Disclaimer – this is what happened with/for us, at the time that we made our visa application. Everything and anything could have changed between when this happened, and when you are reading this.
Our second visa application was China. After a fairly easy application for Russia, this one was significantly more complicated. The website is not the most user friendly and it often took a few attempts to find exactly what we needed. This was additionally complicated because of two reasons: the first being that it appeared that the visa application system had just changed, so after completing one form, we realised that it was not the correct form, despite being on the visa application website. The second being that it is not possible to drive through China without being on a guided tour. It becomes a bit of a chicken and egg scenario: you can’t get your visa without a detailed itinerary and tour guide, however you don’t want to commit to a tour guide without knowing that you will definitely be able to go.
Doing some research via other bloggers, we found a couple of tour guide companies and got some quotes – see our blog on China for more about this. NAVO gave us the cheapest quote, so we thought we would probably go with them and requested for the information needed to apply for the visa. NAVO warned us that visa applications are only possible 3 months in advance – we were applying in February for a visa in July, and they were not convinced that this would be possible. We didn’t have a lot of choice, as we plan to take more than 3 months getting to China, so we decided to try to apply anyway and hope for the best.
Once NAVO had sent us our detailed itinerary, we had to fill in the itinerary section on the online application form. They told us not to use our actual itinerary as they thought that the visa would likely be rejected due to us travelling through the Xinjiang province. Instead, they they gave us an alternative 30 day itinerary to use. Putting this information into the application form took far longer than it should have. It is limited by drop down menus, and the places that were on our itinerary were not in the drop down menus. Google maps didn’t really help either as every place in China seemed to have about 3-4 different ways of spelling. We ambushed a Chinese friend and they helped us with translating the place names from Mandarin to English. Even with her brilliant help, it still took about 45 minutes to enter all of these places on just a tiny proportion of the form. I am not sure how people who do not have a Chinese person to hand that can help them compete the form without making random guesses as to the names of the places that they are planning on staying.
All in all, the take home message of this is to leave plenty of time to do the application form, as it took us significantly longer than the forms for the other countries. We did Chris’ form first and then just copied and pasted the information into my form, so that at least was fairly quick.
Once the forms have been completed, you book an appointment time to go to the application centre. We arrived at the application centre half an hour before our allotted time slot, and there was a long queue of around 200 people leading to the desk right by the entrance. Even though you have to book an appointment to be able to apply, it appeared that the appointment time was completely meaningless when we actually got there. The first queue was to the first counter where they quickly checked your documents, that you’d remembered your passport (believe it or not, the person in front of us did not have this), and took a photo of us. We were then given a number and had to wait in the seating area for another person to properly check our documents. A we were applying together, we only printed off one letter of invitation. The woman at the first counter suggested that we make another copy, but she wasn’t sure if it was needed or not, and said that we should ask the person at the second counter. We wondered whether the organisation of the visa application centre would be representative of the country as a whole.
When we finally made it to the second desk, to hand in our application and do our bio-metrics, it was 14:30. We had a fairly friendly man who also pointed out that we were applying more than 3 months in advance which we weren’t supposed to do (although he said he could do it), and that we did not have flight details on our application. After explaining the situation, he gave us detailed instructions of more documents that we would need before we could hand in our application. It turned out we did both need a copy of the letter of invitation, copies of our driving licences, a signed and dated letter written by ourselves which detailed the itinerary for our entire trip (e.g. from UK to Australia), including any booked accommodation/transport (which we had none), and details of the car including registration number, make, model, and colour. He also said that a photo of the car would have helped the application (again, we did not have this). After about 10 minutes of explaining the same thing over and over, he looked at his watch and said “we stop taking applications at 3, so that gives you about 20 minutes to get all that done, here’s some pen and paper”.
After a manic 20 minutes of writing as neat as possible on a blank piece of paper with no lines, and running to the bank to get change to use on the photocopier, we managed to get everything done by 14:59 and went back to the desk. Again, the guy told us that we shouldn’t really be doing the application this far in advance, but that it was possible and he would do it for us on this occasion. He checked our applications, took our fingerprints and passports, and sent us downstairs to desk number three where we needed to pay.
We received a tracking number to check online when it was ready, and were told the turn around should be less than one week. To our surprise, it took less than a week for us to get the notification that it had been approved and was ready for collection. Chris collected both of our passports on his own. On arrival, he had to get back in the same queue as before, however every now and then someone would ask if anyone was waiting to collect passports, and those people got ushered to the front of the queue, to the reception desk. He was then given a number and sent downstairs to wait for it to be collected. After a quick scan of the details on the passport, everything was OK, and we had our visas for China!