Friday, July 27, 2012

More questions than answers

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!


Froog said...

Further aggravation was caused by the fact that the agency's website encourages you to fill in the application form online, and assures you that it can be printed out at their office when you deliver your passport.

NO. Well, they managed to lose mine, anyway - couldn't find any record that I'd ever logged on, either using my application reference number or my passport number. The girl who served me seemed unsurprised, hinting that this almost invariably happens.

Froog said...

From the English ability of the staff there, and their irreverence towards the Chinese government (I heard a couple of them saying things along the lines of "It's not our fault that the website's so useless. It's the Chinese Embassy that's crap.") I would guess that most of them are British-born Chinese rather than PRC nationals.

I noticed too that all the assistants had a list pinned up in their booths of the different visa fees for citizens of different countries. It would appear that the nationalities most commonly applying for a Chinese visa from London at the moment are... Poles, Serbs, and Romanians.

Gilman Grundy said...

What eve the old 'turn up, pay your dough, come in' HK visas are no good anymore? What is the world coming to? How the hell am I ever supposed to visit China as a tourist if I have to have an invitation to do so?

Froog said...

Ah, Cuddles! Where have you been??

Not that I care. You're BARRED, remember?

Froog said...

I note that the wording they are currently using in the guidelines for a tourist 'invitation' is that the inviter must be "a permanent resident of China" - although there are no specifics on what exactly this means, or what proof of the fact might be required.

Presumably this excludes foreigners who - other than in very exceptional circumstances - can only ever be "temporary residents".

Strictly construed, it might also exclude Chinese citizens who've taken a second citizenship (I think, in theory, your Chinese citizenship is supposed to be automatically rescinded if you do that, but in practice it seems to be possible; I suppose there's no way the Chinese authorities can tell if you've taken up a second passport) or only recently returned from overseas.

Froog said...

A further worry to me was that they've introduced on the application form a question about health insurance. There's no explanation of why this is included, or what the requirements/expectations are in this regard.

I queried this via the e-mail help service and - eventually - got an answer that having health insurance was NOT a requirement for receiving a visa.

But if it's not a requirement, WHY are they asking at all??

This is another one of those things that most people are not going to want to spend money on until after their visa has been approved.

And it's another of those things that my paranoid anxiety latches on to as a likely pretext for the rejection of my own application.

Froog said...

As a lawyer, I was also tempted to quibble about the 'proof of return airfare' requirement for tourist visas.

First of all, what kind of 'proof' can we offer in these days of paperless tickets??

And second, they don't actually specify that this airfare must be for the entry and exit to and from China planned in relation to this visa (though I suppose it is a natural and reasonable assumption; this, however, is not the kind of principle on which anything else in Chinese bureaucracy seems to work, so...).

I have a return airfare, the first half of which - outbound from China - I have already used. I tried to query whether this would satisfy the regulations. I twice (or thrice; can't remember) failed to get an answer on this... not, I think, because it was a fatuous question, but because they didn't know the answer.

I suspect a half-used airfare ('proven' only by an e-mail from a travel agent) would be sufficient in very many cases. In much if not all of Chinese bureaucracy, the successful navigation of a procedure largely depends not on whatever the 'rules' are supposed to be, but upon the indulgence - or the inattention - of whoever happens to be dealing with your paperwork.

Gilman Grundy said...

They had similar requirements when I first went to Taiwan in '01 - we were given an onward ticket to Japan by our employers which was quickly taken off us after arrival for fear that we might use it.

Can you really just not go to HK and sort things out there any more?

Froog said...

Not currently, I'm told, FOARP. F visas have been getting very hard to come by anywhere this year.

Last successful application for one I heard of (among many failures) was someone who went down to Hong Kong in April, and then had her agent secretly courier her passport back over the border so that the visa could be issued in Fuzhou or somewhere (the LAST place anywhere in 'China' that was still granting them).

Things will probably lighten up again after October.

And I imagine tourist visas are still reasonably easy to get - so long as you are prepared to jump through all the stupid hoops they're currently demanding of you, just to get a thirty-days-at-a-time entry into the country.

Things almost always do go smoother in Hong Kong; but just at the moment, I'm not so sure.

Anyway, I have a flight to go back to the mainland, not Hong Kong. And I have plans/hopes to visit Hong Kong in October or November; I don't want to be forced to go there before that - it gets expensive!

Gilman Grundy said...

"Things will probably lighten up again after October."

I've been hearing variations on this theme since at least 2007, but after tightening up the rules never slacken off all the way back to where they were before.

Froog said...

Got the visa eventually.

The agency is quite impressive - very swift and efficient, and a comforting buffer between you and the unfriendly forces of Chinese government bureaucracy. It seems they have a 'working understanding' sorted out whereby the Embassy will pretty much rubberstamp anything they forward, provided they undertake to preview the applications carefully to make sure they seem kosher (which is a matter of having the right boxes ticked and the right number of accompanying bits of paper, rather than being, er, genuine).

The girl who took my application, for exampled, pointed out that:

a) Although you're given an option to select 'businessman' at your professional status (which seems the wisest thing to do, if you're applying for a business visa), and no further explanation is REQUIRED by the application form instructions, in practice you have to specify that you are 'Self-Employed' (unless there's a company you work for, or can claim you are representing at the UK end, in addition to the Chinese company you've had to get your 'invitation' from), and state the area that you specialise in. She filled in these missing details for me, in a hasty and completely illegible scrawl - thus bolstering my impression that what you write on these forms is of no interest to anyone: no-one is going to read them, so long as the right boxes all appeared to be filled in with something.

b) My angelic helper also pointed out that, although the online application system allows you to request any length of minimum stay you might desire, in practice they are only currently allowing 90 days on a business visa, and if you ask for any more than that, you might have your application turned down! Fortunately, I can 'revalidate' my visa by stepping over the border for 30 seconds; I don't need to get a completely new visa after 90 days. And I had planned to visit Hong Kong at the end of October anyway, so it shouldn't be that much of a hassle for me - although I would, of course, have preferred the flexibility of being able to take the HK trip whenever I chose, rather than because of this externally imposed deadline.

It is alarming that applications can apparently get thrown out for such 'irregularities' - which are not mentioned in the application guidelines at all. You can see why I've been so stressed about this for the past three weeks.