While spending two weeks in mandatory centralized quarantine in China, I was impressed by the difference in attitudes and actions between the US and China. While in the States, COVID-19 was in the news every day and there were many discussions about vaccination and preventative measures, but few people were wearing masks in the cities I visited and there were new cases reported every day. China belongs to a group of countries being called the “zero-COVID countries.” China describes its approach to COVID-19 as stressing “Four-Early” measures—early detection, early reporting, early quarantine, and early treatment of COVID-19 cases.”1 We have seen this zero tolerance in action both while in China and while traveling between China and the US and back again.
We left China earlier this year to make a quick trip back to the States. A “quick trip” used to be two weeks. Now it cannot be shorter than a month and more likely a quick turnaround will be six to eight weeks. The flight from China to the US used to take us 24 hours door to door. This time it was 48 hours. However, what made this trip different was not the longer flight time or the total length but the ongoing uncertainty and inability to plan much beyond the next step.
Pre-COVID international travel involved finding and booking cheap, convenient flights and making sure our passports and visas were in order. Currently there are only 18 flights per week between China and the United States (pre-COVID there were over 300)2 making tickets hard to purchase because of limited seat availability.
Once you have a flight booked the checking and re-checking begins—is the flight still operating (flights to China can be reduced to 40% capacity or cancelled for a time if they there have been passengers who tested positive for COVID upon arrival)? Do I have the right documentation and tests? Have I uploaded all the documents to the airline website? What do I need to bring to the airport with me? What will I need to do upon arrival?
Getting from China to the United States is relatively easy; returning to China is not.
This was our second COVID trip to China, so we had some experience from our first time around. We knew that the quarantine hotel rooms would be stripped of the expected teacups and glasses, any beverages, any cutlery. We filled one suitcase with granola bars and other snacks, a paring knife, a stainless-steel cup for hot beverages along with other small items we thought might be helpful. Friends had given us a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle to help pass the time. We had a small stack of books to read.
This was the easy part of preparation. Getting approvals to return is harder.
The normal process for people coming from the US is to get a PU letter3 and visa invitation letter from the provincial-level foreign affairs office in China to then to apply for their visa. During COVID getting these documents has been challenging. Priority is given to individuals working in companies. I know families where one spouse is working for a company and has been able to get a PU letter and visa, but their spouse and children have not been granted these documents. This has separated a number of families and created difficult situations. Even for expats working in companies there have been cases during COVID where no PU letters were issued by a province for weeks or months.
Other categories of visas such as student visas are even more difficult. During this year the US has granted about 80,000 student visas to Chinese students going to the United States to study.4 The number of visas granted to US students to study in China has been much smaller. There are a number of good summaries of the ongoing updates in the visa processing requirements.5 Other categories of visas such as tourist visas are still cancelled, and new ones are not being granted.
You will also need to get a pre-approval from a Chinese consulate since even with a valid visa you need a green health code (HDC QR code) to board your flight. The Chinese consulates in each section of the country have designated COVID test sites where you must do a set of COVID tests (PCR and antibody) within 48 hours of your flight’s departure time. These tests have to be done in the city from which your flight departs to China. Arranging this test requires some advance planning. You need to be in this city several days in advance. You also need to make sure to get on the testing center’s calendar and get the right tests done. You also need to have your credit card ready as each person’s tests cost $550.
At the COVID testing site, we had to sign a release so that our results were also released directly to the Chinese consulate to avoid any falsification of reports. The testing facility asked us to photograph ourselves being tested (try taking a selfie with a swab up your nose; you don’t want to re-take this selfie) to help prove that we were the person getting tested. We have these photos and know that some friends have been asked for them. We did not need to produce these photos and they are now just something for the memory book. While waiting for the results it is easy to worry. If we tested positive, we would not be able to fly and would have to make alternative plans. It takes effort not to let your mind go down that path, rehearsing every meeting, every visit, every casual contact with a friend during the previous two weeks.
Once the test results come back, there are multiple documents (passport copy, visa, test results, vaccination records, etc.) that need to be uploaded to a Chinese embassy website for review. You need to have a good IT person nearby. For example, the test results came back in PDF format but the website only accepted JPG files. We had some problems and had to submit all the documents twice. The Chinese consulate had an email hotline and were responsive and helpful when we had questions.
After we got our green health code (HDC QR code) we celebrated over a nice dinner with friends. The next day we went to the airport early armed with QR codes, test results, selfie photos and, of course, our luggage. Our flight was reasonably full. Most of the passengers were China-passport holders; the process for them is similar but they do not need a PU letter or visa.
Stepping through the plane door and finding our seats made us feel that we were on our way. We could take a deep breath and relax a bit. One big set of anxieties and uncertainties was behind us. After the flight took off, I was able to sleep soundly for several hours. However, we were far from done in the process of returning to China.
Watch for part two of “Getting over the COVID Great Wall” coming out next week.
- See “China tames latest Delta-induced surge in 35 days” in Global Times, https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202108/1232256.shtml (accessed August 25, 2021).
- Similar reductions also affect other international flights to and from China. Currently weekly international air connections are only two percent of what was available in 2019. In addition, the three major Chinese airlines anticipate that travel restrictions to China will not be relaxed before the middle of 2022 and that air travel will not return to 2019 levels until 2024. See http://3g.cnfol.com/gold/caijingyaowen/20210903/29122504.shtml (accessed September 7, 2021).
- “PU letter is an invitation letter issued by China Foreign Affairs Office. With the PU letter foreigners can apply for a new visa and enter China. This is a new policy since the global epidemic.” “The Ultimate Guide to the PU Invitation Letter,” Chengdu-Expat.Com, June 21, 2021. https://chengdu-expat.com/everything-you-need-to-know-about-the-pu-letter/ (accessed September 4, 2021) Requirements regarding the PU letter continue to change so be sure to check the Chinese embassy and consulate websites in your country for the latest requirements. And for the trivia minded—”The PU refers to ‘pŭtōng’ or ‘普通’ in Simplified Chinese, which translates to ‘ordinary’ as they are applied to ordinary passport holders.” See “Getting a PU Letter for China—Guide to Invitation Letters” by Melanie Clark, Vital Consular blog, May 6, 2021, updated July 29, 2021, https://blog.vitalconsular.com/getting-a-pu-letter-for-china-guide-to-invitation-letters/ (accessed September 8, 2021).
- See https://twitter.com/ericfish85/status/1431276162001653771 (accessed 8/30/2021).
- See “How Can Foreigners Enter China Under the COVID-19 Travel Restrictions?” by Monica Li. China Briefing, April 19, 2021, https://www.china-briefing.com/news/how-can-foreigners-enter-china-under-the-covid-19-travel-restrictions/ (accessed 8/30/2021). Because requirements continue to change, it is essential to check for up-to-date information from the embassy/consulate in your country. For example, see the China consulate in Chicago website, http://www.chinaconsulatechicago.org/eng/zytz/t1905702.htm.
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