China: Visa tales

Just how how hard can it be, asks Sina blogger and freelance journalist Chen Zikun in his August 6 post, for Chinese travelers to get a visa—with Chen's answer apparently being: not too hard—in which he shares the stories behind visas for the many countries he's been to:



Until I went to apply for a visa for my first ever trip out of the country, I was always happily under the impression that, being from a country with a rapidly-developing economy, and especially with how smug red-to-the-root media like CCTV are in their frequent reports about how Chinese tourists always rank first in purchasing power of luxury goods. Couldn't have felt better. China had already learned how to say No, thus there probably wasn't any country that wouldn't greet me with a smile, never mind give me a visa hassle-free.

Then, the opposite turned out to be true…..


In late fall 2003, the first overseas tourist visa I applied for was for a Schengen country, Austria. They required property ownership certificates, car ownership certificates, proof of bank balance exceeding RMB 50,000, a letter of introduction from my workplace, the purpose of which being to confirm my annual salary to be over RMB 100,000 as well as guarantee that I would return to the country and not overstay my visa to work illegally. Of course, they also needed an “accurate” record of my ancestry going back eight generations….


My second time was to Egypt and that country long despised by the EU, Turkey. Egypt was fairly simple, but which isn't to say there weren't a fair number of preconditions. Being so subject to discrimination as it is, I would have though Turkey would be reasonable about processing visas. Turns out, the former Ottoman Empire country is just as arrogant toward citizens of the People's Republic of China as it is to those of European Union countries!


Having said that, don't be too quick to judge the foreigners. Even our own Hong Kong and Macau require you to first undergo a strict process before they'll issue a visa. The paperwork and procedures involved are just as complicated and elaborate as those required by anybody else, but even more important is that once you do get it, you find yourself constantly stuck with cold glares and even abuse from tour guides.


My second time applying to a Schengen country was with a visa to France. Per usual, they wanted copies of yet another stack of information as well as proof of financial statements, and again I had to swear that I wouldn't remain anywhere and that I would return on schedule.


We are brothers of the same misfortune, after all, and Vietnam is much friendlier, not taking the trouble to check whether or not you own sufficient assets or fixating on the suitability of your job; you pay your money and then you're more or less good to go!


In the Pacific Ocean, Saipan, although administered by the United States, its masters know that even with as clever as Chinese are, there's no way for any of us to use the island as a springboard to land on American soil, and therefore applications are relatively straightforward, but of course that employee letter is still required.


Despite the similar political system we once shared, Russia has in fact made multiple attempts to relax procedures for its former brethren, at least until it became clear that each time they did, large numbers of Chinese would flood in and end up staying. The result of this tightening and relaxing has been requirements that are only marginally more strict than those of the EU, and don't forget those notarized papers and proof of identity!


Oh-so-intimate North Korea, which doesn't place much emphasis on proof of assets for Chinese travelers; screening based on profession, however, is extremely strict. Journalists, don't even think about getting in! Travel agencies, however, in pursuit of profit, have found a way around this, by changing employment status to ‘instructor’ or ‘manager’. What's disappointing is that visas don't come with a picture of The Great Leader, or stamped with the special Juche year Gregorian calendar unique to their country alone.


Malaysia, aside from harsh screening of young Chinese women (large numbers of sex workers are highly active in Malaysia, something which implicates even upstanding Chinese women), basically has its doors wide open. Singapore is the same, although proof of sufficient bank balance is needed. Visas are issued separately, not on a page in your passport.


Although we put their foreign ministry, ministry of defence and Executive Yuan in quotation marks, that's just to comfort ourselves. Under the “One-China policy”, applying to go to Taiwan is far more complicated than for other countries. At least up until 2004 when things had yet to formally open up.


Taiwan's visas are different from most, covered in sayings from Lee Teng-hui. After all, these are “special state-to-state” relations. Fortunately I'm not a soldier, Party member or official, so getting approval was easy. Though if you go to Taiwan, you have to go through Hong Kong or another country.


For my third country, I chose the Philippines. This the only Catholic country in Southeast Asia, and neither my assets nor profession were checked.


