Tents on the roadside at night
As the night progresses, tents go up on the sidewalk in front of the consulate at 1450 Laguna St. off Geary, folding chairs come out, thermoses full of hot water are unscrewed. Photo by Yujie Zhou. Taken March 6, 2023.


Even before the last customers stagger out of the nearby Japantown mall, a line begins to form outside the nearby Chinese Consulate. As the night progresses, tents go up on the sidewalk in front of the consulate at 1450 Laguna St., just off of Geary Boulevard, folding chairs come out, thermoses full of hot water are unscrewed. Many hours remain before the consulate opens at 9:30 a.m.

The line is a mix of agents and individuals waiting for one of 100 to 150 tickets handed out each morning for the privilege of submitting a visa application. For three years, it was impossible for almost anyone with a foreign passport to travel to China. But on Feb. 3, consulates again began issuing visas. The catch? The consulate in San Francisco will only accept in-person visa requests

So, night after night, those anxious to travel for business or to visit critically ill family members join the line — the earlier, the better. 

On Sunday, Danny Zhao arrived at 6:30 p.m. to claim the pole position — first in line.

Zhao’s well aware that to win the right to submit an application, you must be one of the first 150 people in line, though occasionally only the first 100 in line make it inside. Around sunrise, arguments and even physical confrontations break out as some individuals try cutting in line. But everyone’s No. 1 issue is … No. 1.

“The bathroom situation is the worst,” says Kun, 89th in line on Sunday at 11:30 p.m. There is a Safeway two blocks away, a bagel shop and a Starbucks, but all of those close by 11 p.m. “I’m a guy, I use the bushes,”  said Alix Wong, who was 24th in line on Sunday. Still, he fantasizes about an outhouse.

The bathroom situation grew particularly dire at 5 a.m. on March 2, when a visa applicant dropped off his wife, parked the car and then headed to nearby Raymond Kimbell Playground to use the public restrooms. A San Francisco Police report stated that he was mugged and ended up in the hospital, where he is still recovering. 

As the night progresses, tents go up on the sidewalk in front of the consulate at 1450 Laguna St. off Geary, folding chairs come out, thermoses full of hot water are unscrewed. Photo by Yujie Zhou. Taken March 5, 2023.

While the Consulate General of the People’s Republic of China has yet to respond to Mission Local’s inquiry, it announced after the mugging incident that it would open online applications as early as March 13.

For now, however, the in-person system reigns, and the regulars — agents for others — have figured out how to survive the long night’s wait.

“I eat well and sleep,” says Zhao, a fortyish business agent. How does he endure the wait? He points to his camping chair with armrests and his bright blue sleeping bag. “I think about life every day, sitting in this chair,” he said. One of the conclusions he has considered of late: For those who desperately need it, the current system is actually fairer than the upcoming online system, because they are sure to secure a spot if they come early enough. 

When it is time for a photo, Zhao tidies up his sleeping bag.“I at least want to make sure I don’t look like a vagrant,” he explains.

Those who arrive earliest, the first 15 to 20 in the line, are, like Zhao, business agents who can each submit two applications. (In early February, they could submit up to 10.)

Even early in the evening, it’s a lively line; full of complaints, optimism, and applicants outfitted in layers. On a recent Sunday-night-to-Monday-morning wait, a  couple of tech workers type code through the night, and a medical student and his wife trade off sleeping in the car and watching television. New friends are made, immigration stories shared. 

“Today is the worst day,” says Alix Wong on Sunday night. People came earlier than ever to make sure they would not waste a night of tortuous waiting. Moreover, many had heard of the upcoming online appointments and said they felt more comfortable taking fate into their own hands. 

To ensure a spot, Wong arrived earlier on Sunday and settled into the evening with a bag full of snacks: Peanuts, almonds and a sandwich. Waiting in line professionally is a novel career turn, but it’s part and parcel of the career arc for Wong and other agents. Before this, he facilitated companies hoping to do business in China in more conventional ways. 

It’s profitable work, he says. The two applications he submits will earn him several hundred dollars each. Other agents are expected to wait in line and secure visas as part of their jobs, and are not paid extra. 

“I have a Zipcar and a chair and an umbrella,” says Wong. On rainy nights, he rents a hotel and his neighbors in line kindly secure his place.

Once he’s finished, around noon, he heads home for a meal of chicken and rice. It’s a routine he has followed every night for the last month. 

“Just frustrating, have one more night and morning here and I’ll be done,” he wrote in a text message referencing the upcoming shift to online submissions. 

Wong says the agents often play the role of referees when someone tries to cut in line and disputes break out. Each night, when the queue is close to 100 people in line, a volunteer, mostly an agent, takes the initiative to hand out handwritten papers, each with a number corresponding to a person’s place in line. Occasionally these skewed sheets of paper cut from notebooks are even stamped.

“We agents maintain the order,” says Wong. 

