In this post we outline how we wound up applying for a Chinese Visa in Hong Kong. You’d think that since we spend so much time traveling, we’d pretty much have everything down by now. But it turns out that in a big and complicated world, where the rules are always changing, there’s always a new lesson to learn and a new obstacle to tackle. When we left Florida to start our big adventure, a year of full time slow travel, we chose Europe as our first destination because for the most part, we could travel visa free with our American Passports. It was convenient, but that luxury did leave us a little underprepared for the challenges getting a Chinese visa while overseas.
Applying for a Chinese Visa Overseas
We started planning our year in China back in October when we were still in Prague, but it we decided to wait until December in Vienna to apply for our Chinese Visas. We’d read online that the Chinese Embassy in Vienna was one of the largest in Europe, and it seemed like a good place to take care of it. We didn’t like the idea of saving things for the last minute, but 1) we had a whole month there to take care of it, and 2) it was going to be cold out, so waiting in line indoors wouldn’t feel so bad.
Our First Chinese Visa Attempt: Vienna, Austria – Chinese Embassy
Finding the Chinese Embassy in Vienna
It turned out that the Chinese Embassy in Vienna was about a 15 minute walk from our Airbnb. It might have felt like longer than that when the wind was blowing, but luckily we could go almost the entire way on one road, so we didn’t have to worry about getting lost. As it turned out, the embassy itself might have been large, but the visa division was a single small room in another building shared with various non-government offices. A little weird. We were there on our second day in the city on an informal information gathering trip, so we went inside to ask our questions.
We found out what documents we would need, how much it would cost, how we could pay, and how long it would take. Everything seemed simple enough, so set out to gather our materials. The Embassy was only open on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and on though Google Maps said it was open from 8:30 to 4:00, it actually closed for a few hours in the middle of the day. We figured one week would be plenty of time to get everything ready.
Preparing Our Documents
The first step was to get our photos, which we did on our way home from the embassy. The security guard actually recommended a place. On arrival, we found that it wasn’t a little photo booth in a drug store like we would go to in the United States, it was a full on photo studio, run by professional photographers. It was a little pricier than we wanted, but we really wanted to get it done with, and at least with professionals we knew they would do a good job. The last thing we wanted was to have to make another trip if our photos got rejected.
Because we decided to apply for a family reunion visa instead of a tourist visa, we also needed an invitation letter from my grandmother. We had her write one out, inviting us to join her at her address in China.
Of course, we also made photo copies of our passports, our birth certificates and our marriage certificate, as well as my naturalization certificate (proving I’m a U.S. citizen).
As proof that we were legally staying in Vienna, we brought a print out of our Airbnb receipt. As proof that we were going to China, we purchased airline tickets and printed out our reservations.
And finally, we filled out all those applications. The ones that they had at the embassy were in both German and Chinese, but we found an English and Chinese version on the Chinese embassy website.
When we returned to the Embassy, we waited in line again, only to learn that we had misunderstood one of the required documents. When they said that they needed proof of residence, they didn’t mean that they needed proof we were currently residing in Vienna (ie, our airbnb receipt). What they wanted was proof that we were residents of Vienna (ie, a residency permit). It seemed that the visa services of this embassy were not available to American tourists traveling visa free in Europe.
I suppose this was fair enough. An embassy to China, located in Austria is under no obligation to work with citizens of a third country, but it would have been nice if they’d made that clear on our first visit. I suppose it was a miscommunication on our part about our status in the country. They might have thought we looked like savvy travelers who knew the rules walking in. The more I look back on it, the less likely it seems that they would predict an American tourist would go there to get a Chinese visa. That being said, it sure was frustrating at the time.
A Surprise Trip to Hong Kong
With our deadline for a Chinese visa approaching, and our first month in China already booked (no refunds allowed for the first month of a long term Airbnb rental!), I was feeling pretty stressed out. The man behind the counter suggested that maybe we could go to an embassy in our home country to apply. That would have been one heck of a layover on an already long trip, so we put that option in the category of “last resort.”
Luckily for us, there was one other choice available, which had been our backup plan all along. The Chinese consulate in Hong Kong works under different rules than all of the other embassies and consulates around the world. Because of its special status of being sort of inside and sort of outside China, the Hong Kong consulate will give American citizens Chinese visas, even though Americans don’t need a visa to visit Hong Kong.
So it looked like we were going to be celebrating our New Year in Hong Kong, which wasn’t an entirely unappealing proposal, though it did mean making some last minute flight bookings, and pushing back our reservations in China a few days. The whole thing was pretty expensive, but not nearly as expensive as flying back to the United States or canceling our reservations. Luckily, since we had bought our airline tickets just the day before, we were still within the window to change our flight reservations free of charge.
