Do I Need To Apply For A Visa In Advance To Go To China?
Getting a visa to visit China is supposedly difficult, especially if you don’t have a particularly good reason to go there (at least from the government’s perspective). If you are trying to conduct business, you need an invitation letter from a Chinese company, which can be a hassle. Even if you have all the necessary documents to be granted a visa, the process can take time and be subject to the tumults of international relations.
I can think of several reasons one might want to go to Shenzhen without a visa, such as meeting with business partners last minute, seeing the city from the top of the Ping An (the 4th tallest building in the world) and playing a round at the largest golf complex in the world. I can personally attest that all of these are fun activities even if they are not necessarily worth the trouble of a visa application.
Shenzhen Is A Special Economic Zone
Luckily, as I found out earlier this year (2019), you do not need a visa at all to go to Shenzhen. Or at least you don’t need to get one in advance. Shenzhen is one of China’s Special Economic Zones or SEZs, meaning the government is keen on foreign investment and therefore visitors from outside the Middle Kingdom.
Because of its SEZ designation, most (but not all; cf. below) foreigners can obtain what is called a Visa On Arrival (also known as a VOA or 5-day visa). At certain points of entry (including the Shenzhen Airport, which we found out later), you can show up with your passport and be granted a visa that allows you to stay in Shenzhen for no more than 5 days.
This blog post is specific to the Huanggang port of entry, but we will update it as we learn more about the other accessible ports. We had heard rumors of stinginess on the part of Chinese customs agents in granting VOAs to American citizens, so we decided to manage risk and enter Shenzhen via car from the Hong Kong Airport. If we were denied at the border, we could turn around, spend a few days in the Pearl of the Orient and then try again later. (In other words, we did not want to be stuck in Shenzhen Airport no-man’s-land à la Tom Hanks in “The Terminal.”)
Getting To The Right Port From Hong Kong
After landing in the Hong Kong Airport, you will want to find the sign on the first level indicating transit to Mainland China. Be sure to tell them that you do not have a visa (qianzheng) so that or the cab driver may take you to a different entry point where VOAs are not granted. We can obviously vouch for Huanggang as providing relatively frictionless access. Luohu is supposedly another good option, although it is not open 24 hours like Huanggang.
Make sure to have your passport at the ready. Your car will be stopped by guards as you approach the customs building. You will have to hand over your passport for a short amount of time, presumably so they can run some sort of check. If you’re clean, you’ll get your passport back, and your car will be able to drive the last 50 yards or so to the actual crossing point.
When your driver stops again, you will be at the checkpoint. Get out of the car, walk into the building and go all the way to the far left side. Hidden in a small hallway, you will see a sign for VOA alongside a counter with a customs agent. Before approaching the agent, make sure to go to one of the little photo booths and get your picture taken.
Acquiring the Visa On Arrival
Now you are ready to approach the customs guy. In return for the photos you just took and your passport, he will give you a small VOA form for you to fill out. He will also ensure you understand the price of the VOA visa, which depends on your nationality. There is a helpful sign on the wall:
As you can see, for US citizens a VOA costs 956 RMB or approximately $140 from a credit card (no cash). At the top of the sign, it says that for most countries a VOA costs just 168 RMB — those listed are the few with less-than-stellar relations with the Chinese and therefore heftier visa prices. Another sign shows the countries that are specifically barred from visa procural, mostly in the Middle East and Northern Africa.
Assuming you are from a licit country, fill out the Visa On Arrival form and give it back to the customs guy (or lady) with your credit card.
Then you wait.
After about 10 minutes, presumably as they do another quick database check, the customs agent will return your passport to you. If all went well, the visa will be inside! Congratulations, you can now legally go to China! (For 5 days, and, as he will remind you, only to Shenzhen).
Now that you have a Chinese visa, you can go back out to the main area where you first entered the building. Grab one of the many paper entry/exit forms lying around. Then fill it out and take it to one of the checkpoint counters with a human officer. (Do not be tempted by the automated kiosks that the Chinese people are using. These won’t work for you.)
As they check your passport one last time, they will also take your fingerprints. Once they do, you will be officially good to go to take a few steps forward and legitimately enter China.
Really it’s that simple. The Huanggang crossing is a little run down, so things may have been slower than at newer ports. We think we did the whole process in around 20 minutes. Honestly, the hardest part was communicating to the driver at the Hong Kong Airport that we needed to go to Huanggang and not just to any crossing into China. Once we made it to the border itself, getting the VOA was seamless (other than forking over $140 only to stay in China for 5 days; but on short notice and with no invitation letter, it could have been worse).