Mainland China is the fourth-most visited country in the world (Macau and Hong Kong rank 6th and 8th, respectively for 2012) and yet, despite the millions of tourists, obtaining a tourist visa remains a somewhat daunting task. And if a person is going for employment or other business purposes, an additional hurdle of document authentication is thrown in.
After going through the process ourselves, Sam and I thought it might be helpful to share our experience, especially after viewing various posts from disgruntled visa-seekers turned away at the last minute because of some minor issue they failed to meet. And with that introduction, here’s our story:
Application 1 … Tourist Visa via 3rd Party Visa Servicer
Deciding on what type of Visa: A few months ago, Sam was scheduled for a job interview in mainland China (Sam is a Family doc and the position was for a hospital there). Accordingly, he was instructed to obtain a tourist visa. We are not sure why a business visa was not recommended, and no other instructions were provided, so after reviewing visa options online, Sam decided to apply for a single-entry, 30-day tourist visa. In retrospect, he would have applied for a multiple entry, 90-day tourist visa instead, had he realized that “multiple, 90-day entry” meant that a visitor could make multiple entries of up to 90 days each within a year’s time frame. The way the instructions on the application forms are worded, we originally misunderstood it to mean a person would be allowed to make multiple entries into China over the course of a single 90 day period. Obviously, there is a significant difference between the two interpretations. So Lesson 1: Apply for a multiple-entry, 90-day tourist visa if you intend to visit China more frequently than 1 time within the year. The cost for a 90-day multiple entry tourist visa and a single entry tourist visa is the same (140 USD as of the date of this post…they do charge more for expedited services).
How to complete the application: The visa application and instructions can be found at your local Chinese Consulate. The visa application is rather detailed, and requires information such as health insurance, occupation, reason for visiting, length of visit, address during stay, etc. Also, an applicant will need to provide either: 1, proof of airline purchase (showing arrival and departure dates) and hotel reservations or 2, a letter of invitation from the business/entity intended to be visited. This letter must also include arrival and departure dates. Sam used option 1, and included with his application copies of the hotel reservation made for him by his interviewer as well as proof of airline purchase (in the form of a photocopy of his e-tickets). Note: DO NOT hand-write your application. You must have it typed or else you will be sent away at the consulate door!
a. Your original passport with at least 6 months remaining validity and a remaining blank visa page (I never noticed this before, but your passport has certain pages designated for visa’s only. Mine were already filled, so I chose to renew my passport as it takes just as much time to get a new passport as it does to get additional pages inserted);
b. A photocopy of your passport identification pages (picture and signature pages);
c. Proof of state of residence such as your driver’s license (this item is listed as a requirement on the website for the Chinese consulate in Houston, but when we submitted our application in person a few months later, the woman at the consulate handed these back to us and said she didn’t need them. Submit them anyway, just to be on the safe side); and
d. If you request a multiple entry visa, it would be helpful to include proof of needing this (such as a letter or tickets evidencing a trip to Hong Kong and back).
Where to apply: Applications are submitted to the Chinese consulate for your area, as indicated on the China Embassy website. Because we currently live on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, our Chinese Consulate is located in Houston, Texas. The Houston Chinese Consulate website, and visa application can be found here.
How to submit the application: The Houston Chinese Consulate only accepts applications via hand delivery. Therefore, a person has three options: submit the application in person, delegate the submission to a trusted person or use a Chinese Visa Service provider. Sam chose the latter option the first time around, sending his application, passport and documents off to China Visa Service Center via FedEx. Accordingly, he completed an application for their services through their website as well. Note: if you chose to have someone else submit the application for you, you should check the consulate website for additional requirements.
Total cost: The tourist visa application is $140 USD. The China Visa Service Center charge is $45 USD (for regular, unexpedited delivery, around 6 business days) and $26 FedEx return fee. You will also incur the outgoing FedEx expense also (approx. $26 USD) for a total visa application cost of $237 USD.
