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What You Need to Know About Visa-Free Transit in China

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Planning a short trip to China on your way to another Asian destination? The visa-free China transit exception may be a perfect fit for you. Unfortunately, there aren't many great resources online for understanding the visa-free China transit exception. We've compiled all we can find on the topic so you can prepare for your short trip to China with confidence.


Should I Get a Chinese Visa?

Before we get into the 24-, 72-, and 144-hour visa-free transit options in China, it's important to consider whether a visa is the best option for you. I'll be honest, it's much less confusing and a lot easier to simply get a Chinese visa. Here are a few things to know when deciding whether you need a visa:

  1. The visa-free transit exception only applies to travel itineraries that have a final destination in another country. In other words, you can't use your visa-free transit exception if you're just flying from Chicago to Beijing and back. If you have a roundtrip ticket to China and won't be continuing on to any other country outside of China, you'll need a visa.
    1. For example, you would need to have the following (or similar) route: Chicago – Shanghai (144 hour visa-free transit) – Bali – Chicago
  2. If you plan to stop over in China for more than 6 days, you'll need a visa.
  3. If you want to visit more than one Chinese city, you'll need a visa.

The point is unless you have a short stopover in one Chinese city before heading on to another destination, you'll want to just bite the bullet and get a visa. Better safe than sorry!

The best information on how to apply for a Chinese tourist visa is on the China Embassy website. Most people just visiting as a tourist will apply for an F Visa, and the cost is $140. If you live near a Consulate (locations in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Houston), you can obtain your visa in person. Otherwise, you can submit through a third party via mail for a bit more.


the great wall of china


Do I Qualify for a Visa-Free Visit to China?

If you're stopping over in one city in China for a short time on your way to another destination, you may qualify for a visa-free visit to China. The transit visa exemptions allow eligible foreign travels to visit China visa-free for 24, 72, or 144 hours.

So for example, if you are flying from Chicago to Seoul, South Korea with a stop in Shanghai you would be eligible. You will not be eligible if you are flying from Chicago to Shanghai on a direct itinerary with a final destination that is not in China.

You must also only stop in one Chinese city (though there are some regional exceptions, listed later in this post). Ensure your flight into and out of that one Chinese city does not have a stopover anywhere else in Mainland China. For example, you cannot do the following with your visa-free exception:

Chicago – Shanghai – Chongqing – Bangkok

New York – Beijing – Shanghai – Paris

The 24-, 72-, and 144- hour exemptions specify different Chinese cities you can stopover in. Those exceptions are listed under their respective headings below.

Residents of all countries are eligible for the 24-hour visa-free stopover in China. Depending on your country of residence, you may also be eligible for the 72- or 144-hour exemptions. See respective sections below to see if you're eligible. If you're a US citizen, you're also eligible for the 72- and 144-hour exceptions.


What to Do Before and During your Trip

To obtain a transit visa exemption, be sure to review eligibility requirements and confirm eligibility with your local Chinese embassy. Once you've received confirmation, according to an article from China Briefing, you must communicate your intention to utilize the transit visa exemption to your airline prior to travel. The airline will communicate with border control officials, who then grant transit visa exemptions to travelers that meet the requirements.

Don't skip informing your airline to ensure a smooth process at the airport. I have heard horror stories (and experienced one myself with a friend visiting me from the US) of travelers who get stopped because airport staff doesn't know that they have a visa-free transit exception.

Make sure you have confirmation from the airline and border control and have that confirmation with you in case you run into troubles at the airport. Leave yourself plenty of time just in case something goes awry. If any of this stresses you out, save yourself the hassle and just get a visa.


24-, 72-, and 144-Hour Visa Exceptions

The following details on 24-, 72-, and 144-hour visa-free transit are based on information from sources China Briefing and Travel China Guide.

It's important to note that the clock starts at 00:00 (midnight) the day after your entry date. That's right: if you get into Shanghai at 7:30 a.m. on June 21st, your 24 hours (or 72, or 144) don't start until midnight (00:00) on June 22nd. You have 24 hours (or 72, or 144) in that Chinese city between 00:00 on the day after your arrival and your scheduled departure time to your final destination.


You Can Get a 24-hour Visa-Free Exemption If…

Any foreign traveler transiting through China for 24 hours or less to reach another country of destination is exempt from the usually required visa.

This visa exemption is available to foreigners from all countries and works in most ports of entry in China.


You May Be Eligible for a  72-hour Visa-Free Exemption If…

Foreign travelers from certain countries transiting through China for 72 hours or less on their way to another country of destination may be eligible for the 72-hour transit visa exception. This visa exemption is only available to citizens of participating countries traveling through certain ports of entry in China.

To receive this exemption, the foreign traveler must have a valid passport from one of these countries:

  • 24 Schengen countries in Europe: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland.
  • 15 other European countries: Albania, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Ireland, Macedonia, Monaco, Montenegro, Romania, Russia, Serbia, UK, and Ukraine.
  • Six countries in North and South America: Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Mexico, and the U.S.
  • Two Oceanic countries: Australia and New Zealand.
  • Six Asian countries: Brunei, Japan, Qatar, Singapore, South Korea, and the UAE.

In addition, eligible travelers must be transiting through one of the following Chinese cities: Beijing, Changsha, Chengdu, Chongqing, Dalian, Guangzhou, Guilin, Hangzhou, Harbin, Kunming, Nanjing, Qingdao, Shanghai, Shenyang, Shenzhen, Tianjin, Wuhan, Xiamen, or Xi’an.


You May Be Eligible for a 144-hour Visa-Free Exemption If…

The 144-hour visa exemption is available to citizens of countries that are eligible for the 72-hour Transit Visa Exemption. If your country is listed as eligible for a 72-hour visa, you're eligible for a 144-hour visa as well. As with the 72-hour visa exemption, the foreign national must have a valid passport from one of the 53 countries that are eligible for the 72-hour transit visa exemption.

However, the number of participating Chinese port of entry cities is more limited for the 144-hour option.

You may be eligible for a 144-hour visa exemption if you are stopping over in one of the following cities: Hangzhou, Shanghai, Nanjing, Beijing, Shijiazhuang, Tianjin, Qinhuangdao, Guangzhou, Jieyang, Shenzhen, Xiamen, Qingdao, Wuhan, Chengdu, and Kunming. A few cities available for the 72-hour exemption are not an option for the 144-hour exemption.


Exceptions to the One City Rule

In most cases, the transit visa exemption only allows the traveler to visit the province of their arrival. However, there are a few exceptions.

Travelers entering China via Shanghai, Hangzhou, and Nanjing can travel within Shanghai, Zhejiang province, and Jiangsu province. Travelers entering via Beijing, Tianjin, Shijiazhuang, and Qinhuangdao can travel within the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region.


Bottom Line

The transit visa exemptions aren't the easiest to navigate. If you're traveling to another Asian destination and stopping in China for a bit on the way, you may be eligible for visa-free transit. Make sure you've read this guide to determine if you're eligible. Be sure to take all steps laid out above to ensure your airport and customs experience is as smooth as possible.

If you've booked a roundtrip flight to China with no other destinations, or if figuring out the visa-free exemption has you feeling stressed, I recommend just getting a visa. Some applicants are granted up to 10-year visas to China, making it well worth the cost.


Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

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