According to a modern Chinese proverb, a journey of a thousand kilometers begins with a single ordeal involving two thousand kilometers of back and forth trips to get approval to travel. At least that’s what the proverb should say to describe my life recently. After five days in a row of endless worrying and numerous trips, I finally found a route and submitted an application that would seem to solve my problems, and today, a little over a week later, I would receive my passport back containing the temporary visa I needed.
Friday morning Sept. 8, I made my fifth trip to the Shanghai Immigration Bureau in Pudong, nearly an hour from my home and office. With the help of two kind officials there and the help of others at my work and elsewhere, I ultimately solved what looked like a disastrous problem with my visa (residence permit) in China. As a result, I will be able to leave China later this month to attend a major international IP conference in Amsterdam that I’m partly in charge of (chairing a day, serving as a keynote speaker, a moderator, and an advisory board member), but throughout the entire week leading up to that Friday, there was reason to worry that I would be a shame-faced no-show at my event.
Along the way, I learned that foreigners needing to attend international meetings can get special help that many experts don’t seem to know about. This help allows them to be able to leave the country and return while using a temporary M visa, which normally would not allow a return entry. Knowing about this option could come in handy for foreigners having trouble getting their work permit and residence visa renewed in time for the meeting they wish to attend.
I also learned that persistence pays off when facing visa challenges. I also learned that officials can be extremely helpful and professional, and even when they seem to be barriers, they may just be doing their duty faithfully and may give you important clues on what to do next, even if it seems like they are closing the door on you. Don’t give up, follow their directions, and you may soon find your problems over.
China has strict but reasonable regulations regarding foreigners in China. Working here requires a visa to get into the country, a work permit, and a then a residence permit (often simply called “visa”) to stay here. In my case, the work permit and residence permit need to be renewed each year, and the rules can change and catch individuals and companies off guard. A key lesson is this: don’t passively rely on your company or outside agency. Pay attention to your visa expiration date. Make sure you will be able to have your work permit renewed well before your visa expiration date because you can’t begin the renewal process for your visa without your work permit, and the work permit may require at least month of time.
So here are the details I faced and the paths I took that eventually resulted in success. My visa was set to expire Sept. 12, 2017. I was also scheduled to travel to Europe on Sept. 25, just after midnight, so it’s really like leaving Saturday, Sept. 24. My work contract was renewed in mid-August, shortly after I returned from vacation in the US, and then the HR department of my employer began an application for a renewed work visa. Near the end of August my work told me they needed my passport for a few days. I discussed my visa expiration with them and also my travel plans, and was told there would be no problem and that I would have my passport back soon. I somehow thought they would be processing both my work permit and my visa at the same time, but that was incorrect.
On Sept. 4, they returned my passport to me, but I could see that the visa issue had not been addressed. So I asked some questions and found that they could not submit my visa renewal request until they had the work permit approved by the government, and they didn’t know when it would come. Would it come by Sept. 12? Because if I don’t turn in a visa application by then, I’ll be illegal and in huge trouble. I was told my work permit could be approved by Sept, 12, but they were not sure. If the work permit did not come by that day, they would have to apply for a temporary M visa, and then later we could apply for the residence permit once we had the work permit. But upon further questions, I learned that applying for an M visa would lock up my passport for a couple of weeks, so starting an M visa on the 12th would not leave time to complete the process and have my regular visa in hand to allow me to leave and return to China.
HR told me that the M visa would allow me to leave the country once, but not return. To return, I would need to go to a Chinese embassy elsewhere and apply for a tourist visa to get back to China. This began to look risky. The city I would be in Europe, Amsterdam, has no embassy or consulate. I could go to another city after my conference, but it would be right before the National Week holiday, and I would expect the consulates to be closed. I also have heard that European Chinese consulates will process documents for Europeans but not Americans. Is that right? I sent an email to the Chinese embassy in Holland. That was about 2 weeks ago – still no response. Given the uncertainties of location, the possibility of complex rules and the likelihood of Chinese embassies everywhere closing down for the national holiday, the idea of getting a tourist visa after leaving China looked far too risky.
