Is it possible to use Airbnb in China in 2020? As a foreigner, there’s an obvious appeal to staying in a local home instead of a hotel, but it’s not always clear whether China allows this kind of homestay experience. For this reason, it’s important to discuss not only how to use Airbnb in China, but also whether or not you even should (and what your alternatives are).
Airbnb has invested heavily in the China market over the past few years and for good reason:
China is Airbnb’s fastest-growing domestic market.
Millions of travelers use Airbnb in China each year to book homes instead of hotels. Shanghai is by far the most popular city on the Airbnb platform, followed by Beijing, Chengdu, Chongqing and Guangzhou.
But of these millions of travelers, the vast majority are Chinese citizens, with only a small fraction being foreign travelers. I receive numerous questions from travelers having to do with booking Airbnb in China and I understand why – neither China nor Airbnb do a good job of educating foreign travelers about what they can and can’t do!
So in the absence of good information, I’d like to fill in the gaps. I’m going to share with you traveler stories in addition to my own research to help you understand how (or if) you can book Airbnb in China.
China’s Policy for Foreign Accommodation
Before we go any further, it’s important to understand how China regulates foreign travelers when they book accommodation. It doesn’t matter what kind of China visa you have, the following holds true in all occasions:
All foreigners in China are required to make a temporary residence registration within 24 hours of arrival.
This is true whether you’re staying at a hotel in China, a hostel, if you’re camping in China or even staying at the home of friends/family. You are required to submit your passport and visa information to the local authorities for registration.
Typically, this registration is submitted by the hotel on behalf of all of their foreign guests. This is why hotels in China will always make a copy of your passport and visa when you first check in. They register you with the local authorities who have authorized the hotel to host foreigners.
This is where Airbnb is slightly different.
While the company does submit guest details to Chinese authorities, this doesn’t exactly work on a local level. Foreign guests still need to be registered with local authorities, and this needs to be done by either the host or the guest themselves.
Can You Stay at an Airbnb in China?
This foreign residence registration policy is exactly what complicates any effort to book Airbnb in China.
Can you book Airbnb in China?
Yes, you can.
Can you stay at an Airbnb in China?
That’s not entirely clear.
You see, in order to stay at the Chinese house you found on Airbnb, you will need to make sure that you are registered with the local authorities. The hosts are supposed to do this for you, but there’s no guarantee they will.
And if they don’t, it’s the traveler who gets in trouble, not the host.
If a host doesn’t register a foreign guest, it’s the foreigner who gets in trouble, not the local host.
Theoretically, Chinese hosts are learning what is required by local authorities and are complying with these policies. The reality, however, is that this registration process is easy for local travelers and sometimes very complicated for foreign travelers.
Because of this, hosts either remove the option to rent to foreigners (best case scenario) or they just ignore the policy, knowing it’s the guest who will get in trouble, not themselves.
Traveler Story: Late Night Police Visit
In late 2018, one set of European tourists arrive at their nice Airbnb apartment they had rented in Chengdu. It was a great location and much cheaper than the hotels they had seen.
The host had taken their passport information and the first night of their stay was great – no problems at all.
The second night was different.
At 1am, a constant knock at the door of the apartment woke the two travelers. Police entered politely but quickly and informed the travelers that they were staying at the house illegally since they hadn’t been registered.
While the travelers weren’t mistreated or sent to jail, they were escorted to the nearest 5-star hotel where they were forced to check in. The whole ordeal was scary, inconvenient and very costly.
They never received a refund for their Airbnb stay.
Tips for Using Airbnb in China
The above story is just one example of what could happen if you aren’t properly registered with your Airbnb accommodation in China. So what can you do to make sure that this doesn’t happen to you?
Here are a few tips and suggestions:
- Register Yourself with the Local Police: You’ll need to ask the host and/or locals in the community where to find the police station. It shouldn’t be too far. You’ll need to bring your passport and possibly a visa-sized photo. The whole process should only take an hour or two, but it’s hard, especially if you’re traveling around China without being able to speak Chinese.
- Communicate with the Host Prior to Arrival: Ask to make sure that they will register your stay with the local authorities. Even if they say yes, check the reviews to see if there have been any recent foreign guests who have left positive reviews. Keep in mind, this may be hard if they don’t speak English. Most of their guests are usually Mandarin-speaking Chinese people, so they may not want to deal with someone who only speaks English.
- Stay Low-Key: The smaller the community – or the louder the guests – the more likely they’ll get noticed and reported to the local police. Chinese communities are trained to report suspicious activity (including the presence of a foreigner) to local authorities, so if you stick out there’s a greater chance you’ll get a visit from the police.
- Just Don’t Use Airbnb in China: The truth is, it’s probably best to avoid Airbnb altogether in China until they get all this stuff sorted out. It’s possible to find great Chinese hotels and hostels that offer great experiences in convenient locations.
That final point is an important one.
At this point in time, I recommend that you avoid using Airbnb in China, however enticing it may seem.
There are more risks involved than you may realize and there are plenty of equally-cheap alternatives to choose from.
Airbnb in China | Frequently Asked Questions
At this point, I’ve already gone into great detail about Airbnb in China, but for the sake of brevity, here’s a list of the frequently asked questions alongside simple answers.
Yes, it is. However, local Chinese regulations require foreign guests to register their stay at the Airbnb home with the local authorities. This registration process should be done by the host but is ultimately the responsibility of the guest. It is much easier for a foreigner to stay at an Airbnb in major cities like Beijing and Shanghai than in smaller cities further inland.
In most cases, no. Applying for a Chinese tourist visa requires proof of accommodation, and Airbnb does not qualify. In order to use a local home on your application, you would need to have an invitation letter from the Airbnb host. Thankfully, there are other ways to satisfy the booking requirements for visa application.
Staying at Airbnb in China requires that you register your stay with the local authorities. Ideally, the host will take you to the local police station and help you with the process, but if not, it is your responsibility to find the local police station, bring your passport, and register your stay. Unfortunately, it is not guaranteed that the local police will approve your stay, which is a risk of using Airbnb in China.
It depends on a lot of factors. In some cases, nobody notices and nothing happens. In other cases, travelers have been forced to leave the home and find a nearby hotel. In the worst cases, some travelers have been fined and/or asked to leave the country for not complying with the law.
Yes, there are a number of Chinese alternatives such as Xiaozhu and Tujia, but these apps require users to communicate in Chinese and use Chinese forms of payment. For most foreign travelers, these alternatives aren’t an option and it’s often better to find a good Chinese hotel or hostel.
Final Thoughts | Using Airbnb in China
Ultimately, my recommendation to most travelers is to avoid using Airbnb in China for the time being. It is legal, but the regulations aren’t clear and there are risks involved for travelers – risks that frankly just aren’t worth the added savings or experience.
Thankfully, there are excellent alternatives in the form of Chinese hotels and hostels. Search for what you’re looking for on Trip.com, a Chinese search engine for hotels and flights in China. In my experience, they offer the best selection of hotels with photos that you’ll find anywhere online.
Have you used Airbnb in China? What was your experience? Leave a comment below to let us know!