Everyone traveling more for more than 3 days or outside of Beijing and Shanghai must have a visa, even if you are arriving for just a day. Normally a tourist visa is for a 30 day stay but you may be able to get up to 90 days if you ask. You can also get double entry visas easily for a little more money while a multiple entry visa may be more difficult. You can normally get your visa extended while in China so if you think you don’t have enough time don’t worry too much.
Unless you are traveling as part of a group, you will normally need to arrange your own visa. It may be that your travel agent can help you for a fee. Search on the internet for the Chinese embassy or consulate in you country nearest to you. Some countries such as the USA also have visa agents but this adds substantially to the cost. If you can go straight to the embassy/consulate it will be cheapest.
Apply for your tourist visa 30 to 60 days before departure. If you apply too far in advance the visa will expire as it has an “enter by” date. Details and application forms can be found on the web site of the Chinese embassy for your country. Visas are normally processed in 3-4 working days but you can pay extra to rush it. If you go to the visa office you may be able to get a visa on the same day for a fee.
You normally need one photograph, a filled in form for each person and a bank check or credit card. Fedex or other courier can handle the transfer and return.
Application fees vary from country to country, as it's a tit-for-tat on the costs. If your country charges Chinese citizens a lot in visa application fees, then they charge you a lot back. Thus a Chinese visa for an Australian passport holder is less than half the cost of an American.
Visas are generally easy to obtain in Hong Kong and other Asian capitals in 1 to 3 days, so if you are traveling this is an option. Make sure to show up at the right time to apply (usually before lunch), with cash and be ready to wait in line (bring a newspaper or book!).
Beijing and Shanghai 72-hour visaFrom January 1st, 2013 citizens of the following countries will be granted 72-hour visa-free entry to the cities Beijing and Shanghai:
Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Russia,the United Kingdom, Ireland, Cyprus, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, the United States, Canada, Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Brunei, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar
If you are in possession of a valid third country visa and confirmed onward plane ticket, you may apply for a transit without visa permit (TWOV) at Beijing Capital International airport (PEK), Shanghai Pudong International Airport (PVG) and Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport (SHA).
This will allow you to enter China without a visa for up to 72 hours. Your 72 hours will begin to be counted from the moment you receive your TWOV permit at the Exit and Entry Administration desk at each of the above mentioned airports.
This 72-hour permit will allow you to remain in the city you entered through only (for example, if you fly into Shanghai Pudong or Shanghai Hongqiao International Aiport, you are not allowed to leave the city of Shanghai).
For more details, please check with your local Chinese Consulate or Embassy.