On Tuesday morning I had the brilliant idea of relying on my wife’s work to get me a spouse visa. We gathered the numerous documents that might be required and prepared for a rush application. But after contacting her school and my HR department and making additional inquiries, we learned that this route is not possible for an employed spouse and would require that my current company issue a document declaring that I had left work and was not employed. Definitely not a desirable solution. And even doing that in appearance only would destroy my existing and pending work permit and result in months of hassle and delay before getting a new one, if it would even be possible. Forget that.
So our choices became: 1) hope for the best and get the work permit by Sept 12, and then apply for the residence permit, with just enough time to have it by Sept. 22, the last business day before my trip, or 2) assume the worse and begin the M visa application process now. After receiving the M visa, I could immediately seek accelerated processing of the residence permit by paying a 2000 RMB fee (about $300) out of my pocket, and there would be just enough time, if all went well, to get the residence permit before my trip to Europe.
After thoughtfully and prayerfully considering things, my wife and I both felt that we should choose option 2, assume the worst. This would involve a great deal of hassle and some expense, but would reduce overall risk. Of course, if we were wrong about assuming the worse and if, instead, my work permit was approved by Sept. 12, it would be too late to abandon the M visa, and we would be pursuing a path that would waste a lot of time and money and even increase the risk of disaster because any glitches in the process might cause enough delay to overthrow my plans. It would be so nice if we could just get that work permit approved by Sept. 12, and then have time for a normal visa application. But the path of hope felt too dangerous. We choose to assume the worst.
With a cluster of documents in hand, on Wednesday morning, Sept. 7, I began the long trek to the Immigration Bureau in Pudong, about 1 hour by taxi from our home. I was one of the first in line. When it was my turn, I talked to an official behind a window and explained my situation with a meeting in Europe I needed to attend, an expiring visa, a work permit in process, etc. She looked at my documents and said I was missing an operating permit/business license for APP. Could I get that? And then she said there may be a route for me but I needed to first talk to a leader. “A leader? Where?” I asked. “Over there, at windows 6 through 8,” she said. So I went over to a special section where people were waiting to see one of these mysterious “leaders.” While waiting, I called my colleague at work, our IP manager, and he was able to immediately fax a copy of our business license to the fax receiving office at the Immigration Bureau, which I was able to quickly pick up while my place in line was held by my bag and the help of the line attendant. I came back and felt I had all my documents ready and soon it was my turn to talk to a leader.
I spread out my documents and called attention to the printed information about the World IP Summit I was attending in Amsterdam, where I am the chair for day one and also a keynote speaker, panelist, moderator, and board member. This “leader” (as I assumed she was) said since this involved an urgent international meeting, the Immigration Bureau did have a special route that would help me. I could apply for an M visa plus receive a one-time-exit-and-entry pass that would allow me to come back into China. Wow, problem solved!
But the letter my HR department had issued with my documents, the letter describing my problem and need, was wrong. It made no mention of my meeting and needed to be rewritten to request that special exit-and-entry pass in order to attend an international meeting. China did have a solution for such situations, reflecting a wise awareness of the importance of having professionals attend international conferences, exhibitions, etc. Until that moment none of the experienced people I had talked to in APP and outside of APP in my numerous attempts to get help had shown any awareness of such a route. It would prove to be a surprise to all of them. Since it is not well known even among those handling visa issues all the time, I feel it is important that I share this information for those it may help one day.
The kind, helpful “leader” had suddenly filled me with hope and confidence. All I needed was to rush back to the office, get a new introduction letter written and stamped (nothing is official it often seems unless there is a red official stamp on it), and then rush back to the kind “leader” to hand her my documents for approval and smooth sailing.
Back in the office, with the help of our IP manager, I soon had the corporate stamp on a newly drafted letter. The letter requested that the M visa be valid for 2 months from today (30 days is the max, I would later learn) to leave enough time to still process the regular visa after my return on Oct. 7. My colleague also got my more formal stamped copies of our business license and operating permit. And so, back I went to the Immigration Bureau, happy and confident with the end in sight at last.
