Visitors must have a valid passport with at least 6 months' validity from time of entry into the country, and two blank pages remaining (you may get away with just one blank page).
All visitors to mainland China (as opposed to Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macau) must acquire a visa in advance. Visa applications typically take 3 to 5 working days to process, although this can be shortened to as little as 1 day if you apply in person and pay extra fees. "L" (tourist) visas are valid for between 1 and 3 months. Usually 1 month is granted unless you request more, which you may or may not get according to events in China at the time. Double-entry tourist visas are also available. It varies, but typically your visit must begin within 90 days of the date of issue.
You should apply for a visa in person at your nearest consulate, although it's possible to obtain Chinese visas in other countries while you're on an extended trip. To apply for a visa, you must complete an application form, which can be downloaded from many consular websites or acquired by mail. Visas are valid for the whole country, although some small areas require an extra permit from the local police. Temporary restrictions, sometimes for years at a time, may be placed on areas where there is unrest, and a further permit may be required to enter them. This is currently the case with Tibet, where travelers are required to book a tour with guide and driver to secure a permit. In general, do not mention Tibet or Xinjiang on your visa application, or it may be turned down flat.
Some consulates request that you show them an airline ticket, an itinerary, or proof of sufficient funds, or they claim to issue visas only to those traveling in groups (while happily carrying on business with individuals who have none of the supporting documentation). Such guidelines provide consulates with a face-saving excuse for refusing a visa should there be unrest or political difficulties, or should Tibet or Xinjiang appear on the application.
Children must have their own passport and visa.
A complete list of all Chinese embassies and consulates, including addresses and contact information, can be found at the Chinese foreign ministry's website: www.fmprc.gov.cn/eng (or various mirror sites around the world). Click on "Missions Overseas." Many consulates (including all those in the U.S. and Canada) will accept applications only in person; applications by post or courier must go through an agent, who will charge additional fees. Contacting some embassies can be very difficult: Many telephone systems are automated, and reaching a human can be next to impossible; faxes and e-mails usually don't receive a reply; and websites are often out-of-date.
What follows are visa fees and requirements for some countries:
- Australia: Single-entry visas are A$40; double-entry, A$60. Add A$50 per package dealt with by mail or courier, and a prepaid return envelope. Visit http://au.china-embassy.org/eng for an application. The Chinese Embassy Canberra is at 15 Coronation Dr., Yarralumla, ACT 2600 (tel. 02/6273-4780).
- Canada: Single-entry visas are C$50; double-entry, C$75. Visit www.chinaembassycanada.org for an application form. Applications must be delivered and collected by hand, or sent via a visa agency. The Chinese Embassy in Canada is at 515 St. Patrick St., Ottawa, Ontario (tel. 613/789-3434).
- New Zealand: Single-entry visas are NZ$140; double-entry, NZ$210. Add NZ$15 per package dealt with by mail or courier, and a prepaid return envelope. Visit www.chinaembassy.org.nz or www.chinaconsulate.org.nz for an application. The Chinese Embassy in New Zealand is at 2-6 Glenmore St., Wellington (tel. 644/472-1382).
- United Kingdom: Single-entry visas are £30; double-entry, £45. There's a supplementary charge of £35 for each package dealt with by mail. Visit www.chinese-embassy.org.uk for an application or call the Chinese Visa Application Center (tel. 0207/842-0960).
- United States: Single-, double-, and multiple-entry visas are US$130. Visit www.china-embassy.org, which has links to all U.S. consular sites and a downloadable application form. Applications must be delivered and collected by hand, or sent via a visa agency. The Chinese Embassy can be reached at tel. 202/328-2500.
Note: The visa fees quoted above for each country are the current rates for nationals of that country, and can change at any time. In addition to the visa fees quoted, there may be supplementary fees for postage. Payment must always be in cash or by money order.
