The People’s Republic of China imposes visa requirements on citizens of most countries, with only a handful of
passport holders having the privilege of visiting visa-free. Getting a visa is costly, lengthy and inconvenient. Fortunately, for the past few years China has been operating several visa-free transit programs for stays of up to 6 days – really stretching the definition of “transit”. Here is how to go about it, including information based on our team’s travel experiences.

It’s a three-step process to see if you qualify concerning your nationality, the journey you’re making and the Chinese airport(s) you’re passing through.

Firstly, you must hold a passport issued by one of below 53 countries. If you aren’t, your stay is limited to 24 hours (with select nationalities excluded from that program as well).

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, Russia, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Cyprus, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Republic of Montenegro, Macedonia, Albania, Monaco, Belarus, United States, Canada, Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Brunei, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar

Secondly, you should plan out your journey in advance to make sure you it is allowed under the program. A universal guide is to make sure that your onward flight departing mainland China is not bound for same country as you have arrived into mainland China from. Only the two segments into & out of mainland China matter In essence this means that traditional itineraries like London-Beijing-London and London-Dubai-Beijing-Dubai-London do not qualify for this program.

However, once you get more crafty, it’s easy to see how you can qualify with little effort. An acceptable itinerary is flying from London to Beijing with Air France & KLM on one ticket, transiting via Paris first and Amsterdam when returning (London-Paris-Beijing-Amsterdam-London). In China’s view you are flying from France to the Netherlands via Beijing and therefore, you will qualify for the program.

Admittedly an extreme example, a more common itinerary is London-Beijing-Singapore-Beijing-London, with a few days’ long stopover on either the outbound or return journey in Beijing. In fact, that is what it seems to be most useful for – cutting short the stay in your main destination in order to get a glimpse of China.

If you have multiple stopovers in mainland China (e.g. London-Guangzhou-Beijing-Sydney), your stay in China is limited to 24 hours only. In all instances for the purposes of visa-free transit and verifying your eligibility, Hong Kong, Macau & Taiwan are classed as separate countries.

Thirdly, you must be transiting through a Chinese airport that is part of the program. The biggest cities and transit hubs, including Beijing, Shanghai (both airports), Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Xiamen, Wuhan and Chengdu all adopted the policy. Some airports, including Xi’an, Changsha & Chongqing limit the time to 72 hours.

All other airports, excluding Urumqi, allow 24-hour transit including with multiple stops in China.

If you tick all the boxes, great. Have print outs of your full itinerary and all hotel bookings with you on hand. At check-in, when the agent will be verifying your entry documents into China, explain that you will be travelling under the 24 hour or 144 hour exemption.

After you leave the plane in mainland China, follow the signs to “24/144-hour visa-free transit” desk. The name may differ slightly and if you cannot find your way, ask a member of staff. There, you will be able to pick up a blue form titled “ARRIVAL CARD FOR TEMPORARY ENTRY FOREIGNERS”. Fill it out diligently and pick up the equivalent departure card for when you exit. Approach the desk handing over your passport, the blue arrival form you have just filled out along with proof of outbound travel – either a boarding pass if you have one or a print out of your itinerary.

Based on anecdotal evidence of a UK citizen, if you are departing later the same day or staying just for one night, you will not be asked any questions. If your stay is closer to the allowed limit, you will be required to prove your hotel reservation and asked a few questions. The entry permit will then be stuck on a visa page in your passport.

You have and will retain the blue form to then give to passport control, where you will then be given an entry stamp into China. You are not required to fill in the standard yellow landing card for standard passengers.

There are a few more things to keep in mind. With a 144-hour permit, you must not leave the area which you enter. That will not be a problem if you are not planning to leave the city or surrounding area, but long distance travel is prohibited.

There is also no official information in regard to the minimum stay for transit entry clearance. Day-trippers with a stay of 10+ hours will not encounter difficulties, but any less than that may result in you being turned away at the visa desk and told to stay in the transit area.

Once you navigate the intricacies of the program, you will see that it’s a great way to visit a country that is otherwise much harder to access. With the arrival of affordable mainland Chinese airlines into the Australian, American & European markets, it is not hard to find an opportunity to transit through China.