Applying for a Chinese visa

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Many people in Hong Kong go in and out of mainland China all the time. I do not, but I am going to Shanghai soon and there are other mainland destinations on my bucket list, so I applied for a Chinese visa.

The visa application process has been simple for every country we have visited in Asia.  And in fairness, I have been to China before and had a seamless visa process through a travel agent who put me on a group visa. But my recent experience applying for a Chinese visa was entirely different, so I decided to write about it to give others a heads-up.

My online search for visa application centres in Hong Kong led me to China Travel Service, and while their website says they offer a collection and delivery service, I decided to do it in person. I arrived at the designated address precisely at the same time as two other people, whereupon we were told the centre had moved to a different building about five minutes away, and that it was closing in five minutes. Ergo, their website had incorrect information about location and hours of operation. The three of us pretty much ran the whole way to the other building, and naturally we were told they were closed when we arrived. But, the man at the entrance informed us, we could use their computers to make an appointment—a service that is also not available on their website—and there would be staff there to help us. Well, the computers were available but there was certainly was no staff (nor was there in any of my subsequent visits). There were already people at the three computers and as the system wasn’t very user friendly, we all helped each other to make our respective appointments. Good team building.

This was the sign at the first location I went to. You can see that the address was changed in January, but their website has not been updated.

I made my appointment for the next morning and arrived 15 minutes early. I was about sixth in the lineup, which ran alongside the non-appointment lineup where about 100 people were queued. The first stop for everyone was the “Check-in” desk of which there were two, one for each lineup, and each one manned by two people. This makes it excrutiatingly slow if you don’t have an appointment. I spoke to one guy who was in line for two hours and there is no seating provided.

The staffer monitoring the lines had a thankless job and was taking a lot of grief from people about the poor information and inefficient service. For anyone with a quick question about a form or procedure, there was no one to ask.

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This is just one part of the non-appointment line, which snaked around three sides of the centre’s space.

I got to the “Check-In” counter and proudly produced my documents. According to their website, I needed proof of travel (airline booking), hotel booking, my passport, visa photos and a photocopy of my passport’s main page. Not good enough! My hotel booking was under my husband’s name, not mine. They wanted proof that I would be staying in the same room as him. I was asked to provide a letter signed letter by him and a copy of our marriage certificate. I also needed a copy of the permit-to-stay page in my passport. None of this was detailed on their website.

My heart sank. I needed the visa in a week. Light-bulb moment! I went to their computer and re-booked the hotel under my name. Thankfully, their computers are networked to a printer where I could print the booking and make the other surprise-request photocopy.

I was then given a number and waited to be called to an agent’s window. That went quite quickly and the briefest time of all, about five minutes, was with the agent who took my application. I was given another number to wait for a cashier and soon after had made my payment. The prices are not posted on this agency’s website and they only take cash or EPS bank card. Be prepared.

Lessons learned:

  1. Don’t trust the website(s). In this case, the address, working hours, and required documents were either wrong or incomplete. This can cause delays amounting to days.
  2. Don’t leave it too late to apply for your visa.
  3. Allow lots of time for the entire process. I spent about four hours in the visa office over three trips. Add travel time to that and it becomes a commitment. I spoke to one woman who had spent an entire day there, and then was back the next day for more.

This process may well be easier elsewhere or through a travel agent. The agency I used is, I think, the main one in HK and processes hundreds of applications a day, but it’s not designed for simplicity. I would be very skeptical about the pick-up and delivery service given the number of documents I was missing and that could cost days. The whole process was time consuming, frustrating and stressful at times. I now plan to visit China a lot to make all this trouble worthwhile.