On my way, I would be joined by Paganini, a Chinese artist who sometimes is an extra Chinese teacher whom I pay for occasional help with translation or bring along when I might need a native speaker. He had called asking if we could meet today, and instead of putting him off, I felt he could help with the final touches of the visa process, and so invited him to come along with me to the Immigration Bureau. He would spend the whole exhausting afternoon with me.
I got right back in the same line to see the “leaders” and soon had my chance to go over to the kind woman who had given me such hope. She recognized me and then seemed to scowl – what? just my imagination? – and in a curt motion pointed to the empty window next to her and told me to sit there and wait. Huh? Something had changed, I feared. What’s going on? After a few minutes an officer in a police uniform came over and began the discussion. “What do you want?” I sensed something was wrong already. Had my case been discussed and found wanting? Maybe it’s just the endless stream of clueless foreigners that takes its toll on the hard-working, very professional police staff who work there, I don’t know, or perhaps my sense of relief and confidence from the morning was annoyingly present. And really, it must be a pain to deal with cocky foreigners who don’t follow the rules and get into visa trouble all the time and expect special exceptions for them. My problem was my fault, ultimately, though also caused by some mistakes in my company. And yes, I was looking for special help.
I explained that I had a meeting in Europe and was chairing part of it and …. She asked me to quit talking so much and instead got right into some key issues. First, “Who told you could get a pass to come back into China?” Then came my biggest mistake, I think. “A leader.” “A leader? Who?” “Yes, the leader next to us.” “No, she’s not a leader. I’m the leader. She’s my employee.” Oops. I had assumed that everyone working at windows 6 through 8 were the “leaders” and did not recognize that there was just one actual leader. Perhaps it didn’t matter to her really and she was just clarifying things for me, but I felt I had done something very stupid. This was the appropriate time to break out into a vigorous and humbling sweat, abandoning all hope as the glorious light at the end of the tunnel was replaced with a massive locomotive of doom coming straight at me. She glanced at my documents and said, “Where is your work permit?” “Why don’t you have it?” When was it applied for?” “Why don’t you know?” At this point I saw nothing but doom, but she was actually just being professional, direct, and helping me understand what was missing. In fact, her guidance would prove to be essential. But in my mental state, I just heard this message: “Abandon hope. You aren’t going to Europe. All the money you’ve spent for tickets and hotels, all the arrangements you’ve made, all the work you’ve done for the IP conference, will all be wasted.”
I pointed to the printouts HR had given me from the work visa submission portal, but these were not helpful because they were unofficial and lacked a red stamp. My friend, Paganini, jumped in and tried to help explain things. She asked who he was and told him to not interrupt. She began speaking rapidly with some kind of directions. I apologized that my Chinese was not very good and asked if she could she please speak more slowly. Instead, she switched to English, rather good English, which caught me by surprise. But it was hard to hear clearly, especially in my panicked mental state, in a noisy environment, as she spoke from behind a glass window. She told me that I needed to go to the Label Department. The Label Department? Yes, and then I can get a label stamp. A label stamp? Yes, the label stamp. I didn’t dare ask too many questions, and was desperately hoping that our HR people might know what a “label stamp” was.
“Excuse me, could you tell me where to go to get the label stamp?” She handed me a sheet of paper with many offices listed and circled one. Bingo, a ray of hope. Perhaps I could go there, get the label stamp on my printout or something, and maybe come back and try again? But, she warned, my request seemed unreasonable and at best she might give me a pass for a few days but not for such a long period of time (the revised letter from my work asked for two months, which was way too long). Alas, no hope, I thought. But in reality she had been quite helpful. But I was tired and frustrated and ready to give up. So off I went, dripping in sweat and consternation. I must have looked even more ridiculous than when I started.
It would be about three hours later, after Paganini and I had faced further disappointment, that I finally understood what I should have understood immediately. The stamp we needed was not a label stamp from the label department – I heard her incorrectly (her English was excellent) – but a stamp from the Labor Office that handles work permits. A labor stamp! One mystery solved. That recognition came after we had already gone to the office she had circled for us to visit. It was the Jingan District labor bureau and after waiting there about an hour, we finally talked to a very kind, smiling officer – everyone there seemed friendly and service oriented, such a delightful place that filled me with the hope of getting some help. This smiling officer looked at my printout and said it looks like my work visa was being handled by the Hankou District labor bureau, not this office. Sorry, you’re in the wrong place. Sigh! Jingan was the logical office since our HQ was established there, but for some odd reason our HR group long ago must have arranged for work visas to go through Hankou.
