Asia, save money on travel, Travel

How to get a Chinese Visa at the San Francisco Chinese Consulate successfully and with minimal pain

The Temple of Heaven in Beijing by Elana Nichols

After 3 painful days of unnecessary time spent successfully obtaining my Chinese Visa, I would like to share my experience so that you, wonderful person who looked up how to get your Chinese Visa and found my article, do not have to go through wasting hours of your life! Knowing what I know now, if I could go back and tell my past self to do things just a little differently, I totally would! Since I have not yet embarked on that kind of travel (you know, time travel), I will have to settle on telling you instead and saving you boucoup time. You’re welcome!

How do I know if I need a Chinese Visa?

First, let’s discuss who needs a visa to visit China. (If you already know you need one, you can skip this part!). Unless you are a resident of a country considered exempt by China, you will need to get your Chinese Visa before your visit. Another exception is if you will be in China for 24 hours or less (think a connection or long layover). Depending where you live, you can either visit the nearest Chinese Embassy or you can send in your passport to get a visa through a third party company (more on that later). Also, keep in mind that a visit to Hong Kong does not require a Chinese Visa. You will only need one if you are stepping foot in mainland China.

What do I need in order to get my Chinese Visa?

You will want to check your passport. (Yes, you will need that!) Check to see when it expires. You will need to have a passport with at least six months validity at the date of travel. If you have at least a year of validity, you can apply for the 10-year Visa that will continue past your passport’s expiration. However, if you have less than a year validity on your passport, you will be given a visa that is valid for 3 months, 6 months, or a year. Be sure to note if you need multiple entries as well. Here is a quick list of what you will need to bring with you to the visa office:

  1. Your passport. This is a no-brainer. Be sure that you also have at least two free pages in your passport. Travel much? You can add passport pages, if need be!
  2. A picture. The picture needs to be a passport-approved photo with a white background. It should be 2 X 2 inches in size. If all else fails, they do have a photo booth at the SF Chinese Consulate, for a fee.
  3. Your driver’s license. You should have a current driver’s license to show.
  4. Copies of your Passport and Driver’s license. You should copy the main pages of your passport (the one with the picture and the one next to it) and driver’s license. Again, if you are in a bind, they do have copiers there in the consulate, but beware of the long lines!
  5. Your airline itinerary- printed out. This must show your name and the dates, clearly, as well as a balance of zero. You CANNOT give them a projected itinerary. They must see that you purchased tickets. This can be scary, especially if you are not sure if you will be approved for the visa. If you are truly worried about it, you can book a more expensive fare that includes free cancellation; however, be sure to check the rules of the cancellation. My first attempt at my visa, I waited in line for four hours only to be turned away because I gave them a possible itinerary and not a real one. If you are in a bind, you can also pay to rush your visa. However, you can apply for it up to three months in advance of your travel date.
  6. Your hotel itinerary- printed out. Again, they need to see your name on the reservation. If they are in your spouse’s name, just be sure that your spouse’s name is on the visa application.
  7. A completed application. Be sure to follow all the directions and to type and print.

How do I maximize my time getting my visa in person at the Chinese Consulate in SF?

The line wraps around the block with hundreds of people. By Elana Nichols

The Chinese Consulate in SF is located at 1450 Laguna St, San Francisco, CA 94115 and is open for visas from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday. Keep in mind that this address will bring you to the side entrance on Laguna Street, but the entrance you will need to use is around the corner on the right on Geary Street. There, you will see a long line (usually wrapped around to another street behind the building. They do not accept reservations for visa drop-off or pickup. Here is what I have learned to maximize my time there, step-by-step:

  1. Arrive into the city by 7:30 a.m. Depending where you live, you should prepare for heavy traffic. You can find some free 2-hour parking on Geary and Laguna. Be sure to hide any valuables from sight, or better yet, don’t leave valuables in your car at all. Thieves are more likely to bust a window if they see something in your car.
  2. Get into line between 7:35 and 7:45 a.m. I know this part seems crazy, but trust me, you will have a much shorter wait. By 9 a.m., when the building opens, there will be over 100 people in line, on a daily basis. My first try at the visa involved getting to the consulate at 10 a.m., waiting in line until the visa office closed at 2, and being turned away and sent home at 4 p.m. I literally spent my entire day at the embassy. I made friends in line and we all took turn holding each other’s places in line while we did things to survive like eat, use the restrooms, and move our cars. Trust me, you will be so glad if you get there before it opens, it is worth the wait in the peaceful morning. You will NOT regret taking this step! The SF Chinese Consulate is eternally overcrowded and people are sent away after waiting for 3+ hours in line every single day. Just ask the security guy at the front! As long as you get there within that time window, or even by 8 a.m., you can expect to be out of there around 10 a.m. If you get there later, you will most likely have to return another day or spend hours of your time.
  3. Be prepared with everything you need. Make a checklist. Go through it. If you forget something, they will send you home and you will need to return another day.
  4. When it is time to pick up your visa, repeat steps 1-3. There is no separate line for picking up a visa. You will have to wait in the one long line that exists, only to wait in two more lines once you make it through the first one. Being one of the first 50 in line ensures that you will be in and out of there in two hours or less.
  5. For visa pick up, bring your money to pay the fee. The fee for a visa is currently $140, but you can check the website before you arrive. You can pay by credit card or money order. They do not accept cash or personal checks.

Is there another option to get my visa besides spending hours there?

Yes. You can even mail your passport to the Chinese Consulate (if you are local) or use a third party. With the mailing option, be sure to include all the items listed above along with a cover letter. If you choose a third party, please keep in mind that they charge an additional fee.

If you do happen to get stuck in a longer line, make sure to meet your line neighbors. If you find some nice ones, and need to grab lunch, you can head on over to Japan Town for lunch, it is an amazing place to go!

Now that you know how to save some time, feel free to go and get that visa!

Have you had bad experiences getting a visa? Please write in the comments below!


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