Stop me if you’ve heard this one: An American tourist, an American on a work visa, an American with a type “O” non-immigrant visa, and an Irishman walk into the Chinese consulate in Bangkok … Don’t know that one, huh? Yeah, I suppose it’s pretty obscure. And the punch line sucks.
(Note: I can personally attest that the 10-year multi-entry visa for China works as promised. I'm writing this update in April 2018 from Beijing, nearing the end of my 2nd visit to China on the same visa I initially received on August 2, 2016. One word of advice: YOU NEED A VPN TO DO JUST ABOUT ANYTHING ONLINE. China's other Great Wall -- the Great Firewall -- will keep you locked out of your normal tools. I've used Express VPN in three different cities in China on my phone and computer and can attest to how great it is. Seriously. Don't come to China with out it!)
But if you resemble one of those four archetypes, I’ve got the skinny on how you too can score a visa for China. Spoiler alert: It’s actually pretty straightforward if you can follow simple directions.
The overarching theme: Be professional and prepared. That starts with your attire. I’m not suggesting you put on your Sunday best because you're going to Sears, but if you can avoid the backpacker look, do so. The only two people I saw getting hassled at the embassy were farang (Western foreigners) who looked like they just stepped off the boat from Ko Phangan. Everyone else was Thai and, as Thais often are, looked quite presentable. Even though I was wearing sandals, I didn’t get hassled either. Score one for pants and a button up shirt! Your mileage may vary. Maybe I’d just like everyone to look a little nicer.
Getting your China Visa in Bangkok - A Step By Step Guide
Step 1: Give yourself time
This isn’t a same-day, in-and-out process. I mean, it’s pretty rare to decide to go China overnight, right? When we did it, it took about four days. But in late April 2017, the process changed, and several applicants reported the process taking four full weeks to get their visa. However, reports from American's applying in Bangkok after mid-June 2017 indicate things are back to "normal", so to speak.
Step 2: Get your shit together
At the bottom of this document, you’ll find the complete list of forms and documents we -- the four of us -- either took with us or had to create while we were there. Having everything filled out and all your copies made before you get there will make your day that much better.
Step 3: Get to the Chinese Visa Application Service Center
It’s neither the the embassy or the consulate, regardless of what I or others might call it. And the center is nowhere near the embassy or consulate, so don’t waste a trip. It’s on Petchaburi Road about 700 meters from the MRT station of the same name. Look for Thanapoon Tower on the south (left) side of the road. The service center is on the 5th floor.
Step 4: Checking to see if you have your shit together
The staff at the center are setup to be amazingly efficient. Helpful Thai girls make sure you have all your documents (see below) as soon as you walk in. If there's a line, you wait. Regardless of your "appointment" time. There is a copy machine if you've forgotten to make copies. Once they've verified you have the required forms, they'll issue you a number and you can wait in queue. Hey, this is Thailand. Pretty much everything requires a queue, from getting your phone fixed to buying a stamp.
Step 5: Thank you come again
With about 20 windows, it won’t be long before your number is called, so don’t get too comfy in those comfy chairs. And yes, they are rather comfy. Once you’re at your assigned window, a nice Chinese (?) person will again check your papers against your passport. Yes, those very same documents the Thai girls checked minutes ago. The difference? A yellow highlighter is used to mark up the documents you brought in. Specifically, they’re highlighting the relevant data, like where your name appears in the flight confirmation email or on your bank statement, the expiration date on your current visa... those sorts of things perfectly designed for a low-level bureaucrat. After a few minutes of leafing through and highlighting, they'll trade you all that paperwork -- including your passport --- for a “pickup document” confirming the type of visa you're applying for, the total amount you will be charged, and when you can pick it up (which was 2-3 days for us, with an option for express service, but rumor has it that it's now a month, which sucks).
Step 6: That which cannot be seen
No, really. This one you can’t see. It happens after you leave. You'll notice no one so far did anything beyond following a checklist. In reality, all they've been doing is making sure the higher-level bureaucrats behind the scenes can quickly and efficiently determine if you're worthy of a visa to China. Or not. As long as you haven't lied about anything, don't have a history of overstays, or have any other horrid little detail from your past come up when they do a background search on you -- because they will do a background search on you -- you’ll probably progress to Step 7 without incident. Otherwise, you could get a phone call asking you to come in for an interview or to provide more data. That didn't happen to us, so I can't speak to it.
