Getting a Chinese visa in a hurry might not be something you think you’ll ever need to do, but I recently needed to do so and learned a couple of good lessons in the process that are worth bearing in mind the next time you have to secure a visa for your travels. Then, in terms of speeding up your re-entry to the US, you’ll want to take a look at Mobile Passport. We returned to the US yesterday and used Mobile Passport (our second time using this service), which saved us a bunch of time. This post is really about two entirely separate things, but it covers two key parts of my most recent trip that might save you some time on your next trip.
Part 1) Quick tips for getting a visa in a hurry
Visa Tip #1) Plan in advance
This one seems obvious, and won’t necessarily help you get a visa “in a hurry”, but it’s worth mentioning. There are many companies that offer to help you secure a visa by mail (whether for China or other countries that require US citizens to get a visa in advance), and that is clearly the easiest option for most people. This will cost a bit more than applying in person, but the service fees are fairly modest (I saw anywhere between about $80 and $150 for a visa to China depending on speed of service). While that fee range may sound hefty when stacked on top of the normal visa fee of $140 for US citizens looking to visit China, it isn’t bad compared to the potential time cost depending on your distance from a consulate. In my case, the cost of tolls, parking, and gas makes a third-party service seem attractive even before I put a value on the time savings. If you’re a planner, you might want to check out Allied Passport & Visa, which Greg used when he visited Beijing for one day. Here’s a link:
The basic process with a mail application is that you download and fill in the forms. Then you mail your form(s) and passport to the agency. They go and apply on your behalf, pick up your passport after your application has been approved, and mail it back to you.
Unfortunately, in my case, it was questionable as to whether or not I had the time to rely on the mail both ways, so I had to accept Plan B: Driving to the consulate in New York, where I learned….
Tip #2) Always read the directions. And follow them.
I’ll admit to having been in a bit of a hurry. I am normally the type of person to read forms pretty carefully, but we had decided on a few hours notice that we were going to get up in the morning and drive 3 hours each way to get to the Chinese consulate in New York City in order to apply in person. I printed out the relevant forms and started feverishly filling them out at the kitchen table around 8am. The consulate only allows people to enter until 2:30pm, and traffic / parking can be unpredictable, so we left the house before I could finish all of our paperwork.
That meant continuing to fill in the answers in the car, which was a challenge. We got to NYC and parked near the consulate around 1pm. As we were parking the car, I managed to somehow spill coffee on my carefully handwritten documents….and not just a little coffee. Enough coffee was spilled that I was then separating out the pages in the back of the SUV in the parking garage when they started blowing around and I thought I’d lose them. Ugh.
We didn’t have a lot of extra time, so off to the consulate we went, wet forms in hand (but drying in the heat of a summery spring day).
When we got to the consulate, there was a line out the door and we were immediately nervous that we wouldn’t get in before 2:30. We were quickly put at ease as the line seemed to be moving pretty efficiently. Then we got to a guard right before the entrance who does a quick paperwork check. He saw my paperwork and said, “Sir, you made a mistake”. I thought to myself, “Was it the brown tinge across half of all my pages or the translucency of the still-drying paper that made this most obvious?”. Then I realized he didn’t seem terribly concerned about the coffee, but rather had his thumb next to the line at the top of the form that says:
“Please type in block letters”.
Like selective hearing, my mind had only seen the part that says “block letters” and as such I had written everything in carefully-crafted capitals in between highway bumps and potholes. I’m still not sure how in the world I missed the word “type”, but apparently that wasn’t merely a suggestion. I temporarily feigned ignorance (what else could I do?) and said that I had written everything in block letters. He then repeated the words to me “Please type in block letters.” I pleaded with him to let us in with the handwritten copies, though I knew enough to know that he was probably right — the rules are the rules. And really, not all of those letters were carefully-crafted in between bumps. Between the coffee stain and my chicken scratch writing, it would be fair to say that my application wouldn’t have looked much different if I’d have handed a box of crayons to a three year old and let them have at it. Typing it was a fair request.
Unfortunately, time was running thin. Luckily, a kind soul nearby let me know that I could find a business a few blocks away where I could type my application. And sure enough, a few blocks away, I found a place with a back room that had become a mini computer lab, with a number of older laptops set up to a networked laser printer, where for the bargain price of $12 per person, you can type and print your 3 or 4 page visa application. I rolled my eyes at the price, but I wasn’t too excited at the prospect of a wasted 6hr round trip drive, so I made my donation to the local economy.
Tip #3: Budget some time
I’m impressed with the efficiency of the consulate as a whole. They move quite a crowd of people in and out each day in a reasonable amount of time. That said, each time I’ve been there, quite a few people crowded in a small waiting room. Submitting your documents requires first going to one line to get a number and then waiting until your number is called to approach a window. It’s not inherently clear where to get a number. My advice: ask the security guard who runs the security scanning equipment. He told me where you go and I wasn’t initially paying attention. Eventually, when I figured it out, I realized he had been steering me right all along. Same goes on your return for pickup — just ask someone where to go and save yourself a few minutes. It’s also worth noting that anyone can pick up your passport/visa with the receipt you get upon drop-off, so safeguard your receipt and be nice to your Manhattan-based freinds (or those who will at least be in town for a conference as was the case in my situation) as they can help you out in a pinch.
Howeverm, it’s also worth being aware that the timeline they give you isn’t guaranteed. My visa was ready in 3 business days (paid a little extra for faster service), but I did see people in my trips to the consulate who were told to come back the next day to pick up their visas. Whether those people had waited out the entire suggested wait time or not, I do not know. Both times I’ve been to the consulate, my visa was completed in the time period I expected, but others appeared not to be so lucky.
Part 2: Mobile Passport for speedy re-entry
Upon return to the US, we were arriving at JFK airport and departing again from LGA. This meant we would have to clear customs at JFK and then transfer airports. That wasn’t going to be an issue for us in terms of time (we had plenty of time on our hands), but I wanted to get through quickly since every minute less at immigration would be a minute longer spent in the Amex Centurion Lounge at LGA.
As I sat in the ANA lounge in Tokyo waiting to catch my connecting flight to New York, I remembered the Mobile Passport app, which is a free app put out by US Customs & Border Protection. Here are links to the Android and Apple versions of the app:
Once you download the app, you can add travelers by scanning each person’s passport information and then taking/uploading a picture of that person’s face. Just like with a customs form, you only need to do this once for a family traveling together (i.e. one family member can download the app and add the entire family). After entering and confirming each traveler’s information, it will ask you to choose your port of entry.
You also choose your airline in the app. Then, it will ask you the typical customs form questions about where you have been and what you are bringing into the country.
Once you have answered all of the questions, it will ask if you are ready to submit your answers. The app will remind you that you only have 4 hours from the time you submit the answers to go through immigration, so you’ll want to hold off on submitting the answers until you are at your port of entry. I submitted my answers while walking down the jet bridge on my way off my entry flight.
As it turned out, I definitely wasn’t going to need 4 hours. When we got to immigration, I looked for the signs for “Mobile Passport”. At our point of arrival (Terminal 7), that meant going past the normal entry points for the lines to enter the US and over to the Global Entry kiosks. While those with Global Entry were stopped at the kiosks to enter their information, I strolled right past those machines and up to the final line for passport control. You really need to look for the Mobile Passport signs and the logo, which, based on my two experiences with Mobile Passport (in Boston and NYC), are not very well posted. The Mobile Passport logo looks just like the app icon.
Be on the lookout for that image of an officer with an outsretched arm and either the words “Mobile passport” or the acronym “MPC”, which I assume means something like “Mobile Passport Control”. In both of my experiences, my eyes had to hunt for the sign and I had to resist the urge to get on the first line I saw with fear of the entire plane getting on line in front of me.
When we got to the dedicated line for Global Entry / Mobile Passport, there was a family ahead of us — but it was literally one family in front of us. When they were finished, we were up. The Mobile Passport app generates QR codes for each traveler. The agent simply had to scan the QR codes and we were on our way to the “nothing to declare” lane to enter the US (as we had nothing to declare). A second scan there of our QR codes and we were back in the USA, skipping the line and taking a grand total of under 5 minutes for re-entry at 10:30am on a weekday at JFK. The regular immigration line wasn’t outrageous at the time — but it was much longer than 1-family long. At a busy time, I could really see this being a huge benefit. The app is free and easy to use and doesn’t require any interview / set up apart from scanning your passports, uploading your photo, and selecting the basic information as shown above. It really couldn’t be much easier.
If you need to apply for a visa, do yourself a favor and read the directions. Failure to read the form instructions almost cost me a 6hr trip to New York for nothing. Luckily, a good samaritan came to my aid to save me from a wasted trip. Then, upon re-entry to the USA, I saved myself from waiting in a longer immigration & customs line thanks to the Mobile Passport app. Since that app is free, simple to use, and doesn’t require the prep work of Global Entry, it will become my preferred method of re-entry to the USA, provided this post doesn’t make it suddenly boom in popularity and develop longer lines :-).