One of the challenges of long-term travel is getting visas while abroad. In order to complete our journey along the Trans Siberian Railway, we needed a visa to enter China. Ideally, we would have applied for our Chinese visa in the US. However, I had heard that the Chinese consulates in the US won’t issue tourist visas nine months out (before we left on our trip) and we didn’t have enough time during our stop in New York to apply for both Russian and Chinese visas. I didn’t this that this would be a big issue because I’d read a bunch of reports of people easily getting their Chinese visas in Ulaanbaatar (“UB”), Mongolia. Problem solved. Or so we thought…
Our plan upon arriving in UB was to head to the Chinese embassy the next day to apply for our visas and then pick up our passports the next week after visiting the Gobi desert. When we arrived at our hostel, we learned that there were two problems with this plan. First, the Chinese embassy would be closed for the whole week in celebration of China’s national holiday. Not a big problem, we’d just pick up our visas after visiting the Gobi. Second, the Chinese embassy in UB had completely stopped issuing visas to non-Mongolians starting in late August. Um, what? The good news was that there were rumors they had started issuing visas again the prior week. Maybe. Also, you now needed a letter from your embassy confirming your passport’s authenticity and that you were a citizen. Hrm.
Faced with this news, we commenced a minor freakout. Our Russian visas were expiring, so we couldn’t go back to Russia. If we couldn’t travel out of Mongolia via China, we’d have to give up our plan of completing the Trans Siberian Railway and fly instead. We floated our alternatives — Seoul (direct flights), Hong Kong, Kathmandu, etc. — all of which we could fly to without securing a visa in advance and any of which could work, but I was disappointed that we might have to cut our train journey short. Since there was nothing that we could do to resolve our visa conundrum before visiting the Terelj National Park and the Gobi desert, we left knowing that we would deal with the uncertainty upon our return.
The one thing that I did do before leaving for the Gobi was to contact the US embassy in Ulaanbaatar about that pesky letter that we’d heard we might need. I received the following response:
Thank you very much for your message and for informing us of the situation. We are aware that the Chinese Embassy is now requesting U.S. citizens applying for Chinese visas in Mongolia to submit a letter confirming their U.S. citizenship. Unfortunately, we are unable to provide such letters as the U.S. passport itself is evidence of U.S. citizenship and identity, requesting such letters violates several principles of established international convention. We have formally protested the practice of the Chinese Embassy and request that they eliminate this irregular and unnecessary requirement.
The response was perfectly understandable (and after all, if someone was relying upon a forged passport couldn’t they just as easily forge the letter?). Luckily, upon our return from the Gobi, I was hearing via Facebook that the Chinese embassy had started issuing visas to foreigners and that the embassy letter was no longer being requested. Our hopes for China were renewed! This was a good thing since we had started to get more excited about visiting China after reading more about the country during our downtime in the Gobi. Now we just needed to gather the required paperwork for our own applications. Should be easy, right? Not so much.
We spent a good part of the day filling out our applications. The application presented two primary problems. First, it requested itinerary information for our trip including hotel details. Of course we didn’t know this information because we barely knew where we might go, let alone when we might get there or how long we might stay. So we adopted the same method as we adopted for our Russian visas and just picked some popular locations and filled it in with hotel information from our guidebook. For our proposed Beijing stay, we also booked a (cancelable) hotel reservation via booking.com that we could print out to include with our application, since we’d heard that this reservation was required.
The second problem is that China requires proof of your transportation into and out of the country. We intended to take the Sunday train to Beijing assuming that we could get our visas during our Friday visit. But we didn’t want to book these tickets until after we had our visas in case there was a problem (and it turned out that we weren’t permitted to purchase the tickets until Saturday evening anyway due to a quirk in the way the booking for the Trans-Siberian works). We were easily able to book a flight exiting China using Priceline that was cancelable within 24 hours, but we couldn’t get any bookings to go through for a flight into China (perhaps because of the late timing). We ended up walking around town trying to find a flight booking office or travel agency willing to print off a “reservation” for us. Our attempts at being direct in the effort failed, but we finally found an office that was willing to print a proposed reservation while we “thought about whether to book the flight.” Such a dumb exercise.
