Can travelers apply for a China visa without flight tickets or hotel reservations? People consistently ask me if they really need to have a China visa itinerary that includes round-trip tickets and hotels booked before applying for the visa. It seems ridiculous, but there are times when it’s required. Here’s what you need to know – and how to get around this odd Chinese policy.
Here’s the bottom line: Unless you have an invitation letter for a China visa from a tourist group, company, educational institution, or person within China, you need to fulfill the Chinese regulation that requires showing a return flight ticket and confirmed hotel reservation for your China visa application.
While this sounds like it can complicate your travel itinerary, you do not need to let this requirement ruin your travel plans.
Allow me explain a bit more about this China visa itinerary policy.
China Visa Itinerary w/o Flight or Hotel Reservations
As with any country, there are laws and regulations in China that just don’t make sense. This is one of them. The fact that the China visa application process requires an itinerary with confirmed flights and hotels is a bit antiquated.
What if you want cross a land border from Vietnam into China? What if you plan on taking the Trans-Siberian train into or out of China? What if you plan on camping in China or sleeping somewhere other than a hotel?
These are all valid questions and represent a number of reasons why this China visa itinerary policy is ridiculous. But ridiculous or not, you still have to abide by the rules of China if you want to visit China.
The short answer to this question is that in order to apply for a China visa, many travelers have no choice but to purchase refundable flights and hotel tickets. Once you’ve applied for your China visa, you get a refund on your reservations.
You might have a few more questions, which I’ll try to answer below.
FAQ: China Visa Itinerary Requirements
Below are the most commonly asked questions in regards to needing flight and hotel reservations in order to apply for a Chinese visa. I also recommend you read my complete guide to getting a Chinese visa.
As I said above, the primary way to satisfy the Chinese visa regulations and maintain a flexible itinerary is to book a refundable flight ticket and hotel.
Will I get in trouble for not following my submitted itinerary?
No. Once you have your Chinese visa, you have the freedom to go wherever you want within the country (except to those few places that are restricted in China). To my knowledge, there hasn’t been a single modern traveler to China that has been asked about their China visa itinerary.
Even if you refund your hotel reservations and go elsewhere, police won’t be following you around asking what you’re doing.
How to I book a refundable flight for my China visa itinerary application?
Airlines such as Delta, United, and American offer refundable tickets that you can cancel after using them for your China visa itinerary. However, refundable fares tend to be much more expensive than non-refundable tickets.
If you require a flexible travel itinerary for your trip to China and choose to buy a refundable ticket, be sure to review the terms and conditions with your preferred airline to get up to speed on how refunds are issued and how long they take to process.
To purchase a refundable ticket, visit your preferred airline’s website and select ‘refundable ticket’ when entering your itinerary under the advanced search.
Bonus: Want to know how I get the cheapest China flights? Click here to read my 5-step process to find cheap China flights.
Can I book refundable flight tickets on a third party website?
In most cases, it is probably best to purchase a refundable ticket directly with the airline.
The reason for this is that although I highly recommend comparing pricing on sites like Kayak (international) or Trip.com (domestic), getting a refund issued through these third-party websites usually requires more effort and takes more time.
It’s also worth noting that you probably shouldn’t try to book a refundable flight using your rewards points. Be sure to inquire with the airline on whether tickets purchased with points can be refunded. Each airline miles program has different terms and conditions.
Usually, an airline will not allow you to refund your points unless a certain circumstance prevents you from flying (e.g. inclement weather or illness). They may allow you to modify the itinerary.
How can I book a refundable hotel room?
When booking hotels, I would apply the same principles as above. Book directly with a hotel and not a third party as hotels may charge penalties even though websites like Expedia advertise no cancellation fees. If you’re looking for the best pricing and don’t care about refunds, in my experience China-based Trip.com offers the best rates on China hotels.
Be sure to also review the timelines of cancelation for hotels and how soon after making a reservation that you can cancel without any penalties.
Finally, it’s worth noting that an Airbnb or other home-stay option likely won’t count as a “hotel reservation” for the purposes of a China visa application. You can read more about using Airbnb in China here.
How much does it cost to change the date of your flight?
If you do not want to purchase a refundable ticket, you can also book a round-trip ticket and pay the fee to change the date of your return flight if you need to down the road.
Change fees for international flights vary across airlines and can range up even to $500. Inquire with each airline that flies to your destination to determine how much you are liable for should you choose to change your flight. Here are a few of the major airline change fee pages:
- Delta Change Fees
- American Airlines Change Fees
- United Airlines Change Fees
- British Airways Change Fees
To avoid or minimize these fees, you can also look into purchasing travel insurance (read these 9 reasons why you need travel insurance for China). Some of the more extensive plans allow you to cancel or change your trip for any reason, though you should thoroughly review every policy’s coverage and claims process before purchasing.
Is purchasing a one-way ticket cheaper than buying a round-trip ticket?
Travelers wishing to travel to other countries after visiting China or exiting the country by land may be more inclined to purchase a one-way ticket for more flexibility.
However, you still need to book a returning flight to your home country to satisfy the Chinese visa requirements. Additionally, one-way tickets can cost as much or even more than roundtrip fares.
In most cases, it is cheaper to purchase a roundtrip ticket and pay the change fee should you want to save that flight for another time. Most airlines offer credit for another flight that can be used with the same airline within one year from the date of cancellation.
Will I have to buy a round-trip ticket and book a hotel even after I have my tourist visa?
If your visa to China is still valid or if you have a new 10-year China visa, you do not need to book a round-trip ticket or hotel. In fact, you don’t even need to worry about your China visa at all since it should still be valid! There’s no requirement to “register” your next visit on a valid visa.
The only thing you’ll need to do is make sure your passport has 6 months of validity and everything else should be smooth as you go through customs.
Final Thoughts | China Visa Itinerary Policy
After booking a flight and a hotel you will be ready to submit your paperwork for your Chinese tourist visa. If you live near the Chinese consulate, you can submit your paperwork in person.
If you do not live near a consulate or if you but want professional visa assistance, I recommend using a visa service like Passport Visas Express (get 10% off when you use the code TCC10). These services help you know what paperwork to prepare and will submit it on your behalf.