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To travel into China most nationalities need a visa stuck into their passport. It is highly recommended that you search online for your nearest Chinese embassy or consulate and check carefully the current rules and regulations regarding visa issuance.
To save time while travelling, it is wise to apply in your own country. Look on www.visaforchina.org first to check if your country is supported by an official application centre. If it isn't then use a search engine to locate a suitable visa agency if you cannot easily get to the Chinese diplomatic mission. Residents of the USA must apply at the diplomatic mission which holds jurisdiction over the State in which they reside. See here for further information: http://www.china-embassy.org/eng/zmzl...
Note that for immigration purposes, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan are not considered part of China. They have their own exit and entry protocols, including visa requirements. Flights or other passage between mainland China and any of these places are considered international journeys and these places are effectively treated as different countries. If you travel to any of these places from China you will have exited China so if you want to go back into China afterwards be sure you have applied for and been granted more than a single-entry.
A Chinese visa specifies how many times you may enter the country as well as how long you can stay for each time. Options concerning this may be exercised during the application process.
To apply for a tourist visa, in addition to your passport, you will generally need a completed visa application form, one recent passport sized photo and evidence of accommodation booking and flights or other passage in and out of the country. The documents required to support a tourist visa application vary from country to country and are dependent upon the passport you hold. In all cases, your passport must have at least 6 months remaining validity at the time of application - if you are applying for a double- or multi-entry visa your passport may need to have a longer remaining period of validity.
It is usually recommended that you apply for your visa 1 - 2 months before your intended travel. Tourist visas are normally valid for 3 months from the issue date for your first entry into China. After entering China you are then permitted to stay for the length of time indicated on your visa. If you apply too early, and even if you state clearly when your confirmed travel dates are, you may find that your visa has already expired. It is very important that you have a correct and valid visa. If you do not, it is likely that you will be refused entry at the border even if you are (mistakenly) permitted to board any transport to China. See this traveller's unfortunate experience: http://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowTopic-...
When completing the itinerary section of the visa appication form it is recommended that you do not mention Tibet. If you intend to travel there you will require a special permit and must join a tour group. This can be arranged before you arrive in China but due to political sensitivity it is not advised that you mention this on your visa application. You are not bound to the itinerary you declare, nor to staying at the accommodation you list or even to use the means of transport stated. These things can be changed after you have applied or when your visa is granted.
For a longer visa, it is a good idea to write a long itinerary visiting many provinces. For tourist visas, durations of stay are usually 30 or 60 days and only 90 days or longer under exceptional circumstances. You can extend a tourist visa once when in China at the local Public Security Bureau Entry-Exit Administration office for a fee, or if you have a double- or multi-entry you can leave China by crossing the border at Hong Kong, for example, and then return to start a new entry.
Normally it will take 4 working days to process an application. However, you may have the option of a second day pick-up or third day pick-up if you want to pay extra, or you may be able to complete your application by mail.
Visa issues are often discussed in the forums and you may find that your questions have already been discussed many times. However, the immigration rules were completely overhauled in the summer of 2013 and it is therefore not advisable to rely on the information in any posts that were written before this.
For information about obtaining a Chinese visa in Hong Kong you should look at Top Questions in the Hong Kong destination forum. Here you will find links to information about applying for a standard tourist visa as well as the special visas that may be granted on arrival at certain border points between either Hong Kong or Macau and China. Note that these special visas are very limited in scope, both geographically and temporally, and are not available to all passport holders.
For information about the special rules regarding visa on arrival in Hainan you should refer to either the Sanya or Haikou destination forums where this issue is discussed. Again, you should note that this is not a regular visa and does not permit you to travel anywhere else in China. The rules of issuance are very specific and it should not be thought of as a 'visa-on-demand'.
For information about transit without visa (TWOV) see this article: http://www.tripadvisor.com/Travel-g29...