The Chinese embassy in UB is only open Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 9:30am-12pm. We showed up Friday morning at 6:45am because we’d heard that on Wednesday you had to show up by 7:30am in order to be admitted due to the long line. It was a freezing 27 degrees Fahrenheit when we left our hotel. To make matters worse, I’d spent the night throwing up. Unclear if it was from my mutton overload/bad water/food poisoning, but I still felt horrible and the waiting outside in the freezing cold didn’t help. When we arrived at 6:45, there were already 9 people waiting, although not many more showed up for another hour or so. We waited patiently, taking turns to walk around the corner and into the sun to warm up a bit since our spot remained in the shade. Eventually, the mass of people waiting formed into two lines outside — one for Mongolians and one for foreigners. The separate lines didn’t seem to make a huge difference on the day that we were there.
Just before 9:30am we were allowed into the embassy as part of the first group admitted. While there were two windows with officers inside, only one person was handling visa applications (for both foreigners and Mongolians). One of the people in front of us was denied a visa because he’d recently traveled in Turkey. When we got to the front at 10:30, it was clear the woman didn’t really like us. She was upset that we’d marked that we are unemployed and didn’t care that I’d attached a bank statement proving that we had funds. We ended up having to write in the info for our former employers as though we were still employed (at her insistence). Then she was upset that one of my passport stamps was fuzzy and she couldn’t read it. We figured out it was a US entry stamp from our more recent trip to Colombia, but she looked skeptical. Finally, she told us that we needed to leave to get extra copies of our passports and reservations for all of our hotel stays (we’d heard that we only needed the first reservation). Ugh. It was starting to look like this visa might not happen after all…
We rushed across the street to an internet cafe. An old lady expertly made copies of our passports and visas (you got the feeling she does this a lot) and quickly made reservations on booking.com that we could cancel later that day. We rushed back to the embassy, talked our way back into the building, and then saw with horror that they’d let in a bunch more people and we were now at the end of a long line. There was no way we’d get to the front by 12pm. We waited anyway and were relieved to see that they didn’t close up promptly at noon. While the woman didn’t seem to like us much more when she finally saw us again at 12:30pm, she accepted our applications and issued us a slip to pay for our visas. We asked for one year, and she said something else back. Michael thought she said “two year,” but wasn’t sure. We then went across the street to the bank, waited in another line, and paid for our visas there.
We opted (and paid extra) for same day visa processing, so we were back at the embassy by 3:30pm for the 4-5pm pick-up window. Of course, they didn’t open the doors until 4:45pm. Finally, exhausted from a day of waiting and worrying, we exited the embassy with our visas in hand at about 5:30pm. To our surprise, we’d been issued a 10-year multi entry visa even though we’d only requested a one-year visa! At least one thing went our way.
After all of the effort and drama, it was a relief to finally have our visas and be free to continue our trip as we’d planned. Knowing what we know now, if I had to apply in Ulaanbaatar again I would:
•Prepare my paperwork more than a day in advance so that I could easily book flights on Priceline for both entering and exiting China (to be canceled immediately). Trying to find an agent in UB to help with this was time consuming and ineffective.
•Make reservations on booking.com for all of my “planned” hotels and bring printouts of the reservations with me to the embassy. My understanding is that this information is rarely requested (and I know that others in line didn’t have it), but I think that the officer was suspicious of us and made us go the extra mile. We lucked out that the hotels that we’d picked from our guidebook were available on booking.com when we rushed over to do the booking.
•Bring copies of my passport, including the front matter and the page showing our Mongolian entry stamp (as Americans we didn’t have a Mongolian visa).
•If you’ve previously visited China, have a copy of your prior visa/passport. I visited China way back in 1998 and didn’t have a copy of my old passport with me. To be honest, I’m not sure if I had my own visa and suspect that we had a group visa. Luckily, I think that the officer wanted to be done with us and accepted my explanation, but this could have been a huge problem.
•If we had requested a single entry visa (doesn’t make sense for Americans due to the pricing scheme above), be sure to clearly indicate how long you want the visa to be for. We saw a young couple picking up their visa freak out when they realized that they weren’t granted as much time as they had expected and were told that nothing could be done about it.
Although the visa application for Russia was longer and more thorough, our experience getting our Chinese visa was a huge pain. I’m so happy the experience is behind us and that it ultimately went in our favor.
[This blog post describes our visits to the Chinese Embassy in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia on October 14, 2016.]