Before I left to go on my visa run to Hong Kong, I really tried to find a site on the web that would explain everything to me. But I couldn’t find one. So I want to create a quick guide here to going to Hong Kong to change your visa status.
The whole thing is actually pretty easy, and once you get to Hong Kong there are so many English speakers that you really have nothing to worry about.
Here’s what you need to do: If you have a tourist visa and you want to switch it to a Z visa, there is no way to do that in mainland China. You have to leave mainland China to go to the embassy for your country (or, if you’re like me and hate waiting in lines, you can pay a travel agent in HK to go to the embassy for you). A great place to go is Hong Kong, because it’s close to the mainland and easily accessible and you don’t need a visa to enter Hong Kong if you’re U.S./British citizen.
What you need: You need a Foreign Expert’s License from the provincial capital of whatever province you intend to work in. This is a pink-colored piece of paper that says you are a foreign expert. You also need a letter from the Provincial Capital directing you to apply for a Z visa at the Hong Kong Embassy for your country.
NOTE: The letter MUST say Hong Kong. If it says “apply forthwith at the nearest embassy in your home country”, you will have to send it back to the provincial capital to be changed, which could be a delay of another week or so.
You also need a passport-sized photo for the application.
When you actually get to Hong Kong and apply for your Z-visa, the embassy or travel agency (whichever you use to get your Z visa — I used Shoestring Travel in Kowloon and they were quick and decently helpful and relatively cheap) will take the original documents away from you and just give you back a passport with the Z-visa in it. The Z visa will have a “duration of stay” of 000 (zero) days on it. But really this means that you and your employer have 30 days from your date of entry to mainland China to get a temporary residence permit so that you can stay in China. The residence permit can be valid for up to 12 months and allows you to travel in and out of China freely.
How to get to Hong Kong: If you’re relatively new to China as you’re thinking about going to China to apply for a residence permit, your Chinese skills might not be so good and you might be worried about expensive Hong Kong. I would say the first one, traveling with weak Chinese skills, shouldn’t be too much of a problem, and the second one, HK being expensive, you can’t do anything about.
But you should be able to get to HK pretty cheaply, especially if you’re in sourthern China.
Here’s how: Go to Shenzhen and take the subway from there to Hong Kong Go to this web site and look up the train schedule from your city to Shenzhen.
Shenzhen is in mainland China, right next to Hong Kong. If you take a train to Shenzhen, you can get off the train and inside the Shenzhen train station you can go through mainland China customs and cross over to official Hong Kong, and then take the Hong Kong subway to HK. (Once you get off the train in Shenzhen this will all be easy, because there are signs throughout the train station that say, in English, “HONG KONG”. You just need to follow these signs through the train station [most people will go that way] and you will find customs and the subway). The web site linked to above will give you pricing and time schedules for the trains going to Shenzhen. In my experience the site has always been accurate.
You have to actually go to the train station to buy train tickets in China. So go to your local train station and figure out how to buy the tickets you need. Basic Chinese should be able to accomplish this. You can say “dao4 Shen1 zhen4″, they will ask you what day, you say the day, whether you want a soft sleeper or hard sleeper (ruan3wo4 soft sleeper/ying4wo4 hard sleeper) and presto, you’ve got your ticket. (From what I understand, you can’t buy a train ticket more than 10 days in advance in mainland.)
If you’re traveling a really long ways and have money to spare, soft sleepers aren’t bad. There’s less cigarette smoke and it’s theoretically more secure because you get a small cabin with only 3 other people, so there’s less risk of someone poking around in your stuff. The beds are about the same in terms of comfort. The difference between the two is just that hard sleeper you share a whole train car with maybe 80 other people in 3-stack bunks, whereas soft sleeper you get a more secluded (and quieter) cabin with 4 bunks, 2-stacked.
Overall I think both are pretty safe. If you are traveling with a lot of stuff and are seriously worried about someone stealing your stuff, go with the soft sleeper, but if you’ve just got a bag of clothes and a camera, keep your money and passport on your body and sleep with your camera by your feet or head, and put your bag of clothes wherever. Nobody wants to steal a bag of clothes anyway.
When you get on the train and find your bunk, just relax. Someone will come and take your ticket from you. They will give you a plastic card. Keep this card. When you are close to arriving at your destination, they will come back and get your card from you, which will of course wake you up if you’re sleeping. If they’re taking your card, it means you’re almost there so you can get your stuff together. If you want to ask someone when you’re going to arrive, you can say “wo3men shen2me shi2hou4 dao4 Shen1zhen4″ (I’m not good at Chinese so the grammar here is probably wrong, but it gets the message across).
In Shenzhen, it’s easy to find the border. Cross the border and take the subway to Hong Kong. The HK subway is labeled in English and now that you’re in HK it will be super easy to get around because at least half of the people around you are fluent in English.
Once you’re in Hong Kong: If you have your papers with you when you arrive in Hong Kong, it will only take two to three business days (maximum) to get your visa. You might be able to do it in less than 24 hours.
If you’re like me and had to go to Hong Kong to wait for your papers to come in the mail, you might have to hang out for a while. If this is the case and you’re trying to reduce expenses, I would recommend staying on Lamma Island. It’s way cheaper than anywhere in HK and it’s easy to get to by a 20-minute ferry ride and much more relaxing. If you’re staying in HK for a while and want to keep costs low or just not stay in the busy city, just go to Lamma. But, if you want to stay in the city and money isn’t really a problem, SoHo is nice. If you want to stay in the city and you want to save money, the ChungKing Mansions in Kowloon (hostels) are definitely the cheapest place to stay in the city. I stayed in the New Peking Guest House (actually called the Peking Guest House once you arrive there) and it was satisfactory, about 180 HKD per night for a tiny private room.
I think that should cover most everything for someone who has to go to HK to change visas. Once you get your Z visa, of course, you have to return to mainland and still get your residence permit, which requires that you have a foreign expert’s card, which is like a second passport, kind of. So that’s potentially another hassle if your employer is as unhelpful as mine was. But this little guide should get you through the trip to HK and back without costing you too much money.
If any travelers in this situation actually stumble across this and have any questions, I’m happy to answer.
And remember to have fun while you’re in Hong Kong. : )