Visa Nightmares

I’m going to write this piece from the present and work my way backwards, unlike the rest of this blog. The moral of the story will appear at the end, as they tend to in stories.

It’s July 2012 and we are struggling to get Guo Jian to Canada for his third visit. His Canadian visa is all secure. As of new negotiations between China and Canada to encourage more tourism to Canada, Chinese nationals can now procure longer and multiple entry visas to Canada, especially if they have already been. We were able to secure a multiple-entry visa for Guo Jian’s Canadian trip this summer that will last until his passport expires, which is 2018. What a victory.

When he got that visa, we all celebrated and he bragged about it with friends for the next week. In fact, he carried his passport with him for a week so that he could whip it out and show it as proof. After his previous visa adventures with Canada, this piece of embossed paper in his passport is like a medal of honour for endurance and patience.

But why are we struggling now then? Well, his flight (that I purchased with American Airlines because it was $500 cheaper than the Air Canada flights) routes through Chicago. He has to switch planes there and, since he wasn’t leaving the airport at all, I didn’t imagine that he could possibly have any reason to need a visa for the US.

I was wrong.

All Chinese nationals need a visa to enter the US. There is a transit visa and a tourist visa, but apparently they fall into the same class and all the documentation that is required for a tourist visa is likewise required for a transit visa.

It’s a dossier that ends up being the thickness of a term of class notes from a university course. Everything from your bank account records, to your work history; proof of your ties to China economically like mortgage or vehicle records, apartment rental agreements, work contracts; proof of your relationships that tie you to China like your parents, your partnership, your children, your pets; proof of your relationship to the person who was inviting you to Canada (me), which included the duration of our connection and all the correspondence and photos, etc. All of the above had to be translated into English, too, don’t forget.

And I found this out after I had already left China and Guo Jian was still in China. He panicked. He doesn’t have the English language skills to do the application himself. He’s so lucky he’s a rock star, though, because one of his old friends emerged to help him after Guo Jian ran into him again at one of his own crowded gigs last week. This friend is American and incredibly kind. Together, that friend and I are making it happen. Here’s hoping the processing time is on our side and his travel doesn’t need to be too delayed.

Anyway, I wasn’t surprised by the mountain of paperwork that is required for this because I had to do the same amount of work in 2008 when Guo Jian first was intending to come to Canada. We weren’t married then.  According to a friend of ours who works at the Canadian Embassy in Beijing, the Canadian tourist visa process for Chinese nationals is actually harder than the immigration process. The application is more detailed and more time-consuming and they require more details in attached documents, for instance. The scrutiny is even more severe.

Both Canada and the US are afraid of people from China being flight risks. That’s the way it used to be, especially before China became more economically liberated. People came over and then claimed immunity to get away from the restrictive communist regime.

So, like the Canadian tourist visa process, the US tourist visa process is equally obnoxious, even if the Chinese citizen is only planning to be in American airspace and then on American soil for 2 hours and 45 minutes. Can you believe it?

The process we went through in 2008 to get Guo Jian to Canada was harder than any application for anything that I had ever completed. When it was done, I seriously took photos of it! But, I was also good about saving a lot of the documents that I had scanned. This US process has been a little easier because of that.

In the spring of 2008 when Guo Jian’s first tourist visa to Canada had been approved and we picked up his passport with his first Canadian visa in it—the first time that he was scheduled to be going to North America—my friend at the Canadian embassy told us that the employees behind the scenes had all talked about the application with wonder. First of all, it was so detailed, dense and organized (beam of pride from me on that!) and secondly because the person processing it knew my music from Canada and then one of the other Chinese clerks in the office knew of Guo Jian’s music in China. Everyone in the office had remarked on how romantic our relationship seemed being that we were so from such similar career backgrounds.

If only the romance could do the paperwork for us.

The next time that we applied for his visa to Canada in 2009 for the post-wedding celebration in Canada (something I haven’t written about yet), we had already gotten married in China so it was much easier. Plus, he had been to Canada already and had returned to China. Now the Canadian and Chinese governments were at ease that he would return to his country. He had proven his good behaviour in 2008. He was a good boy. Check.

Well, now fast-forward several years and we have a baby. That’s something I definitely haven’t gotten to yet on this blog, but hey, now you know where it all leads! For the sake of this glimpse at the present, I’m now going to insert the adventurous story of our daughter’s travel documents.

