Thursday, 22 January 2009

Visa troubles: trials, tribulations and tomfoolery

It's been a long time since I've written an entry for this here blog, and a lot has happened since then.

To break it down into its shortest explanation: I've left Fudan, I've left the Shanghai Daily, I've moved apartment and I've started working for these guys. So it's been a hectic post-New Year in Shanghai and more information about jobs/what I'm going to be up to over the next few months will be on here forthwith. Right now however, I would like to take some time to explain the issue that has caused me the most stress in the last few weeks: visas.

To begin, there are no regulations set in stone in any one place that details what kind of state the Chinese visa situation is in at any one time. Each city in China is different in terms of what they can offer foreigners; that said, each city (Chinese consulate) in the world is different in what they can offer.

My problem begins with the fact that I was, up until next week, residing in this country in the guise of a student. All the usual student accoutrements accompanied this. A student ID, class enrollment forms, a dorm room and, of course, an X visa.

An X visa is a visa given to students. You had probably already guessed this. Aside from X visas China offers seven types of visa. L, F, Z, J, C, D and G. The latter three you'll probably never hear about as not many people get them: visiting visa for air-craft crew etc, permanent resident and transit through China respectively.

Of the other ones, you will hear – and may already have heard – a lot more about.

L visas are probably your most common, standard tourist visa. These will generally be for 30 days and one entry (which means if you leave the country, that's it, you're done. Go get a new one). They can be extended though, up to three times for 30 days each time. So you can just pop down to the police station, fill in a form, give em some cash and you have a new visa. The bummer is, after the third time's up you have to get out. No arguing.

F's are pretty common too. Although Z is the official working visa, I haven't met many people with one, and most foreigners who are working in China are working on an F visa cough, illegally. F visas used to be pretty sweet (I've heard). They used to be year-long multiple entry visas that you could get overseas and come here on "business". Officially, they're visas intended for people invited on trips for some purpose other than travel. Like being a lecturer for a few guest lectures, or going to a few business meetings. That kind of thing. For this you need a letter of invitation from an official company in China. That official letter, however, can be provided by pretty much any travel agency. For a fee.

X visas are, as I said, student visas. They're a bitch to get sorted (health checks, lots more forms, more forms, money, then some more forms) but once you do get it sorted, they give you a thing of beauty: a resident's permit. A ticket to stay in China for as long as it is valid (mine is the 31st of January).

So I begin working with Fly Films and the most pressing issue on my mind is the fact that I need to get a new visa pretty sharpish or I'm heading back to the UK (a prospect that doesn't excite me very much right now). Unfortunately, Chinese regulations limit the number of work visas a company can issue (I've heard it's based on the number of Chinese employees working there) so getting a Z visa is not an option. It also requires the applicant to be 28, I'm not. (UPDATE 26/1 22:04 - Marc you're absolutely right, this info is from an outfit in Beijing, I'm being told in Shanghai that I need to have graduated no less than two years ago - I graduated last June so not good news - and I have to be a relative "expert" in my field/not be someone the company could have employed locally)

So an F visa is the one I'm going for. Luckily, travel agencies attest to the fact that they can sort this all out for you. Great, I thought, until I try to get it done.

One company (run by a Mr. Magic and hailed as Shanghaiist's favourite visa agency) told me that they might be able to organise the flip from an X to an F visa, but not until everyone's come back from Chinese New Year around the 2nd of February. My visa runs out the 31st of January, is this going to be a problem? Most definitely, he says, you're going to need to go to Hong Kong.

This is the other option aside from getting a travel agency to organise your visa internally: get out of China, apply there, then come back. This is normally fine, so I give a travel agency in Hong Kong a call to check what the situation's like down there. I'm told that I can apply for a 6 month F visa, and it's considerably cheaper than getting it up here, although factoring in plane tickets/accommodation/being in Hong Kong it works out a little more expensive.

Return flight to HK right now: 2500 RMBish
Visa in Hong Kong: 1000 HK Dollars
+ other stuff total = 3500 + RMB

Getting a 6 month visa in Shanghai = 3500 RMB.

However, the travel agent then mentions that it would be a multiple entry with 30 day limit. that means that even though my visa lasts for six months I can only stay in the country each time for 30 days (get a train to Shenzhen, walk across the border, turn right back around, get back on the train).

That, to me, doesn't sound like a fun option. So I phone back Mr Magic and plead with him to see if there's anything he can do at all. Nope, he says, you got to wait and see what the New Year brings. Great.

So in my head I'm now calculating that what I would have to do is go to HK, get a month long F visa, come back to Shanghai, give that to Mr Magic, get a 6 month multiple entry NO STAY LIMIT visa and then be done with it. this would cost around 7000 RMB. That's expensive for six months.

So I start playing with the idea of going home, I can get a return flight to London for 3500 RMB, get a 6 month F visa for £70 (700 RMB) plus I get to go see people I haven't seen in a while. I call the London Embassy. They can give me 60 day stay limits. Also not good. Korea = 60 day limits. New york (apparently = 90 days, although was previously 180).

