The U.S. and China have mutually agreed to increase business and tourist visa validity to 10 years and student and exchange visa validity to 5 years. That according to President Obama’s announcement (video) on November 10 at the 2014 APEC summit in Beijing.
Both governments put the policy into effect immediately. But China hasn’t even fully implemented its prior 2005 agreement to increase visa validity to 1 year, creating a question as to whether most Americans will get the new long-term PRC visas.
|Have you applied for a 5-year or 10-year U.S. or PRC visa or residence permit under the new agreement? Did you get the maximum validity? Share your experience in the comments section.|
U.S. Visa Validity
Here’s what the new policy means for U.S. visas issued to Chinese nationals, according to a State Department fact sheet:
- B1/B2 visas for business and tourism will increase in validity from 1 to 10 years – the longest validity possible under U.S. law.
- F1 academic student and F2 dependent visas, M1 vocational student and M2 dependent visas, J1 exchange visitor and J2 dependents visas will increase in validity from 1 to 5 years or the length of their U.S. program.
A visa’s validity refers to the period from the date of issuance to expiration. The U.S. typically issues visas valid for multiple entries. And typically U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers admit B1 business visitors for a period of 3 months, B2 tourists for 6 months, and F, J, or M visas for the duration of the student’s or exchange visitor’s U.S. program. The new agreement doesn’t change rules related to the period of authorized stay.
The U.S. will begin issuing visas in accordance with the new reciprocal agreement on November 12, 2014.
PRC Visa Validity
What the new agreement means for U.S. citizens applying for Chinese citizens is harder to predict:
- Previously, L tourist visas, M business visas, Q2 relative visit visas, and S2 private matters visit visas were typically issued valid for 1 entry within 3 months, 2 entries within 6 months, or multiple entries within 6 months or 1 year. Under the new agreement, they may be issued for a maximum of multiple entries over 10 years, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and PRC Embassy in Washington. Based on early experience, it seems that the 10-year visas are valid for 60 days duration of stay. (If the applicant seeks a longer stay, such as 90 days, it’s likely that the visa validity would not exceed 1 or 2 years).
- Curiously, it appears that the PRC government will not make available 10-year F visas for exchanges, visits, and inspections. (This is odd because it would appear that the U.S. would issue 10-year B1 visas for all such purposes).
- X1 study visas (for programs lasting over 180 days) were previously issued typically for a single entry valid for 3 months. Now, they may be issued for a maximum of 5 years.
The PRC Embassy in Washington says the new agreement is effective November 11, 2014, and that applicants for long-term visas should have passports valid for at least 1 year. After the passport expires, the visa will remain valid when the old passport is accompanied by a new unexpired passport with the same ID data (name, gender, date of birth, and nationality). This visa in other passport (VOIP) rule was apparently included in the U.S.-China bilateral agreement.
National Interests Served
Obama said that President Xi was a “partner” in the agreement and that he “very much appreciate[d]” Xi’s “work on this.” The visa agreement may have garnered such high-level personal attention and come about because the U.S. and Chinese governments both wanted to show a concrete “deliverable” during the APEC meeting.
Beyond that, each side had its own motivations.
President Obama touted the agreement as good for U.S. trade and business: “the United States hopes to welcome a growing share of eligible Chinese travelers, inject billions (of dollars) into the U.S. economy, and create enough demand to support hundreds of thousands of additional U.S. jobs,” the White House said in a press release. In 2013, 1.8 million Chinese travelers visited the U.S., contributing $21.1 billion to the U.S. economy and supporting more than 109,000 American jobs, according to the press release.
For the U.S. government, increasing visa validity is also key to conserving limited consular resources. In particular, increasing visa validity could decrease the pace at which the U.S. Mission in China needs to hire, train, and deploy officers to adjudicate nonimmigrant visa applications. A 2010 State Department Office of Inspector General report worried that the Mission was “swamp[ed]” and that it was “imperative” for the Ambassador Huntsman to “personally” intensify reciprocal visa validity negotiations with the Chinese government. The problem was ameliorated by a January 2012 Obama executive order (announced at Disneyworld) to increase staff and enhance consular facilities in China. But the issue was sure to come to a head again due to the apparently inexorable year-on-year increases in outbound Chinese travelers.
For the Chinese government, the agreement helps Chinese companies do business in the increasingly interconnected global economy. Perhaps more importantly, the agreement helps fulfill the desire of the growing Chinese middle class for more convenient international travel. The Foreign Ministry’s press conference focused on how the government deserves credit, stressing that the Chinese passport’s value in gold has risen because the government has negotiated visa exemption and visa facilitation agreements with the U.S. and many other foreign countries. To understand how meaningful the agreement is to China and how much farther the country has to go, consider this: according to the Henley & Partners Visa Restrictions Index, 2014, an indicator of the number of countries a citizen can visit without a visa, China can only visit 45 countries freely. This is fewer than holders of 170 countries’ passports. For example, Finland, Germany, Sweden, UK, and U.S. passport holders can travel to 174 countries without a visa.
