For those who have never been, or never thought about going, visiting China is a relatively straightforward process. Like all countries China issues a variety of different types of visas depending on the nature and duration of the visit as well as the career of the applicant in question. Chinese visas cannot be applied for the mail. As a result you must go and apply in person or else use a delivery and visa application service. There are several around each consulate and the main embassy in Washington. On that note, you will need to apply to whichever consulate serves your respective region.
Chinese Embassy to the United States in Washington DC: Delaware, Idaho, Kentucky, Maryland, Montana, Nebraska, North Carolina, North Dakota, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, Washington DC, Wyoming
Chinese Consulate in New York: Connecticut, Maine, Ohio, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont
Chinese Consulate in Chicago: Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Wisconsin
Chinese Consulate in Houston: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Texas, Puerto Rico
Chinese Consulate in Los Angeles: Southern California, Arizona, Hawaii, New Mexico, American Samoa, Guam
Chinese Consulate in San Francisco: Northern California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Alaska
Visa processing companies include (I do not personally endorse them, but they provide a good reference point):
My China Visa (Houston, Chicago, San Francisco – I have used their services at the Houston Consulate and found them to be fast and professional in getting a 60 day, multiple entry tourist visa) http://www.mychinavisa.com/
Oasis China Visa (Washington DC – they claim to support all consular areas) https://www.oasischinavisa.com/
Chinese Visa Office (Houston) http://www.visa-chinese.com/
Timely Visa (Los Angeles) http://www.timelyvisa.com/
Travel Docs (Washington, New York, San Francisco) http://www.traveldocs.com/cn/
L Visa: This is the standard tourist visa. It currently costs $140. The L Visa is typically issued for 30 days. Once issued the bearer must enter China within 90 days and then may remain for 30 days thereafter. If you need a longer trip, it is possible to apply for a 60 or even 90 day tourist visa. You can also request single, double, or multiple entries. For a multiple entry visa you can enter and leave as many times as you wish within one year and may remain in China each time for the length of time (30, 60, or 90 days) specified on your visa. TIP: If you want a longer visa, list more locations you wish to visit on your trip. You are not likely to receive a 90 day visa if you only list Beijing and Shanghai. The application process can be done through same day or two days service (for an extra $30 or $20) but normally take about 5 business days (so allow 10 days if you are using a visa application service). For same day services you need to submit your passport before 12:30 PM. Once issued, the bearer may enter China immediately, but as already mentioned, the visa expires after 90 days.
F Visa: This is a specific type of business visa. Technically you are not allowed to conduct any business for which you are paid while on an L Visa. However, not everyone going to China is actually moving there to work. For that reason, there is the F Visa. It allows the bearer to remain in China for up to 6 months while conducting their business.
Z Visa: We will revisit this concept in later entries concerning work and residency in China. Suffice to say the Z Visa is the standard work and resident visa for China. It functions much like an H1-B visa in the United States. The applicant must provide proof of employment in China, a letter and set of forms from their employment sponsor in addition to the usual application form, photographs and fee. Z Visas typically take longer than L or F visas. Hence any prospective applicant should do so well in advance of their planned (and contractually agreed upon) start date in China. Beginning the process three months before you plan to depart would be a safe timeline. This will also allow for documents to be sent back and forth to China if necessary. Z Visas are valid for one-year at a time and can be renewed (usually without a fuss) by your employer. Z Visas permit multiple entries and exits during their year of validity. Hence once issued you are free to plan visits home, to other countries or even just to Hong Kong (See Below).
If you are already out of the country and applying for a Chinese tourist visa at a foreign embassy, the same rules apply. Do note, however, that in recent years it has become increasingly difficult to apply for a Z Visa outside of one’s home country. This is not to say it is impossible, just difficult and uncertain.
In the good-old-days (at least according to many fly-by-night foreign teachers) it was common to apply for a visa (any visa) in Hong Kong and then run back there to renew it. This practice has been largely curtailed. It is still possible to get 30 day tourist visas, however. US citizens do not need to apply for a visa to Hong Kong or Macao. These are granted on arrival (when they stamp your passport) and are good for up to 90 days.
On the note of Hong Kong, it is important to note what the “One country, two systems” political status of Hong Kong and Macao means for visa holders visiting China. Although part of the People’s Republic of China, both territories have their own visa and passport control policies. Hence crossing into these territories from China counts as LEAVING the country. Thus if you visit Shanghai and southern China and then decide to spend a day at the gaming tables in Macao you will need to have a double or multi-entry visa in order to reenter China. Else you will need to apply for a new visa. The same rule applies for Hong Kong.
Once in China you may discover you want to remain in the country for longer than your visa currently allows. Renewals can be made at major branches of the Public Security Bureau (PSB – 公安局). Provincial-level offices and those in major cities can extend or issue new visas. You will need to bring passport-sized photos, complete a new form, and pay a fee to receive an extension.