Our Second Chinese Visa Attempt: Hong Kong – Chinese Consulate
Finding the Chinese Consulate in Hong Kong
Our mission in Hong Kong was slowed down somewhat by the New Year holiday and the fact that we arrived on a weekend.. The Embassy was closed until a couple days after the first. This was a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it gave us a few days to enjoy Hong Kong. On the other hand, because of the uncertainty created by the lack of a Visa for next month, it was a little hard to relax and just go sightseeing. That being said, we really enjoyed our walks along Victoria Harbour.
Getting to the consulate was a little bit inconvenient because the address had been changed, but as of December, 2017, the old address was still showing up. Our taxi driver was very confused as we circled around the incorrect area looking for anything that resembled a government building.
Finally, we were able to find someone who gave us the correct address of the Hong Kong Chinese consulate, and we were on our way. If you are looking for the consulate, you might have better luck searching for the China Resources Building which contains it than the consulate itself.
Before entering the consulate, we were forced to leave all, food and water outside and pass through a metal detector. Inside was the typical bureaucratic, nightmare room you’d expect, in which people waited for their number to be called, directing them to one of a dozen windows where a grumpy employee looked over their papers judgmentally.
We made last minute copies of our Hong Kong entry cards (which we’d just learned we needed), and took our number. When we were called to the window, the clerk began flipping through our applications, reading them carefully. Finally, she got to our invitation letter and started frowning, flipping it over as though she expected there to be more on the other side. She informed us that the invitation letter had to have all of our passport numbers on it in order to qualify. Once again, we certainly wished that the clerk at the embassy in Vienna had told us that but, as always, our bad for not knowing. It was getting late in the day, and it was obvious that we were not going to be able to go back to get in touch with my grandmother, receive a new letter, print it out, and wait in line again before the consulate closed.
We only had one night left in our (really expensive) hotel reservation, and we weren’t looking forward to making the long taxi ride here again the next day, and then again a day or two later to pick up our visas.
A Surprise Trip to the Travel Agent
I forget who told us, but somehow we found out that there was a travel agent on the second floor, right in the same building. It was called Sunrise International Travel Co Ltd, and we decided to give it a try.
Our Third Chinese Visa Attempt: Hong Kong – Travel Agent
Once inside the small, crowded office of Sunrise International Travel, we showed them our documents and our applications. The agent behind the desk confirmed that our invitation letters were inadequate, but she had more bad news for us as well. Even if we could get a new letter from my grandmother, it wouldn’t matter. Lisa and I both qualified for a family reunion visit, but Jake, who was only related to me by marriage was one too many steps removed, and could never visit for a family reunion.
We took a moment to reflect on how nice it would have been if either the Chinese embassy in Vienna or the consulate in Hong Kong had told us about this. If we hadn’t stopped upstairs, we would have done all the work of getting and printing a new letter, just to get rejected the next day and have to start over again. It turns out, it might not have stopped there either, because the agent took one look at the passport photos we had gotten for the visas, and told us that there were several problems that would have gotten us rejected again. Thanks a lot expensive Viennese photographer. As photographers ourselves, we totally get the need to charge a living wage for your work, but if you don’t know the requirements for a passport photo, you are obligated to admit that. That’s why we hired someone to do it for us in the first place!
Success at Last
Finally, we were fed up with the whole ordeal and just asked the travel agent to change our applications to a 10 year multiple entry tourist visa, and retake our photos for us. It was really easy and really fast. It was a bit pricey, especially because we had the visas expedited, but they agreed to let us pay when we came to pick up the final product the next day. We booked a night in a much less expensive hotel, which was easier after the new year, and a day after we got our visas we were off to Xiamen, China to begin the next leg of our journey.
Just Go to a Travel Agent in Hong Kong
We had read a number of times that working with a travel agent in Hong Kong was the easiest way to get a Chinese visa, but I suppose we had to run into a few walls to get it into our heads. If you are planning on visiting China from outside your home country, Jake, Lisa and I can confirm that this is definitely the easiest way to go. The consulate is awful, and by comparison, the agent felt like they were working with us instead of against us. I guess that’s what the profit motive will do for you.
There are many travel agents available in Hong Kong, and we only visited one. It’s possible that being right inside the consulate allowed them to charge more for their services, so feel free to shop around if you have the luxury of time that we did not. If it’s all the same, price wise, the service we received at Sunrise was efficient and friendly.
And finally, the ten year multiple entry visa seems to be the way to go. It appears that China is trying to corral as many visitors as possible into this visa type. It’s the same price as a one year multiple entry visa, and though it requires you to leave the country once every 60 days, at least you don’t have to reapply every time.
Visiting China is far from the most convenient process, but we’re finding that the experience can be rewarding once you get past the red tape. We’re staying in Dali right now, getting amazing photos, and seeing places that most westerners never even think about visiting. They say that nothing worth doing is easy, and to a certain extent that’s true. China is difficult to visit precisely because it is so different from the place we came from, and isn’t that kind of the whole point of travel anyway?
If we have any new developments regarding visas or travel to China, we’ll be sure to update this post appropriately.