With very few exceptions, travel to mainland China requires obtaining a visa. This requires additional time to get the visa and an added expense. The cost of a visa varies widely depending on where you are coming from and the type of visa you are getting. Europeans can get one as low as €30 while American citizens will be charged $140. There are single use and multiple trip varieties. There is a specific type of itinerary however that allows travelers to visit mainland China without getting a visa.
Enter Visa Free Transit
Travelers may stay in China a short time without a visa if they are in route to a third region. In airline speak you are using China as a stopover. Round trip tickets to mainland China and returning to your original location are not eligible. The third region is a loose term and adds to your possibilities. Designated Special Administrative Regions (SAR), Hong Kong and Macau qualify as a third region as well as Taiwan. For example, Los Angeles>Shanghai>Hong Kong is an itinerary that qualifies. Los Angeles>Shanghai>Los Angeles or even Los Angeles>Shanghai>Seattle does not qualify as you are returning to the same region. The exemption is used only for those using China as a short stay in route to their ultimate destination. One important note is that there is no time requirement to your third destination. In the example above, you may use Hong Kong as a short layover in route back to Los Angeles and be fine.
Eligible locations within China
Visa free transit is only valid in specific locations within China. You must arrive in the following locations and are subject to the specific time limits. You may stay up to 72 hours if you arrive in Beijing, Guangzhou, Chengdu, Chongqing, Harbin, Shenyang, Dalian, Xian, Guilin, Kunming, Wuhan, Xiamen, Tianjin, Nanjing, Qingdao, Changsha and Hangzhou. Arriving in Shanghai, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, and Guangdong will allow you to stay up to 144 hours. In most scenarios the time limit begins at midnight the following day you arrive. For example arriving at 9AM your time does not begin until midnight of the following day. The exception is Beijing where the 72 hours begins at the scheduled arrival time in China.
Another criteria of visa free transit. You maybe required to stay within a dedicated zone for the entirety of your trip. Travelers in Beijing, Chongqing, Harbin, Guilin, Kunming, Wuhan, Xiamen, or Tianjin cannot leave the city they are in. Some (but not unlimited) movement outside the transit city are allowed in the transit locations.
Citizens of the following countries are eligible for visa free transit. The United States, all European Schengen Agreement Countries, The United Kingdom, Ireland, Cyprus, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia, Albania, Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Russia, Australia, New Zealand, Republic of Korea (South Korea), Japan, Singapore, Brunei, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Belarus, Monaco.
- A valid passport
- Visa (if needed) to your third country or region
- Proof of a confirmed onward ticket to your third region leaving within the specific time frame (within 72 hours or 144 hours.)
- Complete an arrival/departure and present to immigration officer in China
- You will not be able to check in online for your flight. Arrive at the airport earlier than normal and check in for your flight. Inform the airline of your transit free visa status and supply proof of your onward ticket. As a little known and used option, this may take some time and your check in agent may have to look into this.
- Arrive early at the airline gate an again inform the agent of your transit free visa status and again produce your proof of onward ticket.
- Fill out a arrival/departure card supplied by the airline in flight or upon arrival in China. You may have to fill out a different arrival card specific to the transit free Visa. This card will only be at the designated immigration line in the airport.
- Upon arrival in China, look for a special lane marked for this type of visa. The sign will likely say 72 hour or 144 hour Visa/24 hour Visa as seen above.
- Provide the officer at the immigration desk your passport and proof of onward ticket within the 72 or 144 hour time frame.
- The officer will stamp your passport. It will show the date you must leave by.
- Pick up any checked bags and enjoy your trip as normal.
- When leaving China, you will proceed through immigration where an officer will stamp your passport indicating you have left the country.
Additional FAQ’s and Tips
- You may not purchase your onward ticket after arriving in China. You must have purchased the ticket in advance and show proof upon request.
- You may only stop in one Chinese city during visa free transit. You may not fly into Shanghai and then fly to Beijing for example
- If you have a layover (less than 24 hours) in China you are eligible for 24 hour direct transit. The same criteria applies as the 72 or 144 hour transit.
- You will have many more issues in your home country than in China. Once arriving in China, follow the signs and it should be a breeze. As this is not used often you likely will encounter a much shorter queue than those using the standard lane.
- Be careful how you word your intentions. You are transiting through China on your way to your final destination. This is a stopover.
- It is recommended that you leave some breathing room within your dedicated time frame. The rules are very stringent and misreading or misinterpretation of the rules can cause a delay or denial of your trip. It would be best that your onward ticket is less than the limit of 72 or 144 hours so that there is no confusion.
- Make multiple copies of your proof of onward ticket. It’s the only way you are getting through. Better safe than sorry.
- If you are not staying at a hotel in China, the government requires you to register at a local police station. A hotel will take of registering for you.
- if you stay beyond your 72 or 144 hour window you are subject to a fine. This will be confirmed at the airport upon departure. Visit a local Exit-Entry Administrative Bureau if your stay goes beyond the allotted time. If a force majeure caused you to extend your stay you may be approved without a fine.
For more information see the official Chinese embassy website for your country of residence.