The Jingan officer kindly wrote down the address of the Hankou office that we would immediately rush to: 123 Zhongshan North Road, or so I thought. So both of us thought. It took 3 tries for a taxi to be willing to take us there (the first two rejected us because we only had an address, not a cross street). The third used GPS and took us on the long journey to what suddenly looked like the wrong place. No sign of a government office there. The cabbie then looked at out little slip of paper and noticed two overlooked tiny little marks that turned the address into 1230 Zhongshan North First Road, a place still quite far away. By the time we got there, just minutes after 4:30 PM, the labor office was closing, which was a shock since the Jingan office we came from was opened until 6 PM, so I thought there would be plenty of time. Missed it by minutes. A loss. But there was probably no hope anyway.
The leader at the Pudong bureau seemed to have put us back to option 1, hope for the best and pray that we get the work visa by Sept. 12. I was sick of wasting so much time on this fruitless chase. Three days had been ruined. Tomorrow I would get back to my innovation conference and do something more productive for my company than chase after an elusive visa.
One of the many blessings along this path, a painful path in which every step helped and ultimately blessed me to get what I needed, was that the innovation conference was particularly poor, at least in terms of my needs on that Thursday morning. It’s one that I had spoken at previously and now had a free ticket as a former speaker. While the lineup looked great, there was something about the setting and the audience that hinted of low energy right away, and then the first two speakers I heard disappointed me. I wasn’t getting anything out of this event and was feeling more and more antsy, feeling that I was wasting my time here and actually began feeling that it was time to get back to my visa process, that I couldn’t stop yet and couldn’t give up on my plans or fall into the “hope for the best” option. Go!
So as a speaker was fumbling around trying to help the conference organizer find her PPT slides on her jump drive, I just walked out quietly and decided to go the Hankou labor office again. I reasoned that if I could just get their help to ensure my work permit is approved by Sept. 12, my problem would be solved. I’d go there for a few minutes and then go back to the innovation conference in an hour or so. But I would never return.
The Hankou labor office staff member was very friendly and kind, but told me that they could do nothing to accelerate the process, and that it might not be ready by Sept. 12. Sigh! Could I get a stamp on my printout from their website to answer questions for the police woman at the Immigration Bureau? No, they couldn’t do that, but there was a stamped document they had already given my work that I should go get. I called HR and they said the document I needed was with our visa service firm that handled visa work, and their office was just around the corner from the labor office where I was. So I went there and surprisingly was able to get help right away from a man who is normally quite busy. He produced the stamped labor document for me, giving me the original and a copy, and also was the first one to give me detailed answers to my questions. He explained that the safest route probably was to get the M visa. If I applied for it that day, there would be time to get my M visa and then, with an accelerated residence visa process, just barely enough time, not a day to spare, to pick up my visa and passport on the last business day before my trip.
Time was of the essence, though, so off I ran once again to the Immigration Bureau. I got there during their lunch and had to wait an hour before processing began. I took a number for the regular service windows, but seeing that there were about 40 people ahead of me, figured I would have time to first go through the special line to see the “leaders,” where I decided to risk talking to the police woman again and apologize profusely for my stupid mistakes and ask for mercy. I was soon invited to the dreadful window where my hopes had been dashed yesterday, but this time it was a different leader, a man in a police uniform. I humbly sat down and tersely explained my situation, handing him the letter. He asked to see information about my meeting and proof of the tickets I had bought, and then he said, “What you need is an M visa with a one-time in-and-out pass to attend an international meeting. Here, I’ll sign a note to that effect for you on your M Visa application form. Your pass will be good up to the day you return, Oct. 7.” Boom. In seconds, my dashed hopes were restored. He sent me back to the regular processing area where I was already queued in the system. Wonderful! Could it be so easy after all?
