On November 10, 2014, the United States and the People's Republic of China announced a major change to their reciprocal visa policies to make it easier for tourists, businesspeople and students to travel between the two countries. In its media release today, the Obama Administration explained that "as a result of this arrangement, the United States hopes to welcome a growing share of eligible Chinese travelers, inject billions in the U.S. economy and create enough demand to support hundreds of thousands of additional U.S. jobs" (through increased tourism).
The changes impact travelers from China seeking visas to the U.S. and vice versa. Chinese citizens seeking to visit the U.S. for business and pleasure (B-1 visa category) as well as students and exchange visitors seeking to study in the U.S. (F, M, and J visa categories) must first obtain visas before travelling to the U.S. Currently, both visitor and student visas are only valid for twelve months. Effective November 12, 2014, both countries will now issue visas that are valid for multiple entries and a maximum period of ten years for visitors and five years for students, thus relieving frequent travelers of the burden of having to apply to renew their visa every year.
Importantly, although this policy change lengthens the validity period of the affected visas, it does not otherwise change the affected visa categories. The maximum period of time a person may be admitted to the U.S. as a visitor has not changed. The validity period of the visa does not govern how long a person may be admitted to the U.S. for. It only determines the period during which a person may repeatedly travel to the U.S. and apply for permission to enter without having to first return to a U.S. embassy abroad and apply for a new visa. In other words (and contrary to a popular misconception), a ten-year visa does not mean a visitor may remain in the U.S. for ten years. Regardless of the validity period of the visa at the time of entry, visitors may still be admitted to the U.S. only for up to a maximum period of twelve months (though usually six or less in practice). Students will continue to be admitted for "Duration of Status" (meaning that they may remain continuously in the U.S. as long as they continue to be full-time students in good standing).
Further, the eligibility criteria for the affected visas has not changed. Applicants for visitor visas must still be able to demonstrate, for example, that they have a legitimate reason for visiting the U.S. for either business or pleasure, that they will not work in the U.S. without authorization, and that their ties outside the U.S. are sufficiently strong to guarantee their return abroad after their visit. Visitors must also demonstrate that they have sufficient funds available to pay for their trip and expenses while in the U.S. and that they will depart the U.S. prior to the expiration of any authorized period of stay (usually six months). At a minimum, international students must provide documentation demonstrating that they have been admitted to a qualified full-time program at a school authorized by the Department of Homeland Security to admit international students, that they have sufficient funds to pay for their living and study expenses while in the U.S., that they have sufficient ties abroad to guarantee their return after their course of study is complete, and that they are not using the student visa program to circumvent the law simply to get into the U.S.
Finally, the policy change does not affect current holders of valid visitor and student visas. Existing visas will continue to be valid until their stated expiration date and are not automatically extended. Holders of current visas should apply to renew them in a timely manner based upon their current expiration dates (but should apply early given delays that will likely be caused by the anticipated growth in the number of applications filed under the new policy).
Additional information about this important change in U.S./China visa policy is available here:
U.S. State Department Announcement: http://travel.state.gov/content/visas/english/news/ChinaVisas.html
U.S. State Department FAQ: http://travel.state.gov/content/visas/english/general/us-china-agree-to-extend-visas.html