Lehman, Lee & Xu
The past four weeks have seen significant changes in the regulations relating to the issuance of visas for foreigners wishing to visit China. Between now and October stricter requirements are now in place for the issuance of both tourist and business visas. The changes have made due to security concerns surrounding the Olympic Games.
Hong Kong has traditionally been the gateway to China and in this respect the Special Administrative Region is the favoured location for foreigners obtaining visas for entry into Mainland China. The regulations relating to the issuance of visas in Hong Kong have traditionally been rather lax; until several weeks ago it was possible for most nationalities to obtain a six-month multiple entry business visa by providing nothing more than a passport and the visa fee.
All of this changed on March 27th when China ceased the issuance of multiple entry business visas. Long the lifeblood of foreign businessmen whose work necessitates frequent trips to China, the decision was met with frustration by many. Particularly affected were those foreigners who live in Hong Kong and frequently travel to Mainland China. Those visas already issued continue to be valid though those applying to renew their visas will only be issued with a double entry visa.
The next development came on April 8th when China stopped issuing five-day Shenzhen Special Economic Zone visas at the border points between Mainland China and Hong Kong. These visas had been available for many years and were popular with foreigners in Hong Kong either shopping or doing business in the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone
On April 10th news began to filter in of stricter requirements for the issuance of tourist visas. In the past a tourist visa could generally be obtained without providing hotel reservations and flight bookings. The new regulations state that these are now mandatory and some embassy websites show an increase in visa processing fees, a reduction in the validity period of the visa, an increase in processing times and a specific time frame during which the visa must be applied for (1 to 2 months before the applicant’s departure for China according to the website of the Chinese embassy in the Netherlands).
The next development came on April 13th came with an announcement on the website of Hong Kong’s China Visa Office.
Visa applicants are increasing in a large number and need longer waiting time in the visa office recently. If you don’t reside in Hong Kong permanently, you are required to apply China visa from the Embassy or Consulate in your resident country.
This is significant because as of March 28th this visa office is the only place in Hong Kong where visas for mainland China can be issued. This means that visitors can no longer apply for Chinese visas in Hong Kong; only those working or residing permanently there are eligible. This is a major policy change compared to the prior system where Hong Kong was the favored destination for “visa runs” – a term expatriates living in China use for a quick trip to Hong Kong to obtain a new Chinese visa.
The latest development was announced on several Chinese embassies’ websites on April 14th that an original letter from a Chinese state organ confirming the bona fide nature of the applicant’s business must now accompany all business ”F” visa applications. Currently this is appearing on websites belonging to the Chinese embassies in Singapore, South Africa, Australia and the United States though it can be assumed that the policy is being applied to all countries.
This demonstrates a major departure from the prior situation where a letter from the businessperson’s employer would suffice when applying for an “F” visa in an overseas consulate or embassy.
The situation for foreigners already in China has also changed. Until very recently it was possible to extend a “L” tourist visa or “F” business visa within China for periods of up to six months provided the appropriate fee was paid. Currently though it is impossible to extend any “F” or “L” visa in China past July 1st meaning that those foreigners with visas expiring over the next few months must return to their home jurisdiction in order to obtain a new visa before returning to China. A significant number of those affected are English language teachers; officially schools must provide a “Z” visa and residence permit for their foreign teachers however many schools are not licensed to employ foreigners and prefer for teachers to enter China on an “F” business visa. Employing teachers on “F” visas is illegal but the practice has long been tolerated. The resulting change of rules will lead to an exodus of teachers residing in China on “F” visas.
There has also been talk that China will cease issuing student visas covering the months of July and August – foreign students studying here full time are generally on “X” visas which will run until the end of June. The next semester, barring Summer school, will begin in September so students will generally be required to leave China for the Summer.
The effect of these visa changes is that between now and July there will be a sizable decline in the number of foreigners living in China – with those on “F” and most of those on “X” visas leaving all that will remain will be those who are able to meet the new requirements for the issuance of F visas and those on official work permits who will not be affected by the changes.
The new regulations have caused consternation amongst many, particularly in Hong Kong where many foreigners with business dealings in China live. Those with businesses in the Pearl River Delta (the industrial cities of the Mainland adjacent to Hong Kong) are particularly affected – visas are now only issued as either single or double entry so a foreign businessperson residing in Hong Kong who travels to the mainland several times a week and whose prior multiple entry visa has expired or is expiring in the near future must now apply for new visas as frequently as every few days and, considering the increase in visa issuance times, may find it difficult to sustain their business dealings in the months ahead.
It should be noted, in conclusion, that China’s visa regulations are still relatively lax compared to many countries and a vast majority of those with genuine business in China will still be able to obtain visas as usual providing they obtain the necessary paperwork, as will tourists visiting for the Olympics. According to the Chinese authorities the restrictions are only due to last until October after which time we can expect to see the regulations being relaxed once again.