This past weekend President Obama, while in China, announced changes in the reciprocity agreement for visas for Chinese citizens. The reciprocity agreement, which becomes effective on November 12, 2014, governs the period of validity for different kinds of visas which permit Chinese citizens to travel to the United States for different purposes. The agreement provides for the same provisions relating to U.S. citizens travelling to China in similar visa categories. The State Department issued a press release and announced the specific changes, together with a series of frequently asked questions with regard to the impact of this announcement for the different visa categories. The change in the reciprocity agreement permits the State Department to issue longer-term visas for students, business visitors, tourists and exchange visitors. However, it is important to note that the new reciprocity schedule does not apply to H-1B or L-1B visas. While many in China look forward to the ability to apply for Treaty Trader or Treaty Investor visas (E-1 and E-2, respectively), this announcement will not provide any assistance.

The impact of these changes is limited. It will not expand the number of individuals who can apply for visas, nor will have any impact on the eligibility of any individual for a visa. It does not extend the ability of anybody to stay longer in the United States. However, it will permit some individuals to avoid the need to apply frequently for a visa. It is important to note the distinction between the issuance of the visa and the right to stay in the United States. The visa is issued by the State Department and grants the right to enter the United States for a specific purpose and a specific time. The visa governs the period in which the holder of the visa can present himself for admission at the border, it does not govern how long he is permitted to stay. Thus, for individuals who wish to travel between the United States and China, it will reduce the number of visits to the American Consulate to apply for a new visa in the three designated categories. Student and exchange visitor visas will be valid for the duration of the educational program that supports the visa application up to a maximum of five years. Visitor visas, for both tourists and business visitors, will be valid for 10 years.

The State Department announcement notes that the governments of China and the United States continue to negotiate regarding the terms of other visas, presumably H-1B and L-1 visas, but at this time, only the visitor, student, exchange visitor visas will have extended periods of validity.