Step 7: Pick up what they’re putting down
The act of picking up your visa a few days (or perhaps a month?) later couldn't be easier. You show your pickup document to the helpful Thai ladies from Step 4. They'll hand you another queue number. And you’ll promptly proceed to another window when called. And by promptly, I mean promptly. I didn't even get a chance to sit down before my number was called. A nice Chinese (?) person like you met in Step 4 will ask for your pickup document and your money (we paid in cash). She’ll then return your passport and ask you to verify the information on your visa is correct (name, dates, etc), and then wish you a pleasant day. That's it. You've got your China visa. (And if you’re smart and from a country where it’s possible like America, it’s of the 10 year, multi-entry variety!)
Is it really that easy?
Yes. At least it was for us. Most of the horror stories I’d read online had some mitigating circumstance. It seems -- at least of this writing -- that it’s pretty easy for American citizens to get a 10-year multi-entry Chinese visa from Bangkok. Assuming you’ve got nothing to hide. And can fill out the L Visa application form. It’s rather straightforward, but there are lots of options and strange wording that might trip you up. Here are a few tips for the tricker sections
- 1.15 Current Occupation: If you live in Thailand (like I do) but do not carry a valid work permit for Thailand (Sheila does), mark the Unemployed box. I've no idea if they share this information with the Thai government or not, but it's illegal to work -- even freelance -- in Thailand without a valid work permit. So that means you're unemployed, capisce?
2.1 Purpose of Visit: The same logic from 1.5 applies here. For example, if you're going to capture some photos for a blog post about your visit, do not mark As crew member on the form. Nor should you claim to be a Journalist unless you want to answer lots and lots of extra questions. Which you won't have to as a Tourist. Even if you hate the label. Mark it. Tourist.
2.2 Intended number of entries: Tourists visas have three parameters: How long you can stay, how many times you can come into the country during that stay, and a date when the visa is no longer valid. The most basic visa you can get is a 60 day single entry visa valid for three months. Because you're an American applying in Thailand, that will set you back 5,060 Thai baht, or roughly $150 at current exchange rates. Rates in other countries can and do vary.
Or, if you'd like to perhaps pop over to Hong Kong or Japan for a weekend and then go back China, you might want a double entry visa valid for six months. Cost? 5,060 Thai baht, American.
Maybe you want to jump in and out a bunch, hitting any of the 14 countries (thanks, Google) that share a border with mainland china? You can get a multiple entry visa that's valid for six months or one full year! And that one will also cost you... say it with me: 5,060 Thai baht.
Best of all -- and the one we picked -- is the one not listed on the form. Mark the box Other and write in "Multiple entries valid for 10 years from the date of issue". Which pretty much means a free ticket to pop in and out of China whenever over the the next 10 years. Now that's pretty handy. China's a big country, and 60 days is a long time. And it’s the same price (5,060 Thai baht), so why wouldn’t you do this, American?
2.6 Itinerary in China: Assuming you're turning in your flight and hotel confirmation, you won't need to fill this out.
2.7 Who will pay for your travel and expenses during your stay in China? And yes, that’s how it’s asked. The answer: You are. Remember 1.5 and 2.1? Yeah. You are. Put down “Self funded”.
2.8 Information of inviter in China: You can skip this one, again assuming you've booked a hotel and have the confirmation information.
Part 3 - Other Information: I hope you answer no to everything and that you don’t have anyone else traveling on the same passport as you. If your situation is different… let me know how it does in the comments. I’m curious.
Part 4 - Declaration and Signature: This is your real, actual signature that they will compare to your passport. I didn’t try a digital signature. Best of luck if you do.
Part 5: Apparently you can turn in documents for someone else. We didn't try it, even though we have the same last name. The people behind the counter in Step 5 checked our pictures against our passports and against our actual faces, which probably helped things along. YMMV.
So now will you tell us about the documents?
Yes. Yes I will. Thanks for your patience. And if you skipped all the way down here, let me know how it goes. Oh, one more thing: These requirements change a lot. I’ll try to keep this post updated as people tell me new things. But for now, based on my original trip in August 2016 and constant updates from people in the comments, here’s what I know right now (or at least as of the time listed at the top of this post):
EVERYONE NEEDS THE FOLLOWING:
- A valid passport
- Make sure there’s plenty of time before it expires. I hear 6 months is required. It could be longer. Ours were only 2.5 years old, with plenty of time before we had to worry about it.
- You’ll need time in-country remaining on your current stamp. If you're already in an an overstay, you will not get a visa. And you’ll probably be reported to Thai Immigration. Don’t do it.
- And you’ll need a couple of blank pages right next to each other. One will be taken up by the visa itself and the other for collecting stamps in and out by Chinese immigration. On second thought, you might want four pages, especially if you’re planning on multiple entries.
