The Chinese Visa marathon


I can't say I've ever had much luck at Immigration, which always leads me to having slightly sweaty palms and a slightly pounding heart every time I inch closer to the Immigration desk.

Apparently now I have visas to fear, too. After the Bali fiasco, I thought it couldn't get any worse. I hadn't taken into account China...

As I'll be transiting in China and spending 12 hours in Kunming both on the way in and on the way out, I needed to get a visa if I wanted to stay at a hotel (I checked online - Kunming airport doesn't have 24hour lounges, only have metal chairs or wooden benches near the open doors). So I went on their website to check procedures.

First of all, the rules have changed, thanks to the introduction of the 72-hour visa waiver if entering from Beijing, Shanghai or Hong Kong. In my case, the major transit will be in Kunming, so this didn't apply. I looked further down and found the prices for different kinds of visas.

Let me just say, that already on paper (or on screen) it doesn't look fair. With my passport, visas prices ranged from about $30-120. For US citizens, there was a flat rate of $160. So, anyway, I figured I'd get the multiple entry visa valid for 6 months (who knows - a trip to Xian could be nice) for $85. So I download the form (4 pages) and additional form as I'm not a Japanese citizen applying in Japan (2 pages), fill them out and get all the various papers (passport and resident card photocopies, photos, hotel and flight info prinouts) ready, and off I go to the Chinese embassy - a 40-minute subway trip each way. Oh yeah, and the Chinese embassy in Tokyo is only open between 9-12:00 on weekdays.

Anyway, I get there after being elbowed and jostled in the infamous Tokyo subway rush-hour and go to the information desk and hand her my application. Now, as an innocent traveller, I put that my main purpose to visit China was to transit (I am staying 2 nights and 1 day). The lady at the information desk glances at my application and tells me they don't process transit visas at the embassy and that I have to go through a travel agency and they recommend one that is right next door. Does anything smell fishy to you?

Well, I called the number they gave me which then redirected me to another number. So I called that number and finally talked to a woman who gave me directions to their 'office'. It was literally in the building next door and I would hesitate to call it an office. Looked more like I was in someone's apartment. Still not smelling fishy to you?

So I gave her my application papers, and she told me the total cost would be $145. Excuse me? I was prepared to pay $85 not $145! I didn't even have the money on me, and as it turns out I'd forgotten my old passport with my Japanese visa in it. So I decided this was a golden opportunity to make my escape. I figured I'd just reapply for a Sightseeing visa - that wouldn't really be a lie.

So back home I go, I reprint the page of the form I need to modify, fill it in again, this time saying I'm visiting to sightsee. The next weekday, I went to the embassy again. Went to (the same) lady at the information desk. She glanced at my application and told me they didn't process sightseeing visas at the embassy and that I have to go to a travel agency and they recommend one that is right next door. Sound familiar? So at this point I asked her directly what kinds of visas they did deal with and she says they only give business visas. Seriously?

At this point, I'm fed up and starting to be a little tight on the schedule to get back to work so I just left and decided to go to a travel agent closer to home. So after work the same day, I head off to the travel agency closest to my place and give them my application. They seem totally confused about my request, faff around for 15 minutes, then come back with a price schedule and tell me that I will have to pay $160 dollars for a multiple-entry visa so they recommend a double-entry one for $140, plus their service fee of $35 for a total of $175. Let me just state clearly that I will not be going to China again unless there are some major changes. I ended up spending more on the visa alone than on the tickets and hotel together.

And the best part? The travel agent who was assisting me couldn't understand why I was so shocked. Why does the website say $85 when essentially it ranges between $145 and $175? I even overheard him asking a colleague if $175 was expensive for a visa. You can guess the answer.

Anyway, a week later, my visa was issued, I got my passports back and applied for the Cambodian visa (you can apply directly on arrival, but I thought I should get it in advance 1) to avoid any issues, 2) to get out of the airport faster). The form is just a one-sided page, with a photocopy of your passport and resident card, a photo and it's done for you in 3 days for $24.

Read more about the China ordeal and check out some pictures!

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