The difference between South and North Korean visas is obvious. When the employee at Seoul Airport saw my North Korean visa, they asked excitedly if they could take a picture of it with their cellphone.


Cambodia is not worried about “negative reports” from Chinese journalists, and are definitely not worried about Chinese people working or staying illegally. You can even apply for a visa upon arrival.


With a military regime so frequently criticized by the international community for its human rights situation, Myanmar has a lot in common with North Korea: neither of them like journalists coming chasing after the truth.


Thailand belongs to the small group of countries whose visas are easiest to obtain, even when the red shirt army isn't creating any disturbance. Although, I have no interest in traveling there except that the capital Bangkok is a transportation hub and from there one can fly on to Yangon in Myanmar, Colombo in Sri Lanka, Jakarta in Indonesia, and other places.


In 2005, Indonesia was still not issuing visas to Chinese citizens; one had to pay a hundred times the normal cost to a travel agent to take care of the paperwork.


The African island nation of Seychelles, quite similar to the Indian Ocean island nation of Mauritius in that, unlike nearly all other countries, exempts Chinese travelers from a visa. This is the stamp given at the Immigration crossing. When Chinese go through, however, inspection is more thorough than normal.


With Africa full of countries we think of like brothers, definitely anyone with a People's Republic of China passport will not be faced with this kind of discrimination. Nope, turns out the Superpower Dream gets destroyed in black Africa too! Tanzania and Kenya were equally strict in requiring visa processing to be completed at their embassies in Beijing before I could go. Fortunately, I was able to “truck” into Uganda. Currently, one travel throughout the EAC with a visa from any of its member countries.


In Madagascar, the least developed country in the world, they went and stipulated in Chinese on the French-language form that “this person is not allowed to work illegally during their stay in Madagascar.” In Zambia, another least developed nation, it was much clearer: “China is one of the six countries not privy to visas upon arrival”……


If you want a visa to Zimbabwe, please remember, as with North Korea and Myanmar, do not under any circumstances reveal that you are a journalist! Authoritarian regimes all fear open discussion.


American visas are the most troublesome. Like job-hunting, you have to first go to the embassy for an “interview” and be fingerprinted (Beijingers will tell you that Xinjiangers face the same thing when they show up and try their luck at the Xiushui Silk Market), and if you get rejected, you don't get that USD 100 back! Although, when I had my interview, they didn't even bother looking at my proof of assets!


Back in 1989, I got denied a Canadian visa. Who knew that I'd actually end up going there three times? Although, I had a lot of trouble the second time when the visa officer, after repeatedly going through my passport and with no explanation, kept asking my: why did you go to Iran? Or countries like Syria, Zimbabwe, Myanmar and North Korea? Were you in contact with any soldiers there? Did you meet with any of their leaders?


India requires a return plane ticket and proof of RMB 10,000 in the bank. Only one entry is allowed for a maximum of thirty days. The biggest headache is that the Indian embassy is so unreliable—this was extremely uncool—such that when you go back to the embassy at the specified time to pick up your passport, you keep getting the completely unapologetic response of “it's not ready, come back tomorrow.”


Nepal is the friendliest of all countries to China: visas are free and processed in two days. No line-ups outside the embassy, you can go straight in and fill out the forms. No proof of assets necessary.


Although travelers from our own brothers of Taiwan and Hong Kong are lovingly exempted visas for Schengen as well as European Union and many other countries, citizens of China, one of the five major permanent members of the UN Security Council, are unable to enjoy such treatment. When I went through four countries in Northern Europe, I had to bring proof of at least RMB 10,000 in savings at Bank of China, proof of employment and annual salary, my employer's company code and, among other things, a signed letter of guarantee from my leader or a legal representative as well as various proofs of assets, to get a visa from the Finnish embassy.


A visa to Laos costs RMB 130 and requirements are loose.


As was the situation in Qatar, as the largest transportation hub in Middle East, the visa I was given in Dubai, UAE, was not stamped into the passport.


Iran is the only country that requires women to wear head scarves going through Immigration, unless other countries in the Gulf have similar forced requirements.


