For the past two weeks, I have been almost exclusively obsessed with the problem of trying to get a visa to enable me to return to China. (Not that I particularly want to go back, not long-term; not at all, really; but I have unfinished business I need to take care of there.) And it is a vale of tears.
Demand for Chinese visas has increased so enormously in recent years that an outsourced visa agency has been set up to deal with applications in London. This actually appears to be reasonably efficient, and provides a much more pleasant user-experience than applying through the Consulate (although I believe you can still do that). Their website is certainly far more detailed and coherent than the Chinese Embassy's. But, alas, the content is still provided by the Embassy - and thus isn't all that enlightening. If some of the items on the application form seem incomplete or ambiguous or the purpose of them is not clear, you can click on a little ? 'help' symbol - which produces a pop-up bubble that repeats the original text word-for-word. So, not really any 'help', then.
The online 'help' service isn't all that much better. Although it is much better than I had feared (I refrained from trying it for some time, because I had assumed it would not provide an answer at all or that any answers it did give would be completely hopeless). My first attempt to raise a query via that channel produced no response. The second produced only an unhelpful repetition of the text that I had queried (and completely ignored the other 3 or 4 succinct, numbered questions I had asked). A third attempt, however, did produce a fairly prompt and helpful response on the two most important points (but again ignored the other three). I had to try the service again this week, and I once more received an appropriate response - although it was more than 24 hours in coming.
A modest amount of kudos for the e-mail helpline, then: it's not brilliant, but it's not utterly useless. The telephone help service, though, is completely overwhelmed: I have three times sat in a call queue for 15 or 20 minutes without getting through to anyone. The appointment booking facility (the only real advantage over applying at the Consulate, which might be more stressful but would avoid the additional agency fee) also seems to be over-stressed: despite having pre-booked a slot to deliver my application within a 30-minute window, I had to wait nearly 50 minutes to be seen. And now that I'm having to make a second appointment with them (because my first attempt to get a visa quickly foundered), I find that they've supposedly got no slots open until the middle of next week. [Are there a lot of Olympic tourists in London who've decided it might be fun to go to China next? Or is it just that half of the agency's staff are taking their holidays?]
Since they seem to allocate a certain amount of time for walk-in applications, I wonder if that might not be quicker than showing up with an appointment. I may flip a coin on that. I have provisionally booked an appointment for next week, but I'm still not sure I'll have all the paperwork in hand by then.
I had been planning to come back on a tourist visa, you see. Because everyone loves tourists, right? It can't be very hard to get a tourist visa, can it? Ahem - this is China. They want you to prove you are a bona fide tourist by showing them your hotel reservations and your return airfare. A problem if you're not planning to return by air (yachtsmen, hikers, and passengers on the Trans-Siberian railway - you're screwed). A problem if you're intending to stay with friends or couchsurf, or if, like me, you already rent your own apartment there. A problem, in fact, for anyone who may prefer not to blow a heap of money on travel and accommodation until their visa application has actually been approved.
Luckily, there is an alternative. Instead of providing documented proof of your intended itinerary, you can just get an 'invitation letter' from an organization or an individual based in China. And in the past, this has been only a very token requirement most of the time: an unsigned e-mail was usually accepted as sufficient, anyone - Chinese or foreign - could invite, and no-one ever checked up on any of the details. Easy-peasy: it was just another piece of paper they wanted for the files. You could fake something for yourself if you wanted to. But at the moment, I'm told, they are insisting that only a Chinese citizen can provide such an invitation.
Well, no problem. My landlord is a friendly and obliging fellow (and I thought it a good idea to demonstrate that I have accommodation lined up, even though this is not a specified requirement under the 'invitation letter' option), and was quite happy for me to use him as my inviter.