Result: Sam received his passport, complete with a multiple-entry, 60-day China tourist visa in a week’s time frame. We do not know why he was issued a multiple-entry, 60-day tourist visa when he actually applied for a single-entry, 30-day tourist visa, but in any case, we were both pleased with the service and end result. Sam went off to his interview and returned with a job offer, so all was well with the world.
Application 2…Document Authentication (and another tourist visa) via Hand-Delivery
Once Sam accepted the job offer, another round of applications ensued. Had Sam applied for the multiple-entry, 90-day tourist visa to start with, he would have been good to go on that front, but since he only had a sixty-day visa, his future employer was concerned that it would not provide enough time to obtain the necessary work permits and visas once we were in China. Also, his future employer stated that it was much more costly and difficult to extend his visa once in China, so they recommended he apply for the multiple-entry 90-day tourist visa and cancel the previous one. I was instructed to obtain a multiple-entry, 90-day tourist visa as well.
Document Authentication: In addition to the visas, Sam’s future employer explained that he would need to get his medical licensing documents authenticated so that they could obtain the necessary local permits and licenses in China. Specifically, Sam was required to “authenticate” his medical license, his board certification and his medical school diploma. We’d never heard of this process before, so it took some sleuthing to figure out the process. The Chinese consulate website explains the process, but the nuts and bolts of how it works aren’t quite the same, so here’s our experience:
Step 1. Notarize copies of the documents to be authenticated. Check with your Secretary of State’s office first to make sure you are doing this correctly, but for Mississippi, this is how it works:
a. Firstly, make copies of your official, original documents.
b. Secondly, prior to notarization, insert a statement within the copy of said document, testifying that it is a true and correct copy, with a space for your signature and date. I scanned Sam’s documents and then I inserted this statement on each copy with Adobe’s typewriter tool so that it would be clearly legible. DO NOT SIGN OR DATE them yet.
c. Bring these prepared copies to a licensed notary in your state. Sign and date in the spaces provided in your prepared statement in front of the notary, and then have the notary provide his/her seal on the document as well.
Step 2: Submit these notarized copies to your Secretary of State for authentication. This is a bit strange, but for Mississippi and most states, you simply mail or deliver your notarized documents in person to the Notary office of your SOS. The cost for authentication in MS is only $2.00 per document. But the strange part is that what is “authenticated” isn’t the actual document, but rather the validity of the licensed notary who provided the notary seal on your document! This “authentication” is attached to the notarized document with a staple. DO NOT remove the staple!
Step 3: Complete the Chinese Consulate Document Authentication Application form. This form can be completed once for multiple documents (Sam listed all 3 of his “authenticated” documents in one application).
Step 4. Include required documents with application. These include:
a. Your passport
b. A copy of your passport photo/identification page;
c. Original authenticated documents (Note: The instructions here are misleading and you may think you need to submit your original official documents. You do not. Only submit your notarized, authenticated documents as discussed in the steps above — these notarized, SOS-authenticated documents are what they are calling the “originals”);
d. One photo copy of each of your authenticated documents, including the state SOS authentication page as well as the notarized document. Note: When making these copies, do NOT remove the staple; rather photocopy them so that the copy shows the staple on the first page and the folded-back-area where the staple is affixed on the second page.
e. If someone other than you is submitting the application, a photocopy of both your ID and the submitter’s ID must be included.
f. If this is for a business document (Sam’s licenses are considered civil documents, not “business” for purposes of the application), check the consulate website for further requirements.
