It Is Really F***king Hard To Get To China
I had every intention to write a positive piece on traveling to China, and I will, if I ever get in…
I guess I should start at the beginning. I found this insanely cheap flight through Next Vacay from Nashville to Beijing for $394 roundtrip. This is not a joke. The flight was Air Canada, from Nashville to Toronto with a 5 hour layover and then direct to Beijing. Ridiculous steal , right?! I had to book it. The universe was telling me to go.
After booking the flights, I read that obtaining a visa in China was not quite the same as it was in other countries. In most places, you land, wait in a short line, pay $15-$35, and they let you in the country. In China, the process is much more complex. As an American citizen, you are required to get your visa in advance, from the Chinese consulate in America (there are a few offices), and someone has to go in-person to do this. Our office would be Washington DC, which is a very long drive and a $500 flight. I wasn’t about to spend more money flying to get my visa than I did on my flight to China! Thankfully, my sister-in-law has been to China many times and recommended a travel visa agent who could do it for me for a small sum.
After booking the flights for Ian and I, we had a personal snafu, if you will. One of the kids from our charity organization was going through our drawers (you can’t have any secrets with teenagers around) and they must have found our passports. Of course, they took the passports out and flipped through them, which I love. I want to instill a sense of adventure and international interest in these kids. However, as teenagers so often do, they did not put them back in the drawer that they were in. Instead, they left them out, about eye-level with a few dogs who happen to frequent our space. Needless to say, the passports were not in proper condition to travel to China. They would have passed in most countries, but I knew that China was strict and did not want to get stranded in the airport after flying for so long…
Ian and I went to the Robertson County Clerk to apply to replace and expedite our damaged passports because we only had about two months before the trip and the government was still shut down at this time. The County Clerk told us that the passports were not damaged and that they would be fine. I don’t blame them because the damage would seem minor to most people, but most people in Robertson County haven’t traveled as extensively as I have and more importantly… Let’s be honest, China is a communist country and they want their things exactly the way that they want them.
So, we gathered our paperwork (visa application, all hotel bookings, adjoining flight bookings, passports, scanned passport copies, driver’s license, utility bill, etc…. It was quite extensive.) and mailed it to our visa company. Two days later, we received an email saying that the Chinese consulate deemed the passports “damaged beyond recognition” and they would be sending everything back to us. About 4 days later, the package returned. At this point, we didn’t have enough time to expedite the passports and get the visa. Ian and I had to drive to Atlanta and get our passports in-person. Since we own a small business, we wouldn’t be able to do this until we were off on Monday. We spent our two days off getting the passports and then re-submitted the visas with two day shipping.
I checked the status of the visa shipment after hearing nothing for 3 days and found that our shipment had made it to Washington DC, but not to the visa office. I was on hold with USPS (and I’ve never had a problem with them before, to be fair) for two hours, three days in a row, and every time , after waiting on hold for two hours, the line just disconnected and hung up on me. Finally, on the fourth day, I got a hold of someone at the DC office. She assured me that even though my tracking only showed the package being in DC with no movement, it was actually on a truck for delivery. She told me that they didn’t scan things on trucks, which makes zero fucking sense, but she was being rude and treating me like an idiot, so I decided to believe her. 4 days later, the package arrived at the visa office, 1 day shy of making our visa processing deadline. The visa company let us know that there was no way we would get our visas in time for China (please keep in mind that our actual passports are in this visa packet), but they would overnight the package back to us and we could just get a 72 hour visa for China when we landed.
You may be thinking, “I’m sorry, what?! You can get a 72 hour visa for China when you land and completely skip this entire consulate process?!!” Yeah, I was thinking that too. Why the fuck would the travel agency not open with that line? We had already spent almost $200 in fees with them and this entire time, we could have had a free visa because we’re only slated to stay in Beijing for three nights? I call bullshit.
So we waited for our visa packet (which was null and void) with our PASSPORTS in it (because we weren’t going anywhere without those) for two days before calling the agency. They told us that they would send them out that day, even though our agent (Vivianna) said she was going to send them two days prior. The following day, we still had no shipping confirmation from the. We now had 3 days before our flight left. Ian called the agency and demanded that they overnight the passports. They charged us a $44 fee for overnight shipping and an additional $38 to “print the label” for us. The passports arrived the following day.
