So much time and effort has gone into my visa planning, particularly for Central Asia, that I’m surprised it’s finally time to start applying for them. Thankfully, the first two countries I am visiting—South Korea and Mongolia—give US citizens free visas on arrival. China isn’t quite so easy, and because I will pass through it on my way from Mongolia to Kyrgzstan and then again from Kyrgzstan to Tibet I need either a double entry visa or two single entry visas. Most countries issue 30-day single entry visas and anything else requires more money and information. I could certainly get a single entry visa here, at the Chinese consulate in Chicago, and then another visa somewhere in Central Asia. Technically, I could get my first Chinese visa in Mongolia, but all of these scenarios are risky. There’s the risk that the embassy won’t be open, the risk that I will have trouble applying (or even be denied) if I don’t speak enough Chinese or Russian and the risk that I won’t have enough US cash to pay. Ultimately, if I can get all of my Chinese visa needs met before I leave I will be better off.
I drove down to the consulate last Thursday to drop off my application. Because I am stubborn when it comes to parking, I drove around the River North area for 15 minutes looking for a meter. Somewhere in there I ended up back on the expressway through a combination of being in the wrong lane and one way street restrictions. After doubling back into the city I decided to bite the bullet and pay for the garage. The confusion was not over, as I wandered around Erie Street trying to find the embassy. I knew the office had moved a long time ago, and I thought that the last time I was there in 2004 I was at the new building. For 10 minutes I was walking back and forth on Erie looking for a two story building on the North side of the street when the actual office was in a high rise on the South side.
Finally, I arrived on the 5th floor and began my long wait behind 30 other applicants. The consulate is only open from 9-12 & 1-2:30 during the week. I arrived about 1:10 and made friends with the two Chinese born Americans behind me in line. They both had postage paid return envelopes for their passports, which I didn’t know was allowed. In my experience, visa application processes in most countries are vague at best. The questions on the applications aren’t always clear and the instructions on websites are purposely vague. The Chinese consulate’s website main visa information does not mention the mail back option and even goes as far as to say that I am not eligible for a double entry tourist visa:
To apply for a Multiple Entry (L) Visa, the applicant shall meet the following requirements:
(1) The applicant is the husband/wife, or son/daughter, or parent of a Chinese citizen, who shall submit proof of relationship, e.g. the original and the photocopy of a marriage certificate, a notary certificate of kinship etc., or an invitation letter from his/her family in China; or,
(2) The applicant owns real estate in China, who shall submit the original and a photocopy of the property ownership certificate.
Because I knew that it is possible to get a double entry tourist visa I went ahead and applied for one. I was more worried about entering in time for the visa to stay valid. Although you usually have to enter within 90 days, I certainly wouldn’t be able to enter twice within 90 days like it says below:
Usually, the validity of a Single Entry or Double Entry (L) visa is 90 days from the date of issue, which means the holder of the visa shall enter into China no later than 90 days from the date of issue once for Single Entry/ twice for Double Entry, otherwise the visa is expired and is null and void. The duration of stay of a (L) visa is 30 days, which means the holder of the visa may be stay in China for up to 30 days from the date of entry.
The Validity, Duration of Stay, and Number of Entries of the visa is issued at the discretion of the Consular Officers, whose decisions are based on the laws and regulations of China. The Consular Officers have the authority to refuse any visa applications inconsistent with Chinese laws and regulations, or revoke issued visas.
Standing in line, my new friends behind me suggested I apply for a 6 month, multiple entry visa instead. Consulting the posting on the walls we realized that single, double and multiple entry visas all give only 30 day durations of stay. Reading further we realized that, contrary to the consulate’s website, both single and double entry visas allow 180 days from date of issue to enter China. According to my loose schedule I will be re-entering China in early October. I stood in line counting months and trying to figure out if I would make the 180 day cut off. I was afraid I wouldn’t (I really can’t overstate how horrible I am at math) and asked the woman at the window when I made it to the front of the line around 2:15. She counted on her fingers and said that I would be fine. I hadn’t counted on my fingers (I try not to in public) so I defaulted to her math. She also saw on my application that I requested 45 days for each entry. The website and the signs in the consulate both stated I would only get 30 days, but since I was granted 60 days last time I thought I would try. She glanced at the long and varied list of cities I said I was visiting, asked “you want to stay a long time, yes?” and then told me she would give me 60 days. I was excited, assuming she meant 60 days each entry, and took my receipt. I don’t know how long I will stay in China, but I will be in some areas where it might be difficult to get extentions. Better safe than sorry is a great motto to travel by.
I waited until the last month before leaving to apply for the visa because I must enter China in a certain number of days. I also wanted to get my Chinese visa before my Uzbekistan visa because China isn’t so big on tourists visiting the Xinjiang Province–which is the area I will pass through to get to Uzbekistan. With the 4-day turnaround I should have that visa in my hand today. However, the Chinese consulate decided not only to close for May Day, but to close for the two following days as well. Those “holidays” are added to the processing time, so what should have been 4-day processing is now 7-days plus two weekends! I should still have just enough time to send my passport to the Uzbekistan embassy in D.C. before I leave.