One of the biggest pains when planning a trip abroad can be applying and waiting for a visa. Often times, I've found consulate websites are difficult to navigate, and contain an overkill of information. When I visited China this Winter, the visa process was as frustrating as ever.
That's why I'm going to try and simplify things.
As a U.S. citizen traveling to China for tourism, you're eligible for a 10-year, multiple-entry visa. Each entry is good for 60 days - meaning if you plan to stay longer than two months, you'll need to periodically exit the country and re-enter. The easiest way to do this is either to fly to a nearby country like South Korea or Japan, or cross into an area like Hong Kong or Macau.
How to apply
The first step is to determine whether or not you live in an area with a Chinese embassy or consulate-general. You can determine that by looking at this map. As a resident of Seattle, the closest consulate office to me is in San Francisco.
Why does it matter where you live?
Visas are processed at embassies and consulate-generals, and require your passport to be present. Therefore, if you don't live in one of these areas, you'll need to go through a third-party visa service that can deliver and return your passport for you. The only catch is it comes at a little extra cost.
To find a third-party visa company, try googling 'visa services' along with city and state you live in. Then, I suggest either calling or emailing them and asking if they provide visas to U.S. citizens interested in traveling to China.
If they do, request additional information on materials needed, fees required, and the deadline to apply.
Materials you'll need to collect
The company I went through is called Visa Services Northwest. After I called and spoke with a representative, they emailed me a list of materials I'd need to gather, along with a couple of documents to fill out.
Original passport with at least 6 months remaining validity
1 recent passport photo (2x2 front face with white background)
Application Form-2013 typed in all capital letters (form was attached to me in an email)
Copy of driver's license
Flight itinerary (specifically for tourist visas)
* For minors traveling with parents, a copy of your birth certificate is needed. If traveling without parents, you'll have to provide a letter from your parents which grants you permission to travel, a copy of your birth certificate, and a copy of your parent's passport or ID.
Once you have all of your materials together, head into the visa company's office, embassy, or consulate-general and let them take it from there.
As I mentioned earlier, going through a third-party visa service comes at a cost. I ended up having to pay $270 - an extra $100 more than I would've paid if I lived in San Francisco. However, as a student in the Seattle area, a trip South was out of the question. The flight alone is more than $100, not to mention finding a place to stay, and transport to and from the consulate-general.
Expect to pay even more too if you're running low on time. At Visa Services Northwest, a 3-day rush fee is an additional $120... ouch!
What I will say though, is even if it seems like a lot of money right now, keep in mind you're paying for a visa which will continue to grant you access to China for the next TEN YEARS.
After I submitted my paperwork, it took 10 days of processing time to get my passport back with a visa inside. This could vary though based on your location, and company you go through. To stay ahead of schedule, I recommend getting started with the process at least a month in advance of your trip; ideally two.
If you live in an area with an embassy or consulate-general, you may be able to do same-day processing and collect your visa right away. If not, it should be ready within a few days.
Planning a trip to China?
Let me know in the comments below!