How to get a Tourist Visa for China in Hong Kong (2019)
The regular way to get a visa for China is to apply at the embassy in your home country a few months in advance. But there’s a much easier way, especially if you’re already traveling: go to Hong Kong first! You can get your Chinese visa there within a matter of days. It’s easy and you don’t need an agency.
Table of Contents
- Why I Wrote This Guide
- Questions You May Have
- Step by Step: Getting a Chinese Visa in Hong Kong
- Was This Helpful to You?
Why I Wrote This Guide
I am currently traveling around the world long term. I am German, while my travel partner has a US passport. We didn’t apply for any visas in our home countries as our travel plans are constantly evolving. We knew (through word of mouth and some quick googling) that the easiest way to go to China is to go to Hong first, where you (probably) don’t need a visa.
I started researching how to get the China visa just before we headed to Hong Kong and, quite honestly, found the information out there disheartening: most websites (and people I talked to) said that we should pay a visa agency in Hong Kong and that we could only get 30-day visas, neither of which turned out to be true.
In the end, we figured out how to get 60-day visas without involving an agency, which saved us a lot of money and was just as fast. Even though the process might seem complicated at first, it’s actually pretty straight forward. Since most of the information on the web seems to be terribly outdated and incomplete, I decided to take the time to write this step-by-step guide.
A few important notes, before you keep reading:
The information in this post was originally researched in April 2018 and last updated in March 2019. Keep this in mind, as you’ll likely find other resources about this topic that are outdated (a lot of things changed recently). Obviously the same will be true about this very guide as it gets older—things can always change and what worked in 2018 may not work in 2020. (Feel free to leave a comment if you know of any changes.)
This guide doesn’t cover everything. I am not an expert on Chinese immigration politics. I’m simply recounting our experience as two travelers going to China for 5 weeks. Your specific circumstances (e.g. the purpose of your visit or your nationality) may differ, so you may have to do additional research. That being said, if you’re from the US or an EU-country and you plan to visit China for less than 60 days as a tourist, this guide should cover everything you need to know.
Questions You May Have
Do I need a visa for Hong Kong?
Probably not. “Nationals of about 170 countries and territories may visit Hong Kong without a visa, and can stay for periods varying from 7 days to 180 days depending on nationality.” (Source) But rules can always change, so make sure to double check if (and for how long) you can enter Hong Kong without a visa!
Should I use an agency to get my China visa?
You should not! (Unless money is no object, which it probably is, or the steps outlined in this guide seem too complicated, which they aren’t, I promise.)
I read a lot of “how to get a visa for China” guides online (like this one, this one and this one) and all of them say that unless you have a Hong Kong resident permit, you need to go through an agency (the most popular agencies being Forever Bright and CTS).
This used to be true, but as of January 2018 there is a well organized Chinese Visa Application Service Center run by The Commissioner's Office of China's Foreign Ministry. It’s modern and organized, has nice views, WiFi and friendly staff who speak English. Anyone can apply for a visa there.
Which China visa do I need?
To get the right visa, you need to be clear about three things in your application: Why you are going to China, how often you will enter the country and how long you want to stay. These things will be reflected on your visa as follows:
Category: The visa category depends on the purpose of your visit. If, like us, you’re going to China as a tourist, you will need an “L” visa. (This guide will be perfect for you.) If you’re going to China for work or study or any other reason, you’ll likely need different or additional documents than the ones outlined in this guide.
Entries: The number of entries determines how often you can enter China on the same visa. As a tourist, you will likely want to apply for Single Entry (if you plan on staying in mainland China the entire time) or Double Entry (if you’re planning to leave mainland China once and come back again). Keep in mind that Hong Kong and Macau are separate from China as far as immigration goes.
Duration of (Each) Stay: This is where things get a little confusing. The “Duration of Stay” determines how long you can stay in China once you’ve entered the country. For a tourist visa, the standard is 30 days. If you’re on a Single Entry visa, you will have to leave China within 30 days after entry. If you’re on a Double (or multiple) Entry visa, the Duration of Stay applies to each entry. This means that on a Double Entry visa you will still have to leave within 30 days after your first entry, but you can then re-enter and stay for another 30 days. (You can find answers to some of the specifics here.)
What if I want to stay for more than 30 days?
From what I just told you, it seems like it’s impossible to travel to China for more than 30 days without leaving the country at least once in between, right? I asked a lot of people and was told repeatedly, even by the staff at the Visa Center, that this is indeed the case: a tourist visa is 30 days, no matter what. Well, I’m here to tell you that it is possible (though not guaranteed!) to receive a longer Duration of Stay (60 or even 90 days).
