When I saw the schedule for the new year I was ecstatic to see all the three and four day weekends full of the promise and lure of adventure and exploration. Alix and I decided that during our four day weekend in May we would go somewhere. But where?! Tokyo? No, it's too expensive. Taiwan? No, the flights are terrible. Shanghai? Yeah, what about Shanghai? The flights are short and cheap and I've always wanted to go to China. I've seen the Qing Dynasty figurines on Antique's Roadshow. Maybe I'll stumble upon my own priceless treasure.
Now, before I booked the flight I knew Alix and I would have to get a visa to stay more than 24 hours. I also understood that as an American citizen, the cost of my visa would be significantly more than my Canadian counterpart's. Why is this? I do not know. I haven't researched (translation: googled) why it costs so much for an American to go to China and vice versa. But if you have and you know the answer, feel free to share.
Being fully aware of this, we decided to play the waiting game before applying for our visa. A single entry tourist visa is good for three months. If we had applied right after we booked our tickets, it would have expired before we got on the plane. And it never hurts to get a few more paychecks before seeing your bank account drain to a sad, lifeless lump in front of your eyes.
Here's where it gets tricky. And here's where I will do my best to explain the predicament I've found myself in the last few days.
All teachers in Korea have what's called an ARC- an alien registration card. We get these at the beginning of our time here and they help us with anything and everything. Getting a phone, setting up a bank account, you name it. For some unknown reason, the Chinese consulate decided that anyone who wanted a Chinese visa would have to have at least 6 months remaining validity on their ARC. Does your ARC expire in 3 months? Sorry, you're not allowed in. Oh, your ARC expires in 5 months and 12 days? Not my problem!
But what really bamboozles me is the fact that this rule (for some time, at least) only applied to the Chinese consulate in Seoul. I googled and re-googled a thousand different combinations of "chinese" "visa" "living" "south korea" and found the same thing every time. If you have less than 6 months on your ARC and you want to apply in Seoul, well you had better re-route to Hong Kong. However, you could make a quick trip to Busan and the friendly folks at any travel agency would be more than willing to take your passport and your money.
This is where it gets hilarious and painfully ironic. As I understand it, the you-can't-get-a-visa-in-seoul-but-you-can-in-busan thing lasted for about a year, maybe longer. When did it change and Busan adopted the 6 month validity rule? March 2011. About 12 days before I applied.
After having a minor meltdown (I don't care, I'll dig myself to China was repeated several times) and googling furiously, I began to find alternatives.
1) I called Kangsan Travel here in Busan. They're located in Jangsan and have a remarkably friendly, English speaking staff. The woman working explained that I needed to go to the immigrations office (located in Jungang-dong) for what is called a 외국인사실증명서 or a Certificate of Alien Registration. I went to immigrations and got the certificate, no problem. Then the next day I went to the opposite side of town and applied for my very own Chinese visa. Amazingly, I needed very little for what seemed an ominous visa process. I needed a passport sized color photo, an application, my ARC, my passport, the above mentioned certificate and a wad of cash. The kind woman working explained to me that the rule just changed in Busan. Like, watching the train pull away, you just missed it kind of thing. She then told me that she was sending all of my stuff to Gwangju, another city here in Korea. I suppose that Gwangju, like Busan before it, is still allowing visas to those who have less than 6 months on their ARC's. Why this isn't a uniform rule in all of Korea, I'll never know. Why this is a rule in the first place is even more puzzling. I put a rush on it, just in case, and she told me I would have my passport and a small sticker allowing me to enter China in less than a week.
2) The only other option I had was to send everything home so I could have a family member apply on my behalf at an American consulate. I believe there are only 5 Chinese consulates in America (New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Houston). I attempted to call the Chicago consulate to ask about the procedure and failed miserably, so back to google I went! Found out that it was definitely possible for a family member/friend to apply for you, as long as you could get to one of the aforementioned consulates. I had my mom on standby just in case she would have to make an emergency trip to Chicago, but so far it's been unnecessary. There are some things to consider if you'll be applying this way. a) Apparently sending your passport in the mail is a big no-no. So hide it inside your copy of The Great Gatsby or something before you ship it off. b) Hope it doesn't get lost. Or better yet, send it through FedEx so you can track the package. c) Hope even harder that you live close to a consulate and know someone willing enough to take the trip for you.
3) Don't have a friend that likes you that much? Live somewhere kind of inconvenient to all the consulate locations? (I'm looking at you, Montana). There are a ton of companies that will process a visa for you while you're living abroad. A little weird, I know, sending your stuff to a complete stranger. Not even stuff, your identity, really. I did some research and found a surprising amount of businesses, some seemingly more trustworthy than others. Call around, look for testimonials online, look for a company you trust completely. It's going to cost a pretty penny and you'll have to wait a bit longer, but if you really want to go, what other option do you have?
I dropped my documents off this morning, so I still don't know if I'll have a visa or not. I'll give an update sometime in the next week. So uh... mom, you still might need to make a trip up to the windy city for yours truly.
I know a lot of people could literally care less about any of this and probably stopped reading after "to begin..." But I know that I searched and searched and didn't find the direct answers that I wanted. I'm hoping that I will provide some of those answers if anyone else finds themselves in the predicament I was.
So for those of you that don't live in Korea, don't need a Chinese visa or have no idea what I just rambled on about...
Did you know? I'm going to Shanghai in less than a month!