Most of us Chineseily-challenged folks are familiar with the epic headache of leaving the country for a new visa. I’ve been to Hong Kong six times in twelve years, and sadly, only two of those trips were for fun. The other trips were hectic, stressful visa runs. Just two weeks ago, however, I successfully executed my fastest, easiest, most productive visa trip ever — 24 hours, 5000rmb all-in, and I’ve got a brand new multiple-entry F-visa in my passport — and so I’ve put this together as a (bit of a) guide for how it’s done.
This is, perhaps, not the cheapest option but it could be if you were willing to take trains instead of flights and sleep on those trains instead of in a hotel. I, however, wanted to spend less time on the road and more time in my Beijing bed.
The Challenge: Tourist to Business Visa
Luohu in Shenzhen always used to be my go-to visa run destination; the bus from the Baoan International Airport drops you miles away from the border crossing, you walk for a good half hour before you even get to customs and from there it takes about two hours to get across when it’s busy. Once on the other side, you are suddenly in Hong Kong, everyone one speaks English and you can buy soft-core porno magazines at the newsstand. Annoyingly, you are also stuck inside a Hong Kong Metro station, an hour out of Hong Kong Central. You are forced to buy an octopus card, get on the subway, go one stop on the metro line, get off, change trains and go back to the metro station to cross the border back into Shenzhen. This is if you just need that exit stamp. Staying in Hong Kong is a whole other can of expensive, overpriced cramped worms.
My most recent visa nuisance started after I quit my last job. I had a Z-visa but it expired while on holiday in Australia so I came back into China on a tourist visa and l started looking for gainful employment. Three months went by and I wasn’t ready to settle on a position. I was trying out a few things and working part-time but still needed a visa. I trolled the classifieds and was overwhelmed with doom each time an agent quoted me a price on a visa.
The Beijing Expat Service Center quoted me 8000rmb for a 6-month F-visa. A person called Ouwen with the email address Wanghon0203 quoted me 15,000rmb for a Z-visa, 9,200emb for a 6-month F or 7000emb if I wanted to travel to Harbin to process it. Also, while shopping for options, I ran into an agent who wouldn’t divulge name, company name or website. When I hinted at being justifiably paranoid about mailing my passport to Shanghai, I got a sarcastic and borderline abusive text from the agent at my implication. Watch out for this guy; his number ends in 92129 and advertises heavily on well-known classifieds sites claiming “all passports” and “reduced prices”.
Finally, as I was starting to think I might be on the next plane back home, a girl called Sally from Easy Service in Shenzhen emailed me back with a quote of 2000rmb for a 6-month, multiple entry F-visa. Dubious as I was at her lowball figure, I checked out her website and did some searching then decided to test her. I asked her if I could send her my passport and avoid the trip to Shenzhen. She pretty much told me no, and I was sold. I booked a one-way flight to Shenzhen (just in case) and packed an overnight bag.
I wanted to miss as little work as possible so I booked the flight for 8:30pm from Beijing which was scheduled to arrive in Shenzhen at 11:30pm. I used Ctrip to find a hotel right near the airport which didn’t require any advance payment. I chose the Tomorrow West Hotel (明天西部酒店) which was a 10 minute drive from the airport. Since I was arriving around midnight, I did not want to spend another hour going into Shenzhen before getting some sleep.
Another really important thing to know about the Shenzhen airport is this: if you are going into the CBD (Special Economic Zone) you have to take a red taxi. The queue for the red taxis at the airport is always about 800 people deep with an estimated waiting time of about an hour. If you are going to an address close to the airport, in the Baoan or Longgang districts, you can take a green taxi. The line for those had four people in it and I got a cab immediately.
The taxi to the hotel was 20rmb and the cabbie knew it right away when I showed him the address in Chinese. If you are looking at the photos of the hotel on Ctrip right now, you can just ignore them. The hotel’s website claims it is has a four-star rating, go ahead and ignore that too. The room was 178 kuai for the night, so I wasn’t expecting much, but even then, my expectations were too high. There is apparently a KTV lounge on one of the top floors, the reviews on Ctrip and other sites claim that it gets pretty noisy if your room is on a high floor.
Upon arriving in the lobby, bedraggled and exhausted, everyone was asleep except for a 50-something-year-old Chinese dude with a 20-something-year-old hooker having sex on the sofa by reception. This action did not cease once the intoxicated couple noticed me, I got an enthusiastic “HELLO!” and they quickly returned to their grindy ways.
After rousing an employee, I paid in advance and got my key. The room was dirty and old and I wished I had a bottle of bleach for the bathroom but the sheets were white and clean and the bed wasn’t too hard. It was absolutely acceptable enough to get a good night’s sleep.
