How to Visit Parts of China Without a Visa

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If you have ever thought of visiting China, you might have been put off by the visa application process. I am definitely not a fan of applying in advance for a tourist visa of any kind; I know that many others agree with me. Besides the time and effort involved, the costs can really add up. For example, check out the current visa fee charged by the Chinese embassy in London – £265 if applying by post! And, as far as I know, British citizens can only apply for a maximum one year, multiple-entry visa so it is not even possible to request a 5 or 10-year multiple-entry visa and be done with it…

Luckily, there is a different way of visiting China without requiring a proper tourist visa. This method involves applying for a 72 (or occasionally 144) hour transit visa upon arrival to China.

Eligibility Criteria for a Transit Visa on Arrival

First of all, you need to be travelling on a passport issued by one of 51 countries. These are:

  • 13 Other European Countries:  United Kingdom, Ireland, Cyprus, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia, Russia, Albania
  • 24 Schengen Agreement Countries: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland
  • 6 American Countries: United States, Canada, Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Chile
  • 2 Oceania Countries: Australia, New Zealand
  • 6 Asian Countries: Korea, Japan, Singapore, Brunei, United Arab Emirates, Qatar

You also need to be arriving by air into one of these Chinese cities.

  • Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, Chengdu, Chongqing, Harbin, Shenyang, Dalian, Xian, Guilin, Kunming, Wuhan, Xiamen, Tianjin, Qingdao and Hangzhou

You must hold a confirmed airplane ticket leaving China to a third country (Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan are fine, as they are considered to be separate countries despite the obvious inconsistency with the government’s “One China” policy) within the period of your transit visa. It is important to have a print-out of your airplane ticket. It is also crucial to book a direct, non-stop flight to that third country (from wherever you entered China).

Upon arrival to China, you must look out for a sign/desk that will look like this before making your way to the standard passport control desks:

transit visa

Details to Keep in Mind

  • The 144-hour transit visa is only available at Shanghai, Jiangsu, Zhejiang (both near Shanghai) and Guangzhou (near Hong Kong). The other airports mentioned above can only offer a 72-hour transit visa.
  • The visa is actually good until midnight on the last day of eligibility. For example, if you arrive into Shanghai’s Pudong airport at 7 a.m. on 1 April, you have until 23:59 on 7 April to depart China.
  • You cannot leave the region of arrival. This excludes such things as:
    • Flying into Beijing, taking the train to Shanghai, and then departing from there.
    • Flying into Shanghai and dashing around the country during your permitted six days of “transit”
    • Booking an incoming flight that connects (or even stops briefly before continuing onwards) in another city, such as Joe’s great Prague to Shanghai fare that requires a connection in Beijing.
    • Booking an outgoing flight that connects or stops briefly elsewhere in China, such as a Xian to Beijing to Seoul ticket.
    • Thinking that the rules don’t apply to you! Hotels will carefully check your entry stamp to ensure you are allowed to be there.
  • Your transit DOES NOT need to be on the same ticket.
    • There is no problem with flying to Shanghai with British Airways, Virgin Atlantic or Iberia, then using your Avios for a separate ticket to Japan or Hong Kong with JAL or Cathay.
  • The “third country” rule is crucial; otherwise it won’t be treated as “transit”. You cannot fly from London to Shanghai and back to London again. Neither does a regional side trip – i.e. Hong Kong to Guangzhou and back to Hong Kong – qualify. However, a Madrid (Spain) to Shanghai to London (UK) itinerary would work perfectly fine (although convincing airline staff might be a different matter!)
  • I have not found anything that specifically prohibits a day trip from China to a third country and back, in order to reset your 72/144 hour clock, but I wouldn’t recommend so obviously gaming the “transit visa” system to have a longer stay in China.

When it all works fine, you should end up with an entry stamp that looks like this:

transit visa

A Couple of Handy Tools

In the interests of clarity, I haven’t outlined a few exceptions to the “can’t leave the region of arrival” rule. You can read about those here on a quasi-official tourism promotion website.

Also, the transit-visa-on-arrival policy is well known around Asia. However, not every check-in agent in Europe or North America is likely to be as familiar with it. If you receive any pushback, ask them (or a manager) to check “Timatic”, the IATA system for checking visa requirements. If you want to arrive to the airport armed with a print-out, I have found two free services that check Timatic for you – just be sure to set your final destination as Hong Kong, Tokyo, Seoul, etc. with a connection in Shanghai, Beijing, etc.

As a final hint, try not to book a return flight to China if you are intending to take advantage of the transit-visa-on-arrival policy. Even though a London to Beijing return ticket and a separate Beijing to Seoul return ticket would allow you to legitimately demonstrate that you are only transiting China, do you really want to spend hours arguing with airline staff who may not look beyond a computer system flashing “check for visa” at them? I didn’t think so…  That’s why I booked two separate one-way flights to/from Shanghai during the recent Valentine’s Day reward offer from Iberia Plus I haven’t quite decided where my final destination will be, but in theory I can stay six days in Shanghai on my way out and another six days on my way back…

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