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“Reader Questions” are answered three days a week — Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays — by TPG Senior Writer Julian Mark Kheel.

International visa rules can be confusing, especially when it comes to traveling in, out and through China, as TPG reader James has been discovering…

I have a 12 hour layover in Beijing and I’m trying to determine if a visa would be required if I leave the airport to do some sightseeing.

TPG Reader James

James is referring to a program called “visa free transit” which China implemented and then expanded in recent years. It’s important to note that Chinese visa free transit rules are very specific and somewhat tricky. If you’re not eligible, you’ll need to have a visa to enter China and you need to get it before you leave the US since you can’t obtain one upon landing in the country.

When you check in at the airport, the airline desk agent will likely rely on a computer system called TIMATIC (short for Travel Information Manual Automatic) to determine if you’re eligible to travel without a visa. If the computer says you can’t go, then you almost certainly won’t be going, so be absolutely certain you know the rules before you arrive at the airport.

There are three lengths of Chinese visa free transit available — 24-hour, 72-hour and 144-hour — and each one has its own rules and applies to different cities in China. But in all cases, the key word here is transiting, meaning you must be arriving by air from one country (call it “Country A”) and departing China (“Country B”) enroute to a third country (“Country C”). You cannot go directly back to Country A, and you must already have your confirmed ticket — no standbys — to Country C when landing in China to be eligible for visa-free transit.

So as an example, you can’t fly from Los Angeles (LAX) to Beijing (PEK), stay a day, and then fly back to the US without having a visa for your day in China. You’ll have to go on to somewhere else first. But yes, a connection will count — you can go from L.A. to Beijing, then fly to Tokyo (NRT) for a 90-minute layover before heading back to LAX.

Beyond that, the 24-hour visa free transit rules are the broadest and simplest of the three versions. When transiting nearly all Chinese cities, you can exit the airport and enter China (and even change airports within China) without a visa so long as your scheduled departure time is no more than exactly 24 hours after your scheduled inbound arrival time. Don’t worry if your inbound flight arrives early or your outbound flight runs late — the scheduled time is what matters.

Beijing is one of 15 cities currently eligible for 72-hour visa free transit. Image courtesy of Dong Wenjie/Getty Images.

If you’re a US citizen, you may be eligible for 72-hour visa free transit, but only if you’re visiting certain Chinese cities — as of this writing, they are Beijing (PEK), Changsha (CSX), Chengdu (CTU), Chongqing (CKG), Dalian (DLC), Guangzhou (CAN), Guilin (KWL), Harbin (HRB), Kunming (KMG), Qingdao (TAO), Shenyang (SHE), Tianjin (TSN), Wuhan (WUH), Xi’an (XIY) and Xiamen (XMN). But if you use this option, you generally must stay within your region of arrival, which is roughly 100 miles from your arrival airport. Also, some of these cities consider your arrival time to be midnight the day after you arrive instead of your scheduled arrival time.

Finally, US citizens transiting three other Chinese cities — Shanghai (SHA and PVG), Hangzhou (HGH) or Nanjing Lukou (NKG) — can take advantage of the 144-hour visa free transit rules. The major difference with this option, aside from the cities involved, is that you can travel amongst the three 144-hour cities while you’re in the country.

These are just the broad guidelines and there are a number of other nuances to China’s visa free transit program, so make sure you double check the rules and even bring a TIMATIC printout to the airport with you if possible. And if you find you aren’t eligible for visa free transit, Chinese visas are available in lengths of six months to 10 years and can be complicated to get, so TPG recommends using a third-party service like Allied Passport & Visa. Mention The Points Guy on your order form and you’ll get a $5 discount just for TPG readers.

Hope this info helps, James, and thanks for the question. If you’re a TPG reader with a question you’d like answered, tweet us at @thepointsguy, message us on Facebook or send an email to info@thepointsguy.com.

Featured image courtesy of nycshooter/Getty Images.

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