As I went back to the regular waiting area, I had another moment of panic. I was suddenly missing the passport photos that I had printed and had in a clear plastic bag inside a larger for safekeeping. I had them moments earlier and would need them now. I traced the few steps I had taken, looked under chairs, talked to a maid, talked to the line attendant, looked around the window where I had just been seated, checked my belongings again – they were truly gone and I never figured out what happened to them. In about 10 meters of walking I had lost them. Now what? It looked like I still had about 5 minutes before my number came up. I remembered that you could get passport photos taken on the ground floor, two stories below, so dashed down the escalator, ran over to the photo area, was amazed that there was no line to wait in, and immediately had a photographer taking my photos. I paid for them and then they were printed, and I dashed back up the escalator. When I arrived, my number was listed. Window A10 was open and waiting for me. Seconds later I would have lost my place and would have had to start over with a long queue.
She examined all my documents and the signed note from the leader. She said she could give me a 30-day M visa that would expire on Oct. 7. I recalled that my airplane was scheduled to arrive t 11:15 PM on Oct. 7. If it was a little late, it would be Oct. 8 when I reached customs. That would be a problem. What could I do? She said I could come back the next day, Sept. 8, and get a visa that would expire Oct. 8, giving me some extra cushion. But I was so sick of all the time I had spent already that I just wanted to hope that the place would be on time and that all would be well. I told her to process it today. OK, and she gave me a printed receipt for my M visa, including the electronic photo I had just taken (it was probably for the best to have the convenience electronic photo in their system) and folded up all my papers and passport and put them in a stack somewhere.
Off I went, relieved to be finished – and then I began to worry that I had made a terrible mistake. Even if the plane was on time, it would be hard to get to customs before midnight. Lines could be huge and slow. And it could take a long time to deplane. What was I thinking? Gave it a bit of thought and prayer and realized that of course, yes, I needed to change. So I turned around and went back to the same woman and apologized. “I’d like to start this tomorrow if possible.” She was OK with that and handed my back my materials.
Friday morning I was back and the same woman who was familiar with my situation and had examined my materials took them again, reprocessed my M visa application, and moments later handed my new receipt. My passport would be ready Sept. 19, today, and I would indeed receive it with a beautiful M visa that expires on Oct. 8, with a one-time entry pass and a note that I get another 30 days once I enter China again. Whew! Problem solved.
The part about restarting the clock with another 30 days was something I didn’t understand at first. In fact, after turning my materials in on Sept. 8, I was halfway to work again when I began to worry again. I would come back Oct. 7, my visa would expire Oct. 8, a Sunday, and then I would be illegal on Monday, Oct. 9, before I would have time to apply for a residence permit. What to do? So I turned around and went back to the Immigration Bureau for my 5th time and asked the same woman this question, who kindly explained that I would get another 30 days upon re-entering China. Nice!
So many frustrations and problems, but the problems were solved as helpful officials explained a route that I didn’t know existed. But next year, I’ll be careful to avoid travel plans that might run unto these kind of trouble near visa renewal time, and I will take more initiative to make sure my work visa is being renewed well before my visa expires so there is enough time to be sure of getting it back first. Don’t want to go through these experiences again! But am grateful I did. I feel like I learned a lot about China in the process, and feel so grateful that everything I needed was provided in the end, just in time.
I also was reminded that even when things go wrong and disaster seems to be looming, positive steps to take can be found through prayer. The whole journey of this process was the result of many small blessings that ended up teaching me many things, some of which may be beneficial to others later. Don’t give up prematurely and never give up on prayer in dealing with all your challenges.
Finally, as I waited for my passport to be processed, the final lurking question was when would my work visa be approved? If it was approved on July 12 by about 3 pm, then this whole tedious process would have been unnecessary. I could have just waited patiently, got the approval, and then submitted my normal residency permit application that day. Had I wasted a week of effort for naught?
My work visa was finally approved on Sept. 13, one day too late for the optimistic approach. The effort was needed after all. In fact, my personal, time-consuming effort was needed because had I relied on others to process this, the ideal route would not have been discovered. Plus had I tried to rely on our outside agency, the delays that would introduce would probably have resulted in further trouble and ultimately left me having to cancel the trip.