Before coming to Canada, my daughter, who we have agreed will be a Canadian citizen, had to have adequate travel documents. For a July journey, I started the process in May. Seemed reasonable to me. Little did I know that I should have started it in March or early April!

The first stage of that journey is about applying for a baby’s citizenship. That process takes six months to a year to complete and in the event that travel that needs to happen before that, as in our case, it can be expedited through the procurement of a temporary passport for the child. So, I applied for her citizenship and simultaneously applied for her temporary passport.

To do this, I had to have all of her documents translated into English, fill in several forms, get her photo taken, bring Gou Jian’s and my proof of citizenship and identity, not to mention show up with Guo Jian and the baby to prove her parentage and her existence in person. The Canadian passport office in Beijing is only open twice a week for an hour and a half each time: Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1pm-3:30pm. After much back and forth, a whole week and a half had gone by before the application was complete and had been submitted.

Then I found out that because we had chosen foreign citizenship for her, she also needed a Chinese visa before she could leave the country. She was now a foreigner in the eyes of the Chinese government regardless of her mixed heritage.

A visa in China is as much for your right to stay in China as it is for your right to leave. To get an exit visa, you need citizenship papers, but hers were being processed and we were waiting for her temporary passport (a travel document, not proof of citizenship), which I had been informed was supposed to be enough for travelling in the first place! The only other option without citizenship papers is to get what’s called a “one-time exit and entry visa,” which is specifically for cases like hers.

But, because we didn’t have her passport yet, we couldn’t start that special visa application process until her passport was in our hands. The passport was due around the 20th of June and then we were told that this special visa was going to take six weeks because Guo Jian is not from Beijing and all proof of his identity would need to be verified with his home province.

Shackled by protocol—the Chinese government’s.

At this point, I almost cancelled our journey over here. I felt completely powerless to bring my child back to my home country (and her country too!) and trapped in a foreign land. What a mother’s nightmare!

We managed to side step the time crunch by journeying back to his home province for a week and doing the paperwork there. We got the documents much faster that way even though the extra travel was expensive and a bit chaotic with a five-month-old baby in tow.

Her special “one-time exit and entry” visa came in a booklet that looks like its own passport. It has her photo and identity information and was to be presented alongside the passport. When I handed the documents to the Chinese customs officer as I was leaving the Beijing airport, I gulped with nerves that I might not have finished everything I needed for her to leave the country. I almost whooped for joy when he stamped us and waived us through. I think I gave him a huge smile because he looked at me strangely, surprised.

He didn’t even ask to see the notarized letter from Guo Jian that gives me “permission” to take our daughter alone, out of the country. This was another step that we finished last minute, but it’s necessary in the event that you’re suspected of kidnapping. With our little one being half-Chinese, I am more likely to be targeted for this scrutiny.

Now for my personal visa story:

The first time that I went to China, I was there on a student visa because I took a three-month university course to refresh my Chinese.

The second time, I was on a tourist visa that, at the time, was being issued in either one-month or three-month blocks. I went for two months but was given a three-month visa from the Chinese embassy in Toronto.

The third time I went to China, it was just before the Olympics and I was only given a one-month visa and I was made to leave before the summer. Everyone was. The so-called riffraff foreign population in Beijing was considered to be unnecessary when so many other foreigners were coming. Longtime foreign residents of Beijing were forced to go on “vacation” for up to two months because their visa renewals were not granted during the games. It was ridiculous.

The fourth time I went to Beijing, it was post-Olympics but the tight visa crackdown was still in place. I was only able to get a one-month visa and the rules were that you had to leave China and return again if you wanted to extend it, or, effectively get a new one. We foreigners affectionately call these departures “visa runs.” I had to do one to Hong Kong.

Then, after that expensive weekend to Hong Kong, I admit that I further extended the time on it by buying a black market business visa that stretched for six months. They were available through kiosks in the student district and were about $500 CAD. After I secured that visa, I spent those months sick and nervous that I would be kicked out of the country and never allowed back. I definitely don’t have the constitution for illegal activity.

Then, after all this drama of visas, Guo Jian asked me to marry him. He added, “And this will make your visa easier!”And we found out it would make his much easier too, at least for Canada. The jury’s still out on how it will be for the US.

So, the moral of the story is if you fall in love with someone from another country and you have the opportunity to make your life easier regarding visas, you take it. Thus, yet another reason that I said “yes.” (See this blog for a funny clip that mentions this!)

The end.


*Still no news on whether Guo Jian can come to Canada this summer via routing through the US, but I’ll keep you posted via my Facebook page.

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