THE BLOG
04/19/2008 11:28 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Queue Up Now: China's Visa Nightmare

Hong Kong: lines of hundreds of people wrapped around China's visa office.

For more than a year foreigners have been joking about the Beijing government's attempt to teach its citizens to "queue" in time for the 2008 Olympics. But it seems China will get the last laugh on this topic. Anyone who wants to enter, return to China or renew their visa before the end of the Olympic Games is going to face a lot of queuing.

Regardless of the type of visa you have/want, if you currently reside in China and your visa expires before the end of the Olympics, you will have to go to Hong Kong.

As of April 3rd, the only visa that will allow foreigners in the country for more than 30 days is the "Z" (work) visa. The "L" visa for travelers, which used to be available for up to 90 days and the "F" business visa, which was once valid for up to 12-month period have both been reduced to 1 month...indefinitely.

Until quite recently one could obtain an "F" visa for 12 months. Then it was 6 months. Then 3. Now, 30 days.

What amounts to the end of the "F" business visa is something of a tragedy for foreigners working in China who for one reason or another could not get their hands on employment visas. These nifty documents allowed you to stay in the country without really proving exactly what you were doing here. The ambiguity inherent in the "F" visa made it a favorite for entrepreneurs developing "visa companies," which for a time, were delighted to pick up your passport and your money, whisk it all away and return a few days later with what may or may not have been a government-sanctioned visa.

Another other change that took place on April 3, is the definition of "rush" service. Prior to this Olympic-related crackdown, you could request rush service on your visa, pay a fee and return to the office that very same day to pick up your passport. Now, "rush" service is defined as approximately 24 hours. The visa office is open from 9am-12pm and 2pm-5pm. If you drop of your passport in the morning hours, you can pick up during the morning hours of the following business day. If you don't make it in until after lunch break, you pick up in the afternoon of the following day.

This new arrangement makes it virtually impossible to spend less than two nights in Hong Kong. Short of presenting a letter from Hu Jintao, no amount of tears, screaming, pleading or excuses will get anyone at the office to budge on this issue.

The third change that took place April 3rd is that visas for Americans are now substantially more expensive -- ranging anywhere from 600CNY (US$86) to 1300CNY (UD$186) depending on the type of visa.

It may be worth your time to snag an L or F visa from one of the many travel service offices scattered about Hong Kong. These places still offer same day service and you wont have to wait on a line. Expect to pay up to 2500CNY (US$360) for these advantages however.

The "Z" visa, the mother of all visas is really the only option for anyone looking to live in China. This territory comes with its own set of grievances, however. To obtain the illustrious "Z" you must be employed by a legitimate (registered) company, undergo a battery of medical tests -- including HIV --, prove that your were employed by two companies prior to your engagement in China with letters and be willing to make the trip to Hong Kong.

What is the purpose of all this? It's tough to say. Some believe that the newly installed Kafka-esque bureaucracy is to help keep track of the number of foreigners in the country during Olympic time. Others think China is just posturing for public appearances.

Whatever the reasoning, when you return to the visa office to pick up your passport and are told to wait in the same two-hour plus line as people making visa applications, you might be tempted to ask the guards, why? You might think, waiting in this line again doesn't make any sense and it's a big waste of time. You'd be correct on both counts.