Getting a Visa for China, Not so Fun as You May Imagine

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China, Thailand and Laos visa

Unwelcome Surprise

“That’s the old form” the clerk said.

“But I got it off your website”, I protested.

“No, that form is not on our website”.

I stood there slightly flummoxed for a second. I was not quite sure what the clerk was telling me. Did she think i had forged the form? Was she saying that I had perhaps purposely brought in the wrong form? My eloquent response was to hold the form somewhat more prominently and say emphatically, “Yes, it is”.

She was resolute. I would need to fill out the new (and longer) form.

To be fair, although I had gotten this form from the website of the Chinese Consulate where I was standing, I knew that I had gotten it by doing a Google search for “Chinese visa”. My wife had looked for the form for some time and had not found it so a variety of thoughts were assailing my brain.

  • I have just traveled for a couple of hours and waited here for a couple of hours for my number to be served and now I will not get a visa and will not be able to go to China.
  • I wonder if someone did forget to take down the old visa form off the website.
  • My wife, who said I should use a visa service, will definitely say “I told you so”.
  • I have my son’s and my wife’s forms with their signatures. How will I get them to sign the new form?
  • I wonder what other countries would be nice to visit this October?

I was apparently not the first person to arrive with the wrong form. The clerk assured me that I could fill out the new form and she would attach the signature page of the older form. All hope was not lost. Another half hour to fill out the form, another half hour wait in line and my forms were all submitted. I thanked the clerk and made plans to return to San Francisco later in the week to pick up my forms. Like this visit the next would have to be in the middle of the day since I was both arriving by train and trying to arrive before the consulate doors closed at 2:30 PM.

More Surprises

My visas were scheduled to be ready on Thursday but I put off my return trip until Friday when I wanted to be in the city. I had made plans to meet up with a former guest on the Amateur Traveler and then meet my wife in the city for a weekend away. That, it turns out, was where my problem started for my second visit. Since I was going to do a walking tour of the city I had packed my SLR camera in my backpack. When I went to clear the security check I was told that cameras were not allowed.

As it turns out, that is not exactly the rule as it is enforced. What is really not allowed is something that looks like a camera. I was allowed in with my cell phone which everyone knows has a camera as were many of the people in the consulate. I was allowed in with a laptop which has a video camera. I was allowed in on the previous occasion with a Flip Video camera. But what I was not allowed in with was this “camera”. I tried to reason with the guard that I was certainly not the only person with a camera. I tried to see if I could leave the camera in my bag. I tried to see if I could leave the camera at security. The guard did not make the rules but he certainly was planning on enforcing them. I could not enter.

Fortunately I had reserved a hotel room for the night so I jumped back on a cross-town bus back to Union Square. I was able to check in early and dropped my whole backpack off in the room “just to be safe”. So much for getting more work done as I waited. I jumped back on a bus and returned to the consulate.

I discovered that when I left my backpack behind I also left my receipt that I needed to pick up the visas. I got on the line of roughly 80 people waiting to pick up their visas and one kind soul told me that if you lose your receipt there is a form you can get from the information desk. I picked up the form and filled it out. I had to attach a copy of my driver’s license but there were copy machines there (also you can get your picture taken for your visa at the office). I returned to the line and waited my turn to get to the pick-up window… where I learned for the first time that I was supposed to return my “I am a stupid tourist who lost my form” form to the information desk. One more trip to that desk and then back to the head of the line to get my visa.

Except this is not the line to get your visas, per say. This is the window at which you find out which of two other windows you need to queue up for to get your visas. So the clerk found my visas (my first real evidence that we were in fact going to be let into China), verified that one of the pictures looked like me in the set of 3 passports and then handed me a ticket that said I should go to window 1 to pay for my visas.

I waited on line for the clerk at window 1 where the clerk found my visa in a shorter stack, verified that one of the pictures looked like me in the set of 3 passports, took my credit card and handed me back 3 passports with the visas in them.

There are agencies who stay in business because they can get your visa for you. You fill in the form, pay them and send them your passport. They work the system and your passport return with the visa. This is what I used on my last visit to China. I have a renewed sense of the value of such a service.

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Chris Christensen

by Chris Christensen

Chris Christensen is the creator of the Amateur Traveler blog and podcast. He has been a travel creator since 2005 and has won awards including being named the "Best Independent Travel Journalist" by Travel+Leisure Magazine.

3 Responses to “Getting a Visa for China, Not so Fun as You May Imagine”



Gotta love that red tape. Bureaucracies do it oh so well….

Karl Anders


I empathize with your experience. So typical of the gross inefficiency of Big Government. I certainly can understand why a country might feel the need for a visa process, but it would be most pleasant if it were at least an efficient process.

Enjoy the trip, Chris!



The thing I feel you need to keep in mind when going through these headaches is what people in that country would have to do to come to your country. If you think about this you should feel lucky on how simple it is for us to travel. I try to remind my self of this when ever I feel flustrated with the red tape to go somewhere.

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