Yes, My Fellow Americans, You Do Need An Advance Visa to Travel to Mainland China

Shanghai Bund

I’m not the type of person who does these sorts of dunderheaded things: I’m the one who shakes their head and rolls their eyes at those that do.

My wife and I meticulously research new destinations before visiting them, comparing and contrasting pros and cons of multiple places that for whatever reason all might work in a given timeframe. We laboriously run different dates for different destinations through different airfare search engines, writing down both the best and worst findings. Once we have the airfares down, we repeat the process with hotels.

Armed with our three lists — the destination pros and cons, the airfare costs, the hotel costs — we run it all through a highly scientific process of elimination, ideally over a bottle of wine, until we’ve made a final decision. It’s often a meandering, hem-hawwing process to get to the actual booking, but it’s one we consider part of the trip — and once we’re ready to book we pounce before the fares and accommodations inevitably go up or disappear.

We don’t wait until the last minute to book our airfare (unless it’s a last-minute trip), and we never show up somewhere without having a hotel booked. We’ve done the latter many times before, during our first trips traveling around Southeast Asia, but the stress and hassle of scrambling for somewhere to stay on the fly seems pointless these days. I’m not a backpacker and I’m fortunate not to be on a shoestring budget at the moment, so I like to generally know what to expect when it comes to where I’m staying.

In other words, I like to have my shit together.

We generally know what to expect while we’re there: how to best get around, a few particular sites we’d like to see, bars we’d like to drink at, foods we want to taste. There’s always, of course, an element of wonder and discovery, but in new destinations, particularly big cities, it’s useful to have a general framework to work from. Getting lost is one thing — happens to me all the time, and you really you should get lost, within reason — but there’s no excuse for being lost. I have no empathy for the confused and oblivious traveler who hasn’t taken the time to do a little research before arriving in a new destination.


I don’t mean to sound a travel snob, and I’m hardly unique in that I carefully map out my travels. I’m one of a gazillion writers who writes about travel, and I’d like to think most of my peers, along with gazillions of other travelers, display similar tact. Gazillions more don’t, though. I’m just saying.

So it was with our big holiday trip to Shanghai, a four-night excursion to mainland China researched and booked months ago. The airfare from Singapore was quite reasonable, even if it was on (shudder) China Eastern, and we’d scored a 40% early-bird discount on a hip, highly rated hotel ideally located on the fringes of the old French Concession. Guidebooks had long since been checked out from the local library, magazine articles were torn out and saved, excitement was stoked by the stylish, signature scenes from Skyfall filmed in Shanghai.

Fast forward to the Wednesday afternoon before our Friday morning departure when my wife drops me a text message bomb: “Do we need a visa for China?”

Shit. SHIT.

I stop setting and resetting my fantasy football lineup working and pull up the homepage for Singapore’s Chinese visa centre and discover that yes, of course, Americans do need an advance visa for travel to mainland China. And that it costs S$225 for a single entry, processed on regular service time (four days), or S$295 for urgent service (second working day). And that the deadline for submitting urgent applications is 2pm. The time was 2:15pm, which meant that if we submitted the visa application on Thursday, we wouldn’t be able to pick it up until Friday at 9am, and our flight was at 10:10am. Not enough time.

Maybe we could take a later flight? No, our fare was completely non-refundable and non-transferable.

Could we cancel the hotel? No, our rate was completely non-refundable and non-transferable.

Did we have any travel insurance for the trip? Psssh, why bother? We’re definitely going to Shanghai, except… we’re not.

Dumb. Dumb, dumb, dumb.

Thailand, Japan, South Africa, Sri Lanka, South Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia, Germany, Denmark, Cambodia, etc. — every country I’ve visited in the past few years has offered visas on arrival. The few that didn’t, namely Vietnam and Burma, I took care of right away. Maybe that’s part of it, as well as the fact that I’ve recently been in and out of Hong Kong and Macau a few times, sort of associate both with China, and haven’t had to worry about visas at either one.

Either way, there’s no excuse: we fucked up. We’re the travelers we loathe and roll our eyes at. Go ahead, roll your eyes at me, I deserve it.

Still, we’re not ones to throw up our hands without a fight. After numerous phone calls to the visa centre Wednesday afternoon, we arrived first thing Thursday morning, armed with all of our necessary paperwork and a sad, sad story to spin. We were ready to beg and plead and grovel for special rushed service, whether that meant allowing us to pick the visas up that night, or earlier the next morning so we could have enough time to crash the airport and be those assholes who are the last ones to clambor onto the flight in a huff and have carry-on bags there isn’t room for and expect everyone to think it’s cute when it’s not.

We tried. We were both at our earnest best, even stooping low enough to incite Christmas and say we were supposed to be meeting our families in Shanghai; you gotta do what you gotta do. They empathized but wouldn’t budge, so we went home to pick up the pieces. My wife learned that we could cancel the flight and at least get the (considerable) taxes refunded, so she did, and I resolved to try and weave a sad story to the hotel booking engine in the hopes of getting a refund. They said what I’d thought they’d say, but that since I was a loyal, longtime customer, if I could provide a letter stating that my visa application was rejected or not processed in time, they’d see what they could do.

I called the visa centre and spoke with the same manager. I asked her for the letter; she deterred. I politely asked again, and suddenly heated side conversation in Chinese ensued between her and a number of her colleagues. She apologizes for the delay, then drops this bomb on me: “Okay, so you live in Singapore? You are working here? Okay, my manager says you can pick up your visa today at maybe four or five o’clock. Can you come in now?”

What should have been a bonafide Christmas Miracle — a Chinese visa official offering to slightly bend the rules for an idiotic American traveler — was, unfortunately, one final kick in the balls because once the flight is canceled, you can’t un-cancel it. Somewhere the spirits of all the disheveled travelers I’ve rolled my eyes at were rightfully laughing at me.

We tried to talk our way into un-canceling our canceled flight, but China Eastern wasn’t hearing it, not that I blame them. I didn’t call the visa centre back because there was nothing to say. (By the way, don’t try to pull what I pulled here: I’ve clearly ruined it for everyone else and I can guarantee you there’ll be no offers to bend the rules again. Sorry.)

Kuala Lumpur

There is a silver lining, even for someone as dunderheaded as I was this time. The refunded airfare taxes amounted to almost half of the flight cost, and after calling the hotel directly they graciously decided to refund the full cost of my stay without penalty, which I wasn’t expecting and which they certainly didn’t have to do. Technically, we also saved S$295 for the visa.

We flipped some of the refund money into a last-minute weekend getaway to Kuala Lumpur, which we booked after crunching airfares and hotel rates and finding great deals on both — and after triple-checking whether we needed an advance visa for Malaysia.

Lead Shanghai photo credited to Flickr user tengri555

Kuala Lumpur photo credited to Flickr user Amber de Bruin

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