How to get the Chinese tourist visa (L visa) by yourself
Americans need to apply for visas ahead of time to visit China as tourist (or anything, really)
Exception is if you want to visit China as a stopover to another country (Hong Kong, Macau count as another country in this case), in which case you can visit it visa-free
There are only 2 ways to get a Chinese visa in the US
Drop off all your documents in person at one of the consulates/embassy in DC, New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Houston (or have a friend in these cities drop them off for you, this is allowed and you don't need any special power of attorney forms or any additional docs). Check out each consulate's service area
Use a 3rd party private visa application company, in which case you can mail all your docs to this company. You're going to need to pay their service charge, which ranges from $80-$200, plus shipping fees. I've never used any of them before so I don't know which ones are good, but you can probably just Google them. I've heard of VisaHQ being used by a friend before
Note that you can't just mail your docs to the embassy or a consulate directly
I applied for it myself, not using a visa service. I ended up having a friend drop off my application package at the San Francisco consulate. I got the 10-year multiple entry L visa because I go there pretty frequently, but the application process is identical for all L visas
Current fees for L visa are $140 USD for regular non-expedited service (4 business days), regardless of number of entries. $160 for 2-3 business day service, and $170 for 1 business day service (see embassy's site for latest info).
Your passport: need to have at least 6 months of remaining validity and at least 1 blank visa page (keep in mind that the last couple of pages of our passports are not visa pages; double check it!). You'll need to renew your passport first otherwise
Printed flight confirmation from your booked airline (must be return flight) AND printed hotel confirmation for the entire duration of your trip
In lieu of these you can also get a invitation letter from a friend in China, just make sure the letter meets the criteria
If you've had any previous Chinese visas (not just L visa) on an older passport, AND your current passport doesn't contain any Chinese visa, then you need to get a photo copy of the previous passport's 1) photo page as well as 2) the page with the Chinese visa.
If you've never had a Chinese visa before, ignore this
If your current passport contains a previous Chinese visa, also ignore this
Step 1: fill out the visa application form online (or in any PDF software) and print it out. Pretty straightforward, every field has English label. Some fields to call out:
Field 1.9: I just put my driver's license number on here
Field 2.2: most people just check the first option. Americans can get 10-year multiple entry visa, so if that's what you want, you should manually write "10-year multiple entry" in the "Other (Please Specify)" field
Field 2.4: make sure this date is the flight arrival date on the flight confirmation
Field 2.5: there's no legal limit to how long the L visa entitles you to stay in China, so put down whatever number of days you actually plan to visit China for (at the minimum put your return date minus your arrival date + 1). The actual visa you get will specify the number of days you're allowed to stay, usually in increments of 30 days (so 30, 60, 90, etc.)
Field 2.6: I usually just copy my hotel confirmation into this chart
Field 2.7: I always write "Myself"
Field 2.8: I always write "N/A" since I always used my flight/hotel itinerary and never used invitation letter. If you used invitation letter instead of itinerary then put your inviter's info here
Field 3.8: US passport holders should all write N/A here. Note this is not a section to put the info of your travel companions (if you read it carefully it's a place put anyone who shares your passport, which I didn't even know is a thing). I've never had to write anything here even when I visited China with friends