Here are the differences between a standard Chinese visa and a Group Chinese Visa. In addition to a Chinese visa, all foreigners are still required to have travel permits as they have for the past 30 years. This post is to explain the differences between a Standard Chinese Tourist Visa and a Group Chinese Tourist Visa.
If you plan to go to the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) from Mainland China, all you need is a standard Chinese tourist visa, which can be applied for at an embassy or consulate in your home country and in many Chinese embassies and consulates outside of your home country.(NB: foreign residents of China who hold X or Z visas can also travel to Tibet, but need additional documents from their work or school. People holding an F visa can also go to Tibet, but also need additional paperwork in order for travel permits to be issued). However, if you plan to enter the TAR from Nepal, you need to enter on a Group Chinese Visa. If you arrive in Nepal with a standard Chinese tourist visa in your passport, it will be cancelled and you will NOT be able to enter China on it. You will have wasted both your time and your money.
The travel regulations on entering Tibet from Nepal are different than the regulations entering Tibet from the rest of China. The biggest difference is the requirement of the Group Chinese Visa. The Group Chinese Visa is normally only valid for 21 to 28 days and cannot be extended in China. In comparison, a standard Chinese tourist visa is valid from 30 to 90 days, depending on your nationality, and can almost always be extended at least once for an additional 30 days. So, if you book a 14 day tour of Tibet, you will probably only have 7 to 14 days remaining on your group visa to visit other places in China before you have to leave the country. Also, over the past 3 years I have heard several reports of people only getting 15 day group visas if they only book a short tour in Tibet (less than 7 days). Most people who go to Tibet plan on spending a few weeks traveling in China. If you enter from Nepal, you won’t be able to spend as much time in the rest of China after your Tibet tour.
The Group Chinese Visa required to enter Tibet from Nepal, can only be arranged by a travel agency. You cannot get this visa on your own. As I stated earlier, if you arrive in Nepal with a standard Chinese tourist visa already in your passport, you will not be able to use this and you will not receive a refund for it. The Group Chinese Visa is not placed in your passport like a standard Chinese tourist visa is. It is a piece of paper that lists everyone in your groups name, gender, nationality and passport number. You will still receive an entrance stamp in your passport, but the actual visa is a piece of paper that you are responsible to hold on to until you depart China.
In the past, you were required to always enter Tibet from Nepal with a group of at least 2 or 3 people. This sometimes would prove to be a major problem when budget travel agencies would place strangers together in a group in order to split the cost of a tour to Tibet. That group of strangers would then be forced to travel to all of the same places in China at the same time and exit the country at the same time, at the same place. This of course, would cause all kinds of problems because the agencies usually didn’t explain in detail what the Group Chinese Visa was and that the group had to be together until they exited China. Groups of strangers who had different travel plans in China quickly ran into major difficulties! The past several years, it has been quite easy to get the Group Chinese Visa as a solo traveler. You still have to be part of an organized tour that includes travel permits, a tour guide, private vehicle and a driver, but you can normally get a group visa for just yourself. The only times when the government makes groups of 2 or 3 travel together is when the TAR has just recently reopened after a closing, such as the annual closure in March. In early April when the area reopens, the government sometimes requires people entering Tibet from Nepal to be in a group of 2 or 3. Do keep in mind though, that travel regulations for Tibet can change at anytime.
Because of the Group Chinese Visa restrictions, I almost always recommend people to travel from Mainland China to Tibet and then on to Nepal. By traveling this direction, you avoid having to get a group visa and can enter on a standard Chinese tourist visa. This allows you far more time to travel in China.
If you have any questions regarding Group Chinese Visas, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org