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Most nationalities require a visa to enter China. A visa is not required, however, if you are in transit for a period not exceeding 24 hours as determined by scheduled flight arrival and departure times, and already have confirmed onward tickets. 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. Transit passengers are permitted to leave the airport and may take advantage of a longer layover to do a little sightseeing. A special stopover permit will be stamped in your passport to allow this provided you have documentary evidence of your onward flight arrangements for inspection. There are currently no fees charged for this.
In addition to the general 24hr rule, a special privilege permits certain qualifying passengers to enjoy a visa-free transit period of up to 72 hours, again without charge:
72-hour visa free transit in Beijing, Chengdu, Guangzhou and Shanghai
If you meet the following criteria, you can stay up to 72 hours in Beijing, Chengdu, Guangzhou or Shanghai without a Chinese visa. You can visit the city at your leisure and book a hotel, etc.
The conditions are the following:
- Your transit is no more than 72 hours;
- You have confirmed plane tickets to a third country (for immigration purposes, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan are not considered part of China. They have their own exit and entry protocols, including visa requirements. Flights between mainland China and any of these places are considered International and they are deemed to be third countries);
- You enter through the Beijing Capital Airport, Chengdu Shuangliu Airport, Guangzhou Baiyun Airport, Shanghai Pudong Airport or Shanghai Hongqiao airport;
- You will depart from the same city that you arrived from (for Shanghai you can arrive at one airport and leave from the other);
- You cannot leave the city to go to another Chinese city during the 72 hours (except in Guangzhou where you are permitted to travel anywhere in the Guangdong province);
- You must hold a passport of one of the 45 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.
There are no restrictions regarding the number of times that a traveller may transit without visa provided that they meet the qualifying criteria for either the standard 24hr period or the special 72hr period. There are also no restrictions concerning which airlines a traveller 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.
Make sure that you have a printed copy of your flight tickets. Note that the 72 hours are calculated based on your flights' scheduled arrival and departure and not when you show up at immigration. In Guangzhou, however, the 72 hours are calculated from midnight following arrival, thus effectively allowing a longer visa-free transit period. It has also been reported that this same rule of beginning the transit period from midnight following arrival applies to the standard 24hr visa-free period available to all travellers.
After getting off the plane you will head for immigration. Look for a counter that say "Transit visa exemption" or something like this. Fill in the Arrival & Departure Card form distributed on the plane. If you misplaced it did not get one, there will be a bench next to the desk with these cards. Show your ticket and passport. They will stamp your passport (different stamp than if you have a regular visa). 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 if you are not staying in a hotel.
What is not acceptable
Transit without visa is only available to air travellers and is not applicable to any combinations of land or sea passage. 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 do not qualify for this exemption if you have a double transit in China such as Vancouver (Canada)-Beijing (China)-Kunming (China)-Hanoi (Vietnam). In this case you can only get the 24-hour transit visa exemption. Note that Hong Kong-Beijing-Macau is accepted.
What if you do not meet the criteria above?
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 the 4 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.