- Photocopies of your passport (main page and current immigration stamp)
- I recommend two copies, though they only took one. Hey, overkill is not a bad idea, right? Make sure you’ve got a clear photocopy of of your main page, and a photocopy of the stamp that shows how much time you have left in Thailand.
- Tickets, in and out
- Good luck if you don't have exit tickets booked. It may work. I didn't try it, though I know many of you like to to travel without booking ongoing travel. Again, good luck. This is China, and they’re rather known for making their own rules.
- You don’t need actual, physical tickets. What is this, 1972? The email confirmation from the airline will suffice, so long as it has your name on it.
- Proof of Lodging
- Like proof of transport, they want proof of lodging. Backpackers/couchsurfers may have a tough time of this, while those of us who book a hotel in advance have it easier.
- The checkin/checkout date should be reasonable based on the dates on your airline tickets. Again, they'll check.
- Two (2) recent passport photo-sized photos on a white background and you wearing contrasting colors.
- Recent means recent. Like on the way to the service center, so you’re wearing the same clothes and look exactly the same. White background means white. Not the dark blue that Thailand likes to use. Contrasting colors means don't wear white. You'll wash out against the white background, and they don't care for that. Don’t try to push an old photo. Don’t try to push a photo with a blue background. Play ball, my friend. Play ball.
- Form L, filled out
- I wrote a big, helpful guide all about Form L above. The good news is that it’s an online-fillable PDF, so it’s easy to fill out and print. Don’t forget to sign it. And no, you can’t email it to them. What is this, 2016?
- This letter, from you
- Nope. Not kidding. They want you to turn in a letter like this, following this format. I'm sure you could say other things, but this is what we were told to put in the letter. And this format worked for all of us, so it'll probably work for you. Just be sure to put in your own information as the legend below the document shows. Andrew was kind enough to take a picture of what they'll hand you if you don't already have that letter prepared.
IF YOU ARE CURRENTLY ON A VISA-EXEMPT STAMP
(That means you don’t have an actual issued-from-an-embassy visa pasted in your passport. If you’re just here on a normal “I show up at the airport and they let me into Thailand because I’m an American” situation, you’re visa-exempt.)
- Your bank statement
- Yes, they want your bank statement. The good news is that you bank online, which makes it easy for you to print out your most recent statement. I assume they use this to determine the likelihood of you being a burden on the Chinese social services system. Ostensibly, they could reject your application if you don’t have enough money in the bank. But I’ve no idea what “enough” means. I can tell you that the statement from the account I provided had an ending balance of just under $4K. So it’s not much.
IF YOU HOLD A TYPE “O” NON IMMIGRANT VISA
- Your bank statement
- See above. You potential bum, you.
IF YOU HOLD A VALID WORK PERMIT
- A photocopy of the valid work permit
- Truth be told, we took the actual permit just in case, but they didn’t ask for it. All they wanted was the photocopy. So if your employer gives you a hassle for asking, just ask them for a photocopy of all the relevant pages to prove you’re in good standing.
- They didn’t ask for bank details, probably because having a job is better than having a bank account?
IF YOU’RE NOT AN AMERICAN
... then you probably need similar things. But you won’t get a similar thing. Yeah, that could be described better. The Irishman in our cadre had to supply the exact same documents -- including the bank statement (he’s in Thailand on a visa-exempt status, too) -- to get his visa for China. But where we Americans had the option of the 10-year multi entry visa, he did not. I don’t know what Ireland did to piss off the Chinese, but the most he could get was a single-entry 30-day visa. But there’s a silver lining: he paid about 1/5th what we American’t did. Then again, he’ll have to apply and go through the hoops for his next visit, where we can just head straight to the airport. Yay, America!
Do you have a reliable VPN yet?
You'll need one. The "great firewall" of China blocks you out of anything Google, like Google Maps. Sure, there are other China-based mapping services, but unless you know how to read Simplified Chinese, they won't do you much good. And forget uploading status to Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. All are blocked in China.
But with a good VPN, you won't have to worry about being disconnected. I've used Express VPN in three different Chinese cities, both on my laptop and my phone, and it works like a champ. Download it now and get used to it before you travel. I find myself using to to watch Netflix and Amazon when I'm abroad, too. It's worth the meager investment.
(And if you want to be real sneaky, you can use it for free for 30 days and then cancel before you pay anything. Honestly, that was what I planned on doing, but then I realized how damned useful a solid VPN is, so I'm still using it!)
Your mileage may vary
Did you have a different experience? Because things change. And specific situations complicate simple processes. If so, let me know in the comments below so I can keep this post updated. Enjoy your trip to China. We did!