If you are from the United States…
I’ve got some good news and some bad news for you. The bad news: Your visa will be much more expensive than it is for any other nationality. The good news: you can apply for a 10-year multiple entry visa that allows you to go back to China as often as you want for 10 years. Unlike the standard tourist visa, a “Duration of Each Stay” of 60 days is no problem at all. The 10-year visa is the exact same price as a regular Single Entry visa if you’re from the U.S., so you should definitely apply for it, even if you don’t plan on using it again! (Just write “10-year multiple entry” in the “Other” field of section 2.2 of the application form.)
Both of us initially requested 35 days in our application, because that’s exactly how long we wanted to stay in mainland China. In her case (US passport, applying for the 10-year multiple entry visa), the employee at the Visa Center replaced the 35 with a 60 during our submission—no problem for Americans.
For me (German passport, applying for a regular Single Entry tourist visa), however, the employee crossed out “35”, replaced it with a “30” and asked me to sign for the change. I asked if there was any way to get a duration of 60 days and he said “no”—I would have to extend my visa by another 30 days about a week before the first one would expire. There are lengthy discussions on the web about how and where a visa extension can be done. I accepted my fate and signed. But four days later, when we picked up our passports, my visa actually had a “Duration of Stay” of 60 days. Hurray!
I don’t think that it was just a random case of luck. There are multiple reports of other people receiving 60- or 90-day visas without a problem. So here’s my recommendation: If you want to stay in China for more than 30 days without exiting the country in between, make sure to make those plans crystal-clear in your application (see my step-by-step guide below)! Your itinerary, your bookings, your onward ticket—all of it should reflect that you intend to stay for more than a month (put the exact number of days on your itinerary, too). Everyone will tell you that it’s not possible and you might not even be allowed to put “60 days” in your application.
But, as pointed out in the paperwork, “the final assessment of your visa application is carried out by the Commissioner’s Office.” On one hand, this means that your application could be rejected for any reason. But it also means that if you’ve prepared everything perfectly and the person approving your application isn’t having a bad day, they can absolutely give you more than 30 days. Worst case, if it doesn’t work out and you only get 30 days, you’ll just have to get that extension later on. (But obviously don’t overstay.)
Update (September 2018 & March 2019):
Two seperate readers have reported in the comments below that they tried to apply for a 60-day visa and came fully prepared as described here, but were not even allowed to hand in any bookings that exceeded the 30-day timeframe. They were told that the only way to apply for a 60-day visa would be via the embassy in their home country.
Me receiving the 60-day visa might have had to do with the fact that I was traveling with someone from the US. (Americans can officially apply for 60-day visas.) If you require a Duration of Stay of 60 days, I would now recommend planning ahead and applying from your home country! If it's too late for that, you can still give it a try, but be aware that you might have to opt for a double-entry visa instead and then leave and re-enter China within the first 30 days.
How much does the China visa cost?
It depends on a variety of factors: the number of entries, your nationality (because of reciprocity fees and bilateral agreements) and how quickly you need it (within 4, 3 or 2 days). There is also a service fee that will be added to actual visa fee. The Visa Center has a comprehensive price list that seems to be up to date (prices do not include the service fee, but this PDF has an overview of prices including the service fee). It’s not cheap, but cheaper than going through an agency.
How long does it take to get the visa?
The regular service takes 4 working days (working days are Monday trough Friday), including the day you apply and the day you pick up the visa. In our case, we applied on a Friday morning and were asked to pick up our visas the following Wednesday (Fri, Mon, Tue, Wed = 4 days). The Visa Center offers “Express” and “Rush” Service (3 and 2 working days respectively), but you’ll have to pay extra and with so many things to do and see in Hong Kong, why would you want to rush it?
Update (March 2019):
Keep in mind that under certain circumstances, the process might take longer. A reader reported in the comments that he was summoned for a personal interview a day before his pick-up date (due to his travel history in Central Asia) and that the duration reset then, so he had to wait another 4 working days until his visa was ready.
Step by Step: Getting a Chinese Visa in Hong Kong
Step 1: Plan your trip
This is key. The person processing your application wants to get a clear picture of why you’re coming to China and what exactly you’ll be doing. A detailed itinerary including corresponding bookings and tickets will significantly increase your chances of receiving the visa you want. Don’t worry if you’re the spontaneous type: it’s perfectly okay to change your entire plan after you’ve already received your visa. Also, if you’re planning to go to Tibet or any other region that might raise eyebrows, it’s probably best to leave those out for now.