So I'm beginning to think that I'm screwed. All this time of course I'm trawling blogs and forums searching for a possible answer, when I see one guy has posted an email link to a Beijing-based travel agency that is apparently "not cheap" but really good at advice. I email them.

They lived up to expectations. One very kind gentleman emailed me a very long reply that detailed how I should go about getting a Z visa if I wanted to. The gem, however, was what he said near the beginning of the email.

"As you have just finished your studies it would not be unreasonable for you to want to see something of China. Also, as travelling around China is very difficult (busy) around Spring Festival holiday it would also not be an unreasonable idea that you would want to tour around after The Spring Festival Holiday. My suggestion is that you check your local Public Security Bureau opening times and apply just before Spring Festival holiday for a tourist visa - an L Visa for one month at least. If you can outline a longer itinerary you might get a longer period - you could try asking for three months. An L visa you can arrange yourself without professional assistance."

So I phone the PSB and ask if this is an option. Of course it is, the girl says, we just need your graduation certificate and your passport and, why not, a form, and you'll be on your way. You can only get one month though.

Problem is here, that I never graduated from Fudan, I wasn't on any kind of real program. But I decide to see if the Students' Office won't give me a piece of paper I can use.

Sure enough though, when I go to the FSO they've all buggered off for the holidays and left one poor receptionist to deal with everything that might get thrown at her. Now the FSO at Fudan is notoriously unhelpful when it comes to matters of any kind, visas in particular, but this recpetionist (who I'd never seen before) was a Godsend. She joked around a while, made a phone call, printed out a bit of paper, asked if that's what I needed and then took the holy grail of all things Chinese from a drawer (a red stamp) and sent me on my way to the PSB.

It took an hour or so to get seen down at the Minsheng Road Entry-Exit bureau, but it took all of 2 minutes to hand the guy my paperwork, ask if there was any way to get three months, get declined (but accepted for a month) and told to pick it up after next week's holiday.

Total cost of one month = One day of running around + 160 RMB.

Now, of course this doesn't sort me out for the long haul, it does however let me ride out Spring Festival. If I HAVE to go to HK at least next month it's going to be cheaper. The real bitch, however, is that when I phoned Mr Magic and told him this plan he told me that I would need to leave after the month, that it wasn't extendable. Could they change that visa to a 6 month F visa though? Oh yeah, of course, that they could do.

So the moral of the story is: don't listen to travel agents alone, go to the PSB and see what they can do first. Chances are they might give you something. If they don't, then go to a travel agent and ask them what they can do for you. I say this mainly because if my field of specialty was organising visa solutions for foreigners I would have seen this option (get a one month tourist visa then an F visa) pretty much straight away. If he had seen this option then he would have probably made some money off of me as they charge 560 RMB for getting a 160 RMB visa and if he had included it in a package to ultimately turn it into an F visa, I would have probably just handed it straight to him and never thought to find out how much it would cost to do on my own.

To recap my visa will cost: 160 RMB for February + 3500 RMB to change it an F visa.

That's considerably less than what it was going to cost, plus I don't have to leave the city.


  1. Sounds like a nightmare. Getting a visa in the UK was a pain for me (took three weeks, including them holding onto my passport for a week in the application centre because my form was filled out in blue, not black ink, naturally). Thanks for all the advice about universities, will let you know if I make it back!


  2. I don't know the exact Z-visa regulations but I do have a lot of experience with them. I am therefore surprised that there is a maximum of Z-visas per company. I used to work in a 6-person film company where we had 4 people holding a Z-visa. Also the "28-year old" rule is new to me, I have people working for me who are younger than 28 and who have a Z-visa. Are you sure your company is telling you the truth? Do they have a normal business license? Or are they just not willing to go through all the paperwork for you?

    I would advise you not to work on an F-visa in China, but to find a job in a company that is willing to give you a Z-visa. I know some young people still use F-visas (unlike you, most foreigners I know who work here hold Z-visas), but you'll be working illegally and last year's crackdown has shown the consequences of this. And I certainly would not blog about it.

  3. Visas are always a hazzle in China, and the regulations doesn't seem to be fixed. That sounds like something that could be turned to your advantage, but it usually isn't!

    Does anyone know if it's still possible to get 3 months tourist visas from your country of origin? I know they had these before the Olympics, but I haven't heard much of it after the Games....

  4. Changing from an X is difficult. Magic is the man when it comes to visas. Hong Kong (or Seoul) is your best bet in these situations, although changing from an X to an L to an F seems like a great solution.

  5. My own experience combined with the many stories I've seen about Chinese visas in the last year tells me that you should take the official rules as a baseline (since some places are strict about them) and then try to bend them as much as possible.

  6. As the writer said, virtually all foreigners in China are working on an F visa. The only companies who can get a Z visa are those that have a lot of revenue. Also, the 28 year old rule and two years from graduation date are true.

