Here at beijingkids, we try to share with you lessons we’ve learned the hard way, about life in this crazy city. See, for example, my colleague Pauline’s wonderful post on the true costs of moving to Beijing.
This post very much falls under that category, because I wasted several days recently trying to obtain a visa for a brief visit to Russia. China and Russia share over 4000 kilometers of border, and the railway trip from Beijing to Europe is one of the most romantic and exciting ways of getting home for many of us. But information about getting a visa in Beijing as a citizen of a third country is sparse online. (And please note that while I’m sharing my experiences in the hope of being helpful, and all information is correct to the best of my knowledge at the time of writing, these things are subject to change at any time, so please be sure of what you’re doing before spending money or making long trips!)
To begin with, it is likely that you will need a visa, even for a very short visit, if you are a citizen of China, the US, Canada, the UK, Australia, or most European countries. Many former Soviet bloc countries are exempt from visa requirements, as is much of South America. For the full list see here.
The only exception is if you are transferring planes, and remain within the airport. (Many flights to Europe change in Moscow.) You can get a transit visa if you’re passing through, which will be valid for three days if you’re flying or ten days by train.
But be warned. I’m flying out on a Friday to avoid the Golden Week price hike, and need to be in Europe on the following Monday. Perfect, I thought, three days. I’ll get a transit visa and have a little look at Mòsīkè.
However, my application was rejected. Because, as I was told, “Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday – that’s four days.” When I protested that if I arrived at noon on Friday, then at noon on Saturday I would have been there for one day, I was told that there was no time recorded on the entry stamp. Whether that makes sense to you (and it didn’t to me), there’s no point in arguing. Believe me, I tried.
But that wasn’t my first mistake. My first mistake was to turn up at the Russian Embassy, clutching my paperwork. Not only was I in the wrong place, I didn’t even have the right form. As a starting point you need to visit the VFS Global website. Here’s the link if you’re a Brit, other nationalities will have to use a little google fu:
As the website makes clear, you need to first check which sort of visa you need, then fill in the online form. The VFS Global website is slick and modern, but the online form itself is dated and temperamental, and I had great difficulty with it on a Linux and an older Windows PC. (The drop down menus failed to drop down, making it impossible to move on.) In the end I had to do it on my phone. Prepare for much technical frustration.
Even when you can access the form, it’s immensely long and complex, requiring you to list all the other countries you’ve visited (your most recent arrival in China counts), the numbers of your expired passports, which social media accounts you hold, and a great deal of other information. For one heart-stopping moment in the visa office, I thought my application might fail because I hadn’t provided a current fax number.
When you have finally completed the form (you can save it and do it in more than one session, but be careful to note the application number!) you need to print it out, sign and date it. You’ll also need a passport sized photo (4cm by 3cm), and all the documentation for your trip: flights in and out, accommodation, and medical insurance.
There’s one other document you’ll need (apart of course from your passport.) The only real difference between a transit visa and a tourist visa is that for the latter you need a “supporting document.” This is in effect a letter inviting you to visit the Russian Federation. If you’re traveling with a tour company they should supply it, as can most hotels. Once again though, beware. It needs to be in a very specific format, and if the right information is not on the right line your application will be rejected.
In the end I found it easiest to get it supplied by an online company. I was emailed the documents within 15 minutes, and had no problem with them. At GBP 15 they seemed a bargain (around RMB 134 at the time of writing.)
If all this seems onerous, then at least if you’re applying in China you don’t have to provide biometric data. So look on the bright side.
Once you have all the information, you need to go, not to the Embassy, but to the VFS offices on the tenth floor of the Oriental Kenzo building, by Dongzhimen subway station. On arriving at the office you’ll need to show your passport, then you’ll be given a number. And you wait.
Of the three occasions I visited the office, the first time I realized after 15 minutes that I had the wrong paperwork, and left. The second time I was third in the queue, and waited about 45 minutes. The third time I was 20th, and waited for around four hours. I am able to offer no advice about how best to manage this, except not to go two weeks before Golden Week, when the turnaround time for a visa is ten working days. And go prepared for a long wait.
One of the more depressing aspects of the wait was that, of the six or seven counters, most are dealing with bulk applications from agents and only two are seeing walk-ups like you, so the queue moves painfully slowly. Another is that, when you finally get seen, the staff are bilingual in Chinese and Russian but most don’t speak much English. (And why should they?) And the third is that if you don’t have the right paperwork you’ll be sent away, and have to come back to do it all over again.
All is not entirely lost: errors on your form (and there will be errors) can be corrected, for a small fee. Otherwise you can look forward to half an hour or so of your application being scrutinized line by line, by someone who looks as though your efforts have displeased them greatly. Apart from the fax farrago, there was a crisis moment when I was asked for the visa for my onward destination, and the fact that I claimed not to need one caused much consternation.
Once your form has been approved, you will be given four sheets of paper, which you take to desk number one. Here you need to pay for your visa, in cash, in RMB. No other payment method is accepted; make sure you have enough. When you have paid, you will be given two of the four pieces of paper, which you need to guard with your life, then bring back after ten working days, between 2 and 3 in the afternoon.
Easy, right? Well, I hope so. Because I still have to go back and collect my passport with visa, on the day before I fly. Wish me luck…