How to avoid the great Chinese visa headache

"Don’t make the same mistake I did..."
One of the main reasons backpackers bypass China is because of the country’s over-complicated Chinese visa application process. It isn’t impossible, but it does take some time and planning. This guide is specifically based on our experience as UK travellers applying for a Tourist Visa (category L), although many of the documents needed may be similar for other European countries, Canada and the US.

Disclaimer: There is no TL;DR. You need to read every single word!

First things first, you cannot enter China without a visa. They will simply turn you away at the border. You need to apply for a visa before you go, ideally while you’re still residing in your home country. If you are not applying for your visa directly from your country of citizenship, you’ll also need to provide the original as well as a separate photocopy of your UK legal status e.g. a work/study/residence permit. This is why it can be much easier to just apply when you’re still at home.

It’s also worth remembering that you need to apply for your visa well in advance, but not too far in advance! If your visa is processed more than three months before your arrival date, it might become invalid before you’ve even stepped onto Chinese soil.

We applied for our visas at the end of January, in anticipation of our visit at the beginning of April. We would’ve preferred to visit China slightly later in the year, but we moved our plans forward when we realised that our visas would only be valid for three months.

How to submit your Chinese visa application

When submitting our applications, we had three choices:

  1. Apply in person at our nearest Chinese visa centre
  2. Apply to our nearest Chinese visa centre by post
  3. Use a third party to manage our application for an additional cost

Our nearest Chinese visa centre (Manchester) only opens during normal business hours from Monday to Friday. As we were both in the middle of our notice periods at the time, we knew it would be difficult to take time off to submit our applications in person. We’re also travelling on a budget, so paying a 3rd party over the odds to arrange our visas didn’t appeal to us (plus, we couldn’t be bothered to find out which of the plethora of companies were actually legit).

This left us with option two – postal application.

The postal application process

I used the Chinese visa centre website to read up on the postal application process. I wasn’t ecstatic about sending our passports away in the post just weeks before our trip, but I figured that if they did get lost, it would be better to have a few weeks to sort out new ones!

Here’s an overview of how the postal application for a Chinese visa works:

You need to fill in a 4-page form with your own personal details, information about your employment, family and your expected itinerary in China. There’s no way to get around this, meaning that you do need to have flights pre-booked before you submit your application. It’s also a good idea to book hotels for your stay on a refundable rate, so that you can note these down as part of your itinerary too. (Nobody will check and you can easily cancel these later if you want to).

What do I need to include?

Along with the visa application form, you need to submit printouts of any flight bookings and hotel rooms. Don’t make the same mistake I did and assume that Hong Kong doesn’t count towards your itinerary. If you are travelling to China from Hong Kong, or vice versa, include your Hong Kong itinerary too. (In our case, we were travelling from China to HK. The Chinese visa centre called me and asked me to send over proof of our departing flight from HK too).

Don’t forget to have some passport-style photos taken (which you’ll need for obtaining visas on the road anyway). The 4-page visa application form requires a recent photo affixed to the front page.

To complete your application, you will need to include a signed declaration form, an A4 size printout of your passport photo page and printouts of your flight bookings and hotels to match the dates written in your application. If you have visited China before, you also need to provide a photocopy of your latest Chinese visa.

You’ll also need to fill in a form with your bank account details, which enables the Chinese visa centre to charge you for your application. The postal application process costs (try not to wince) £175 in total.

You then need to send your passport in the envelope too, ensuring that it has two blank pages available (they don’t need to be next to each other).

Posting your application

At this stage, don’t just pop everything into the post box and hope for the best!

Take your application to your local post office and ask them to send it via Royal Mail’s Special Delivery service. I paid £7.25 per application for delivery the next day by 1pm. I also included a pre-paid, self-addressed Special Delivery envelope with each of our applications, which cost £6.45. If you don’t do this, the visa centre will charge extra to post your passport back to you.

Is it worth it?

In total, the entire postal application process set us back £188.70 each, which included the processing costs, the visas themselves, and postage costs.

It is NOT cheap, and it definitely isn’t the easiest visa application process either! Having said that though, the time we spent in China was well worth it.

If you’ve made it to the end of this article in one piece, you probably have the steely determination it takes to apply for a Chinese visa all by yourself. Maybe.