Step 5: Submit the application. As with the tourist visa, the document authentication application can only be submitted in person — either by yourself, a delegated person or a third-party service provider such as the one Sam used above for his initial tourist visa. Because we had two tourist visa applications and an application for three document authentications to process this time, we decided to submit it all ourselves. So, we packed a bag, loaded our documents into the car and brought along our 3-in-1 printer, just in case. And as it turns out, we’re awfully glad we did!
a. When to go. The Houston Chinese Consulate Visa center has strange hours, from 9 to 11:30 and from 1:30 to 3. Since we are a 6-hour drive away, timing becomes increasingly tricky, especially after we read horror stories about the hours of waiting in line and other such inefficiencies. So, we decided to arrive the night before and then hit the consulate first thing in the morning. We read that a line outside the consulate visa service center starts as early as 8:30, so we wanted to make sure we stayed somewhere close by. Hotels in Houston are expensive and traffic is notoriously horrible, so we eventually settled on Sleep Inn, which was a little cheaper than hotels in city center and only a 10 to 15 minute drive to the consulate. Happily, this proved to be a great choice. The rooms were clean, the staff very polite, and it really was only a 10 minute drive to the consulate in the morning!
We arrived at the consulate at 8:30 on Monday morning, and already, a line spread from each side of the door.
b. Where to park.
i. DO NOT park at the parking lot just beside the consulate! You will be towed. In fact, this is exactly where we parked. Sam went on ahead to get in the line while I bought a coffee at Starbucks there, and this decision on my part to patronize one of the parking lot stores was an inadvertent stroke of genius. Because later that day, we found out that consulate-visitor-cars are routinely towed from the area. In fact, the restaurant we ended up grabbing a post-application snack at informed us that the parking lot owner has a scout on patrol all day, watching for vehicles who park there and then walk over to the consulate. Indeed, when we were getting in our car to leave, a tow truck pulled up, and two men hooked their gear onto the car parked directly in front of us. There are some warning signs, but they are very easy to miss, especially if you are from out of town and unfamiliar with the place. We absolutely did not notice them at all until they were pointed out to us by the guy at the restaurant.
ii. DO park at the La Colombe D’Or Hotel right across from the consulate. There is a parking lot directly behind the hotel (do not park in the little parking area at the side or else you will be towed also). This is the designated place for consulate parking if you can not find a spot on the side street. So, Lesson 2: Park in designated areas along the side street or behind the La Colombe D’Or Hotel to avoid being towed.
c. Visa center location. The Houston Chinese Consulate visa center is on the side of the building, at the corner of Harold and Montrose streets. The plaque on the front door of the consulate explains this as well, but if you are bleary eyed like me, you might accidentally ring the front door buzzer before you realize that this is only intended for use by the important people.
At this point, you may calmly explain your faux pas to the disgruntled voice answering the buzzer or … you can just run off and duck around the corner like I did.
d. Where to wait in line. The line outside the consulate door is on either side. This confused us until we realized that the line at the left was for visa picker-upers while the line to the right was for visa applications.
e. Entering the consulate visa center. At 9 o’clock, the consulate visa center door opens and the guard loudly proclaims that anyone with a hand-written application should turn around and come back when they’ve completed a typed application. He also announces that you must have copies of your passports ready. If you have these, he allows you to enter through the security scanner and announces what windows you may approach. The windows to the left are for visa pick-ups and the windows to the right are for visa applications. We filed in line behind the visa applications crowd, and were surprised at how quickly we filed through. In under 10 minutes, we were greeting the consulate worker at Window 5.
f. Submitting your documents for a tourist visa. The consulate worker took our tourist visa applications first. She looked at Sam’s passport and informed him he would have to cancel his current 60-day visa before he could submit for a 90-day visa. She also suggested he just keep the one he has and apply for an extension while in China. When he replied by explaining his future employer said that it was costly and difficult to obtain an extension once in China, she just blinked her eyes. When he asked her how much it would cost in China to extend a visa, she says:
“I don’t know. So you want to cancel?”
“Er, yes please,” says Sam, and with that, a red stamp is promptly chopped over his 60-day visa, a receipt written out and handed to us (“Come back in four days to pick up”), and then she asks for our other documents.
g. Submitting application for document authentication.