Over to Hong Kong
The next morning, I took a 70 kuai cab ride straight to the new border crossing at Shenzhen Wankouan (深圳湾口岸) and crossed the border over to the Hong Kong side where I was told to meet Sally’s colleague and give him my passport. I had the choice of three times for submission: 8am, 11am or 2pm. I started crossing at about 9:30 and was through customs by 10:15.
At the port, follow the signs to Hong Kong…
Find the “Welcome to Shenzhen” door and go to the left of it…
Enter the departure hall…
You will go through the China customs to exit the country then through Hong Kong Customs. Don’t forget that, at every step you need to fill out a form, the forms are hidden towards the back of the rooms and you can easily get shunted into the line and not even notice the forms. You will need a departure form for China an entry form to Hong Kong and the opposite on the way back out.
Once you are through customs you are technically in Hong Kong but you are still on the Shenzhen peninsula. I should mention here that there is nothing on the Hong Kong side of the border. No restaurants, shops or street food, only two vending machines for beverages which only take Hong Kong coins. There are also no money change places, this is something I wasn’t expecting and really regretted not having breakfast before embarking on my visa quest. You should change money on the Shenzhen side, before you cross over.
Right at the entrance to Shenzhen is where I met the visa agent dude…
Sally gave me the name and number of visa guy but I didn’t need it, he saw a white girl and ran to me enthusiastically at about 10:30. He took one passport photo with white background (despite Sally telling me I needed blue), 2000 kuai and my passport and told me to come back at 3:30pm to pick it up. He spoke Cantonese, a teeny bit of Putonghua and the same amount of English so I waved my useless Chinese money at him and we played a game of charades to establish that I had no passport, no Hong Kong dollars and five hours to kill without sustenance.
The man tried his best to help by drawing a map to the illegal (no passport needed) money exchange people in the nearest town.
I hopped on the number B3X bus to the town of Tuen Mun and paid 11 kuai, the driver took my Renminbi and I got the feeling that he is used to idiots showing up without any local money.
Out and About in Tuen Mun
Tuen Mun is a small town, 30km out of Kowloon, connected by the metro. It has only recently been connected to Shenzhen by the Shenzhen Bay Bridge which crosses the South China Sea. It is 5.5km long and was finished in 2007.
I got off the bus at the second stop which seemed to be the heart of Tuen Mun. Unsurprisingly, I found my well-intentioned visa agent’s map to be of no help whatsoever and also found it very difficult to find someone who spoke English or Mandarin. Instead, I waved Chinese money around like an idiot and kind people kept pointing me in the right direction, I eventually stumbled upon the old part of town and wandered down an alley where I changed my money without ID and enjoyed the most amazing bowl of prawn and pork wonton soup. An enthusiastic lady chatted with me in the most confusing Cantonese accented Mandarin I have ever heard. She was very friendly and helpful; she told me all about the town and how it is so much better than Beijing. I had only been there a half hour, but I readily agreed with her.
Wontons and money exchange are conveniently located right next to each other…
The rest of my time was spent checking out supermarkets and stores and finding fun things, such as some people in a department store slicing into a whole pig…
…banks which consist of nothing but computers running stock market figures…
…and crazy burger variations at McDonald’s (Wasabi Sakana Supreme!)
Mostly though, Tuen Mun and the calmer parts of greater Hong Kong are so green, friendly, beautiful and awesome that I found myself in a real estate agent’s office looking into apartment prices.
At 3pm I got back on the same bus, the B3X which leaves from the same stop (same side of the street) as you got off at. Paid my HK and went back over the bridge and to the border crossing to meet my dude. He was there, passport in hand, big grin and glad to hear that I had eaten. In just five hours and for 2000 kuai I had been issued a fully legit, business visa with multiple entries to get me through the next 6 months in Beijing.
Back to Beijing
From Shenzhen Wankouan I got straight in a cab, directly to the airport, bought a ticket there and was on the 6:30 flight back to Beijing. The whole trip took almost exactly 24 hours, I missed only one day of work and spent about 5000RMB.
For those on a tighter budget, booking flights further in advance would really help. I paid almost full price for my tickets because they were last minute, but you can get them for as little as 900RMB if you are lucky. If you were really brave, you could probably do this in one day as flights leave for Beijing from Shenzhen as late as 11:30pm.
For a visa run, this one is pretty straight forward, and at some points, even fun. I loved the time I spent in Tuen Mun and it was really nice not having to worry about the terrifying visa harpies at the Chinese consulate office in HK Central…