How to Connect In China Without a Visa
For US travelers, China can be an intimidating destination on immigration grounds alone. The world's most populous country has some of the most stringent visa requirements of any nation in the world. But what if you purchase a connecting flight through Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou, all airports with lots of international connections? Will a US or European citizen be allowed to transit the airport? Can they access airport hotels?
The short answer is yes. China does permit visa-free travel for Americans, Europeans and several other nationalities under certain circumstances.
There are an increasing number of reasons to consider transiting the People's Republic of China. Airlines in the country have improved dramatically. One Chinese carrier, Hainan Airlines, is ranked 5-stars by Skytrax, alongside the likes of Singapore Airlines and Lufthansa. While service quality on state-owned carriers Air China, China Eastern and China Southern still lags behind top-flight carriers from the Asia Pacific region, they have improved steadily in recent years.
The process of obtaining a visa waiver is surprisingly easy, given China's over-the-top visa requisites. There is no need to apply ahead of time; all processing can be done at customs and immigration in China. There are some documents you will need to be sure to prepare ahead of time.
Communicating a visa waiver situation to airline employees can however be problematic.
Connecting in China without a visa
There are two types of visa exemptions for US and EU travelers with connecting flights in China: direct transit and visa-free travel.
Direct transit applies to passengers who are making connections within 24 hours of their arriving flight, and do not plan to leave the airport. Under direct transit rules, passengers are not required to make any applications or any appearance at Chinese immigration. Any foreign national may transit China under this rule.
72-hour visa-free transit allows citizens of 51 different countries, including the United States, Canada and most EU nations, to exit the airport and remain in that city for up to three days. Chinese immigration facilities have dedicated desks for passengers applying for a 72-hour stay permit. Once admitted, travelers with 72-hour permits must register at a police station with 24 hours, if they're not staying at a hotel.
This type of permit is only available at 12 airports: Beijing Capital (PEK), Shanghai Pudong (PVG), Shanghai Hongqiao (SHA,) Guangzhou (CAN), Chengdu (CTU), Chonqing (CKG), Shenyang (SHE), Dalian (DLC), Xi'an (XIY), Hangzhou (HGH), Gullin (KWL) and Kunming (KMG).
144-hour visa-free transit allows citizen of those same countries to stay in Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin and Hebei for up to six days. The rules and procedure for applying are the same. In some regions, such as Chengdu and Guangzhou, connecting passengers are allowed to leave the connecting city and visit other places in the province. In most cases, however, passengers on this policy aren't allowed to leave the connecting city.
Taking Advantage of Visa-Free Transit
Travelers wanting to leave the airport in China will need to prepare a few documents to present at customs, according to Sonny Wang, owner of New York-based Oriental Travel Experiences.
- A valid passport
- Confirmed reservations on an onward flight to a third country
- Necessary credentials to enter the third country
It also helps to notify your arrival airline ahead of time, to smoothe over any problems you may encounter during boarding and check-in.
Avoiding Problems with Airline Staff
Airlines operating flights to mainland China have all been informed of China's visa-free transit policy, Wang said. Still, there are reports of travelers encountering issues with airline agents looking for their Chinese visas.
TPG reader Ken Helman was given the runaround on a recent trip from Venice, Italy, to Hawaii via Beijing. Ken used American Express Membership Rewards transferred to Aeroplan to book an itinerary that took him to Honolulu via Istanbul on Turkish Airlines and Beijing on Air China. Since he had an overnight connection, he reserved a hotel near Beijing's Capital airport.
Ken ran into an nerve-racking situation in Istanbul, however, when one Turkish Airlines gate agent attempted to deny him boarding due to his lack of visa. Ken had to produce the Chinese Embassy's policy on his phone in order to board, yet Turkish still would not allow him to collect his bags during his overnight in Beijing.
Dejected, Ken ended up cancelling his hotel and staying in the Air China lounge for the night.
"They didn’t drag me through the plane with a broken tooth, but their misinformation, within their entire system is very misguided," Helman said. "They were pretty brutal, and unyielding, both in Venice and Turkey."
We have reached out to Turkish Airlines for their reaction to Ken's experience and guidelines for Turkish Airlines passengers transiting China, but have not received a response at the time of publication.