Visa Extensions -- Single-entry tourist visas may be extended twice for a maximum of 30 days each time at the PSB Exit/Entry Division offices in most cities. The office in Beijing (tel. 010/8402-0101) is on the south side of the eastern North Second Ring Road, just east of the Lama Temple metro stop (Mon-Sat 8:30am-4:30pm). You will also need your Registration Form of Temporary Residence (your hotel should have a copy) and a certificate of deposit issued by a Chinese bank (ICBC, Bank of China, and so on) proving you have at least US$100 per day for the duration of your stay; for example, if you are requesting a 30-day extension, you need to show US$3,000 in a certificate of deposit. Applications take 5 working days to process. Bring your passport and two passport photos (these can be taken at the office for ¥30). Extension fees vary by nationality: Australians and Canadians pay ¥160, U.K. citizens ¥469, and U.S. citizens ¥940.
Getting a Visa in Hong Kong -- Nationals of most developed nations do not require a visa to enter Hong Kong, and visas for mainland China are more easily obtainable there than anywhere else.
The cheapest tourist visas are available at the Visa Office of the PRC, 7th Floor, Lower Block, China Resources Building, 26 Harbour Rd., Wanchai (tel. 852/3413-2424; www.fmcoprc.gov.hk; Mon-Fri 9am-noon and 2-5pm). Here a single-entry tourist visa costs HK$210 for Australians and Canadians, HK$500 for citizens of the U.K., and HK$1,080 for U.S. citizens. Same-day service costs at least double. For urgent departures, or 6-month "F" (fangwen) visas, go to Grand Profit International Travel Agency, 705AA, 7th Floor, New East Ocean Centre, 9 Science Museum Rd., Tsimshatsui (about a 15-min. walk east of Nathan Rd.; tel. 852/2723-3288).
What You Can Bring into China -- In general terms, you can bring anything into China for personal use that you plan to take back with you, with the usual exceptions of arms and drugs, or plant materials, animals, and foods from diseased areas. There are no problems with cameras or video recorders, GPS equipment, laptops, or any other standard electronic equipment. Two unusual prohibitions are "old/used garments" and "printed matter, magnetic media, films, or photographs which are deemed to be detrimental to the political, economic, cultural, and moral interests of China," as the regulations put it. Large quantities of religious literature, overtly political materials, or books on Tibet might cause you difficulties but, in general, small amounts of personal reading matter in non-Chinese languages do not present problems. Customs officers are for the most part easygoing, and foreign visitors are rarely searched. Customs declaration forms have now vanished from all major points of entry, but if you are importing more than US$5,000 in cash, you should declare it, or theoretically you could face difficulties at the time of departure -- although, again, this is highly unlikely.
What You Can Take Home from China -- An official seal must be attached to any item created between 1795 and 1949 that is taken out of China; older items cannot be exported. But, in fact, you are highly unlikely to find any genuine antiques, so this is moot (however, a genuine antiques dealer would know how to obtain the seal).
For information on what you're allowed to bring home, contact one of the following agencies:
Australian Citizens: Australian Customs Service at tel. 1300/363-263, or log on to www.customs.gov.au.
Canadian Citizens: Canada Border Services Agency (tel. 800/461-9999 in Canada, or 204/983-3500; www.cbsa-asfc.gc.ca).
New Zealand Citizens: New Zealand Customs, The Customhouse, 17-21 Whitmore St., Box 2218, Wellington (tel. 04/473-6099 or 0800/428-786; www.customs.govt.nz).
U.K. Citizens: HM Customs & Excise at tel. 0845/010-9000 (from outside the U.K., 020/8929-0152), or consult their website at www.hmce.gov.uk.
U.S. Citizens: U.S. Customs & Border Protection (CBP; tel. 877/287-8667; www.cbp.gov).
Unless you're arriving from an area known to be suffering from an epidemic (particularly cholera or yellow fever), inoculations or vaccinations are not required for entry into Beijing. In the recent past, China has been known to go overboard in its reaction to media-fanned epidemics and pandemics. In mid-2009, the H1N1 flu pandemic caused headaches for many Beijing travelers. At China's international airports, quarantine officials targeted aircraft from countries where the virus had been detected (including the United States and Canada). Disembarking passengers had their temperatures measured and filled in questionnaires disclosing where they were staying and how they could be contacted. Some travelers found themselves immediately quarantined after showing signs of the virus; others were allowed to leave the airport only to be quarantined later (after health officials tracked them down at hotels or private residences) because they sat too close to another passenger with a fever or other flu symptoms.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.