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Most nationalities require a visa to enter China. A visa is possibly not required, however, if you are in transit.
There are two types of visa exemptions: the 24-hour transit without visa ("TWOV") or the 72-hour TWOV. It is quite easy to qualify for the 24-hours exemption but more difficult for the 72-hour exemption. Read the explanations below carefully to see if you qualify. In the case of both exemptions, you are allowed to leave the airport and visit the city during the duration of your transit (see "Procedures" below).
Nearly all nationalities can transit in China for a period not exceeding 24 hours as determined by scheduled flight arrival and departure times. The fact that the flight may be arriving or departing late is not relevant, it is all based on scheduled times. You must already have confirmed onward tickets, standby tickets are not valid to qualify.
Multiple stops are permitted when transiting through China, i.e. you may fly into one city then connect by air to different cities before flying out of China. In the case of multiple stops in China, the 24-hour period is calculated from the scheduled first landing to the scheduled last departure in China. You are also required to have a visa for your next destination after China, if such a visa is required given your nationality.
You need to pass immigration and show your passport and onward ticket. A special stopover permit will be stamped in your passport. There is no fee charged for this.
Note that for transit purposes through China, Hong Kong and Macau are considered as third countries as they have their own entry regulations.
If you meet the criteria, you can transit for up to 72 hours in selected cities without a Chinese visa. You can visit the city at your leisure and book a hotel, etc. Unlike the 24-hour exemption, this one has more stringent criteria.
This longer TWOV exemption is available when transiting in the following cities in China: Beijing (PEK), Chengdu (CTU), Chongqing (CKG), Dalian (DLC), Guangzhou (CAN). Guilin (KWL), Hangzhou (HGH), Shanghai Hongqiao (SHA). Shanghai Pudong (PVG), Shenyang (SHE); Xiamen (XMN) and Xi'An (XIY). Wuhan (WUH) and Harbin (HRB) have announced that they will also offer this exemption soon.
The conditions are the following:
- You must be in transit to a third country (you may not return to the same country as the one that you came from);
- Your transit time is no more than 72 hours (see below how this is calculated)
- You have confirmed plane tickets to a third country (for immigration purposes, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan are not considered part of China). Flights between mainland China and any of these places are considered International and they are deemed to be different countries;
- You enter the country through one of the eligible airports listed above.
- You will leave the country by departing from the airport in the same city that you arrived in (for Shanghai you can arrive at one airport and leave from the other);
- Your inbound and outbound flights must not transit through any other Chinese airports on their way to/from one of the above airports (see below examples of what is not acceptable);
- You cannot leave the city/municipality to go to another Chinese city during the 72 hours (except in Guangzhou where you are permitted to travel anywhere in the Guangdong province and Hangzhou where you are permitted to travel anywhere in the province of Zhejiang);
- You must hold a passport of one of the 51 approved countries:
The authorities have stated that those who enter other cities will face punishment, those who break the law during their stay will face a lifetime ban and that all visitors must carry identity papers with them at all times. One should note that the notion of cities can be pretty broad and, for Beijing for example, would cover a trip to the Great Wall. There is not actual control of one leaving a city although it can always be a risk. While day trips may be worth a risk, trying to stay in a hotel outside the permitted zone is definitely not a good idea as the hotel takes care of your residence registration with the local police and in doing so they verify your visa.
Extended stay up to 96 hours.
The 72-hour duration is based on scheduled arrival and departure times. HOWEVER in the cases of Beijing, Chongqing, Guangzhou, Hangzhou, Shanghai Hongqiao, Shanghai Pudong and Xi'An, the calculation starts at 00h01 following the day of entry. So, three full days starting the next day for a potential stay greater than 72 hours.
There are no restrictions regarding the number of times that a traveler may transit without visa provided that he meets the qualifying criteria for either the standard 24hr period or the special 72hr period.There are also no restrictions concerning which airlines a traveler may use for each separate leg of their journey. There is no requirement to apply for transit without visa in advance of initial check-in. Note, however, that you must satisfy your carrier that you do meet the relevant qualifying criteria in order to be permitted to board the first leg of your journey. This essentially means having your onward travel documents to hand, which you will need in any case at Immigration in China. You must also, if needed, have obtained any visa for your onward destination. Inform your carrier of your intent to use TWOV at check-in.
Make sure that you have a printed copy of all your flight tickets or other receipts of passage/boarding passes or stubs. Note that the 72 hours (like the standard 24 hours permitted) are calculated based on your flights' scheduled arrival and departure times and not the actual arrival or departure times nor the times when you show up at immigration (or even, as someone actually fretted about, when you enter the air-space controlled by China). However, as indicated above, the 72-hour TWOV is calculated from midnight following arrival for some cities.
