After spending a year within Mainland China on a twice-extended business visa, I was recently informed that I had to leave the country. There was no way around it — the only option is to leave and re-enter on an entirely new visa.
For most people, and for me, this means a run to Hong Kong to process a new visa. Now that my trip to Hong Kong is complete, I’ll share what I’ve gone through on this latest trip and how the process has changed over the years.
The Changing Tide of Bureaucracy
Although Chinese visa conditions are always changing, one thing seems to remain constant: Hong Kong is the go-to place for foreigners who need to process a visa outside of the country. From most cities in China, a trip to Hong Kong is cheaper and generally more agreeable than Thailand, Vietnam, or other bordering countries for a number of reasons.
Why go to Hong Kong for a Visa
- Hong Kong is very accessible. Most choose to fly to Shenzhen (an hour outside Hong Kong) or Guangzhou (about two hours from Hong Kong) since these destinations are often cost half as much as flying into Hong Kong itself. Compared to Bangkok or Hanoi, both of which are international flights, this is usually a much cheaper and quicker option (I recommend Ctrip for booking domestic flights online).
- Hong Kong has been the go-to location for mainland visas for years, so there’s an established visa infrastructure in Hong Kong. You can expect less hassle and fewer difficulties, although that’s certainly no guarantee. Whether you’re getting a tourist (L) visa or business (F) visa, it’s easy to find instructions on where to go, how much to pay, and so on. Finding updated information isn’t as easy, but it’s still easier than Hanoi or Bangkok — both of which I’ve processed China visas in, for comparison.
Why not to go to Hong Kong for a Visa
- Say it’s the middle of winter where you are and you want to turn your visa run into a vacation. If you have to leave the country for a month, making a vacation out of this necessary excursion isn’t a bad idea. Once you’re in Bangkok you can reach many incredible destinations within Thailand, or in neighboring SE Asian countries (which we’re obviously fans of). Even though it feels like a different world, Hong Kong is still China and sometimes you just want to escape to another country for whatever reason — language, culture, food, weather, and so on.
- Hong Kong is expensive. Getting to and from China’s mega metropolis won’t cost you too much, but a week in Hong Kong living comfortably will. If you have friends in Hong Kong and can save yourself the financial burdon of accommodation you’ll be at great advantage, but eating costs alone are often more than four times as expensive as on the mainland. To give an example: chicken fried rice costs about $1 US (8 yuan) in Chengdu and about $5 US (36 Hong Kong dollars) in Kowloon, Hong Kong. Kowloon, for those who don’t know, is cheaper than Hong Kong island!
Can I Just Buy a Business Visa in Hong Kong?
Unfortunately, the answer to this question isn’t as simple as it used to be. While you can buy business visas without any documentation, they’re only for a short duration — either 30 or 60 days, which is unacceptable unless you live very close to a national border and can easily exit and enter China. For everyone else, you’ll need an invitation letter to get a real visa, of 3 or 6 month duration, processed. This is in stark contrast to the pre-Olympic good old days when foreigners would stream in and out of Hong Kong every day to buy 1-year duration business visas for less than $100 US.
A number of companies offer “Business Visa Service” wherein they request your passport and photos and can issue you a business visa. These services are of questionable legality but more often than not can (and will) do the job, albeit at a high price. One service that I used for years is called Beijing Leeo and offers 6 month business visas for about 3,000 yuan. Their service proved to be reliable until a personal friend of mine was called to Beijing when his passport (and dozens of others) were confiscated by Beijing police when they ransacked the Leeo offices and demanded to interview each of the owners before releasing the passports. This was during the 2008 Olympics, a time of unprecedented crackdowns on visas for foreigners, but the point is that when it comes to these services, they’re almost never 100% certain. With that said, I relied on such services for years and never personally had a problem.
Where to go in Hong Kong
The visa processing office in Hong Kong is located in Wan Chai, Hong Kong island. This is very near the downtown (Central) district of Hong Kong, nestled between towering office buildings and bustling crowds of office workers on the street. The address is #26 on Harbor Road, and you’ll know you’ve found the right place when you see a long line in front of the building. After waiting for up to an hour you’ll realize that the delay was due to a single security station with metal detector which slowly pushes each visa applicant through. Once you’re through and have arrived on the 7th floor where the visa processing office is, you’ll see hundreds of people sitting in chairs watching ping pong on CCTV and waiting for their numbers to be called. With your visa application, passport, and photos in hand, you’ll approach one of 10 windows (two were in use when I visited) and submit your application. Within two minutes I was on my way out of the building, with instructions to return in four business days and pay $150 Hong Kong dollars (just over $20 US) when I pick up my passport with 3-month business visa inside.
One More Thing… I Hope You’re Not American
…Because if you carry an American passport, you’ll be paying exorbitantly high fees for your visa. In response to the United States continually elevating the requirements for Chinese nationals entering its country, China duly bleeds Americans in China by way of elevated visa fines. I’m not talking a little bit more expensive, either — prices for Americans are sometimes eight times as expensive as for citizens of Western Europe who are applying for identical visas. This isn’t something you can negotiate or change, but be prepared for this.
What do you think about getting visas for China?