For the latest information on China's visa rules, see our 2014 Guide to Getting a Work Visa in China.
Unless you're from Singapore, Brunei or Japan (and can therefore stay in the PRC visa-free for 15 days), you'll need to get a China visa for Mainland China whether you're just here for a short trip to see the F1 in Shanghai or looking to set up shop in Yiwu sourcing socks and garters. We've checked and condensed the information from our other China visa posts, re-scoured the 'net and checked in again with our visa gurus Magic at Visa in China in Shanghai and Yuri at Get in2 China in Beijing to get you the latest on what you need to know about visas in China.
Which visa do I need?
With the exception of Hainan and the Pearl River Delta, entries into China for most nationalities require a visa. All China visas require a passport valid for at least six months. Cost varies by home country and visa type. An additional Tibet travel permit is required for trips to the "roof of the world." But for most China travel, these will do:
L visa (tourist visa) The L visa is only meant to cover a "short stay" in China and is generally valid for 30 to 90 days. These can be extended twice for 30 more days each time from within China; any other extension or visa transfer must be handled outside of the country. The availability of longer L visas is in constant flux. Depending on your nation of origin and the climate of the unseen forces at work behind immigration policy, 180 day L visas are sometimes available. Generally, these visas only allow you to stay in the country for 90 consecutive days at a time, requiring a trip across the border at least every three months.
F visa (visitor visa) The F visa is meant for those spending six months or less in China for non-commercial (e.g. scientific, educational, cultural, sports) exchanges and visits. The F visa used to include short-term business trips, but these are now covered under the new M visa.
M visa (business visa) The M visa is for those coming to China for commercial or trade activities. It is not, however, a work visa, although there are companies that have their foreign employees working long term on an illegal mix of M or L (tourist) visas and Hong Kong trips. If you're looking to work in China for anything more than six months, this is not the visa for you.
X visa (student visa) If you're studying in China for 180 days or more (six months), you'll need the X1 visa. If your study program is shorter than 180 days, you'll need the X2 visa. You should be able to get the relevant X visa with help from your school. If you're on an X1 visa, you'll have to replace it with a residence permit within 30 days of arriving in China.
Z visa (work visa) If you're working in China, you legally should have a Z visa. The actual Z visa has a fairly short life span (30 days), as the Z visa in your passport should be quickly replaced by a residence permit and work permit when you arrive in the country and start your new job. When changing jobs within job, the residence permit is transferable.
Know Your Visa
This refers to your visa's validity period, which starts from the day it is issued. Get to China before midnight of the day listed, or risk turning into a pumpkin. And by pumpkin we mean "person who can't enter the country."
While those on valid X1 (student) and Z (work) visas can more or less come and go as they please, those on F (visitor) and L (tourist) visas may be limited to one or two entries into the PRC. Make sure you know whether you can get back into China before you take that holiday to Laos.
"Duration of each stay"
This is the number of days you can stay once you've entered the country. If you're on a long-term visa—Z (work) or X1 (student) visa—don't be alarmed if it says 000 days; once you arrive in China you'll have to replace the visa with a residence permit, which is typically valid for at least one year and allows multiple entries. If you're on a short-term visa—such as an M (business) visa—which is also multiple-entry, the duration of each stay might be shorter than the visa's validity. For example, let's say you have a visa which is valid for 6 months and the duration of each stay is 30 days. This would mean you have to leave Mainland China every month simply to get an exit stamp, which floating expats view as either an absurd hassle or a great excuse to go shopping in Hong Kong for all the things they miss.
All types of visas can be extended or changed, but differences exist. The L (tourist) visa can be extended twice, with 30 days on each extension. The extension can be added a few days before the visa's expiry date. According to Yuri, L (tourist) visas can be changed into an F (visitor), X (student) or Z (work) visa in Beijing without leaving the city.
In most other cases, changing between types of visas requires leaving Mainland China, which usually means a flight to Hong Kong and a trip to the Chinese consulate. From there, CITS or another China visa service can help if you haven't already arranged your next visa.
Taking a flight to Shenzhen and then crossing the land border to Hong Kong (a bus goes straight from the airport into Central) can be a cheaper route. If you only need an exit stamp (in order to reset your duration-of-stay clock) and don't fancy flying, you can also take a ferry from Xiamen to Jinmen Island, which is under the jurisdiction of Taiwan, or if you're based in North China, hop across the border into Mongolia via the dusty town of Erlian.
When switching to a Z (work) visa, most foreigners can do this from Hong Kong, but some have to return to their home country. From stories on travel forums, it appears to be largely African, Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian nationals that may need to return to their home country. If you're unsure, e-mail or call your embassy in Beijing or Hong Kong (try a quick Google search for your home country and "China embassy" or "Hong Kong embassy"). If you're changing jobs in China (and moving from a Z visa to a Z visa), you shouldn't need to leave the country so long as you can a get a release letter from the company that you're leaving.
If there's bad blood between you and your former employer that results in an inability to secure the release letter, then you may need to make time for a trip to Hong Kong or a holiday back home. Usually, though, changing your job but keeping your China visa isn't a problem.
When the Rules Get Tighter
During high profile events like the 2010 Shanghai Expo and 2008 Beijing Olympics, officials have gotten stricter about enforcing immigration policy and in some cases those rules have gotten stricter. During the Expo, for example, there were stories of foreigners stopped by police who asked to see their passport and followed them back to their abode to retrieve it if they didn't have it. Technically, a foreigner is always supposed to have his or her passport on hand, but not many people want to risk losing it. Some foreigners keep photocopies (photo page and visa page) of their passport on hand, but we've not heard of anyone stopped for a passport check in a while.
Visa Help from the Pros & Helpful Links
Thanks again to Magic and Yuri for their visa knowledge.
Magic Cheng, Meshing Consultancy Service
- Tel: (86 21) 3301 1478 / 6307 5776 Mob: (86) 135 0182 8752
- Website: www.visainchina.com
- Email: email@example.com
Yuri, Get in2 China (Beijing)
- Tel: (86 10) 6403 4923 Mob: (86) 150 1053 2542
- Website: www.getin2china.com
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Skype: Getin2China
- MSN: Getin2China
Other helpful links: