For those of you who plan to transit through China, the ever-expanding China visa-free transit or what is sometimes referred to as the China transit visa program is a welcome opportunity to see the country without the hassle of applying for a full visa. The problem – as you probably know – is finding accurate, up-to-date information on how to gain visa-free transit to China and who is eligible for the transit visa in China. Perhaps that’s you? If so, I’m sure you’re going to find this complete China visa-free transit guide extremely helpful.
Up until recently, most travelers who wanted to spend any significant portion of time in China had to go through the process of applying for a China visa, paying the consulate fees, waiting for approval, etc., etc. It’s time consuming, expensive and honestly not fun.
But what if you’re stopping in Beijing for just a few days of your international journey and you want to go see the Great Wall of China? Perhaps you have a cruise that departs from Shanghai and you want to wander the city for a few days? In both cases, a China Transit Visa (visa-free transit) is an excellent option.
Unlike traditional tourist visas, entering China under the rules of the visa-free transit happens upon arrival in China. This means that you don’t need to apply before you get on the airplane, which theoretically could save you a good amount of time and money.
However, China’s visa-free transit is notoriously confusing and there are a number of restrictions that you need to understand before you decide to take advantage of the China transit visa, whether that be the 24-hour transit visa, the 72-hour transit visa or the 144-hour transit visa.
CASE IN POINT: How confusing is this topic? Most people call this a “China transit visa”, but it’s technically a “visa-free transit”. China has a transit visa called the G visa that you must apply for at the Chinese consulate before you arrive in China. Very few people apply for this visa, though, so even though I’m going to explain China’s visa-free transit only in this article, I will be using the terms “visa-free transit” and “transit visa” interchangeably to talk about the same thing.
I’d like to walk you through what you need to know before you jump on that plane. As you read, if you find this guide helpful, you’ll greatly benefit from the best-selling Travel to China | Everything You Need to Know Before You Go, my published guide from which this was excerpted.
**Important Note** I will no longer be answering comments on this article asking about specific itineraries. Also, thanks to ever-evolving Chinese policies, I cannot guarantee that you will be issued a China transit visa.
Step 1: Check Your Eligibility for the China Transit Visa
Before you read any further, the first thing I recommend you do is to follow the link below to use a tool developed by the Chinese government to explain eligibility.
Within the tool, you’ll be asked to enter your passport country and your Chinese port of entry. When you click “search”, it will list out which transit visa is available for you (i.e. 72-hour visa-free transit, 144-hour visa-free transit), where you are allowed to travel (explained below) and where you are allowed to enter/exit.
Which Cities Offer the China Transit Visa?
It’s important to distinguish between two parts of the transit visa: your port of entry and your region of movement.
Ports of Entry
In order to take advantage of the China transit visa, you MUST arrive and depart directly through one of the following cities. This usually happens at an airport, but in some cases can be done through a seaport or train station.
- Beijing*† – 144 hour visa-free
- Shanghai*† – 144 hour visa-free
- Hangzhou (Zhejiang) – 144 hour visa-free
- Nanjing (Jiangsu) – 144 hour visa-free
- Tianjin* – 144 hour visa-free
- Hebei (Shijiazhuang & Qinghuangdao) – 144 hour visa-free
- Xiamen* – 144 hour visa-free
- Liaoning (Dalian & Shenyang) – 144 hour visa-free
- Kunming, Chengdu, Wuhan, Qingdao* – 144 hour visa-free
- Guangzhou, Chongqing, Xi’an, Harbin, Changsha, Guilin – 72 hour visa-free
* Includes entry via a sea port
† Includes entry via train station
Regions of Movement
Once you’ve entered through one of these ports of entry, visitors taking advantage of the 72-hour or 144-hour transit visa in China must remain within the specified regions for each port that include:
- Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei: Travelers entering in any port here can move freely among these three regions.
- Shanghai, Jiangsu, Zhejiang: Travelers entering any of these ports may move freely within these provinces.
- Guangzhou: Movement restricted to Guangdong province.
- Chengdu, Xi’an, Kunming, Wuhan, Chongqing, Changsha, Xiamen, Guilin, Harbin, Qingdao: Movement restricted to each of these city’s respective provinces (i.e. entering Chengdu gives you access to Sichuan, entering Kunming gives you access to Yunnan, etc.).
While it’s entirely possible to travel beyond these regions of movement without being stopped, any attempt to stay at a hotel or a security check will result in major fines and possible expulsion from the country.
From the map above, you can clearly see not only which regions of China offer transit visas but also your region of movement. Outside of the Beijing and Shanghai areas (which are boxed in), all other regions of movement are restricted to a single province.
IMPORTANT: Before you move on and assume you can take advantage of the China transit visa, make sure you read the rest of this article detailing the remaining restrictions and rules for using this visa.
Finally, if you wish to spend more than 6 days in China or if you want the freedom to move around anywhere you want in the country, you’re better off applying for and getting a traditional China visa. You can read more about how to apply for a Chinese visa here.
Which Countries Qualify? 144-hour Visa-Free Transit Visa
Not every single country passport is eligible for China’s 144-hour transit visa. There’s a good chance, however, that yours is. Check below to make sure that your home country is on the list:
- European countries: Russia, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Cyprus, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia (FYROM), Albania, Belarus, Monaco.
- American countries: United States, Canada, Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Chile.
- Asian countries: Korea, Japan, Singapore, Brunei, United Arab Emirates, Qatar.
- Schengen Agreement countries: 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.
- Oceania countries: New Zealand and Australia.
If your country is not listed above, you should contact your local Chinese embassy to find out what provisions they have for you in regards to both the 72-hour transit visa and the 144-hour transit visa. It never hurts to ask!
Step 2: Understand China Visa-Free Transit Visa Rules & Restrictions
There are a couple restrictions for China’s transit visas that I’d to point out before you decide to move forward.
I’ve known at least three travelers who have been turned away at the Chinese airport because they didn’t understand the rules & restrictions well enough. Don’t let that be you!
Travelers have been turned away at the Chinese airport because they didn’t understand transit visa rules well.
- Transit Routes: In order to take advantage of any visa-free China transit visa (72-hour transit visa or 144-hour transit visa), your original place of departure and your final destination must be different countries/regions. In other words, you can’t book a round-trip ticket from the U.S. and use the 144-hour transit visa. If you’re coming to China from the U.S., your next destination must be another country. It’s worth noting that Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau count as a “different country/region” in this case.
- Specific Flight Details: In order to be eligible for the transit visa, your arrival flight and departure flights will both have to be international flights. What this means is that if you’re leaving Chengdu after using the 144-hour transit visa there, you can’t have a layover in Beijing, Shanghai or any other Chinese city. It MUST directly be leaving the country. Again, for the purposes of this visa, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau count as a “different country”.
- Restricted Movement: Regions of movement are independently administered, which means that those who have a 144-hour transit visa in Shanghai aren’t permitted to move up into Beijing. You must arrive, move about and depart all within the same region (but you can depart from different ports within the region, i.e. arrive at the Shanghai airport and leave from a cruise port). This is important because this means you can’t see Beijing and Shanghai on the same transit visa trip. Your departing flight MUST leave the country with no layovers within China.
- Exact Timing: Once you receive your transit visa, you’ll see the exact date written on the temporary visa stating when you need to depart China. For planning purposes, it helps to know that your China transit visa starts at midnight the day after you arrive in China. That means that if your plane arrives at 10am on Wednesday, your 144-hour transit visa clock begins at midnight on Thursday morning.
- Extenuating Circumstances: If for some reason you are unable to leave within 72 or 144 hours (i.e. health problems or business meetings), you must apply for a full visa from the nearest Public Security Bureau Entry-Exit Administration Office. Failure to do so will result in big fines when you eventually do try to leave the country.
For the record (since I get a lot of different questions about this on a daily basis), here are things that nobody quite knows yet. If you know the answers to any of these questions, please contact me and give me an update!
- Can I use a China Transit Visa multiple times within a year? I don’t know, since this isn’t explicitly stated on any government website.
- When will _________ city start issuing visa-free travel in China? I don’t know. Unfortunately, the Chinese government doesn’t usually share their plans with me.
- But I read contradictory information on another blog. Who is right? It’s hard to say. I would check the date of the other website to see when it was published. Things have changed drastically even since 2018. Also, I’ve noticed even many Chinese embassy websites are out of date, which is alarming.
Step 3: How to Apply for a China Transit Visa (Visa-Free Transit)
Thankfully, the required documents to enter China under their visa-free policy (72/144 hours) aren’t too complicated.
Before You Go: Documents Required for a China Transit Visa
When you walk up to the specific visa-free customs counter at your port of entry, they will want you to have:
- A valid passport: Of course! You’ll have that with you anyway to board your flight. Your passport will be required to have at least three (3) months of validity in order to be accepted.
- An Entry/Exit Card: You will find this card in the customs area. This card will ask you to fill out your nationality, name, flight number, passport number, place of issuance, date of birth, gender, and purpose of visit.
- A visa for a third region or country (if required): If your final destination doesn’t require a visa, you can ignore this. Otherwise, you’ll need proof of legal entry into the third country.
- A ticket with a confirmed seat number for the next flight that leaves within 144 hours. This is important. They want to know that you are already booked to leave within the required time period. Make sure you have your ticket information printed out before you depart.
Remember, if at any point you realize that you’re going to need a traditional China visa for your trip, check out our Complete Guide to Chinese Visas.
Arrival at the Chinese Airport / Port / Train Station
Now that you know what documents are required for China’s 72- hour and 144-hour visa-free transit documents, let’s quickly walk through what you’re going to need to do in order to have smooth travel.
- At the Departure Airport: Before you get on a plane bound for China, you will want to let your airline know that you wish to take advantage of the 144-hour China transit visa. Airlines are required to check for proper visas prior to letting you on the plane, so this will be an important step. The Airline will pass on your request to customs before you land.
- Upon Landing in China: Once you arrive at a port of entry in China, you’ll enter the customs area just like all the other travelers with you. The difference is that within the customs area you’ll be looking for a specific line for those applying for a 72-hour or 144-hour transit visa. Don’t worry about it too much – you’ll see signs everywhere directing you to the right place. Just keep your eyes open. Once you’ve been approved (which should only take 5-10 minutes while you’re standing there), they will stick a printed “Temporary Entry Permit” on a blank page of your passport that says where you can stay and when you must leave. They will stamp this visa with the date you arrived and let you pass through.
That’s really it! It’s not a super-complicated process once your travels plans have been made. As long as you have all your documents in order and you fit the eligibility requirements, the process is smooth and easy.
If while planning your trip you decide that you would like to spend more than 144 hours in China or visit other places throughout the country, I highly recommend you read through my list of the best China visa services to help you obtain a China visa quickly and easily:
Conclusion: China’s Visa-Free Transit (i.e. “Transit Visa”)
China’s visa-free transit is a great option for individuals who desire to visit China without having to apply (and pay!) for an extended visa. The guidelines are fairly straightforward and painless as long as one plans ahead and provides the required documents.
I welcome questions in the comments below, although I warn you that I will no longer be answering questions about specific itineraries. If you have questions like that, I refer you to your local Chinese consulate or your travel agency. I can’t guarantee that they’ll be willing to help or answer your questions, but such is the confusing nature of China’s visa-free transit policy!
Remember, as you prepare for this trip to China, make sure you have set up a good VPN for China (to avoid the blocking) and that you’ve set your expectations well with the highly-reviewed China travel handbook.