With two weeks to go, I figured I’d fill you all in on my painstaking process of trying to prepare for a move to China. A few weeks ago in my post Graduation: Becoming a “Real Person”, I mentioned that I may have to go to Hong Kong to get a work visa. Well a lot has happened since then, so wether you’re planning on going to China for three weeks or three years, read up because this could be you. If you’re never planning on going to China in your lifetime, sit back and enjoy laughing at my pain.
Recap: I accepted a position with Ameson Year in China, which is part of the Ameson Foundation. Basically, AYC hires recent college graduates to teach oral English in China. There are roughly 50 different cities in which we could be placed, and we can teach anywhere from 6 year-olds to 16 year-olds. Chinese students must all take an English test every year, and they all have an English grammar class that teaches to this test. This English class is normally taught by a Chinese teacher in Chinese. This is why many Chinese people are proficient in writing and reading, but never have a chance to practice spoken English. Because of this, many schools hire foreign teachers to teach an oral English class, in addition to their grammar English class. In order to qualify for a work visa and residency permit to teach English in China, I had to pass the TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) exam. In case you all don’t remember, I had to take the 40 hour TEFL class and two hour exam DURING FINALS. It was great.
I basically killed myself to get all of my paperwork in extremely early, so that I would be able to get my visa in time to spend two months in China over the summer. While most of the students are arriving at the end of August, I booked a ticket for July 6th. While I turned in all of my paperwork and completed my TEFL with more than enough time to get my Visa, I was informed by the AYC Shanghai office that they were waiting on a conformation from the TEFL that I had indeed passed. Apparently the notification with my score on the website is not enough for the Shanghai office to validate that I actually passed the exam. Once they have all of my paperwork and TEFL scores, the AYC Shanghai office can assign me a school and put together my visa documents to get a J Work Visa.
I was informed by a woman at the Shanghai office that my TEFL paperwork should come in “any day now” and that they hadn’t received anyone’s documents yet from any of the few people who had already taken the test. After waiting a solid week for these documents, we eventually came to the conclusion that there was no way I was going to get my visa in time. Great. Now what do I do?! There were two options:
1) Go to China on a tourist visa for the summer
2) Push back my plane ticket
Now there were pros and cons to both of these options. Getting a tourist visa would be tricky and expensive. Tourist visas for US citizens are $140. For non- US citizens? Anywhere between $30 and $90 depending on how long your Visa is for. I would complain about how unfair the situation is, but applying for a US visa is complete hell for Chinese people, so it makes sense that China would make it extremely expensive for us. So not only would I have to pay an extra $140 for the tourist visa, I would also have to go to Hong Kong to update my Visa in August once I get all of my documents. Traveling from Beijing to Hong Kong is about the distance from Massachusetts to Austin, Texas. Don’t quote me on that because I have no facts to back that up. Anyway: traveling from Beijing to Hong Kong is long or expensive (pick one). Also, as you may have read in my post Spring Break: Hong Kong and Macau, Hong Kong itself is extremely expensive. Hostels, food, taxis, subway- everything.
Pushing back my plane ticket also had a lot of issues. It was only $100 to postpone my flight- but I had absolutely no idea when my documents would be in. I decided to give it one more week: if the Shanghai office received my TEFL documents in that week I would postpone my flight, if not, I would go with the tourist visa.
After a week of waiting, it was time to start on the tourist visa. I set to work on compiling the documents, and man are they ridiculous! First is the Visa application, which is four pages long and must be typed in ALL CAPS. It also contains really fun questions such as:
- Have you been to China before? If so, list the dates of your last trip to China, where you went and why you came
- Have you left the country in the last year? If so, where did you go, when did you go and what did you do?
- Please list the names of all of your major family members, their occupations and how they are related to you
It’s a really fun four pages. But the joy doesn’t stop there! You also get to include your flight itinerary to and from China, and a hotel or hostel booking conformation for every night you are in China!
Now if you’re a normal tourist going to China for a few weeks, all of that information is no problem. But if you’re a backpacking Lonely Planet fanatic or… you have a job lined up for you in China and aren’t actually planning on leaving China aside from a quick trip to Hong Kong- “Huston, we have a problem”.
Let’s list my problems with this:
1. I have no way of proving how I’m leaving China.
2. I’m not staying in a hostel or hotel. I’m crashing on a friend’s couch until I find an apartment to rent
The plan was to take a 25-hour $70 train to Shenzhen (rather than a $180 plane ride), spend the night in Shenzhen and then take the subway to Hong Kong in the morning. I would then pay $3o to expedite my visa in Hong Kong, and be back in Shenzhen by the evening. From there I would take the train up to Shanghai for my job orientation. I’ve never been to Shenzhen so I thought it would be a nice little trip.
Problem: I have to show PROOF of my exit from China. You can’t buy train or subway tickets online in China. So then I tried the ferry: I emptied my skype credit calling the ferry company in Shenzhen- I think I called about 4 different numbers. If you think listening to an automated voice over the phone is hard enough in English, try it out in Chinese via your computer. The highlight of my day was when I was allowed to listen to the commands in English and I could have SWORN the woman said “Press two for phone sex”. What?! None of the other options sounded like what I wanted so I pressed two to see what would happen. Apparently it must have been “phone fax” or something because I got a screeching dial tone. Eventually I was able to speak to someone that sold ferry tickets, but he told me that you could only purchase tickets 10 days in advance. Ferry= no go.