From my point of view as an immigration lawyer, issuance of visas to qualified applicants is an important driver of globalization, development, and economic growth. In Darwinian terms, a population’s collective intelligence—its inventiveness and rate of cultural change–is determined by the amount of interaction between individuals. In other words, migration is to international trade as sex is to evolution. I see the U.S.-China visa reciprocity agreement as beneficial to citizens of both China and the U.S.
The U.S. Government’s Insistence on Reciprocity
In 2011 congressional testimony, David T. Donahue, then Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Visa Services, explained why the U.S. government seeks to enter into reciprocity agreements:
Increasing the validity length on visas is another strategy for reducing the need to re-apply for a U.S. visa. Brazilians, Indians, and Mexicans receive ten-year visas. Unfortunately, Chinese tourist and business travelers … currently only receive one year visas. Section 221(c) of the Immigration and Nationality Act requires us to set visa validities–insofar as practicable–to accord foreign nationals the same treatment upon a reciprocal basis that their country accords to U.S. citizens. This is not just law, but in my opinion, it is good policy. It is not in our interest, for example, to give a Chinese business traveler an advantage not available to American business travelers. Our goal is, wherever possible, to negotiate longer periods of visa validity with foreign governments, but our bottom line is equal treatment for our own citizens. We have been working with our Chinese counterparts to encourage them to cooperate on expanding reciprocity for citizens of both our countries.
Drawn Out Negotiations
Since the two countries last visa reciprocity agreement in 2005, negotiations had dragged on for years to further lengthen visa validity.
One sticking point was that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security objected to longer visa validity because the Chinese government was taking too long to issue travel documentation to thousands of Chinese nationals in the U.S. with final deportation orders. But that objection faded at some point.
A 2010 State Department report had urged former Ambassador Jon Huntsman to “personally” get involved in related negotiations.
Visa validity was a major issue for the next ambassador, Gary Locke, He had previously served as Secretary Commerce and emphasized visas’ link to business and trade. He addressed the issue at senior levels to the Chinese government.
During Locke’s time in Beijing, the U.S. Consulate in Shenyang apparently engaged in some guerrilla diplomacy, distributing to Chinese, along with their one-year visas, a notice that the Chinese government is to blame for the short validity period, saying:
The U.S. government seeks to grant Chinese citizens visas with over 1 year validity. However, we have received no positive response from China to date. Due to the diplomatic principle of reciprocity, without reciprocation from China, the U.S. will not be able to unilaterally extend visa validity for China citizens. Therefore, we only can give you a visa valid for one year. We apologize for the inconvenience.
According to one account, one of Locke’s last official acts as Ambassador was to urge President Obama to get involved personally in the negotiations.
Most recently, in August, there was a leak in China Daily about progress in the negotiations: “Peter Haymond, the U.S. consul general in Sichuan province, said … that the U.S. and China are discussing extending the validity of non-immigrant visas for Chinese from the current one year to two or three years.”
China’s Compliance with 2005 Agreement Was Sticking Point in Further Negotiations
A key sticking point in the negotiations seems to have been that China didn’t consistently live up to its prior agreement to increase business and visitor visa validity from six months to one year, effective January 2005. This has been the subject of blunt comments from State Department officials. In 2011, U.S. Minister Counselor for Consular Affairs Charles Bennett said, “currently, China does not normally issue full one-year validity visas to U.S. citizens.”
The difference between how the U.S. and China carried out the 2005 reciprocity agreement is that the U.S. has issued the maximum 1-year validity visas as the default, but China sees the 1-year visa as the maximum to be issued only in special cases.
The Foreign Affairs Manual, binding on U.S. consular officers, “encourage[s]” them to issue full-validity visas. Discretion to limit visa validity “should be used very sparingly, preferably under the guidance of an experienced consular manager.” See 9 FAM 41.112 N2.2. In contrast, the Chinese government released no public guidance as to who qualified for a 1-year validity Chinese visa under the 2005 agreement.
Still, the U.S. State Department seems confident that China will normally issue long-term visas under the new agreement. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Ed Ramotowski told Voice of America that “under the terms of the agreement, under normal circumstances, both sides should issue visas for the maximum validity.” The only exception is that “since each country evaluates visa applications on a case by case basis, each country retains the right in individual cases to issue visas with more limited validity according to its own laws.”
But given that in 2011 the Chinese government still hadn’t fully implemented the 2005 agreement, there’s a question as to whether most Americans will get the new long-term PRC visas now. Perhaps such visas will be limited to only certain travelers, such as frequent travelers to China and executives at multinationals with regional headquarters in China.
The big unknown to me is, why in the past has the Chinese government opposed longer visa validity? Perhaps the Chinese government has preferred more frequent visa applications by foreign nationals in order to keep a tighter rein on their activities, at least until such time as the government’s port of entry and interior immigration enforcement systems and technology have matured. Or perhaps the government feared that easier visits abroad would accelerate China’s brain drain.
