*Tourists can visit Beijing and Shanghai visa-free for 72 hours.*
*Information current as of 23 February, 2012*
Unless you're from Singapore, Brunei or Japan (and can therefore stay in the PRC visa-free for 15 days), you'll need to get a China visa for Mainland China whether you're just here for a short trip to see the F1 in Shanghai or looking to set up shop in Yiwu sourcing socks and garters. We've checked and condensed the information from our other China visa posts, re-scoured the 'net and checked in again with our visa gurus Magic at Visa in China in Shanghai and Yuri at Get in2 China in Beijing to get you the latest on what you need to know about visas in China. More after the jump....
Which visa do I need?
With the exception of Hainan and the Pearl River Delta, entries into China for most nationalities require a visa. All China visas require a passport valid for at least six months. Cost varies by home country and visa type. An additional Tibet travel permit is required for trips to the "roof of the world." But for most China travel, these will do:
F visa (business visa)
The F visa is meant for those spending six months or less in China to do things like lecturing, short term business, cultural or scientific exchanges or an internship. It is not, however, a work visa, although there are companies that have their foreign employees working long term on an illegal mix of F or L visas and Hong Kong trips. If you're looking to work in China for anything more than six months, this is not the visa for you.
L visa (tourist visa)
The L visa is only meant to cover a "short stay" in China and is generally valid for 30 to 90 days. These can be extended twice for 30 more days each time from within China; any other extension or visa transfer must be handled outside of the country. The availability of longer L visas is in constant flux. Depending on your nation of origin and the climate of the unseen forces at work behind immigration policy, 180 day L visas are sometimes available. Generally, these visas only allow you to stay in the country for 90 consecutive days at a time, requiring a trip across the border at least every three months.
X visa (student visa)
If you're studying or interning in China for six months or more, you'll need the X visa, which should be provided by your school or company.
Z visa (work visa)
If you're working in China, you legally should have a Z visa. The actual Z visa has a fairly short life span, as the Z visa in your passport should be quickly replaced by a residence permit and work permit when you arrive in the country and start your new job. When changing jobs, the residence permit is transferable.
Know your visa
Get to China before midnight of the day listed, or risk turning into a pumpkin. And by pumpkin we mean "person who can't enter the country."
While those on valid X and Z visas can more or less come and go as they please, those on F and L visas may be limited to one or two entries into the PRC. Make sure you know what your passport says before you take that holiday trip to Laos.
"Duration of stay"
Approval of extensions vary by local (above county level) authorities. Extensions of L visas can happen in a few days before the expiration date, but F and X visa extensions need two and a half weeks before the expiration date to process.
All types of visas can be extended or changed, but differences exist.
The L visa can be extended twice, with 30 days on each extension. The extension can be added a few days before the visa's expiry date. According to Yuri, L visas can be changed into an F, X or Z visa in Beijing without leaving the city.
In most other cases, changing between types of visas requires leaving Mainland China, which usually means a flight to Hong Kong and a trip to the Chinese consulate. From there, CITS or another China visa service can help if you haven't already arranged your next visa. Taking a flight to Shenzhen and then crossing the land border to Hong Kong (a bus goes straight from the airport into Central) can be a cheaper route. If you only need an exit stamp, take a ferry from Xiamen to Jinmen Island, which is under the jurisdiction of Taiwan.
When switching to a Z visa, most foreigners can do this from Hong Kong, but some have to return to their home country. From stories on travel forums, it appears to be largely African, Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian nationals that may need to return to their home country. If you're unsure, e-mail or call your embassy in Beijing or Hong Kong (try a quick Google search for your home country and "China embassy" or "Hong Kong embassy").
If you're changing jobs in China (and moving from a Z visa to a Z visa), you shouldn't need to leave the country so long as you can a get a release letter from the company that you're leaving. If there's bad blood between you and your former employer that results in an inability to secure the release letter, then you may need to make time for a trip to Hong Kong or a holiday back home. Usually, though, changing your job but keeping your China visa isn't a problem.
When the rules get tighter
During the Expo, for example, there were stories of foreigners stopped by police who asked to see their passport and followed them back to their abode to retrieve it if they didn't have it. Technically, a foreigner is always supposed to have his or her passport on hand, but not many people want to risk losing it. Some foreigners have kept photocopies (photo page and visa page) of their passport on hand, but we've not heard of anyone stopped for a passport check in a while.
Visa help from the pros and helpful links
Meshing Consultancy Service
No. 485 Henan Bei Rd. YingLi building 4th floor 3B Shanghai, 200071, China
Tel: (86 21) 3301 1478 / 6307 5776
Mob: (86) 135 0182 8752
Other helpful links
Registration and visa information from the Shanghai Police
Chinese visa fees by nationality from the Commissar's Office in Hong Kong
Visa information from the Chinese Embassy in the United States