At this point, we are feverishly searching the rules on temporary travel visas in China! We don’t want to throw away our entire trip because now we’ve booked hotels, tours, connecting flights, etc. Obviously, we used the Chinese Embassy website to get all of our facts because we did not want to be stranded in the airport. In addition to their extended visa that you have to get through the consulate in America, there is a 24 hour visa, a 72 hour visa, and a 144 hour visa that you can get for free upon arrival, as long as you fly into one of their approved airports. We had already booked three nights in Beijing, then 6 nights in Vietnam, and one more night in Beijing before flying home. Unfortunately, our flights were mismatched by an hour and a half to qualify for the 72 hour visa. We would have to change our Vietnam flights.
I called Cheapoair (whom I loathe) and paid over $400 just to move our Vietnam flight one day earlier so we could meet the 72 hour visa requirement. At that point, it was our cheapest option. Even if we just canceled our Cheapoair flight, they would charge me $150 to cancel. That’s some straight up bullshit. So, I bit the bullet, and changed our flights. I changed a couple hotel bookings too. We had invested so much at this point that I wasn’t willing to just walk away.
We checked in for our flight in Nashville. Everything that I read online said to tell my gate agent that we were getting the 72 hour visa so that they could tel Beijing ahead of time. When I told the agent in Nashville that we were getting the 72 hour visa, she confidently said, “You can stay in Beijing for 90 days without a visa.” Okay. Somebody didn’t do their homework… I decided to just speak with the gate agent in Canada.
In Canada, we explained everything to the agent and she took the time to input our connecting flight, even though it was through another airline so that when we landed in Beijing, they would see the connection and know that we were eligible and good to go for the 72 hour visa.
Ian and I enjoyed a lovely flight with our vegan meals (provided by Air Canada - Gold star for them), some complimentary Johnnie Walker Black, and loads of movies. We confidently exited the aircraft with all of our flights printed out, along with anything else anyone might want to know printed out for convenience. We clearly found the temporary visa desk and went to fill out our paperwork. Only, there wasn’t a 72 hour visa………..
They had paperwork for the 144 hour visa (which we didn’t qualify for because our layover airport is not one of the approved airports, and we already knew that because we researched all of this on the Chinese government’s website) and the 24 hour visa (but we are only staying two nights since we paid over $400 to change our booking so that we fall under the 72 hour limit…)
The gentlemen running the desk were very friendly and they spoke fantastic English. They clearly explained that we would either have to wait in this vacant section of the airport (with no food, water, shops, or wifi) or we could go to the neighboring desk and change our flight.
At this point, I thought, “Fuck it. Let’s just go to Vietnam,” but the agent called the airline and said that we would have to call them directly to make the change. He gave me a 5 digit phone number to call, which I didn’t question. Of course, since we are Americans, and our cell phones are American, and this section of the AirPort offers no SIM cards or Wifi, there was no way for me to call the airline.
I put a big smile on and walked back to speak with the guys who politely denied our access. I genuinely just wanted to know why they weren’t accepting us. We met all of the requirements form the government website! I had a screen shot of the Chinese website which read(s),
“1. What requirements foreign nationals have to meet to apply for the 72 hour transit visa exemption?
Answer: There are three requirements. 1. Citizens from the 51 countries under the 72 hour visa exemption program (America is included in these countries). 2. Foreign nationals with valid international traveling documents and air ticket for a through air ticket with confirmed date of flight and seat for a third country traveling within 72 hours. 3. Transit passengers from capital airport of Beijing, Pudong, Hongqiao, Airport of Shanghai, Baiyun airport, airport of guangzhou, or shuangliu, airport of chengdu, for a third country or region.”
The young man said, “Oh, that’s from Shanghai.”
I responded, “No, Beijing is listed too.”
I saw his eyes flash over Beijing and he said, “Yes. Beijing is there.”
This was followed by, “We don’t have a 72 hour visa. I am so sorry. “ And I believe him. He wasn’t pulling my chain, but after being presented with this evidence… Is there not an exception that can be made? Or at least a manager you can call?
Fuck!!!!!!!! How the fuck can I show you your country’s website which says that you DO accept 72 hour visas, and then you tell me that you don’t?? I know he was just doing his job but I can’t help but feel like this is a completely unfair crock of shit.
So, Ian and I sat down in the vacant section of the airport and waited. I was thankful that instead of drinking on the plane, I just allowed the flight attendants to drop off mini bottles of wine every time they passed and I collected them in my carry-on. It’s one of my many cheap travel tricks because… free wine!!!
And as I write this, I am still here, sitting in this vacant section of the airport, sipping my free airplane wine, exhausted, hungry, and waiting until we are allowed to leave…
** Update: When 7 hours had passed, we went back to the desk and the officer had changed. The new woman told us that we would have to book a new flight. I spent an additional $422 booking another roundtrip flight to Vietnam. They finally let us though. Let the actual China trip commence!!!
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