8:44 PM (20 hours ago)
Here is an article that appeared to today about the number of expats in China who have to leave the country to renew their visas.
A Popular Side Trip for Foreigners in China: Visa Runs
Every Few Months, Expats Dash Out to Renew Papers; Guard's Harvard Question
By BOB DAVIS
The Wall Street Journal
• Updated April 18, 2012, 8:40 a.m. ET
ERLIAN, China—Lisa Guetzkow, a 25-year-old American, is crossing the dusty border from China to Mongolia crammed into the front seat of an ancient Russian jeep that has a scarf for an inside door handle. She's making a visa run. If it works out, she'll be able to stay another three months in Beijing, until she has to dart across the Chinese border again.
Beijing and other Chinese cities are magnets for young expats in the way that Paris was after World War I and Prague was after the Cold War. The dollar is still strong, jobs are plentiful and the bar scene vibrant. "It's not hard to teach English in China," says James Schiffer, a 25-year-old Oregonian, who returned home last year after three years in China. "If you have a white face and a pulse, you can get a job."
Many of the 20-somethings either have tourist or business-meeting visas that are good for a year, but require holders to leave the country every two or three months to be renewed—a requirement aimed at preventing visitors from settling down and taking jobs without the proper work visa. To get around that, young people make dashes to the border before their visas are set to expire, sometimes spending just enough time to get a foreign stamp in their passport before heading back to China.
Russian and Eastern European models have especially tough times on the border, say visa specialists in China, because the guards suspect they may be prostitutes. The models generally have tourist visas and can't admit they are working, so many say they want to get back to China to spend time with long-term boyfriends.
Andy Parker, a British male model in Asia, says some of his female colleagues dress to the nines to impress the border guards that they have high-powered and well-connected Chinese boyfriends. But a Polish model in Beijing, who asked that her name not be used, says her agency gives the opposite advice: Dress down in jeans, plain tops and no makeup. "Look like a student," she says.
One 29-year-old Californian who teaches social studies in southwestern China has taken 10-hour bus rides to the Laotian border and eight-hour trips to Vietnam for visa runs. Laid-back Laos is a snap, he says, but re-entering China from Vietnam can be a hassle.
Some visa runners have had their China guidebooks confiscated if the books have maps that mark Taiwan as a separate country rather than a province of China, he says. And during one crossing, a border guard grilled him about what college he attended. "Harvard," he answered. Is Harvard's president male or female, he says the guard demanded to know.
The teacher says he guessed male but the border guard knew better. Drew Faust had become Harvard's first female president. He explained he was thinking of the years he went to college, an answer that earned him entry back into China.
Some try to avoid the hassle of a border run altogether by turning to visa agents who claim they have enough clout with local governments to get visa renewals or fresh visas for fees ranging from about $450 to $2,000.
One visa agent, who goes by the name of Peter, requires customers to check into a hotel with other expats and hand over their passports and other paperwork. Later he walks his customers through a local police station that handles visas and gets them the necessary stamps.
Mr. Schiffer, the Oregon native, was a customer of Peter's when he sought a new visa. "Overall the entire experience reminded me of weed runs I would go on with friends back in the States," he says.
Reached by phone, Peter wouldn't give his last name. He also wouldn't explain his techniques. "That's the whole point of my business," he said. "How can I tell you about that?"
China's Public Security Bureau, which handles visas, didn't comment on specific questions about visa runs, except to cite Chinese regulations.
Ms. Guetzkow, the 25-year-old American, chose Mongolia for her visa run because it was cheap and seemed romantic. She passed up the cheapest way to get to the border—a $40 overnight bus where 40 passengers sleep in submarine-tight quarters—in favor of a $55 morning flight. Her destination was Erlian, a Chinese border city, whose main road is decorated with green statues of dinosaurs in honor of dinosaur bones found nearby.
The border scene is chaotic. Drivers rev the motors of their beat-up vehicles, shouting in Chinese and Mongol for passengers to board for a 300-yard drive to the Chinese immigration center and then another few miles to the Mongolian equivalent. Travel blogs warn some drivers will stop halfway between the two buildings and extort expats to pay twice the usual 50 yuan fee ($8) to continue, but Ms. Guetzkow made it to the other side with no problem, happy she now had a Mongolian stamp in her passport.
She had hoped to ride a horse in the Mongolian city of Zamiin-Uud on the border. But the achingly poor town doesn't appear to have a blade of grass—the dust next to the sidewalks is four inches thick—let alone a horse, although a yak wanders by. She settles for a photo of herself in front of a tree whose limbs are wrapped in blue scarves.
When it is time for the return trip to Erlian, she manages to convince a jeep driver to take her and a traveling companion for 70 yuan, instead of the usual 100. But at the Mongolian checkpoint, the driver has second thoughts, pulls a U-turn and heads back to Zamiin-Uud. "180 yuan," he demands.
No deal, says Ms. Guetzkow, who then spends an hour looking for someone to take her and her companion for the usual 100. Word had spread instantly that 180 was the new normal.
Eventually, a female taxi driver agrees to ferry the pair for the usual price, and Ms. Guetzkow gets the stamp in her visa that entitles her to spend another three months in China. For her next visa run, she's going upscale. She plans to go to South Korea and spend time on a resort island there.
—Yang Jie contributed to this article.
Write to Bob Davis at firstname.lastname@example.org