Unfortunately... just last week, just days before I went in to submit my application, it seems they tightened up the guidelines on tourist 'invitation letters' to require that they should now be in the form of a proper letter with a handwritten signature, rather than just an e-mail. They didn't update the website to let anyone know. I had been concerned about this detail, so it was one of the things I'd tried to query by e-mail; it was one of the points they'd failed to respond on. But I had been encouraged by someone who told me he'd applied successfully with just an e-mail 'invitation letter' only a week earlier. If I'd known I needed an actual letter (luckily, they are - supposedly [I'm terrified they might change the policy on this as well in the next few days!] - accepting faxed or scanned copies rather than originals [in line with the requirements for 'invitations' for a business visa]), I could have obtained one. But it would probably hold the process up by at least a few more days, since my landlord - like most Chinese folks I know - only seems to check his e-mail a couple of times a week. Still, I thought it was going to be OK to apply with an e-mail 'invitation letter'; and I was rudely disabused of this when I attempted to submit my application last week. (I half-suspect the girl who dealt with me might have been bullshitting me about this, since I've heard conflicting accounts about the current state of the requirements from other people. But she did make a remarkably convincing case: if it was a lie, she delivered it in an extremely elaborate and plausible fashion. And I should at least be grateful that she warned me of this problem in advance, rather than receiving my application from me only for it then to be rejected. I think I'd probably have to pay at least some of the fees for a failed application, and would face an even harder task when applying again.)
It also seems that a tourist visa isn't really worth having anyway. Tourist visas are advertised as being available for six-month periods (with multiple entries allowed), and, in exceptional cases, occasionally even for 12 months. This, I'm now told, is not true. Well, such visas are available, but only for those with Chinese spouses (or, if you get lucky with your visa assessment officer, sometimes if you have a Chinese fiancée). Yep, even if you marry a Chinese person, you still get no rights to reside or work in China; you just become a permanent tourist (which means you need to leave the country to renew your visa, and you need an 'invitation letter' from your spouse every time as well). For actual tourists, you can only get a visa for a maximum of three months. And currently, you can only get one with two re-entries; and those are forced re-entries - you have to leave the country at least once every 30 days to prove you are a tourist! So, in effect, you can only get a 30-day visa. Moreover, I've just heard an alarming rumour that in some countries Chinese embassies have begun to demand original copies of 'invitation letters' and/or proof of the inviter's ID (i.e., a photocopy of their Chinese ID card). I think this is probably just in a few countries that are considered especially dodgy (Russia, Eastern Europe?), but it's a worrying sign of how the regulations might evolve elsewhere. It's more trouble than it's worth. I'm going to try the business visa option instead.
The trouble with that is that business visas are always the ones that get clamped down on hardest when the government is getting antsy about the numbers of foreign guests in the country. They've been just about impossible to obtain in the mainland - or even via Hong Kong - for most of this year. So, I'm not all that sanguine about whether an application for a business visa is going to be accepted in the current climate. (Of course, the visa agency website says they are still available, but that doesn't mean anything.)
Also, I've suffered some galling delays in obtaining the necessary 'invitation letter'. I sent out a raft of begging e-mails last weekend - after my tourist visa fiasco - and (rather to my surprise and delight) got two positive responses. Unfortunately, one of my potential inviters apparently has their company stamp "in for servicing" or somesuch (being revalidated by the relevant government department?) this week, and so is unable to send me an 'invitation letter' until the weekend. My second option appeared to be in a position to e-mail me one straight away, but... it took them another two days to get around to it, and then they omitted a few pieces of crucial information, so...
Two weeks or so on from beginning this process with my first online researches, one week on from my first rebuff, five days on from my first soliciting of 'invitation letters', and five days before I'm due to try my luck again at the visa agency.... everything is still up in the air.
And while I'm waiting for all this stuff to fall into place... the rest of my holiday is indefinitely on hold: I have to skulk close to my computer all day long, I have to hover within striking distance of London. Hoped-for visits to friends in Bristol, Bath, Newcastle, Edinburgh are looking in jeopardy. Oiveh!