PurposeVisitors to China are sometimes a little confused by the conditions applying to their visa. This guide aims to clear up common misconceptions and, hopefully, prevent you from having a nasty experience at the immigration counter.
Please note: Visa regulations change frequently. You should always consult the official website or consulate in your location for definitive advice.
Valid for entry beforeMost visas for China are issued such that the (first) entry must be within 90 days of the issue of the visa. You can check this by looking for the ISSUE DATE and a ENTER BEFORE DATE. This only becomes an issue for those who are on an extended journey and who wish to obtain visas in their home country before leaving. In such cases it might be necessary to obtain the China visa along the way. If so, it is best to choose a consulate in a developed country where staff will be more familiar with the procedures. If in doubt, Hong Kong is generally one of the easiest places to obtain a visa for China, and is a convenient entry point with excellent onward connections.
EntriesMost tourist visas are issue for a single entry. You can check this by looking for ENTRIES 01 (sometimes ENTRIES 02).
Only long term visas are offered with multiple entries and if your plans require this then you should consult a visa service for the latest regulations. Generally you need an official invitation letter to obtain a business class China visa.
ValidityChina visas have different wording for different situations:
DURATION OF EACH STAY: A China visa often states the maximum length of a stay. If yours say DURATION OF EACH STAY then you are limited to that period from the day of entry - where the day of entry counts as day 1. Typically the limit will be 30 days meaning that you must leave on or before day 30. If you plan on leaving on the last valid date do double check your calculations as immigration officers can apply a 500 CNY fine for each day that you overstay.
Those with more than one entry but a limit on each stay will need to leave the mainland accordingly. Often this means planning for a side trip into Hong Kong, even if only for a few hours.
VALID UNTIL: Long term visas generally state the final date for which they are valid.
Where there is a restriction on each stay (typically 30 or 60 days, see above) then it is more normal to have a ENTER BEFORE date that allows one final stay up to the stated restriction.
Exit issuesIf you exit mainland China with a regular single entry tourist visa you will need an entirely new visa to return. This sounds obvious enough but many people do not realise that Hong Kong and Macau are treated as separate for visa purposes despite being part of the People's Repulic of China. Those with a double or multiple entry visa may return to the mainland after a visit to one of these Special Administrative Regions so long as their visa is still within its normal validity.
Another catch occurs when travellers with a valid Chinese visa enter Tibet overland from Nepal. In such cases the Chinese visa is stamped as used even though a separate Tibet permit has been obtained and is sufficient on its own. Given that such trips return to Nepal the unfortunate traveller must then obtain another China visa if they intend visiting other parts of the mainland later.