China visa & entry requirements

Do I need a visa before entering China?

Yes.   All foreign visitors to China need to apply for a visa in advance, available from Chinese embassies and consulates, as well as through visa agents and tour operators.  Most embassies and consulates don’t allow you to mail in your visa application so you’ll either have to visit one or use a travel/visa agent.

The exceptions are Hong Kong and Macau, which have own tourist guidelines (citizens from the US, Europe, Australia and New Zealand don’t need a visa and can stay up to 90 days).

  • Visas must be used within 3 months of ISSUE date
  • Best to apply for your visa about 1-2 months before departure date.  It supposedly only takes 4 business days but I’d give yourself 2 weeks lead time just in case.
  • The visa application asks to list your occupation.  If you’re a journalist, photographer, filmmaker, or writer….it’s probably safer to write in something like, “professional dog groomer” or “subway bucket drummer.”
  • Visa regulations are subject to change, especially during times of political unrest when it’s possible (but unlikely) that you’ll be asked to show additional documentation such as your airline tickets or hotel reservations.
  • If you’re traveling on a packaged tour, you probably won’t need to apply for an individual visa since your tour leader will apply for a group visa (after getting your details).


  • Single-entry tourist visas (L) are most common and easiest to get.  They’re almost always good for 30 days from date of entry (but they’ll also grant 2-3 month visa if requested).  Multiple-entry L visas are also available and are typically valid for one year.  COSTS: non-US citizen= $30. US citizens= $130 (in response to higher US visa fees)
  • Business visas (F) require an invitation from government-recognized Chinese organization and are valid between 3 months to 2 years.
  • Work visas (Z) also require invitation, plus additional documentation like a clean bill of health.
  • Student visas (X) less than 6 moths need letter of acceptance.  If longer, you’ll also need health certificate (typically valid for a year but renewable annually).

translation interpreting reading chinese visa understanding


  • Application & required fees
  • Recent color passport photos (2, white background)
  • Passport with at least 6 months validity and at least one blank page

Go to Chinese embassy in USA’s visa & passport page and download Chinese visa application (PDF)


To extend your visa, visit any local Public Security Bureau (PSB, most are open weekdays 9-11:30am and 1:30 to 4:30pm).  It’ll involve some paperwork but it’s usually easy to get at least a one-month extension.

funny foreigner man in china passport

TIP: When applying for an extension, try not to look like a deranged serial killer with a meth addiction.

The processing times, costs, and length of extension reportedly vary from region to region.  To maximize their chances, some travelers go to PSB (basically, a police station) in smaller town because they have a reputation for being less strict and nit-picky.

Beijing is reportedly the worst place to ask for a visa extension (longer processing times plus sometimes other requirements such as proof of finances). I’ve read that Shanghai and Guilin are not as stringent and fairly efficient and easy.

If for some reason, they won’t extend your visa, you can fly to Hong Kong to apply for a new visa (only about 1-2 business days).

Don’t overstay your visa or you’ll be fined Y500/day (although it could be harsher, especially for longer overstays).

Booking flights or a tour to China? CHINA MIKE recommends….China International Travel, a San Mateo, California-based family business (the wife is from Shanghai) tour/travel agency:

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