Many travelers that I meet in South East Asia believe that travelling in China is difficult. This seems to be for two main reasons; firstly, the visa can seem difficult to obtain and secondly, the language barrier.
So, compared to other visas I have obtained, the Chinese one is one of the more diffcult visas to get. However, it is not as hard as it seems when you first start to look into it.
I travel on a UK passport, and the first Chinese visa I got was from the UK office. I was short of time, so I got used an agency and the express service. In total, it cost me a whopping £190!!!!
Since then, I have obtained both my subsequent visas from the embassy in Chiang Mai (notoriously the easiest place to get it in South East Asia). The first one was a double entry 30 day tourist visa which cost me 1600 baht (about £35), and the second one, which I got just last week, is a single entry 30 day tourist visa and cost me 1100 baht (£25). The standard service takes just 4 days, so if you give your passport in on Monday, you have it back by Thursday, which is pretty amazing! If you are travelling for sometime then I recommend getting your visa from somewhere on the way as it will probably be cheaper!
To obtain a 30 day tourist visa, single or double entry, you need to provide details of your travel into and out of the country. For most people this is a flight schedule or booking, however, if, like me, you don’t want to fly, you can provide details of overland travel. Real Russia is a useful website for preliminary booking of trains (without paying for them) from Moscow/Ulan Bator to Beijing and 12 Go Asia can be used to book tickets from Hanoi to Nanning. Emails confirming the booking (before you pay) should be adequate for your visa.
You will also need to provide an itinerary with supporting evidence that hotels in those places are booked. Do you want my recommendation? If you do not want to be tied to a specific plan, book just one place for the whole time you are there with a hotel that does not charge a deposit or provides free cancellation (there are many of these hotels and hostels on booking.com for example). If you are applying for double entry you will have to show this for a second time in China, otherwise they might only give you a single entry. You can explain in writing as part of the application that you will leave China to visit Hong Kong for a short time, before returning to China. If this is the case you can usually simply write that you will get the train to Shenzhen and cross the border on foot and this should suffice.
Other than that, you simply need a photocopy of your passport photo page and any previous Chinese visas, a passport sized photo and a completed visa application form. It’s not that hard!! 🙂
It is also possible to “extend” your visa in China. However, this is actually a completely new visa, issued for 30 days from within China. As you can only hold one visa at a time, it will override your existing visa. Therefore, extensions can only be done on the second/last entry of a double/multiple entry visa and must be done close to the time it expires to get the maximum benefit. In order to extend a visa you must first register with your hotel and at the local police station. It is generally not recommended to extend your visa as this can cause future problems with acquiring new visas. However, plenty of people do it and are able to get new visas without any issue.
The Language Barrier
Outside of the main tourist hotspots, it’s true, there are not that many people who speak English, and even if there are, there are so many more who don’t that you may not meet them anyway!
However, there are a few simple tricks that make travelling in China a lot easier.
Firstly, download Pleco. It is an amazing Chinese/English dictionary that will help you a lot. Whilst it is not able to translate English sentences into Chinese, you can draw a sentence of Chinese characters and it will give you the meaning of each. This is very helpful when you are trying to read Chinese signs.
Secondly, if you are going somewhere by train or public transport, write down the characters for your destination. For example, if I am going to Guilin, I would write 桂林. This helps no end, because even if you cannot pronounce it properly, showing people the characters means they will immediately be able to help you. And people are generally very helpful if you look lost and approach them with a smile! 🙂