Here’s what you’ll need:
You’ll want to make hotel bookings for your entire stay in China. (Edit: As reader Dan pointed out in the comments below, this is the easiest way to get a tourist visa, even if you have friends in China who could write an invitation letter for you!) You need a printed copy of each booking confirmation (make sure they include your name).
The easiest way to do this is through Booking.com. I have a lot of grievances with this company (worst customer service in the world), but I still do recommend them, for the following reasons:
Almost all hotels in China (and most guesthouses and hostels) are listed there
They usually have the cheapest price (and they price match if not)
and most importantly
Most bookings are fully refundable, so you can cancel any or all of your bookings easily and for free if your plans change.
If you don’t have an account there yet, join Booking.com through this link and you’ll get 25 USD (or 15 EUR) in travel credit.
Return- or onward-ticket
You’ll need to prove your planned exit from China. The easiest way to do this is to book a plane ticket. If you don’t want to commit to a flight yet, you could either try to book a refundable flight (most major U.S. airlines let you cancel tickets for free within 24 hours of booking) or create an itinerary that includes another believable and legitimate exit (e.g. a ferry to South Korea or the subway from Shenzhen to Hong Kong).
Entry-ticket (Update February 2019)
A reader of this article reported in the comments that they were also asked to provide an entry-ticket (plane or train) into China. We took the ferry to Shenzhen and were not required to purchase or show a ticket in advance, but be aware that this might be a requirement now.
How to Book Trains in China
While you don’t need an agency for your China visa, I do recommend using one when it comes to booking train tickets. We used China DIY Travel (as have hundreds of other travelers) and we were glad we did. For a fee of 10 USD per ticket, China DIY Travel makes an otherwise very complicated process easy: You tell them when and where you want to go, they communicate back and forth with you via email until everything looks perfect (they will even suggest better routes or cheaper trains) and then they book the tickets for you and send them via email. You can use the coupon code MANUEL when you book to save 5 USD off each ticket.
Transportation within China
From what I’ve heard, hotel bookings and an onward-ticket should suffice for the purpose of getting a tourist visa. However, if you’re able to support your itinerary with transportation tickets, this will certainly add some credibility to your plan.
We had already decided to travel by train, as the Chinese train system is really good. Train tickets do get sold out, so we booked all of our tickets in advance and included them in our application, which earned us compliments from the employee at the Visa Center.
Once you’ve booked all of your hotels, your onward ticket and your transportation within China, it’s time to summarize it all in a written itinerary. The goal is to make it really easy for the person approving your visa application to understand your plans without having to sift through all of your bookings and tickets. I simply created a table with all of our destinations (including hotel names), the trains we planned to take between cities and our onward-flight. You can download my document as a starting point here:
Step 2: Prepare your documents
Here’s the checklist of everything you’ll need to bring with you to the Visa Application Service Center in Hong Kong:
The Visa Application Form (actually, you don’t need to bring it, more on that below)
Your original passport + 1 photocopy (I recommend making at least 2 or 3 photocopies, more on that below)
Your original Hong Kong visa + 1 photocopy (the little landing slip you got upon entering Hong Kong)
1 passport photo (you can take it at the Visa Center, more on that below)
Your printed hotel booking confirmations
Your printed entry- & return- or onward-tickets (entering and exiting Mainland China)
Your printed transportation tickets within China (trains, flights, busses) if you have them
Your printed itinerary
For extra credit, consider bringing a record of your financial situation (just print out your online banking overview). This might be required if you have an “empty” passport, and it won’t hurt either way. It shows that you’ll be able to afford your stay and your return home.
A few additional notes about these documents:
The Visa Application Form
You don’t actually need to bring it, as there are plenty of forms available at the Visa Center. There are tables and pens for you to use. However, if you want get in and out as fast as possible (and beat the crowds), you can download the form here, print it (double-sided) and fill it out in advance. (Note that as of the time of writing, “Form V.2013” was the most current form.)
Photocopies and printouts
You can make photocopies and print documents (via email, no USB) at the Visa Center for 2 HKD (0.26 USD) per copy. Photocopies can only be paid for using an Octopus Card. This is a good backup option if you forgot anything, but if you have some time the day before, just search for “print shop” or “copy shop” on Google Maps and save yourself some money. We went to this little shop and only paid 0.20 HKD (0.03 USD) per copy. All copies and printouts can be in black and white, no need for color.