    I've only been in China on F and X visas. For some reason, they don't like it if you change the visa type a lot.

    I wish they would clarify the regulations! I think a lot of foreigners would gladly pay money to undergo a "background check" (i.e. I'm not a pro-Tibet activist) and then get a one-year renewable visa. The current visa game is crazy. So many people got kicked out during the Olympics and never returned.

  7. Pretty good overview of the Kafka-like situation for Visas in China..
    This is a total blur and if you ask 5 different people (agencies, authorities, locals..) you get 5 different versions. When they started tightening the visas applications in last April, I remember that the European Chamber of Commerce complained - and received the usual sibylline answer from Chinese authorities saying pretty much "what problems ? We have not changed anything - there is no new policy on foreign visa application.."

  8. Thanks for your all your comments.

    zelab: there was no new policy on foreign visa application, because there doesn't seem to really be one in the first place. I would imagine the line here is in pretty much the same place as the line in what the media can print: somewhere hazy, and that what people can do is based mostly on guesswork. This lets you turn round to the European CoC and say there's been no change, because there hasn't in theory, just in practice.

  9. There is no "28-years" rule as far as I know, only a "25-years" rule: you needed to be born before 1983 in 2008 to be eligible for a Z-visa. You also need 2 years work experience I believe. When I got my first Z-visa (3 years ago) I was only 26; I was lucky the rules didn't exist back in 2006!

    I agree with Marc: don't work on an F-visa. Just make sure you work for a company with proper licenses and they should be able to get you a Z-visa. It all depends on the guanxi of your company.

  10. About the Z visa, there is neither a minimum age limit nor have I EVER heard of a "time-since-graduation" requirement, at least never once when I got mine. A Z visa, however, does require a lot of hassle for the employer and employee. Sorry to hear of your troubles and best of luck after your tourist visa extension. Cheers.

  11. Oh my what a journey. china is still the land of loopholes, but only if you milk enough money into the machine.

  12. Wow glad to hear that I made the right decision to leave China last Sept after living in Beijing for around 5 years... absolute nightmare! Had a friend who was in the Olympics last year and his parents couldn't get a visa into China, that was the last straw for me. time to leave and take the business elsewhere. Currently in Costa Rica and couldn't be more happier. Get out while you can!

  13. I don't know if this guy is reliable, but you may want to try to contact Mr Kwok.

    He claims (arrr... he claims... not sure) he can extend almost any types of visas to a one-year visa (continuous stay of 12 months). He charges around RMB 6000 for 12 months, it's not that expensive, around 16.4 yuan per day...

  14. It seems like everyone has to go through all these frustrations, so you aren't alone.

    And you may also try to contact this guy:

    Mr Kwok.

    He claims that he can extend any types of visa to a one-year visa (continuous stay of 12 months), not quite sure if this is true... you should email him anyway.

    I have to emphasize that I haven't used his service before, just found his name on the Lonely Planet forum.

  15. The rule in Shanghai for a Z Visa is 2 or more years work experience. Not unreasonable as you are meant to demonstrate expertise to qualify. Obviously fresh graduates are not experts.

    Z Visas are not so hard to obtain. Critical that you pick the right company to work for, pay income tax and do things by the book. Last year there were plenty of jobs going, this year it is pretty tight in the labour market and not easy to obtain a job or decent salary.

    Choice of who you work for is key. WOFEs (Wholly Foreign Owned Enterprises) can bring in expat staff quite easily or employ them locally and get them work visas. The paperwork is quite straightforward for both the employer and employee.

    Local enterprises have to demonstrate that the position is one that cannot be undertaken by a Chinese employee (not unreasonable) and get checked quite thoroughly.

    Key that you pick an enterprise with a record of paying tax and operating legally in China. This sounds like the type of enterprise you would want to work for anyway.

  16. I don't think there is a minimum age rule, my husband was 25 when he received his Z-visa.

    But I guess you must be a bachelor's degree holder.

    Nice blog about life in China. I can relate yo your posts. I have just started my own blog: TheShanghaiExpat. Please feel free to visit and let me know what you think for a link exchange.


  17. Hi, if anyone can give me a solid and specific answer, i'll jump out of my skin.

    I am an Australian citizen. I was born in 1982. I have two years work experience at 军械工程学院 (石家庄). At this moment, I am in Shijiazhuang on a 6 month F visa. I am studying Chinese at a local uni.

    I have been offered teaching work in Xiamen to begin in September.

    In June, I will leave China and go to Denmark to visit my girlfriend's family. We have tickets back to China for August.

    My questions are -
    1. Can I change my F visa to a Z visa either in Xiamen or if I need to, Hong Kong?
    2. Or can I have Denmark written on my invitation letter and pick up a Z visa in Denmark?
    3. A return ticket to Australia is time consuming and expensive, so instead, can I go to any other countries to get a Z visa?

    If you can help me at all. I will be very thankful.

    Best regards,