As an American passport holder, there aren’t too many countries that require a visa. Many countries like Brazil have what is called a reciprocity fee, meaning that if the US charges Brazilian citizens a visa fee, then Brazil charges Americans the same fee but without the requirement of a visa. In entering these countries via a flight, you usually just pay the fee in the airport, and you are on your way. It is all quite simple.
Other countries like Russia require quite a bit for an American to enter their country, like a personal recommendation or request from a Russian citizen. Crazy right?! Russia is really killing my “travel to Russia” bucket list vibes. Anyway, China doesn’t go that far, but it is quite the process along with being rather expensive. The US charges a hefty fee for Chinese visas so China charges that same price for American's to enter China.... awesome.
Even still, Chinese visas aren’t exactly easy to come by in the United States. A few months prior to my Beijing flight I was told that Chinese visas were actually backed up; and, the US was not likely to issue you your visa for several weeks. This meant that the chances of getting the visa were small and even if you did get one, it might take weeks or months to come in.
It is important to note that most major Chinese cities will give you a short term visa in the airport. You cannot travel outside of the city and you cannot stay longer than 72 hours. But, if you can work within those limits, then it is a much easier visa process. Also, if you are visiting cities like Macau and Hong Kong that function outside the Chinese government, you aren't required to have a visa under 30 days. Again, you can’t travel outside of the city without a formal Chinese visa.
I was staying in Beijing a few hours past the 72 hour visa deadline due to my flight schedule so I was required to get a formal Chinese visa. Instead of taking the chance that I wouldn’t get the visa in time if I applied in the US, I opted to apply for a Chinese visa in Japan. I had read that Tokyo’s visa process was quite efficient and since traveling in and around Asia is common in Tokyo, it was much easier to get a visa there. Whenever you are traveling, you usually have the option to get the visa for another country in a different country to your origin as long as you visit the embassy for which you are trying to obtain a visa for.
Embassy of the People's Republic of China in Japan
Since my travels to Tokyo, the visa process has changed. You can no longer go through the Chinese Embassy. There are many conflicting reports online, but please note, you have to use the Chinese Visa Application Service Center (visaforchina.org) in Tokyo. The cost is now 9,000 YEN. Please read the website thoroughly making sure not to miss anything. For instance, Chinese and Japanese holidays are different to American holidays and the office will be closed on those days. Also, your passport cannot be expiring within 6 months or you will not be issued a Chinese visa. Read the website thoroughly, fill out the paperwork from the website in advance, have the exchange cash in YEN needed, and apply as much in advance as possible. Do your research!