Are there places in China that require a permit to travel? It’s a legitimate question because there are, in fact, a few places in China where foreign travelers aren’t allowed to visit and a few that require special travel permits. Let me explain.
The ultimate fear of most any international traveler is that they’ll spend all their time planning and yet when they arrive to their destination they are denied entry.
Thankfully, obtaining a Chinese visa will grant you free access to 85% of the country, but naturally it’s that remaining 15% that might cause you concern.
So are there places that are just flat off-limits? What are the places in China that require a travel permit?And finally, how does a traveler go about getting an official travel permit for any of these places?
Hopefully I can answer all of these questions for you below.
Which Places in China are “Off-Limits”
There are a few areas around China that are considered “off-limits” for foreign travelers. While that may sound strange at first, you have to understand that the same can be said for many countries around the world.
These off-limits places include:
- Military Bases: You may be thinking “well, of course” here, but you need to consider the fact that you don’t know where China’s military bases are. I’ve known travelers who went hiking in the mountains only to find themselves being approached by military guards asking their business for being there. If you’re straying off the beaten path in China, you’ll want to pay careful attention to this one.
- Border Regions: It makes sense to say that China’s border with North Korea is “off-limits,” but you may not realize there are many areas along the Xinjiang (borders with Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan & others), Tibet (borders with India & Nepal) and even Yunan (borders with Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam). These borders are often heavily guarded and closed to anybody who doesn’t already have a visa to the next country.
- Politically Sensitive Areas: China is a very sensitive country that doesn’t want its warts to be seen by the outside world. That’s why they closed off access to a famous Tibetan Monastery in Qinghai following Tibetan unrest as well as many small Uyghur villages in Xinjiang following Uyghur unrest. Again, it’s hard to know what’s closed or open here, but you should be aware and flexible when entering a politically sensitive area.
These “off-limits” areas make up only a small portion of China and, frankly, are not part of any major tourist route. More than likely you won’t have to worry about this, but it’s good to know about.
Which Regions of China Require a Permit to Travel?
The biggest restricted portion of China (almost 13%) goes to areas which require a travel permit for foreign travelers.
These travel permits must be stamped by a local government and are carried either on your person or with your tour group leader. You can be sure that the permits will be checked at the checkpoint.
There are three primary places where a permit is required to travel in China:
- Tibet Autonomous Region: Most people are aware that you can’t just waltz into Tibet whenever you want. A travel permit is required to enter Tibet and at this time is can only be issued through a travel group. No solo-travel in Tibet.
- Parts of Xinjiang: Although the enforcement of this continues to change from year to year, historically travelers have needed a travel permit to travel the Karakoram Highway (the road from Kashgar to Pakistan) or to visit many of the ancient desert ruins in southern Xinjiang.
- International Border Regions: Although technically not a “travel permit,” in order to approach any international border, you will be required to show proof of an ongoing visa to that country. The only exceptions here are borders where they issue a visa on arrival, such as the Kyrgyzstan border for most US citizens or UK citizens.
How to Get a China Travel Permit for Restricted Areas
Of course, if the place you want to travel (Tibet, parts of Xinjiang, sensitive border regions) require a travel permit, what are your options? How do you obtain a China travel permit?
Here’s a quick breakdown of the various permits and how to get them:
- Tibet Travel Permit: As a foreign passport holder, you cannot board a train or plane bound for Tibet without a Tibet Travel Permit. And you cannot obtain a Tibet Travel Permit without first going through a tour group. Sadly, there is no such thing as “solo travel” when entering Tibet…technically. You’ll need to apply for this permit through a travel agency, the vast majority of whom will require you to purchase one of their travel packages to do so. The whole application process takes a couple weeks (submission, approval and delivery to your China hotel), so budget plenty of time.
- Xinjiang Travel Permit: Whereas the process to apply for a Tibet Travel Permit is clear and written out, the Xinjiang permit is much more confusing. One reason is that the “restricted areas” of Xinjiang seem to constantly change. Some travelers have been turned away at police checkpoints while traveling in Xinjiang, completely unaware that they needed a permit. There are two things you can do here: 1) You can go through a Xinjiang travel agency such as Old Road Tours, but they will require you to purchase a multi-day tour from them. 2) You can purchase this Xinjiang travel guide, which gives you access to a travel forum with hundreds of other Xinjiang travelers who can tell you what is/isn’t open. In most cases, a permit is issued by a travel agency within Xinjiang.
As for the international borders, the primary documentation you’ll need is an ongoing visa to the country you’re approaching.
Final Thoughts | The Truth About China Travel Permits
For most China travelers, a permit won’t be necessary. It’s not unless you have a desire to visit Tibet, get far off the beaten path or get near an international border that you need to think about applying for an additional permit.
If you find that a travel permit is necessary, begin your search for a reliable travel agency that can help you submit your application. They’ll need a copy of your passport in addition to your China visa – and remember that most agencies will require you to purchase one of their tour packages. It sucks, but you gotta pay the piper, you know?
PRO TRAVEL TIP: If you get to an area that requires a permit and you weren’t prepared, plead ignorance. Often times the officers in charge will allow you to purchase one on the spot for a more expensive fee, but do not expect them to do this. Plan ahead and just ask people in the area where you’re traveling if there are any travel restrictions.
While the permits are nothing more than a stamped piece of paper, you will be required to show copies at almost every checkpoint. You must have them! And while you’re getting this prepared, make sure you check out many of my other pro traveler tips for China.
What has been your experience? Have you required a China travel permit during your journey?