The difficulty of getting a visa for China is an interesting window into the government’s attitude towards the influx of foreigners into China. Generally speaking, over the past decade getting a visa has gone from a joke in the early to mid 2000s to a pretty difficult process today. While there may be plenty of reasons for this (economic, political etc.) this article wants to solely describe how getting a visa for China has changed over the years.
Only way is up
The early 2000s until the Olympics
This was the best time to get a visa for China and also to be living in China in general. Life was still cheap both in absolute pricing terms and considering the strength or weakness of the RMB. Helping matters was that you could just hop over to Hong Kong, get a 1 year multiple entry F visa for 3000 RMB and live in peace and happiness for a whole year. This was actually the main visa strategy for most China dwellers who were not employed by multinational corporations (our beloved expats), married to a Chinese national or students at university. Hong Kong being an awesome place to visit also seemed to make things come together well as doing a visa run was more of a holiday than a chore. Even those applying for tourist visas could get them with several entries and up to 180 days valid so, yeah, getting a long term China visa was easy.
The Olympics 2008
The Chinese government really went nuts in the run up and during the Olympics. They reduced lengths of tourist visas to 15 days (usually 30-90, sometimes even 180) and asked for all kinds of crazy documentation to get the visa issued, like tickets to the Olympics. For normal folk just wanting to visit China (and not really caring about the Olympics) this basically made the Middle Kingdom a no-go zone for the second half of 2008. Although these restrictions were quickly loosened after a successful Olympic showing, they never went back to the way they were.
A dream for China, a nightmare for visa applicants
The visa regulations of today are much stricter enforced than they used to be. Apparently, the rules concerning visa used to be just that, a set of rules. But by now they have been made into law, governing more closely the coming and going of foreigners. Also, many Chinese embassies now feature go-betweens who pre-screen applications against a fee. While it used to be that one would just go to the embassy in person, make a nice impression and get a visa, nowadays the people accepting your application are not those making the decision. So, although the whole process has been professionalized a lot, it is now much more of a pain for many applicants. Fees charged by those agencies are different from country to country but still are an additional for anyone compared to what it used to be. Also, if you do not get your visa you still have to pay that fee while this was not the case with the direct submissions to the embassy. Also, there is no way to go to the embassy directly – unless you are very well connected, of course – so these agents more or less have a monopoly on the whole visa process. Someone is making a nice buck here.
In conclusion, while those who have experienced the 2000s will often think back in agony, it is understandable that the Chinese government felt the need to clean up its visa act. The thee groups mentioned above (expats, students and spouses) are still very welcome in China. However, if you do not fall into one of these categories but still want to stay in China long term (girlfriend/boyfriend, entrepreneur etc.) you will have to deal with visa issues every 30, 90 or 180 days depending on the days after each entry.