy to answer to the best of my ability!
I’m going to try and sum up the Visa process to the best of my ability here, but take this with a grain of salt. I’ve only had to apply for a visa once (back in March 2016), which covered my entry to China for a Penn research trip and later allowed me to come back to Beijing for the start of Yenching. Since then, I’ve exchanged my Visa for a “Residence Permit for Foreigner in the People’s Republic of China”, which was processed with help from Peking University so I haven’t had to deal with the consulate or embassy since.
So, if you’re visiting me, you can apply for the L Visa type or the S2 Visa type, depending on our relation. Here’s the breakdown:
- L Visa: Foreigners who intend to go to China as a tourist.
- S2 Visa: Foreigners who intend to visit their family members* who are foreigners working or studying in China, or to those who intend to go to China for other private matters. The intended duration of stay in China is no more than 180 days.
For the S2 Visa, it seems that family members are defined as “spouses, parents, sons, daughters, spouses of sons or daughters, brothers, sisters, grandparents, grandsons, granddaughters, and parents-in-law”. So, for cousins who are traveling, you should apply for the L Visa.
You’re going to need a passport with more than 6 months validity to apply for a Chinese visa, and at least one blank page for the visa to be added. You can find the application forms here for the visa, as well as an official list of requirements for things you’ll need to include. Be sure to double-check this website in case there’s anything that I’ve missed!
In addition to filling out the application form, you will also need to bring an invitation letter. I’ll write this letter for you – I’ve gotten a letter template from some classmates, and it’s a pretty simple/generic format: it’ll identify who I am, and identify who you are, and will talk a little bit about what we’re doing together in China. I’ll need to get some basic info from you (making sure that I have your passport number and correct birthdate), but it’s all very easy to complete once we’ve got those details hammered out.
It’s not required to have an invitation letter as part of your application (plenty of people come to Mainland China for tourism without knowing anyone in the country!), but the letter can help your application. If you don’t have an invitation letter included in your visa application, you will need to provide additional documents that show copies of your flight receipts, hotel bookings, and your tentative itinerary.
If you already have flights purchased, then it can’t hurt to include your tickets in the visa application even if I am providing an invitation letter! The same applies to hotel bookings. It might seem early to make hotel bookings, but know that you are not obligated to stay in the hotel that you specify in your application. I would suggest using booking.com or another website to make a reservation at a hotel in the city you plan on staying in that has a free cancellation policy. You can print out your booking confirmation, include it in your application packet, and then cancel once you’ve been approved.
When applying, I would suggest you select the longest possible validity for your visa, with the maximum number of days as your period of stay. (I think that this should be either 90 or 180 days, depending on if you’re applying with an L or S2 Visa.) Also mark down that you are applying for multiple entries for your visa. Though your trips are going to be short visits and won’t involve entries/exits from the Mainland, it’s better to keep options open. In case of unforeseen circumstances (such as you quitting your job back in the States to join me backpacking for 3+ months… or more likely, making a crossing into Hong Kong or Macau while you’re on vacation), you won’t want to have to worry about overstaying a visa!
Finally, there is a chance that you might be issued a 10-year multiple entry visa. Starting in 2014, China-U.S. Visa arrangements began offering these visas to eligible U.S. citizens. I don’t really know what determines how you get one (I’ve known families who all apply for a visa together, and only one family member will have the 10-year visa issued) but it is the same price as a 1 year multiple entry visa, so it could save you a future trip to the embassy or consulate if you end up coming back to China sometime in the next decade. In order to be considered for the 10-year visa, you must have over 12 months of remaining validity in your U.S. passport… but beyond that, it seems a bit like luck for whether or not you’ll be issued it.
If you don’t have all the materials in order, you’ll likely have to return to the embassy or consulate to complete your application later – try to triple check that you’ve got everything you might need (and it can’t hurt to be over prepared and have a few extra photocopies of relevant paperwork, your documents on a flash drive, and a handful of quarters just in case you need to operate the clunky copy machine that I saw in the corner of the New York consulate building). 😉 The whole process might seem a bit of a headache, but consider this as your first taste of Chinese bureaucracy. I encourage you to savor it as a “cultural experience”.
Once you’ve gotten your visa issued, make sure that you make a few copies of your passport’s photo page and visa page to pack in your suitcase. For extra security, you might want to email yourself a copy of both of these pages, or have the scan saved to your phone. In China, you’ll need to provide your passport when you check into hotels, and it’s always good to have quick access to the information. *Technically speaking*, I think that foreigners are required to have their passports on them at all times, though I’ve never known someone who has been requested to show their passport to police. Still, just in case, having a copy on hand can’t hurt!
For money and banking – alert your bank of the dates that you’ll be traveling in China, and try to get some money exchanged before heading out. The official currency in China is the RMB, and the exchange rate (at the time I’m writing this, in February 2018) is about 6.35 RMB to 1 USD. The largest bill is a 100 RMB note, and paper currency extends all the way down to 1 jiao notes (which is 1/10th of 1 RMB, about .016 USD). It’s pretty easy to suffer from a bloated wallet if you carry around a lot of cash – but on most days, you won’t need to have a ton of money on hand unless you’re planning on going shopping for souvenirs or eating big meals out at restaurants.
You’ll be able to find ATMs everywhere in the country, which should accept cards issued by Visa, Mastercard, etc. Some US-based banks may pair with Chinese banks to offer fee-free withdrawals, but you should double check with your bank! (I know that HSBC and Citibank have these kinds of arrangements, but not sure about others.) Before you go, make sure that you know your daily withdrawal limits while abroad, and check to see that you have a PIN number set up. Chinese bankcards typically have 6 digit PINs, so you might want to ask a bank representative what you should do if your PIN number is 4 digits long.
Anyway, that’s it for the moment. Thanks for bearing with me as I write all of this out! Stay tuned for other posts covering some more China travel details and things to expect when you come.
X’s and O’s,