The self-governance works. Queue jumpers have become rare, agents say, and if someone tries to force their way in, people stand up for their neighbors, who they have spent a freezing night getting to know. Even when the consulate staff come at 9:30 a.m. with colored plastic bags to distribute the official numbers, the staff adhere to the unofficial numbering.

As many as 70 to 80 percent of the people in the line understand Chinese, according to Wong’s estimation. 

Others are in line for business visas. Giant companies have had their expansions stalled for three years and are anxious to resume business. Among them are Costco, Meta, TikTok, and many others, according to Wong.

In addition to the agents who submit applications for their clients, are the hourly workers who hold a spot in line for someone else. Lorenzo, a monolingual Spanish speaker, for example, claimed the 88th spot, but he was there, paid by the hour, to maintain the spot for C. Chun, an agent.

Chun says positioning is key. “Where you are in line predicts your state of mind,” he said. While a spot too far back can produce a lot of anxiety, the first 100 in line are relaxed and wander the line or drift off to sleep. 

Chun says he’s watched applicants fail to make the cut once, twice and even three times before realizing they needed to come earlier.

Kun, a medical student at the University of California, San Francisco, and his wife, Jenna, an accountant who came along to keep him company, were 89th in line on Sunday. Kun needs to return to China because of a family emergency, he says, but they plan to wait until their visas are in hand before telling their families. 

They are well prepared with camping equipment, multiple layers of clothing and the optimism of someone in the first 100 positions. The line, says Kun, is “an interesting experience.”

As the night goes on, Kun and Jenna take turns sleeping in their car. While one sleeps, the other watches a TV series, “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan.”

Around 1:15 a.m., a man with graying hair, who has just driven alone from Sacramento, is clearly surprised to see the length of the line. He hurries to the end while asking anyone still-awake, “Should I still wait?”

He does, and manages to secure the 121st spot. He is desperate to go to China to see his dying mom one last time, he tells his neighbors. Everything is ready, he says, including a plane ticket. All that he lacks is the visa. 

So he waits, not discouraged when the middle-aged Chinese woman in position 122 on a folding chair gives up at 4:30 a.m. Too cold, she tells the group. 

The odd thing, visa applicants say, is that the line outside is almost more organized than the process within the consulate. Inside, they said, officials are overwhelmed by the number of applications. Dozens of passports go missing. 

The applicant in the 121st position had been there on an earlier day and left his passport with the consulate. He was told to return with a few missing papers. And that is what he had with him on Monday morning. He tried to convince the staff to process his visa as soon as possible, and it appeared the consulate staff wanted to help.

The problem? It was practically impossible to retrieve his passport from the mountain of other documents.

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REPORTER. Yujie Zhou is our newest reporter and came on as an intern after graduating from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is a full-time staff reporter as part of the Report for America program that helps put young journalists in newsrooms. Before falling in love with the Mission, Yujie covered New York City, studied politics through the “street clashes” in Hong Kong, and earned a wine-tasting certificate in two days. She’s proud to be a bilingual journalist. Follow her on Twitter @Yujie_ZZ.

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  1. Well-researched article! An interesting experience indeed. To be replaced by the appointment system soon.

    I was able to get a visa without sleeping on the sidewalk (I live in the neighborhood and could easily scope out the line, and get in the line later e.g. 8 am or after).

    I’d say that in general the consulate officials probably did the best they could given the volume. They’ve stayed open until 7:30 pm / 8 pm just to process the visa pickups etc. from the same day.

    Don’t get me wrong, it was still a lot of effort to have to wait. But yeah, for people willing to wait, they might have been able to get the visa earlier than with the appointment system.

  2. My parents areive Feb 8 2023 and I have been in Zhi hai since March 1. We are all USA and Taiwan citizens.

    It was a nervous experience as I was literally the only person from the USA that arrived at the entrance port for the Zhu hai bridge.

    The police there said that my TW passport will expire Fall 2023.

    I had to use my USA passport for their entrance software that you have to scan and then present the tw passport (even though i bought my KAL round trip tickets with the USA passport).

    They were talking to each other for a solid 15 minutes. Taking the documents to 3 other police. Finally they let me in.

  3. Having helped shepherd a longterm partner and relatives through the ghastly US INS system I have long suspected our State Department’s Consular Service was designed to let foreigners and citizens alike learn in no uncertain terms how deeply contemptuous our bureaucrats are of the clients they are paid to supposedly serve. Sort if an “Abandon hope all ye who enter here” deal. I see the Chinese government takes a similar approach.

  4. I went to China (Shanghai) a few years ago, it was strange, we stayed in a suite at the Park Hyatt, 80 floors up. The food was great, but then this was a most upscale area. People were well dressed, but in very conservative styles and colors. No one wanted to stand out and people seemed to have that deer in the headlights look. It was a marked difference to Taipei where we stayed before flying to Shanghai. People wore many more colors and had more smiles on their faces in Taipei, compared to Shanghai.