There are a lot of European Shanghai residents trapped overseas. Some are back home, some are stuck nearby in Thailand, Indonesia, Japan and Vietnam. People are anxiously waiting for news on a way to get back in, and it seems dishonest to rush to publish something that'd get their hopes up without double checking it.
So we've spoken to visa agents, chambers of commerce and consulates here in Shanghai, emailed or called every Chinese embassy in Europe, and rooted through tons of useful but unrelated info on the embassy websites (psst Estonians, you have to use the online visa application portal now, they stopped accepting paper since August 1).
Here's what we've managed to work out.
Some European citizens, holding valid residence permits, might be able to apply at some embassies in Europe for a new visa to re-enter China, free of charge.
Here's what happened, as far as we can tell.
The furor appears to have started with a statement put out by the Chinese Embassy in Denmark on August 10. Here's the important bit from that:
As the prevention and control of COVID-19 become regular, in order to facilitate exchanges, China now decides that, foreign nationals from the countries listedbelow (sic) who hold valid residence permits, including work permit, permit for family reunion and personal matters,may (sic) apply for visas for free at any Chinese embassy or consulate in these countries. After entering China, they are kindly requested to comply with the epidemic prevention regulations of the local governments.
It then lists 36 countries this applies to;
Albania, Ireland, Estonia, Austria, Bulgaria, North Macedonia, Belgium, Iceland, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Poland, Denmark, Germany, France, Finland, the Netherlands, Montenegro, Czech Republic, Croatia, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Romania, Malta, Norway, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland, Serbia, Cyprus, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Greece, Hungary, Italy, United Kingdom
Basically every country in Europe that China has an embassy in.
Similar statements to the Danish one have started appearing on the websites of other embassies, including Austria, Croatia, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway and Spain.
How new is this information? Some of it was posted as we were writing this. Several of them haven't been translated from Chinese yet.
The relaxed visa policy was brought up by the People's Daily and AFP during press conferences with Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian on August 10 and August 11. Zhao acknowledged that China was gradually loosening restrictions "for foreigners entering China to resume economic activities and for other essential purposes" and specified that for those "who hold valid visa or residence permit but need visa renewal, Chinese embassies and consulates will provide them visa service for free."
Invitation letters, visa categories, and a list of European countries weren't mentioned.
Okay, But Can I Re-Enter China?
Not without a new visa you can't.
The statements are all called something like "visa facilitation for some foreign nationals with valid Chinese residence permits," so that should give you some idea if you qualify. At the moment, it appears that you might be eligible to apply for a new visa if:
1) you are a citizen of one of the listed countries
2) you apply at the Chinese embassy in one of the listed countries
3) you currently hold a valid residence permit
But, and we cannot stress this enough, there is no consistent policy at the time of writing.
The visa centers of some embassies (eg. Denmark) specified that the residence permits must have been attached to a Z, Q1 or S1 visa. Other embassies (eg. Romania, Slovakia) told us there were no substantive changes to the policy.
How Is This Different From Before?
It has been possible for foreigners to apply for special permission to re-enter the country for several months, if they could demonstrate humanitarian or economic necessity. This required an invitation letter: in the case of people who hold work permits, it's a PU letter, applied for by an employee's company in the company’s district Foreign Affairs office. This is how top officials in a company and their families have been able to come back to China.
The biggest difference now appears to be that European holders of unexpired residence permits, regular workers and family members of European nationality can bypass the PU letter system. All that's needed to apply to re-enter China is a valid work or residence permit, which can be used to apply at the embassy for a new visa to enter China.
This has not been spelled out anywhere. We have gotten this information from speaking with visa agents and from an email response from one embassy.
The only thing that is for certain, as in, mentioned specifically by both the Ministry of Foreign Affair's spokesperson and specified in every embassy's statement, is that applying for the visa is free.
That's it. That's the main bit of news we were meant to take away from this.
Imagine announcing the reopening of Disney by sending a press release titled "Application Fee Waived."
So Do I Still Need An Invitation Letter?
A representative from the Chinese visa center in Denmark got back to us saying that the statement from the embassy in Denmark everyone was citing only referred to the fact that the visa application fee for someone with a valid residence permit has been waived. However, in the same email, they also confirmed that a PU letter is not required if you have a valid residence permit that was issued for Z, S1 or Q1 visas.
A representative in Romania, though, said in an email that as far as they knew, a PU letter was still required, and the website for Slovakia says that you still need some sort of invitation letter issued by the provincial [Chinese] foreign affairs office or the competent commercial authority.
So the answer is check. With. Your. Local. Chinese. Embassy.
How Do I Go About Applying For A New Visa
This depends entirely on your particular embassy but under the optimistic reading of this change in visa rules, you'd be able to apply as usual, submitting your valid residence permit instead of an invitation letter. That's the optimistic reading.
Check. With. Your. Local. Chinese. Embassy.
What Sort Of Visa Would I Get?
It's unclear. If your application is successful, best guess is that you would receive the same visa that your valid residence permit was tied to originally.
What If I'm A European Citizen Outside Of Europe?
Both visa agents and visa center policies say that even if you're a European citizen from one of the countries that have loosened visa restrictions, the loosened visa restrictions are only applicable at the visa center in that country. If you're a French citizen in Thailand, the only thing that matters is visa policy in Thailand. To take advantage of this slight softening of restrictions, you'd have to return to Europe and apply there.
What If My Residence Permit Expired?
What little has been made public only mentions holders of valid residence permits. If your permit has expired, you will most likely not be able apply using this channel. The PU letter system still exists and could be a method for people with expired residence permits to try to re-enter China. Some visa agents have suggested to their clients to just try applying for a Z Visa as normal, but that seems like a shot in the dark.
What Do I Need Before Boarding
Coming from the listed countries, you might or might not need negative nucleic acid test results within five days of boarding your plane for China. There's some suggestion that transiting in any of these countries might require you to get a test. Some embassies (such as Croatia and the Czech Republic) have statements on their websites stating that they won't require you to get a COVID-19 test before embarking, but if you're transferring in any of the countries, you may need to send your test results to the embassy to receive a certified form.
The embassy in some countries which aren't on the list, such as Finland, still requires travelers to get COVID-19 tests before boarding. This decision could be made by any of the embassies, the Chinese government, or the airlines. It's safe to say that you should probably plan for the possibility you will need to get COVID-19 tests, and the possibility that you will need to get them certified at your local Chinese embassy.
What Happens When I Get Back?
You'll be asked to submit to quarantine as specified by local authorities. You will likely have COVID-19 tests done upon arrival in China as well.
Since you've entered on a new visa, you will have to apply for a new residence permit once your quarantine is over.
So What's The Take-Away From All This?
The visa restrictions have loosened for European citizens, ever so slightly. Oh, right, and applications are free. That's a good sign, and good news for Europeans who still have valid residence permits and are trying to get back into the country. But when it comes to official Chinese policy, the only information that matters is what the person behind the counter in front of you has in hand. If you want to get back into China, check. With. Your. Local. Chinese. Embassy.