We then handed in Sam’s completed application for his 3 documents to be authenticated by the Chinese Consulate. He also handed in a copy of his drivers license, thinking proof of state residency was required, but the consulate worker handed this back to him and said they didn’t need it. She took his passport copies and examined the 3 documents to be authenticated. At this point, because we had misunderstood the application instructions, we tried to hand her Sam’s original official documents in addition to the notarized copies (thinking that the original official documents were the “originals” and that the notarized copies were the “copies” for purposes of following the instructions). The worker just looked at us, shook her head and pointed to the notarized copies. “We do not want those. We want copies of this,” she says.
Hence, Lesson 3: What the consulate instructions describe as “original documents” for purposes of document authentication are not your official, original issued documents but rather the copies of said documents you made containing the original notarized statement as to their authenticity and attached to the original state SOS authentication.
We didn’t have copies for the reason explained above, and it was clear she wasn’t offering to make them, so we asked where we could get copies done.
“I don’t know,” she replies, and then points out the door with instructions to come back directly to her window when we have obtained the copies. So, we scoot out of the consulate, a little worried but congratulating ourselves on at least having the foresight to bring our 3-in-1 printer along. Our car is parked right by a Tex-Mex restaurant called Berry Hill, so we sheepishly approach the manager and ask if we can use their outlet. They aren’t open for business yet, but the manager is so nice, and he points us to a booth with an outlet right beside it. Sam drags our printer from our car, carries it into the restaurant, and we make our copies following the consulate lady’s instructions to leave the staple on the documents. Lesson 4: Be sure to have all required photocopies on your person, or you will be sent away with no assistance in finding a copier (there is a Walgreens across the street, however. Of note, there was also a coin operated photocopier in the consulate, but it was out of order.)
Back at the consulate, we explain to the guard why we are returning, re-enter the security gate, skip the big line of people waiting to drop off their applications and stand directly behind the person currently being helped at Window 5. We weren’t sure if this was the correct protocol, but it seemed to do the trick. The consulate lady waved us to her once the person in front of us was through, and she accepted the photocopies, put them with our application and other documents, filled out another receipt and informed us to return in 4 days for pick up.
We returned to our car, popped into Berry Hill’s since it was now open and purchased 2 Breakfast Burritos to celebrate our success. (Highly recommended, by the way, and the restaurant and staff are charming.) It was during this time that we realized our mistake in parking just outside, and the staff member who took our order expressed his genuine shock that we’d managed to park our car there the whole morning without being towed. “Signs are everywhere,” he says, pointing out the window, and we follow his gaze, for the first time noticing them!
After eating and just as we settle into our car, we witnessed a tow truck rumble to a stop directly in front of us. Two men hop out and hook up a (presumably) fellow-consulate-parked car to be towed, all with an unnatural efficiency. These guys mean business! We shuddered with the knowledge of narrowly eluding a similar fate.
Step 6: Picking up your documents. We returned 4 days later on Thursday to pick up our documents. This time, we parked across the street behind La Colombe D’Or Hotel and arrived at the consulate visa center door at around 11.
The same guard stood at the doorway and he pointed us through the security gate with instructions to enter lines 1, 2 or 3. We waited perhaps 10 minutes before we were at a window.
a. Total Cost: Tourist visa’s are $140 USD each and non-business authenticated documents are $25 USD a piece, for a total of $355 USD.
b. Payment Method: The Houston Chinese Consulate only accepts payment via money order, cashier’s check, Visa or MasterCard (no cash or personal checks are accepted).
After paying, 2 receipts, 2 passports and 3 authenticated documents were pushed through the window at us. The Chinese Consulate authentication seal is placed on the back side of the state’s SOS authentication letter, like the seal featured here.
And that is how a body obtains a tourist visa and authenticated documents. Overall, I’d say the experience was much more pleasant than reviews led us to believe. The consulate workers, while perhaps lacking in person-ability, were efficient and professional.
So, if you are planning to obtain a visa to visit China and/or have your documents authenticated and certified, I hope all of the above is clear and helpful. If anything is unclear or if you have any questions, please feel free to leave a comment below and I’ll do my best to clarify things for you!