I'm an American citizen currently on a multinational trip through Asia. I'm in Malaysia now and the country I'm most interested in visiting is China. However, China has a particularly complicated visa application process that requires me to make an in-person appointment at a Chinese embassy at least a month before my trip to China, and the appointment slots at the closest office are booked a month out. When I have my appointment, they will expect me to leave my passport at their office for four business days. Since I'm outside the US, my perception is that it's too dangerous for me to become separated from my passport for that long and therefore I need to shelve the whole idea of visiting China for now. I'm writing here to see if my perception is correct. Is it too dangerous to become separated from your passport in a foreign country, or can it actually be okay somehow?
I think there are two parts to this question:
- Will I need my passport while it's gone?
In my experience this is highly predictable. You need a passport for flying, ID for travel, checking in and out of an accommodation, renting car, making new bookings, signing contracts, etc. If you are not planning on doing any of these things, you are fine. Technically most countries will require you to carry your passport, but in practice that's rarely enforced. I never carry my passport if there is a good place where I can leave it (hotel safe, AirBnB, etc) and in over 40 countries I've never had a problem with that. Even in the highly unlikely case that someone wants to see it out of the blue, a copy plus the receipt from the Chinese Consulate should suffice.
- Can I trust the Chinese Consulate with my passport?
I think dda's answer covers that well already. While I wouldn't trust a US consulate (having been repeatedly lied to, cheated, and blatantly abused) I found Chinese immigration to be courteous, professional and reasonably efficient.
To be safe I would at least double their estimate to 8 business days and make sure that you won't need your passport during that period, but otherwise that should be ok.
Two comments on this subject.
China has a particularly complicated visa application process
Not really. It's a bit long, but you should see what a US visa application for Global South citizens looks like. In comparison, piece of cake. Could some of the questions be deemed intrusive? Possibly, indeed. It doesn't make the application process "difficult" – in and of itself the application is straightforward. Let's not confuse things here.
The issue with the slots is real, but, if you are really interested in visiting China, which I can only commend and recommend, I would advise you to do it in Hong Kong, which probably has the biggest Visa Centre, and accepts non-residents.
Have a look at the slots there (I recommend you pick as early a slot as possible, 9 am being the best, and arrive 40 mn before that). With a bit of luck you can be done in 40 minutes.
You don't have to apply a month in advance - the day I received my visa, indeed on the 4th business day, I went right away to Shenzhen.
As you can see here, there are plenty of slots available in September, and even at 9 am. Go for it!
As for leaving your passport with Chinese authorities for 4 days, you shouldn't worry. They are very well organized, at least in HK, and they handle 100s of them every day.
I would recommend to take a photo of your passport ID page, and the Immigration receipt you get when entering HK, plus the visa application receipt - which will prove your passport is with the Chinese authorities, in case Police asks for your ID: it is compulsory to carry ID in HK at all times, although I've never been asked in 16 years.
The Chinese government has announced a simplification of the application form. This should make things even easier.
Foreigners can technically get by without their physical passport for a short time, as long as they keep out of trouble with the local laws. Another good idea is to request a document from the Chinese embassy saying the passport is with them if any officials ask about it. It helps a lot to have a photocopy of the passport just in case.
The first thing is that you may have misunderstood the application process (or not been given all of the relevant information by the person who you were speaking to.).
You shouldn't have to attend in person to receive a visa. That's simply the fastest method of doing it. I paid a small fee to have mine done by mail. It took a little longer but just involved filling in some forms.
The second thing is that if you're just a regular tourist or a business person with no involvement in drugs or other criminal activities, and you're not a political activist, then there is almost no risk to you of being separated from your passport for that length of time as you are still entitled to full consular support even without the physical document.
It's just a bit of a pain if it's your only form of ID and you need it to do things like booking a flight of staying in a hotel.