Literally THE ONLY WAY of proving your exit from mainland China into Hong Kong is by plane, so I set about looking for cheap plane tickets or a ticket with a cheap cancellation price, so that I could pay $15 to cancel the flight once my visa was approved. This took FOREVER. I normally book tickets in China on cheap Chinese websites such as E-Long or C-Trip, but I had to go into the Chinese airline websites and look up their cancellation policies. Easier said than done when most of the information is in Chinese. Also, China has roughly 57 airlines. Again, don’t quote me on that number. To top it off, there are always at least 3 different “levels” of economy. The more expensive the level, the cheaper it was to cancel the flight. It was pretty much impossible to get a straight answer, and the information, prices, and cancellation policies are completely different on the English and Chinese websites. Eventually I talked to a woman from China Southern Air on the phone who told me that I had to use the English website because the Chinese websites only take Chinese credit cards. Guess which website had better deals and lower cancellation fees.
Eventually I found a cheap ticket with a decent cancellation policy through Expedia and bit the bullet. I had been working on this for two days straight, about a total of 15 hours. Day 2 I recruited my mom to help me, and we put her ticket buying skills and my Chinese knowledge and language to use. It was time to call it quits and I bought the ticket.
Now for the second problem. I’m not staying in a hostel or a hotel. Why can’t I write down the address of some random hotel? Because you need a hotel confirmation for EVERY NIGHT you are in China. If you are staying with a friend, you need an invitation letter, stating that you are staying with this friend for the entire duration of your trip. Jeez! So I set about to type up the letter. My first letter was somewhat simple, but then I checked on the website and I had to include A LOT of information, including: My name, gender, birthday and duration of stay in China, my friend Mark’s address, phone number and email, how we know each other, how long I am staying with him and what we are going to be doing. Really China? So I typed up the letter, ran it by Mark and assumed I was finished. I was so, so, very wrong.
On Monday I had an appointment with my Visa company A. Briggs. Yes, you need a visa company if you don’t live near one of the Chinese consulate offices. At this point I had what I thought was all of the information except for my plane ticket. After looking through my information, I was told that I needed a photocopy of Mark’s passport and visa. Really?!
So I contacted Mark and had him send me the photos, assuring him multiple times that he wouldn’t get arrested for hosting me. FINALLY today I had all of the information together and sent it in!!! Whoooooo
A few hours later I received an email. Apparently there were some problems. The first problem was that I can’t be hosted by someone on a tourist visa. It doesn’t matter that Mark has an apartment, if he’s on a tourist visa he doesn’t count. Second problem: China now requires you to document your flights BACK to your home country. Really?! What if you aren’t going back to your home country? Why do they care as long as you’re leaving China?! I’m not going home!
Thankfully, expedia has a 24-hour full-refund policy, and I quickly cancelled the ticket I had bought the afternoon before. Now, what do do about my host? My first thought was to contact my friend Will. He studied abroad with me in Beijing last year, and is studying abroad with the Alliance again for the summer and fall semesters. Will was one of the lucky people who got to witness me run an 8k in the jungle while wearing a dress. Since Will is on a long term student visa, I was told that he should able to “host me” in China.
After getting Will to agree to host me, I got a call the next day telling me that Will can only host me if he’s on a 12 month student visa. Great. Thankfully I had spent the whole morning searching for hostels with cheap cancellation policies just in case. Most hostels will let you cancel your reservation 24 hours in advance for no fees; however, you will lose the downpayment you pay to the hosteling website to book your room for you; in this case, about $50 (10% of my overall hostel costs). However, if you pay one extra dollar when you book a hostel on Hostel World, you can get cancellation insurance. This means that if I cancel my booking over 24 hours in advance, the $50 I paid in booking fees will be credited to my Hostel World account which can be used when paying booking fees for other hostels 6 months from the date of cancellation. Score! Now I have an excuse to travel more.
With the hostel taken care of, the only problem left was the plane ticket back to the US. I booked it on Expedia, which has really awesome money-saving policies that I may or may not have utilized…
So that’s what I’ve been going through the last month- all day every day. Keep in mind, the tourist visa process, while difficult, is not normally this ridiculous for normal tourists. If you’re planning a trip to China, most people usually have a round-trip ticket and hotel itinerary. The main problems arise when people are backpacking or “hanging out” in China without a real plan. On the bright side, I think this experience has been good for me (minus the future grey hairs I have probably been accumulating). It has taught me how to solve impossible problems and work around seemingly impenetrable red tape. Rather than cancel my summer plans, I’ve found a way to make it work… hopefully.
Honestly, I’m really excited for the future. I’ve been in contact with Mark’s real estate agent, Rainbow, who has a few apartments I can look at (Yes, her name is Rainbow). This will be my first real apartment! I have also been planning a trip to Tibet with the awesome Tibetan tour guide Lum Bum. In addition to Tibet, I have a trip down to Hong Kong and Shenzhen to look forward to. Finally, I can’t wait to discover which city I am living in next year!
Two weeks and I’m moving to China! Wow, I better get packing.