People in The US often say “Don’t Mess With Texas.” When it comes to the global community, I’m pretty sure the phrase is “Don’t Mess with China.”
Navigating the intricacies of the Chinese visa process can be tough, so I hope my story will help others be a bit more diligent that I was. It all began a few months ago when I decided to visit my friend Warren in Shanghai. He warned me right from the start that I would need a visa to make the trip, but I’d already obtained one before while living in Los Angeles, so I thought… “No problem!” Mistake number one!
Before I booked my trip, I checked to make sure there was a Chinese consulate in Bali. That was mistake number two. I was asking the wrong question. The right one was, “does the Chinese consulate in Bali issue visas to foreigners.” The answer to that questions was no.
I had already booked and paid for an eight day non-refundable adventure and treated myself to direct flights to and from Shanghai, mistake number three (more on that at the end of the article).
Deciding on the transit visa, I made the egregious and totally-my-fault, mistake number four. I didn’t count the damn hours properly. On various websites it states that your 144 hours begins at 00:00 hours day after you arrive. My previously booked flight was for Wednesday the 13th at 1:05am arriving in China on Thursday the following morning at 7:15am, and I begin counting my hours from the 15th. You see my dumb-ass mistake there? Wednesday’s 1:05am flight was for Wednesday MORNING, not the evening, obviously. Stupid, stupid, stupid. I proceed to count from the wrong day, and booked a return flight for 150 hours after arrival.
After speaking with my buddy in China, and a few friends who had lived there, I decided to just try and go. I was told that if they let me on the plane in Bali, I should just tell the immigration agents at the visa desk in China that I had messed up and ask to pay the fine ($75 for overstaying a day) or ask to change my ticket, apologize profusely and do whatever they asked of me to get my visa. That was the plan.
I arrived at the airport in Bali, and when they asked me about my Chinese visa, I showed them my second ticket and told them I would be applying for a 144 transit visa on arrival. They promptly issued me a boarding pass and sent me on my way (their mistake this time).
After taking the red-eye, and arriving in Shanghai, I was excited for my trip, and nervous as hell. There were only a few people ahead of me and things seemed to be going pretty smoothly. I had my hotel and flight paperwork handy, my passport showing my previous Chinese visa ready and open to the right page… I was up. The woman at the counter was having none of it. She counted the hours. I was 6 hours over the allowed 144. “Go sit over there, someone will be right over.” This is when the police arrived. They confirmed that I was who I said I was and called someone from China Eastern (the airline that had just flown me in). The airline offered to change my flight to leave a day earlier. They offered to allow me to buy another ticket to a different city so I could return the next day. They offered a bunch of things in Mandarin. Then they suggested I wait for the shift to change in ten minutes.
Ten minutes later, it was too late. Immigration officials came back with a ticket in hand. I would be leaving the country in 11 hours, and I was to sit there, and not move until my flight, they would hold onto my passport, and sat a police officer a few seats away to make sure I complied. I was not allowed food, or internet or a smoke.
A few hours later my friend called immigration and they summoned me to a booth to talk to him. He tried everything he could think of, from offering to buy a new ticket and bring it to me, to calling the US embassy. He was told the decision had already been made and there was nothing anyone could to about it now.
During the third shift change, I told my new minders the situation and offered again to buy a new return ticket home. Of course, that’s fine they said! Just do it on your phone, show us proof, and we’ll issue you a visa. WHAT!! Amazing. Just hang for a second while we get approval from the boss. I don’t have to speak Mandarin to understand the face of someone who’s being chewed out by their boss. The stiff shoulders, blank stare, and look of concern said it all. “Go sit back down, he said no, this matter is done.”
I was walked to my flight home, and guarded until the officer could personally put me on the plane. Only then did I get my passport back. The flight was then delayed another three hours on the tarmac. I was starving by the time I was served the poor excuse for beef and rice, in the small plastic container, but boy was I grateful as I scarfed it down. I had spent over 30 hours learning a valuable lesson. Count your hours carefully when applying for the 144 hour transit visa, and don’t mess with China.
ADDITIONAL NOTES FOR TRAVELERS -
If you have a KITAS you can travel to Jakarta for a visa.
I explored my options. Travel to Hong Kong was suggested, but seemed to be an expensive and NOT guaranteed-to-work idea. Send my passport to a US agency WOULD have worked, but it would require a valid California drivers license, which I no longer have, so that was out. That left one more option. The free, 144 hour transit visa on arrival.
Now back to mistake number three, which could have turned into mistake number four (but didn’t). Transit visa means just that - TRANSIT. You MAY NOT return to the country your flight originated from, but must travel to a third location. Luckily, the cheapest flight had a stop in Bangkok, not that it mattered in the long run.