We had brought several different passport photos with us, but they were all rejected for different reasons (wrong size, not current enough, not glossy enough…). Wearing earrings will also disqualify your photos. If you happen to have any passport photos, just bring them and try. Otherwise, the Visa Center conveniently has a photo machine. You’ll get 6 photos for 50 HKD (6.40 USD). Those will definitely be accepted. Note that you can only pay in cash and no change is given, so bring a 50 HKD bill.
If you’re traveling as a group or couple, your hotel bookings will probably just have one name on them: the name of the person who made the bookings (“the booker”). Regardless, each person should print all of the confirmations individually (as well as the itinerary and all other documents), as the applications won’t necessarily be processed together. The Visa Center will provide you with an additional form on which the booker signs for the fact that the other people are staying in the same hotels. The booker will then also need to attach a copy of his or her passport, so make extra copies if you booked hotels for anyone else besides yourself!
Apart from the photocopy that the Visa Center needs and the extra copies for anyone sharing hotel bookings with you, you may also want to make an extra copy of your passport (and Hong Kong visa) for yourself, as the originals will remain with the Visa Center until you pick up your visa.
Step 3: Go to the Visa Center
The Chinese Visa Application Service Center is located on the 20th floor of the AXA Centre, 151 Gloucester Road, Wanchai, Hong Kong (Google Maps). This is the correct address as of January 2018, so if you see a different location on the web, it’s probably outdated. Here’s the official website where you can double check.
You might encounter a representative of one of the visa agencies mentioned above in front of the building, handing out flyers and trying to lure you away, thus proving my point that their services aren’t really needed anymore.
The Visa Center is open Monday through Friday (except on public holidays) between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. It gets busy quickly. You can try to beat the crowds by going early and prepared. Optionally, you can also make an appointment online in advance. The Visa Center has plenty of seating, a nice view and free wifi. If all you have is the documents from Step 1 in your email or Dropbox, you can still print and prepare everything at the center.
Once you’re there, the entire process is pretty straight forward. I’m going to explain it in detail now because I’m the kind of person who likes knowing things in advance (except in movies) but you can basically stop reading here. The Visa Center is well organized and the staff are friendly and helpful.
First, you’ll want to finish any of the prep-work you haven’t done yet (filling out the application form, getting photocopies or printouts, taking passport photos). There is no need to queue for this, just walk into the center and do what you need to do!
Once you’ve got all of your documents in order, go to the main counter, which is right by the elevator. (You’ll likely have to wait in line.) Someone will quickly look through your documents and tell you if you’re missing anything (“pre-check”). If you’re a couple or group and your hotel bookings only have one name on them, they’ll give you an extra form to fill out.
Next, you’ll go to the “Check-in Counter”, which is a desk just a few steps away from the big entrance-counter. Someone will scan your passport and hand you a queue number. Have a seat and wait for your number to appear on one of the screens.
Once your number is called, you’ll go to your designated counter, which is where the real action happens. An employee will carefully look through your entire application, your passport and your documents. They will possibly ask you additional questions and make notes or adjustments. If you are missing anything (like a specific booking or the correct passport photos), you will likely be allowed to fix those things and come back without having to queue again. Here are a few things that came up for us:
Our passport photos weren’t accepted so we had to get new ones at the photo machine.
Since we’re on a world trip, we have quite a collection of entry-stamps in our passports. Only one of them raised eyebrows: Turkey. We were asked to explain why we had gone there, how long we had stayed and to provide the names and addresses of our hotels. I asked for the reason behind this questioning and the answer was “because Turkey is in the Middle East”. He also asked us to provide a phone number (we gave him our email instead, since we didn’t have local service), in case the person processing the visa had any questions about all that.
As mentioned above, I was not allowed to apply for a Duration of Stay of more than 30 days, but ended up receiving 60 days anyway.
Finally, you’ll go to the payment counter and pay all fees (cash in Hong Kong Dollars). You’ll receive a pickup form stating the expected collection date (3 working days later for regular service).
Enjoy Hong Kong while you wait.
Go back to the Visa Center on your collection date to pick up your passport with your China visa. The window for pick-ups is from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Your visa should have a validity of 90 days, so you need to enter mainland China within three months or your visa will expire. Safe travels!
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Let me know in the comments below how things worked out for you and if there’s anything that has changed! Please note that I don't have the capacity or qualification to respond to individual questions about the visa process.