Citizens of the United States need only a valid passport to enter Hong Kong for stays up to three months. You need at least six months' validity on your passport before traveling to Asia. All minors regardless of age, including newborns and infants, must also have their own passports. Upon arrival, officials at passport control will give you a Hong Kong entry slip. Keep this slip safe; you must present it with your passport for your return trip home. If you're planning to pop over the border into mainland China, you must first get a visa.
U.S. passports are valid for 10 years for adults, five years for minors under 16. You must apply in person if you're getting a passport for the first time; if your previous passport was lost, stolen, or damaged; if your previous passport has expired and was issued more than 15 years ago; or if your previous passport was issued when you were under 16. All children under 18 must appear in person to apply for or renew a passport. Both parents must accompany any child under 16 and provide proof of their relationship to the child.
The cost to apply for a new passport is $135 for adults, $120 for children under 16; adults (over 16) may renew passports for $110. Allow four to six weeks for processing, both for first-time passports and renewals. For an expediting fee of $60 you can reduce this time to two to three weeks. If your trip is less than two weeks away, you can get a passport even more rapidly by going to a passport office with the necessary documentation. Private expediters can get things done in as little as 24 hours, but charge hefty fees.
Before your trip, make two copies of your passport's data page (one for someone at home and another for you to carry separately). Or scan the page and email it to someone at home and/or yourself.
A visa is essentially formal permission to enter a country. Visas allow countries to keep track of you and other visitors—and generate revenue (from application fees). You always need a visa to enter a foreign country; however, many countries routinely issue tourist visas on arrival, particularly to U.S. citizens. When your passport is stamped or scanned in the immigration line, you're actually being issued a visa. Sometimes you have to stand in a separate line and pay a small fee to get your stamp before going through immigration, but you can still do this at the airport on arrival. Getting a visa isn't always that easy. Some countries require that you arrange for one in advance of your trip. There's usually—but not always—a fee involved, and said fee may be nominal ($10 or less) or substantial ($100 or more).
If you must apply for a visa in advance, you can usually do it in person or by mail. When you apply by mail, you send your passport to a designated consulate, where your passport will be examined and the visa issued. Expediters—usually the same ones who handle expedited passport applications—can do all the work of obtaining your visa for you; however, there's always an additional cost (often more than $50 per visa).
Most visas limit you to a single trip—basically during the actual dates of your planned vacation. Other visas allow you to visit as many times as you wish for a specific period of time. Remember that requirements change, sometimes at the drop of a hat, and the burden is on you to make sure that you have the appropriate visas. Otherwise, you'll be turned away at the airport or, worse, deported after you arrive in the country. No company or travel insurer gives refunds if your travel plans are disrupted because you didn't have the correct visa.
Travel agents in Hong Kong can issue visas to visit mainland China and arrange trips; China Travel Service has more than 20 branches all over Hong Kong. Generally, expect to wait two to three days; Americans will pay a fee of about US$160. If you apply for a China visa before leaving home, the wait time is usually four to five days and the fee is US$140.
Chinese Consulate (212/868–2078. www.nyconsulate.prchina.org/eng.)
Chinese Embassy Visa Office. (202/337–1956. www.china-embassy.org/eng.)
Hong Kong Immigration Department (2824–6111. www.immd.gov.hk.)
China Travel Service (2998–7888. www.ctshk.com.)
U.S. Department of State (877/487–2778. www.travel.state.gov.)
A. Briggs Passport & Visa Expeditors (800/806–0581 or 202/338–0111. www.abriggs.com.)
American Passport Express (800/455–5166. www.americanpassport.com.)
Travel Document Systems (800/874–5100 in Washington D.C.; 877/874–5104 in New York; 888/874–5100 in San Francisco. www.traveldocs.com.)
Travel the World Visas (866/886–8472. www.world-visa.com.)