Visa and landing permits are one of the worst bureaucratic hurdles countries still hold up, that have survived through the tech age. The reasons some countries ask for a Visa as an entry permit are dubious and sometimes just outright bullying. Despite many countries having abandoned Visa requirements for most of the civilized world, others still hold on to their tradition. And some of them make you run for it. Like, for example, China.
Getting a Visa for China usually involves going personally to the Chinese Embassy in your home country (or using an expensive Visa service), coming at the right time (consular sections open a few hours a day, a few days per week) and then bringing all the right documents needed to convince them that you actually don’t go there to stay there (who would want that, anyway?) or do something illegal (who would admit that on an interview?). In the end, you’ll have wasted almost a week, spent at least $100 (or $300 if you use a visa service) but you’re good to go!
Luckily, some Chinese cities have recognized this policy to be extremely deterring to both tourism and business. Some of the most important cities now offer an entry programme called „72 hour visa-free transit“ that lets you enter without a Visa for 72 hours or so (depending on the city), making it easy to stopover or do a short business trip.
I have tried this system now several times in China, and it works flawlessly. Usually, there is a separate counter for this 72-hour visa-free transit programme, and there is little or no wait. Produce your passport, onward ticket or boarding pass and you’ll be out exploring China in a minute. Waiting times are usually a lot less than on the regular counters. And the best: It is completely free of charge!
Sounds too good to be true? Well, there’s a few catches to this. The rules for the visa-free transit programs are different in each city, so be sure to find out which rules apply in the place you plan to go. Beijing for example allows for 72 hours, while Shanghai has recently extended to 144 hours. Other places may offer less.
What’s common to most of the visa-free transit programs in China are the following conditions:
You must present a valid booking for an onward flight within the allowed length of stay (i.e. 72 hours). This is pretty clear, although the exact terms vary by city. In Beijing, for example, the 72 hours start to count at 00:00 on the following day. This means that in reality you often have more than 72 hours. This detail isn’t communicated anywhere, but has been confirmed by the Beijing Airport Immigration Police and I’ve personally verified it on a trip.in spring 2016.
Your onward flight from China may not go back to the same country you’re arriving from. It means, if you fly from the U.S. to China, you can’t board another flight from China back to the U.S.. The visa-free entry in China is designed for „stopovers“, so for some reason they don’t want it to be used for travelers who just want to go to China for a few days. But don’t worry, this is easy to work around (and completely legal). Just book a connecting flight for any of the legs, which stops in a third country. For example, if you fly from Paris to Beijing, buy your flight ticket back via Frankfurt, Germany and then from Frankfurt to Paris. A change of planes is enough, you only need to produce a flight connection from China to a third country.
You must remain within the city you have landed – meaning if you fly to Beijing, you have to stay in Beijing Area. You have to check-in in a hotel in the city, or register at a local police station. While this inhibits you from taking a domestic flight or train, nobody will care if you go out by car and return back in the evening. Some chinese cities have a more relaxed policy on this, and let you roam around several cities.
Available only for citizens of certain countries. The visa-free transit program in China is currently available for citizens of all Schengen countries, as well as Albania,Bulgaria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cyprus, Croatia, Ireland, Macedonia, Republic of Montenegro, Romania, Russia, Serbia, UK, Ukraine, USA, Canada, Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Australia, New Zealand, Republic of Korea, Japan, Singapore, Brunei, UAE, and Qatar.
Airline boarding rules. There is one major hurdle to using this program, and this is the airlines. Most airlines will not let you board without a valid visa for the destination country, as they would be subject to fines if a passenger arrives without the necessary documentation. While most airlines already know about the visa-free transit program in China, some don’t. And what’s worse, most airlines do not know the exact rules, for example that in Beijing the 72 hours start to count at 00:00 the following day. Be prepared for heavy discussions with your airline’s security staff and plan to call the supervisor (I had to do this on a recent flight involving a 74-hour stopover in Beijing. The gate agent wouldn’t let me board at first because I would be 2 hours over the program limit). Flying with your home country airline helps here, due to reduced language barriers. It also helps to call the security supervisor before the day of flight and discuss with her whether she knows the exact rules. It could be a sour beginning to your trip if your journey ends at the departure gate.
Other than that, this transit program works perfectly in China, if you know the rules. Check regularly with Authorities to see whether rules have changed.