144 Days Outside the Law
I recently took a look at my passport and discovered that my student visa was expired. Long expired. It had expired on September 15th, 2006.
As you can imagine, I kind of freaked out a little at first. My wife is here. My home is here. My job is here. What if they bust in and drag me away, kicking and screaming, for my egregious visa overstay? Seemed plausible.
I was kinda pissed at East China Normal University. They handle my visa. They never even mentioned anything about visa renewal to me. I talked to them, and they claimed they had called me and/or e-mailed me about it (they did neither), and that if I really never heard from them, then maybe I somehow slipped through the cracks when they switched from the old system to the new networked system. I suspect me being one of the few foreign grad students played a factor as well. Anyway, all this was kind of irrelevant, because at the end of the day, I alone am responsible for making sure I have a valid visa. It’s right there in my passport. I may be busy, but I must watch that expiration date.
So how was it resolved? The school wrote a letter for me saying I was a great student and to please be lenient when fining me. They gave me the form with signature and seal that I needed for the new study visa. They also told me that I was facing a maximum fine of 5000 RMB. (That’s about US$644.)
To get my new visa, I also had to go to the local police station and get my “temporary residence permit” form, since I’ve moved since my last visa. I used to dread going to the police station to get this paperwork done, but I now have a different attitude about it. This is mainly because the Changning District Police Station seems to never want to fine foreigners for not reporting in within 24 hours of moving (like they’re required to do by law). They clearly have the power to fine us, but in Changning District, they never seem to fine me. Last time I registered six months late, and they just gave me a mild warning. (They could have fined me by the day!) This time I wasn’t worried when I filled out the form and indicated that I had actually moved about 10 days before. Not only did I not get fined, the officer actually changed the date I wrote so that I would look better on paper for when I went to get my visa taken care of. Awesome! Changning District Police, I salute you!
Now here’s the deal with the visa. According to the rules, you get fined 500 RMB for every day you are in China without a visa. This amount, however, maxes out at 5000 RMB. In my case, this is extremely fortunate, because it meant I faced a 5000 RMB fine rather than a 72,000 RMB fine (almost $10,000).
When I arrived at the visa place in Pudong, I was actually optimistic about getting the fine reduced. I had a glowing letter of recommendation, I had never overstayed a visa before, and I felt I could possibly turn on the charm. The visa officer was a kindly old grandfatherly type. He carefully listened to everything about me getting married, never being late on a visa, being very fond of China, working on my Masters, blah blah blah, and then informed me that I was getting the maximum fine of 5000 RMB.
5000 RMB is not that bad, really though. I was 144 days late. Since 500 RMB per day adds up to 5000 RMB after only 10 days, it’s almost as if I got 134 free days! And not just any 134 days, but 134 crazy days of life outside the law! Living on the illegal edge! Or, you could say I got a bargain fine at only 35 RMB per day. (That’s a huge savings over 500 RMB per day!)
Anyway, the point of this post is keep others from freaking out. When you seriously overstay your visa as I have, they don’t kick you out, they don’t get mad. They just make you pay 5000 RMB.
The whole thing ended up being pretty long and drawn out. I had to wait in numerous lines, have various documents and receipts photocopied, actually leave the building to pay the fine through Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (I guess this is a good thing because it keeps officials from pocketing fine money), and fill out several forms. And I got a surprise at the end. Rather than being issued a student visa good for another year, I was issued a student visa good for another two months. This is because my passport expires in April 2007, so my visa can’t go beyond that date.
So now I have to go pick up my passport next week along with my new two month visa, go to the U.S. Consulate for a new passport, then come back and do the whole visa extension dance again. Lovely.