What to Watch For
Going forward, keep an eye out for a few things:
- To what extent will China make the 5- and 10-year visas the new norm, as opposed to a plum to hand out to frequent travelers and executives at multinational corporations with regional headquarters in China? The U.S. State Department warns that the validity of visas issued to Chinese citizens may be dialed back if China doesn’t comply, but the threat seems empty in light of the lack of compliance with the last agreement since 2005:
Q: What happens if U.S. citizens aren’t issued ten-year tourist visas? Will anything change for Chinese nationals?
The arrangement is based on reciprocity. Chinese nationals will be afforded the same maximum validity for B-category visas as U.S. citizens are afforded when applying for an equivalent visa category.
- Will China issue 10-year F visas for exchanges, visits, and inspections?
- By law, within 30 days of entering China with an X1 student visa, the student must apply to the Public Security Bureau to obtain a “residence permit.” See Exit-Entry Administration Law, art. 30. Up to now, the residence permit–not the visa–has been used for subsequent entries to China for the validity of the residence permit. Now that the PRC Embassy in Washington says X1 visas may be issued for multiple entries over 5 years, will the visa be used for subsequent travel. Or, as the U.S. State Department has stated, will China issue residence permits valid for a maximum of 5 years?
- Visitors and students to the U.S. in high-tech and scientific fields may be subject to “administrative processing,” otherwise known as “security advisory opinions.” This refers to background checks after their interviews to determine if they are likely to try to illegally access sensitive U.S. technologies. If they pass their check, the State Department may limit their visa validity to keep closer tabs on them. What period of validity is likely?
- For both countries, will more strict immigration enforcement be the trade off for more liberal visa terms? The U.S. requires that B1 business visitors and B2 tourists enter the U.S. only temporarily, not making the U.S. their main residence. This is referred to as the nonimmigrant intent requirement. Inevitably, there will be some individuals who violate their 10-year visas by overstaying their period of admission, by engaging in unauthorized activities (or failing to engage in the activities for which they were admitted), or by entering the U.S. repeatedly after only brief absences. Will we see changes in the rate at which U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) uses summary removal (deportation) of persons seeking readmission at the port of entry, the rate at which Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrests and refers persons to Immigration Court, and the rate at which the State Department cancels visas? Similarly, will China step up enforcement at ports of entry and in the interior?
- If the holder of an unexpired 10-year visa subsequently obtains a visa in a different category, will the 10-year visa be cancelled. To my knowledge, there are no published rules about when a PRC consulate will cancel an old visa upon issuance of a new one. Still, that is the routine practice. That practice no longer seems to be good policy. For example, if the holder of an unexpired 10-year M business visa applies for an L visa for purposes of vacationing in China, it doesn’t seem to make sense to cancel the M visa. We’ll need to wait to see if the Ministry of Foreign Affairs publishes rules on point or changes its practices.
- White House press release (Nov. 10)
- Video of Obama’s announcement at the APEC meeting in Beijing (Nov. 10)
- U.S. State Department fact sheet (Nov. 10)
- U.S. State Department frequently asked questions (last visited Nov. 11)
- U.S. State Department China reciprocity schedule, listing validity periods by visa type (last visited Nov. 16)
- PRC Embassy in Washington, Important Notice on Long-Term Visa Applications (Chinese, English) (Nov. 11)
- Foreign Ministry spokesperson Qin Gang press conference (Chinese, English) (Nov. 10)
- Jess Macy Yu, Q. and A.: Edward J. Ramotowski (Deputy Ass’t Sec. of State for Visa Services) on Implications of the New U.S.-China Visa Policy, N.Y. Times (Nov. 14)
- Charles Riley, It Just Got Easier to Visit China for Business and Pleasure, CNN (Nov. 11) (quoting me)
- Lara Jakes, US Long-Term Visas Issued for Chinese Travelers, AP (Nov. 12) (Secretary of State Kerry hands out first 10-year visas at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing)
- Ya Wei, Window on Law: Interview with the Deputy Ass’t Secretary of State on the U.S.-China Visa Reciprocity Agreement, Voice of America (Nov. 17)
- Stephanie Henry, New Visa Rules Could Ease Burdens on Business Travelers, China Business Review (Nov. 24) (quoting me)
- Xinhua, China, U.S. to Extend Validity of Business, Tourist, and Student Visas (Nov. 10)
- Xinhua, China Implements New Visa Measures for Americans: 4 Visa Types Valid for 10 Years (Nov. 12)
- China Radio International, Jon Artman and Xu Qinduo interview with me (Nov. 11)
- China Radio International, Visa Diplomacy (Nathan Wakelin-King interviews me) (Nov. 27)
- Xinhua, China Issues First 10-Year Visas to U.S. Citizens (Nov. 13) (Embassy’s first 10-year visa issued to Yale grad who is a frequent traveler to China)
- Guo Junyu, Foreign Ministry Speaks on China-U.S. Visa Reciprocity, China News Service (Nov. 14)
- Chris Luo, US Relaxation of Visa Scheme Triggers Fears over ‘Brain Drain’ from China, SCMP (Nov. 18) (quoting me)