Syria, another enemy of Israel, which is why until this passport expires, I don't dare head to the Israeli embassy for a visa.


Staff at the Jordanian embassy to China were quite rude, far more vile even than attitudes of some Chinese staff at any other embassy in China.


The Mongolian visa officer actually got my date of birth wrong the first time, after I noticed I had to go back and ask them to correct it.


Although Australia required the names of both parents from the past 20-40 years “written accurately” and fully investigated my ever last detail, in the end gave my a multiple entry one year visa. The second time I went, I was spared the humiliating ritual.


Although Japan keeps lowering its visa requirements, it's a dream still years in the future when Chinese will be able to go in or out as freely as their Taiwan or Hong Kong compatriots. And no wonder, ever tour group runs the risk of travelers escaping partway through; even a deposit of RMB 100,000 kept by the travel company hasn't stopped the flood of runners.


Bhutan, which has yet to establish diplomatic relations with China, naturally leaves no visa in the passport, instead just a stamp when pass through Immigration.


By the time of my third visa to Nepal, the era of free visas had long passed.


Bangladesh requires an invitation letter, and if that can't be provided the travel agent will arrange it for several times the cost. Some evil travel agents will raise the fees as high as up to four times the original cost!

How does all that that compare to your experiences traveling?

In a final note, Chen writes:


By now, everyone must have noticed that people one can ascertain the international standing and national power, image and reputation of a country through the process of applying for visas. I hope they hurry up and release that propaganda film which will “improve China's national image” so that the Yellow children of China don't have to put up with being treated like third-rate scum any longer (of course, those with money and power already have have their own other “citizenship”).


  • “Syria, another enemy of Israel, which is why until this passport expires, I don’t dare head to the Israeli embassy for a visa.”
    for Europeans is common trick to have more passports

  • John, great post.

    Interesting final point by the blogger: “By now, everyone must have noticed that people one can ascertain the international standing and national power, image and reputation of a country through the process of applying for visas.” I suppose it’s a reasonable reaction, even without a cultivated sensitivity over foreign humiliation.

    Thanks for sharing this.

    • Palash

      I think Indians do face the same thing often .. although I didn’t.
      But then chinese people are well known around the world for getting their roots deep into developed countries and never going back … by some means or the other.
      I do agree that Indians are also know to do the same .. but for Chinese .. the number of people trying this is way too high …

  • Han-Teng Liao


    You may forget there is one important factor when it comes to visa, in additional to the socio-economic status for screening.

    It is usually referred as “visa reciprocity”. The best example will be the finger-print taking procedures in Iran. It is said that only US citizens will have their finger-print taken (not by machines but by physical prints” because US requires finger-prints from everyone.

    The idea of “visa reciprocity” should not be mixed up with “discrimination” or “unequal treatment”.



  • Han-Teng Liao

    “Although travelers from our own brothers of Taiwan and Hong Kong are lovingly exempted visas for Schengen as well as European Union and many other countries, citizens of China, one of the five major permanent members of the UN Security Council, are unable to enjoy such treatment.”

    Not yet for Taiwanese. It is not true now. Taiwanese need to apply for Schegen visa, with all the documents required.

  • Maybe the countries in question don’t appreciate China’s stand on certain human rights issues? Though so many countries mentioned have significant problems in this area themselves.

  • Rachel Page

    I agree with you. Another great post that hits home with me. Thanks. Attorney San Antonio

  • Karen Patrick

    I’ve just gotten a China visa, also multi-entry 1 year, and had none of
    the difficulties you describe. I used VisaHQ, recommended by my
    consolidator. The online form was easy to use, I sent a copy of my
    itinerary with hotels but a simple format, previous visa approximate
    dates of visit, all very straightforward. filing bankruptcy

  • Jenna Major

    We got our Visas at the Chinese Consulate in NYC a year ago, no problems at all. We returned a week later, paid their fee and were given our passports with Visa inside. We didn’t attach a copy of an earlier China visa but included hotel names and dates for our upcoming trip . The form was not complicated at all. The commercial Visa companies’ agents stood in another line next to us, each one with huge stacks of passports to process. Sorry you had such a bad experience.

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