Getting a Visa

The first step of getting to China was to get a valid visa. I already had a 10-year multi-entry visa but that was only valid for 60-days at a time and on top of that China had revoked all outstanding visas in 2020 because of COVID. Fortunately, the Microsoft China visa office was there to help me although they were very confused about the whole situation. Their first suggestion was to get a PU-letter but then they concluded that it wouldn’t last long enough. Their next suggestion was to get an R-visa which allowed a 180-day stay but was harder to get.

In case you are wondering, I didn’t want to go for the full expat arrangement for just a few months trip. That would have required me to move companies, China is a different legal entity, and make my tax situation even more complicated than it already is. 

I had never heard about an R-visa before, so I started investigating it. An R-visa is issued to those who are high-level talents or whose skills are urgently needed in China. The qualification examples I read were of Nobel prize winners and I’m clearly not in that league, but it got me worried enough that I brushed off my CV and used Google scholar to find all my publications and citations. In retrospect that was overkill. All you need for an R-visa is to be a professor at a well known university or an executive at a fortune 500 company. I don’t think they even used my CV in the end, just the form I filled out with my last 3 jobs, companies and titles.

When I had assembled all the information, it took me about 4 weeks, my company’s China visa office had changed their mind. They told me they were going for a PU letter because it was easier. I blew up and asked them why they had just wasted my time. Taken aback, they decided to still file for an R-visa certification letter but told me it was very risky. Right before filing the request, the china team asked me to write an introduction letter to go with my application. They would adapt and translate it for me. As you can imagine, I wrote a glowing recommendation letter about my work and the unique opportunity for MSRA and China to host me. That worked. Three days(!) after filing the request I received the much-coveted R-visa certification letter.

The next step was to apply for the actual visa at a Chinese consulate/embassy in the USA and this is where things got interesting, and I got very lucky. 

The China visa application is not for the faint of heart. Its application is an extensive list of questions about yourself, your spouse, your kids and even your parents. It took me a few hours to fill this out, find all the other requested information (driver’s license copy, passport, credit card authorization, photo of previous visa, actual photo, etc.) and figure out how to send this to the Chinese consulate. You need to send it with USPS priority mail express and include a paid-for self-addressed priority express return envelope as well.

I had sent all of it off on Friday to the Chinese consulate in LA. Relieved I was finally done with the whole process, it had taken many months, I enjoyed the weekend with my family. I was anxiously waiting for my visa to come back. On Monday evening 6pm I noticed that I had two calls from the LA Chinese consulate that I missed because they aren’t listed in my address book. I don’t accept unknown calls. Worried, I called back the number, but I got a fax machine instead. 

Tuesday, I got an email from the LA consulate asking me for proof that I live in their jurisdiction. Jurisdiction? Unbeknownst to me, it turns out that the LA consulate doesn’t service Texas. The consulate that does service Texas is in Houston but that was shutdown months earlier. Apparently I should have sent everything to the Washington DC Embassy. Discouraged that I had to start all over again, I sent an apology email to the LA consulate explaining my confusion and asking them to return my passport so I can reapply.

I didn’t hear anything back from the LA consulate for a week. No email, no call, no returned passport. The next week I went on a business trip to Redmond, WA and halfway through my wife texts me a picture of my passport and the text this should make you happy:  My passport had a 10-year 180-day per visit R-visa stamp in it.

Some of you will probably point out that I should have used a visa service to help me. I tried and called two of them, but they were utterly clueless and had no idea about R-visas and its process.

So, this is how I got the Chinese visa I wanted from the wrong consulate.

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