I used the Consulate-General of The People’s Republic of China - Houston in the information below. Check the Embassy/Consulate that serves your location

US Citizens traveling to mainland China will need to apply for a visa. For a tourist visa, you will need to apply for the L visa at the Embassy or Consulate that serves your state. There are visa agencies that will take care of this for you, if you don’t mind mailing your passport to some random agency you found from a DuckDuckGo search. Plus, adding about $150-200 on top of the $140 visa fee.

Paperwork: Tourist Visa

  • Form v.2013 - The application MUST BE TYPED. IN ALL CAPS. Yes, it is annoying - the application will be checked at the door before being allowed entry. If it is not TYPED IN ALL CAPS, be prepared to walk across the street to the coffee shop to use their computer and print service. On the positive side, if you filled out your paperwork properly you can expect to move ahead a few spots as they start shepherding everyone into the correct lines. Also, each questions must be answered, N/A will suffice for questions that are not applicable.

  • One passport photo (CVS makes this painless) - must meet requirements, if not, it’s $10 to re-take it in the photo booth in the lobby.

  • US Passport with at least 6 months validity left and 2 blank visa pages. Be prepared to part ways with it for a few days.

  • Flight itinerary + lodging reservations - This is an absolute requirement. The flight info will need to show the flight from the USA, even if the flight into China originates in a different country. Otherwise, they will ask you to apply for the visa in the country of that originating flight. The coffee shop across the street has an email address you can forward your other flight itineraries to for printing. The lodging reservation/booking information MUST have arrival & departure date, the address and your full name. Surprisingly, booking information doesn’t always have all 3 of those listed on the confirmation pages/emails. If you are lucky, the email that the Hotel/Hostel sent with directions from the airport, will have all of it in small print at the bottom of the email.

Extras

The Houston location had a note asking to NOT request rush or express service. Not sure if it is always that way or just when I went. After submitting the paper work and having it approved, you receive a pick-up slip with a date. This particular date was for Friday that same week; when standing in line to pick up my passport, the guy behind me had applied the day before - maybe they only have a couple pick up dates a week? Either way, it does not take long.

On the application, it ask the Intended number of entries, having applied for One entry valid for 3 months - it was interesting to see the visa was a multiple entry visa good for 10 years. An agency guy in line to pick-up said that was the common tourist visa issued. This solves a future dilemma for travel to Tibet.

144 hour visa free travel

The following areas allow US Passport holders 144 hour of visa free travel to China.

  • Yangtze River Delta (Shanghai, Jiangsu, and Zhejiang)
  • Pearl River Delta (Guangdong province)

Tibet

Travel to Tibet requires competency in hoop jumping while also having the skill to solve the chicken/egg conundrum. A travel visa to China is needed to receive a travel permit to Tibet. If you don’t stay in China first, you can not get a Chinese visa as you won’t have hotel reservations.

One option is to go through a tour agency in China and they will give you an invitation letter to use instead. This is an easy option if you prefer others telling you how you are going to spend your trip.

Considering the requirements for obtaining a Tibet permit changes frequently, it’s advised to watch it closely and not plan too far in advance. There are some sources that also advise going through a Chinese tour agency to get an invitation letter to China as it could be more difficult to get a Chinese visa if the planned trip is only to Tibet - and without the visa, you can’t get a Tibet travel permit. Currently, the only way to get a travel permit into Tibet is through a travel agency; atleast solo travelers are now approved for permits. (for the moment)

Having a multiple entry visa should make a trip to Nepal/Bhutan/Tibet less of a logistics nightmare.