Friday, March 09, 2007

The Immigration Office

This is a very painful subject for me, and so I will keep things short and to the point: there is a lot of red tape involved with being a foreigner living in China.

I had a friend call me up a ways back. He was unexpectedly sent to the Philippines, he goes "Jeff, I will come drop by Shanghai!" I ask, "Do you have a visa?" He didn't, and that was the end of that. Travelling to China requires getting a visa, either from the Chinese embassy or a specialty tourist office. It allows a stay of one to three months, depending which Chinese embassy grants it, and how generous they feel at the moment - supposedly before Communist party meetings, longer visas dry up.

But I know a lot of foreigners stay in Shanghai off these tourist visas. It involves going to Hong Kong every three months, and getting a new tourist visa. It takes a few days, all in all the process and the flights and the expenses probably cost $300 or $400 each time. What a drag!

There's also the option of heading out to East Shanghai's super Communist-looking visa office, where they give visas to students and to workers in certain industries. Actually the visa office is in the back right of the picture, most obvious is the super Communist-looking convention center. These big ugly Communist-looking buildings are grouped together in Shanghai.

There's short term workers (who are granted a visa of one year) or long term workers (who are granted a visa of one year). I kid, honestly the potential length of the visa depends on the size of the sponsoring company, among other things, I believe it varies from three months to three years. There's more paperwork for the long-term Visa. But they both involve lots of forms, and waiting in lines that make me yearn for the pleasant experience of the DMV:

Saying the experience is Kafka-esque is so trite, but I'll do just that. It's a Kafka-esque bureaucracy where they're very firm about rules that they don't disclose. Not to mention: as an inexperienced foreigner, I'm likely to make stupid mistakes as it is.

For instance, I have limited re-entries on my visas, a fact I didn't realize until I tried to get onto a return flight in Korea, and was stopped at the gates! Later, I realized I need to re-register my address with the police within 24 hours, if I move or if I change my visa status in another country. I waited three weeks and ended up spending a couple hours in the police station, filling out form after form, and paying a fine of about $40.

To be fair, this system of registering with the police isn't just for foreigners. China has a system of people with citizenship to particular cities. In Shanghai today, being a Chinese person with a good Shanghai job, or even owning a house in Shanghai, isn't enough to establish city-citizenship. These non-Shanghaiers similarly have to register their address with the police, and don't have access to subsidized public health care, free education for their children, or other basic aspects of the Great Society.

It's been pointed out to me that immigration requirements are more difficult in the US. While that's true, and overall staying in China is much easier for US citizens than vice-versa, the US has a much larger system of green cards, permanent residency, and giving immigrants citizenship. By contrast, China doesn't even give long-term residency to foreigners who marry Chinese husbands or wives.

No comments: