Visa to the USA (Part 1)

Last Thursday was my girlfriend’s appointment with a State Department official here in Shanghai about getting a tourist visa to the United States. Fortunately, she got it. For the benefit of others who might be in a similar situation, I’ll describe the process we went through.

My girlfriend had a pretty big advantage from the start: she has been to the United States quite a few times on business. Every time it was to L.A. for a few days. The fact that she has never run off and become an underpaid dishwasher when she had the chance is a big plus.

Still, that’s far from a guarantee. Preparing for this interview in the past few months I’ve heard quite a few horror stories. It seems nothing guarantees a visa.

But let me start from the beginning.

When we decided we wanted to try for a visa, we went straight to the Visa Services page of the US Consulate in Shanghai’s webpage. The page is available in both English and in Chinese, but it’s not well organized at all. It’s downright confusing. After reading through the different sections several times, we got the gist of what we needed to do:

  1. Obviously, Chinese citizens will need a personal passport. There is a fairly simple application procedure to get one issued by the Chinese government.

  2. Buy a CITIC Industrial Bank pre-paid PIN card for 54 rmb, good for a measly 12 minutes of titillating conversation with the Visa Information Call Center.

  3. Use the card to schedule a visa interview appointment with the US Consulate. Expect the interview to be about a month from when you call.

  4. In the meantime you have some things to get together. Download the four forms (DS-156 English, DS-156 Chinese, DS-157 English, DS-157 Chinese) you need from the Visa Services page in PDF form. To make the process go as smoothly as possible at the Consulate, the four forms should be filled out in three different ways:

    • DS-156 English: Fill it out online and submit it to the system. It will process the form, generate an image file with a bar code, and insert it all into a handy PDF file. Download this PDF file right away. (If you wait too long it’ll expire and go away and you’ll have to do it all over again.) Print it out. Don’t forget to sign it.

    • DS-157 English: Download to your computer, open (Adobe Acrobat required), and fill out. Save and print out. Don’t forget to fill in the Chinese name by hand (the form doesn’t support Chinese) and to sign it.

    • DS-156 Chinese and DS-157 Chinese: Print out and fill out by hand. The PDF form doesn’t support Chinese input yet.

    Note that if you don’t have a printer, you may have a little trouble finding a place to print it for you that (1) has Adobe Acrobat installed, and (2) can print out a quality copy. I ended up at the Portman Ritz-Carlton on Nanjing Xi Road paying an outrageous 10 rmb per page because I had already failed at about five print shops. Most didn’t have Adobe Acrobat and couldn’t even download it because they had no internet connection. I’m not sure if they would have been willing to install it if I had thought to bring the install file. The one shop that was able to print out the form produced such poor quality that I couldn’t use it.

  5. Attach a 2 inch by 2 inch passport photograph to both the DS-156 English form and the DS-156 Chinese form.

  6. “Each applicant must pay a non-refundable 830 rmb application fee at an authorized branch of the CITIC Industrial Bank before coming to apply at the Consular Section.”

  7. You will also need to get together proof of employment. “Every applicant must be able to prove that he or she works in and/or is a resident of our Shanghai consular district, which includes the Shanghai Municipality, and the provinces of Anhui, Jiangsu, and Zhejiang.”

  8. Finally, the really important extra credit: “In addition to the above requirements, you are advised to present documentation and other evidence establishing social, economic, and other ties that would compel your departure from the United States after a temporary and lawful stay.

It’s pretty much impossible to prove that you’ll come back, but you’ve got to give it your best. The way I saw it, we had to demonstrate three things:

  1. Our relationship was real.
  2. My girlfriend had good reason to return to Shanghai.
  3. I had good reason to return to Shanghai (i.e. the two of us hadn’t decided to go live in the USA).

In order to “prove” these three points, we put together a big thick file:

The Papers for the Interview

With all that information, good organization was essential. The visa officer wouldn’t have long to do the interview, and he’s certainly not going to sift through a big mess of loose papers. The file contained the following:

0. Handy table of contents, in both English and Chinese.

1. Letter of Invitation from me on behalf of the Pasden family, and three pictures: (1) the two of us, (2) her with my sister Amy, (3) my family picture (“proving” that the girl in picture #2 was, in fact, my sister).

2. My girlfriend’s proof of employment, proof of decent income, and employer’s written permission to make a short trip to the United States.

3. Proof of her Shanghai home ownership and mortgage.

4. Proof of her car ownership and driver’s license.

5. Proof of her prior trips to the United States and other Western countries in the form of visa photocopies.

6. Proof of her financial security in Shanghai (certificate of deposit).

7. Proof of her ongoing pursuit of higher education.

8. Proof of my long-term residence in China (photocopies of passport, visas, work permit).

9. Proof of my residence in Shanghai (lease lasting through the end of 2005).

10. Proof of my financial security in Shanghai (account statement).

11. Proof of my Chinese ability (HSK certificate).

12. Letter from the administration attesting that I am currently finalizing enrollment in a graduate program in Applied Linguistics at East China Normal University.

Whew! That’s a big heap of information! The thing is, none of it guarantees anything. In fact, we knew from the beginning that the visa officer would probably not look at much of it at all. But we still had to take it to strengthen our case. So with all that going for us, we still didn’t feel confident going into the interview.

P.S. I declare this entry the listiest Sinosplice entry ever!

Note: This is my last entry published with Movable Type. I should have the new WordPress blog up in the next 24 hours, after which comments will be back! The weblog URL will not change, but the RSS URL will change.

See also: Visa to the USA (Part 2), To the Consulate.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. If she were Mexican, she could simply cross the southern border illegally and stay as long as she likes with no trouble at all.

  2. Congrats!

    I got my student visa(F-1) several weeks ago in Beijing. I had to fill in an additional DS158 form, in both Chinese and English. But I didnt show any proof document of strong tie that I will go back to China after graduation. I dont think any document would guarantee anything. i just told the VO that Chinese market is more promising and then she let me pass. Some other students said the same answer but failed.

  3. Wukaiyuan Says: June 7, 2005 at 4:24 pm

    Ugh, I know how bad the visa process can be. My friend from Korea recently applied to visit me and check out Cali. She was asked all sorts of personal prying questions about our relationship (we’re just friends) and who bought her necklace, rings etc. Even though she has a bf, and a secure job at Hyundai in Korea. The last part probably let her squeak by as she was approved. I feel bad about how tough it is to visit the US when I’d rather be in Asia most of the time anyway. Roundtrip tix from Asia to US are more expensive than the other way around as well. Glad it worked out for you though.

  4. Da Xiangchang Says: June 7, 2005 at 5:27 pm


    The problem isn’t her ethnicity but rather a bigass ocean separates her from America.

    I didn’t know John’s gf’s been to LA. How does she like it? I always felt LA is the best place in the world to live IF (and only if) you have a lot of money. It has the best weather, the best food, the best women, the best houses, the most culture, etc. It is the Florence of the early 21st century. The problem is if you’re middle-classed (i.e, poor), you’ll be all pissed off at all the other (richer) people having a better time than you! 🙁

  5. DXC,

    When people ask her how she likes LA, she always has the same response: “it’s not much fun without a car.”

  6. Wow, I never realized how much paperwork and hassles it took to get a tourist visa to the United States from China. I thought coming to China was aggravating as I had to pay around 75 dollars for a visa via an agency. Where are you guys planning to go? I live in Tampa and plan to study at UF next year , I’m in Shanghai at the moment and enjoying it, especially the cooler weather at the moment.

  7. I am in a worse predicament, I met someone in Shenzhen on a business trip and things got really serious, I’d like to bring her home for a holiday, thing is, I live in South Africa. Even more red tape. It’s crazy the amount of nonsense I have to endure just to see her. Is there no other way to justify a trip to a foreign country? Perhaps some sort of sport or martial arts visa?

  8. I’m going to be ‘rationale’ in what is probably an ‘irrational’ situation. But if you’ll bear with me for a moment. A friend of mine had a girlfriend who wanted to go with him to Canada over the Christmas and New Year holidays. Much as you did, a mountain of paperwork was presented, including bank account statements, letters of invitation, school attendance letter, etc. She’s in post-secondary education btw. Here was the rationale for the denial –“student status’.

    I think b/c both of you had ‘jobs’ was a big factor. If you don’t mind, was there anything asked during the interview, any special scrutiny on certain documents? What was the actual interview like? Was it like, how how are, what will be the purpose of your visit? Like they do at the airport at US Immigration?

    My friend had also taken along some extra photos just in case, problem was-her friend had used photoshop to adjust the tint on some of the photos, the officer questioned her about this. I mean, how fake could the photos be, what does it matter if one is a shade greyer than the other.

    I mean realistically you two could’ve doctored all that paperwork. You really went to town on the paperwork, how did you even think to include a photo of your family with just your sister? And it wouldn’t be too hard to photoshop your girlfriend in.

    It probably kinda sounds like I want to help my friends ‘skirt’ the system somehow, but really I’m not. It’s just such a hurdle for a normal Chinese person to visit the states/N. America.

  9. Dear John,

    I searched visa and found your website. This is really helpful for me because I’m going to apply for tourism visa to US June 9. NOw I have questions on the invitation letter. I received my American friend invitation letter (It is an email). But I don’t think the invitation letter is good because he mentioned to much information about how difficult to get a visa and he put his family and his own contact information into the email to ask the visa officer to contact them. Based on your experience, is this ok? Will it cause more troubles? Is it possible to let me know what your inviation letter looks like?

    Thanks a lot and appreciate your advice. Looking forward to your reply.

  10. There is really only one thing that allowed your girlfriend to get the USA VISA….the fact that she had traveled there in the past for business and other travel esperience. I have gone through the same process, having the same information and my girlfriend having the same receipts of personal property ownership and a lot of money in the bank……….and two times the same result……denied VISA.

  11. Judy Franklin Says: December 18, 2006 at 5:36 am

    If anyone has any information they can share with me it would be more than appreciated. My Son is in China and has been there since March of 2006. He has fallen very much in love with a Chinese Girl there and wants to stay until he can bring her back to the USA. They had a long relationship over the internet before he actually went there for his first visit. This is second trip there and he is working while there with her. As a Mother I want my Son home but for him to come home happy it would have to be with her coming home with him. I am trying to find out just how difficult this is going to be for this young couple and if anyone knows of any good sites I can go to to educate myself more on this matter. Any information would be wonderful.

    • Captain Jay Says: January 15, 2011 at 8:45 am

      Although your son will want to stay with his Fiance….
      Please tell him NOT TO GET MARRIED THERE. (it makes it harder even if she is pregnant)
      Please tell him to ask for a K1 fiance Visa from his USA home.
      Subscribe (free) to Candle for Love’s website and study the process from people who have been through the process. My Chinese Fiance came to the USA in 13 months.
      Others were through the daunting journey as quickly as 6 months (rare).
      1 year is the norm and Yahoo Messenger is video and audio satisfying.

  12. Judy,

    Two websites you might find helpful:

    Candle for Love
    Visa Journey

    “Bringing her back” most likely means marriage, unless she’s exceptionally wealthy or very highly educated.

    Not to get into your business too much, but you should probably realize that pushing him to come back fast may encourage him to marry quickly.

  13. I have a similar situation myself. Although I do not plan to marry for at least another 2 years, I am currently in China for a year now, and when I return home, I want my gf to visit me in the summer, after I come back to visit again in the winter. Getting married would be easier, but again, it has to wait til I finish the rest of my courses -_-

  14. Recently I was interviewed for US tourist visa. although I had all supporting documents and NO Objection certificate, leave grant from my department,
    I was not given US visa. One thing I can tell is the way American consulate Officials Interview is not at all the way of interviewing. Simply by asking some questions and not at all asking question they will refuse. Actually right persons who definitely come back to their native country will not get the tourist visas. Just by asking few questions you cannot read a persons intention.hence I request American Consulate officials please Change your way of Interview and give Visas to right persons. I am very much disappointed when I was refused. because rules in our company are so strict, it is very difficult to get Leave for a long period and NO Objection Certificate. but, I had got everything, but no document was checked by them.

    So, once again I request You ( American Consulate Officers) you must change your way of interview or checking the documents. and please dont disappoint the genuine persons, who are interested in visiting tourist places like me.

  15. Hi, Guys.

    My bf is USA Citizen, he said he can help me apply the Student Visa over there..i don’t believe him..but he said he is doing it now..after two weeks it will be donw…it means he just need my passport info..all the works he can do it in you believe that ? is it so earlier to apply there than in China ?

  16. Hi. I do not care if any one contacts me for advice in obtaining a k-1 or k-2 visa. (Visa for marriage) I just went thought the process and all turned out well. Both my wife and daughter have their green cards. We have been back to China two times with on problems. It is simpler for her to go back and forth then it is for me, I need a China visa.
    However now I am trying to obtain a b-2 vista for my wife’s brother. My wife owns a very nice house in Fuchuan, China that we live in when we are in China. Her brother and mother live in the lower half of the house and take care of it when we are not there. Taking care of the garden and pool, his name is not on the deed my wife’s name is on the deed. He is 50 years old and gets a small retirement from the Chinese government. I will be paying for his trip. My wife has four brothers living in China and a mother. We tried for a B-2 visa last January for her mother and were turned down because of age, she is 80 years old. If any one has any advice on what documents we should use let me know. E-mail

  17. Beijing LaoWai Says: November 2, 2007 at 2:20 pm


    I’ve read your story and sadly I’d have to say that I think your story is an exception and not the norm. As much as we’d like to think that everybody who legitmately deserves a visa will get one, it is just impossible with the current system. However, I also agree with the statement that the state of China today requires the current system, because so many people go over with the intention of not coming back. I have no better solution to offer, though, thus I must accept the state of things.

    I am currently in a similar situation that you were in. I’m living and working in Beijing and would like to take my girlfriend home with me to meet my family over the Xmas holiday. We’ve known each other for over a year (met when I was here last summer) but we’ve only been dating for a month. However, it’s becoming increasingly more clear that if we ever wanted to live and work in the states, I would have to marry her first (or at least propose). In fact, I would even say that I am willing to do this, but for the sake of a healthy relationship, she should have a chance to meet and get to know my family first. It seems almost ridiculous that people who wish to promote a healthy relationship have to go through so many obstacles, but this is the system and I will have to live with it.

    I talked to my boss here (who handles a lot of US visa applications), and, since I don’t have an official invitation letter from a respectable company, she still lives with her parents so has no house or car to her name, she is a single female, and she’s never been to America before, she has about a 20% chance of being accepted and 80% chance of being rejected.

    We haven’t decided yet, but our solution will probably be that my parents will plan a trip here next year in order to meet her. It seems like they have a better chance at getting a tourist visa into China than my gf has at getting a tourist visa in the US, especially with the Olympics coming up. It’s encouraging to hear the success stories, though 🙂

  18. What’s the fuss? Just get a Visa to Mexico and then cross the border. people do it all the time.

  19. I’m an American and i’m married to a Chinese woman and we now have a 6 month old baby together. I have been trying to get an appointment for a visitors visa for my wife for a month now and all i ever do is keep paying the 53rmb everytime my minutes run out. Can anyone help me? How long does it take to get an appointment date? My email is if anyone can help me it would be great. We only want to visit my father (he is sick) before its too late.


  20. The price foreigners must pay, in wishing to travel to an open country in which the citizenship process can be started, regardless of race/nationality.

    I find more of a problem with Chinese visa’s. Not in the process, but in the usage and what it offers. Basically, a Chinese visa is your “Star of David” for the entire time you are in China, and the thing that tells them you are supposed to leave. (Well, that and your non-Asian looks, if you happen to be non-Asian).

  21. hey, guys, i am visiting my boyfriend in America this summer. And what does he have to provide except an invitation letter? like some economic statements, and does that have to be origial copy ? And do all my documents have to be original copies too ? If anyone knows that please give me some information. thanx a lot.

  22. Aaron Howell Says: June 29, 2009 at 12:58 am

    My friend is Filipina working in China.She applied for a B-2 visa to come visit me in the USA.Chinese immigration says she is required to have at least $5000 in her account to come.Is this correct?

  23. hi guys,
    I am hoping to visit the states this winter for about a month.I am a medical student in china.I managed to get an interview slot this wednesday,what should i be focused on?I have the bank statement,invitation letter and green card of my host and a letter from my school.will that be enough?

  24. WAJID ALI Says: March 9, 2010 at 7:12 pm


  25. i am ndian studying in china i would like to visit my family living in us so for this what is the procedure and what allthe papers required?

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