Confusion has arisen because travellers have reported that their passports are not time-stamped when transiting without visa, regardless of which airport it is that they have arrived at. The stamp in the passport just shows the calendar date that you are permitted to stay up until (and including). This in itself has no bearing upon how long you can actually be in transit for and should not be considered when booking your flights. You must ensure that your scheduled arrival and departure fit within the prescribed time limits, otherwise your carrier can and will refuse to convey you. It does not matter if your flight arrives ahead of schedule and you gain a little extra time, nor does it matter if it's late (you won't get any extra time to make up for it). Similarly, it does not matter if your onward flight is delayed and effectively takes you over your time limit. However, if your onward flight is rescheduled for a later time once your trip is already underway you may be required to apply for an additional stay permit or visa. The concept of force majeure allows travellers to remain without penalty, though a fee may be levied to issue a visa. There have been no reports in the China forums of this happening.
After getting off the plane you will head for immigration. Look for a counter that says "Transit visa exemption" or "Special Lane" or something like this. Fill in the Arrival & Departure Card form distributed on the plane. If you misplaced it or did not get one, there will be a bench next to the desk with these cards. Show your tickets and passport. Tell the immigration officer that you wish to transit without visa. This is especially important if you have an unused visa that you wish to use at a later date. Don't assume it won't be stamped by mistake and invalidated for future use. Your passport should be stamped with a different stamp than if you have a regular visa. Similarly, in the case of those seeking to use the standard 24hr TWOV, don't assume that the immigration officer will know that you want to leave the airport if you arrive waving boarding passes for an onward flight departing in a few hours. The natural assumption would be that you've gone to the wrong place and you will be pointed to the transfer counters so you can go and wait for your next flight. Travellers have reported being "denied" transit privileges where this would seem to be the most logical explanation. There is no automatic right to leave the airport under the standard 24hr TWOV rule - you must apply at passport control with all your documents to hand. It is implicit in the special 72hr TWOV, however, that the passenger will leave the airport and therefore it should merely be a formality to have your documents checked.
After clearing immigration, you then pick up your luggage and head to the taxi line or subway. If you are staying more than 24 hours (essentially overnight) you must register with the local police within 24 hrs of arrival (in an urban area). If you are staying in a hotel or other commercial lodging they will automatically register you as part of the check-in procedure. If you are staying elsewhere, e.g. with friends or family, then you must do this yourself with the help of your hosts. Registration needs to be done at whichever local police station holds jurisdiction over the household where you are staying. Registration is free of charge. You must take your passport with you and your host must provide their identity document(s). Travelers who were unaware of this procedure and did not register with the local police station have reported being temporarily detained and questioned when leaving the country.
What is not acceptable
Transit without visa is only available to air travelers and is not applicable to any combination of land or sea passage.
You cannot fly standby to the third country nor can you claim that you will buy an onward ticket once you arrive in China. You must have confirmed onward flights to country #3 and, if necessary, a visa to enter country #3.
Going back to the same country is not a valid transit. For example, you cannot fly Vancouver-Beijing-Vancouver. Nor can you fly Vancouver-Beijing-Toronto. You must arrive from country #1 - China is country #2 - and fly out to country #3. Each #country is a different country. (Note that Hong Kong-Beijing-Macau is accepted.) Where you travel from/to outside this sequence is irrelevant; thus, countries #1 and #3 could themselves both be transit points for you in your overall journey. As long as they are different countries this is all that matters.
You do not qualify for the 72 hour visa-exemption if you have a double or multiple transit in China, such as Vancouver (Canada)-Beijing (China)-Kunming (China)-Hanoi (Vietnam) or Tokyo (Japan)-Shanghai (China)- Beijing (China)-Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia). In these cases you can only get the 24-hour transit visa exemption. It does not matter how brief any stop en route may be - if your plane makes a stop anywhere else in China you have a double-transit.
The 72 hour TWOV requires passengers to transit China through one city/airport only. Be advised that in airline-language a direct flight does not necessarily mean a non-stop flight. If your flight has a short stop in another city in China, either on your inbound or outbound leg, even if you do not change plane and the flight number is the same for both legs, then you do not qualify for the 72-hour TWOV. In such cases it is irrelevant where you actually clear immigration and 'enter' or 'leave' China because of the fact that your intention is to be deemed a passenger in transit and therefore the only concern is how many transit points, including direct airside transit, you have.
This thread shows some examples of compliant and non-compliant transits: http://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowTopic-...
What if the airline employee says that you cannot board the flight?
These exmptions are not new any more but you may come across an airline employee at check-in who is not familiar with this exmption and will deny you boarding of the flight. In this situation, ask to speak to a supervisor and thell the employees and/or supervisor to consult their TiMATIC database. The Timatic database which is the International Air Transport Association (IATA) reference for passenger compliance.
What if you do not meet the criteria above for 72hr TWOV?
If your stay exceeds 72 hours you need to apply for a visitor's visa. Google for the website of the Chinese embassy in your country to learn about the application process. If you arrive at a different port of entry than those listed above, or have a passport from a country that is not on the approved list then you still qualify for the 24-hour exemption. There are very few entry points (such as Shenzhen and Sanya) where a limited visa-on-arrival can be granted under certain conditions and only for certain nationalities.