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How we got into China without a visa last night

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We are currently at the Waldorf-Astoria in Beijing on the last leg of our Asian holiday.

If you have been to China in recent years, you will know that the visa situation can be expensive and time consuming, especially if you don’t have easy access to a good agency.

We are currently in Beijing for a grand total of 36 hours.  This was partly due to necessity – it was easy to get 4 seats on British Airways for Avios out of Beijing but impossible from Tokyo in peak season where we were – and partly because my wife wanted to see a friend who is working here.

China transit visa

You no longer need a visa for most major Chinese cities if you are in transit.  ‘Transit’ is defined as ‘arriving from one country and leaving to another’ so you cannot use it for a brief visit to China from the UK and then head home.

It is perfectly fine to do what we did – Tokyo to Beijing to London.

You MUST take the transit visa in the first Chinese city that you touch on your routing.  If, for example, you had booked Tokyo – Beijing (change of plane, not leaving the airport) – Shanghai, you CANNOT get a 72 hour visa for Shanghai.  It must be done in Beijing or not at all.

You do NOT need to book both flights on the same ticket.  They do not even need to be on the same airline.  All that matters is that you can provide a copy of your eticket at immigration.

The time period varies by city – for Beijing you can have up to 72 hours.  You cannot leave Beijing during this period.

It was, to be honest, a slow process.  Only one line was handling the 72-hour transit visas.  When we reached the front, we had to fill out an additional form on the spot (this form is needed if you are staying for 24+ hours) and our passports were then taken away for 20 minutes while we hung around.  Once returned, we were allowed in.

It was a frustrating wait – about 75 minutes in total.  All the passengers with visas were through immigration long before us.  We got there in the end though.

PS.  We paid the Waldorf-Astoria £150 to pick us up and, as usual in Asia, it was money well spent.  We were met at the airbridge and walked to immigration.  The rep waited for 75 minutes whist we were processed.  When we eventually got to baggage reclaim, our bags had been removed from the belt but he knew where to find them.  Even better, he then took us out of Beijing Airport via the VIP side exit where our car was waiting for us.  The driver contacted the hotel as we approached and a welcome party was waiting at the front door and escorted us directly to our rooms where we were checked in.  All very easy indeed.  Mini review of the hotel to follow in a week or so.

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Comments (87)

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  • Tom says:

    Interesting to hear about the extreme wait..and sorry to hear it. I’ve used this route a number of times at Beijing and Shanghai and been waved straight through within minutes..usually with no queue. I haven’t done it for a year or so though. Has this become a much more popular way to get into China?

    • pauldb says:

      I also had a good experience of this in Chengdu in January. There was no separate line: officer called someone across from another desk and after about 5 minutes everything was checked and the special stamp unboxed. Felt sorry for the locals behind us though – don’t queue up behind the westerners! 🙂

    • James67 says:

      Odd indeed, procedure seems to have changed. Biggest issue before was how exactly the 72h was defined and interpreted.

  • Sean says:

    My wife and I went to China in 2015 for two weeks. Visiting Beijing, Xi’an and Chengdu
    We applied for our own visas online without using an agency and found the process easy and straight forward. Visas aren’t cheap, but quite straight forward to do.

    • Genghis says:

      We paid just over £300 for two visas last year and went in person to the Visa centre just off Cheapside. They love bureaucracy!

      • Caroline Hooton says:

        Ghengis – sorry to barge in but how long did it take then cheapside centre to process the visas? I’m thinking of using them and it says up to 14 days in the reviews I’ve read but would be grateful for your experience

        • Genghis says:

          Dropped off Wednesday, picked up Monday. V speedy. My tip: they require a copy of your itinerary – flights and hotels – for each person. I rocked up with only one and refused to pay 50p / A4 on their photocopier (mine was a three week itinerary with multiple flights and hotels) so nipped back to the office and still arrived within my half hour slot.

        • 1nfrequent says:

          Smashing – thank you!

  • Mark says:

    Having witnessed similar lengthy queues at Beijing several months ago, I was glad we had obtained visas in advance. 2 year multiple entry for around £200 through an agency, I didn’t think was too bad

    • Rob says:

      x 4 for a family, plus potential work issues for my wife if something came up urgently, made it unattractive.

  • Waribai says:

    Yes, you’re a brave man doing that with kids in tow. For me it would have been ICN without hesitation!

  • Callum says:

    Most people here would be anyway, but you must also be on direct flights in and out of China.

    • John says:

      Not necessarily, the 24-hour and 144-hour transit without visa programs allow you to move around (therefore domestic flights but it depends.

      If you fly into URC, you are eligible for 24-hour transit without visa but you must leave the Urumqi area within 2 hours of arrival! (What happens if you miss your flight because of a long queue at immigration, I don’t know.)

      • callum says:

        Where did you hear that? You’re certainly not allowed to move around as you please – the Beijing visa requires you to stay within Beijing. The rest are as restrictive or, at most, let you travel anywhere within the province. It doesn’t seem to make sense that you could connect domestically on such a visa?

        If you’re right I’ll be very annoyed though! For my upcoming flight I’m going via Thailand instead of China because of this – it would have been the perfect opportunity to visit China without the visa charge otherwise!

        • John says:

          For the 72-hour TWOV you must stay within about 100 miles of the airport. The 24-hour TWOV lets you take a domestic flight. The 144-hour TWOV allows you to move between Nanjing, Hangzhou and Shanghai.

          From Timatic:

          Transiting without a visa is possible for:

          Holders of confirmed onward air, cruise or train tickets for a max. transit time of 24 hours. Transit incl. multiple stops within China (People’s Rep.), with a total transit time of max. 24 hours, is permitted. They must travel to a third country.

          Transit without visa (TWOV) is not possible at Fuzhou (FOC), Mudanjiang (MDG), Shenzhen (SZX) and Yanji (YNJ).

          This does not apply at Urumqi (URC).

          Holders of confirmed onward airline tickets, in transit through Urumqi (URC), for a max. transit time of 2 hours. Transit incl. multiple stops within China (People’s Rep.), with a total transit time of max. 24 hours, is permitted.

          Holders of British passports endorsed “British Citizen” holding confirmed onward airline tickets to a third country, if arriving in and departing from the same city:

          at Beijing (PEK), Guilin (KWL), Harbin (HRB), Kunming (KMG), or Shenyang (SHE) for a max. transit time of 72 hours;

          Passengers with a British passport with nationality of “British Citizen” shown on the bio-data page holding confirmed onward air, cruise or train tickets to a third country, arriving and departing from any one of the following locations: Hangzhou (HGH), Nanjing Lukou (NKG), Shanghai Hongqiao (SHA) or Shanghai Pudong (PVG) for a maximum of 144 hours, starting from 00:01 on the day following the day of entry.

          This also applies to passengers traveling from/to Shanghai Port International Cruise Terminal, Shanghai Wusongkou International Cruise Terminal and Shanghai Railway Station.

          • John says:

            Note that the 144-hour TWOV is actually “up to 168 hours”, but the 24-hour and 72-hour TWOV are strictly those numbers. (The 72-hour TWOV was previously “up to 96 hours” but this is no longer the case in certain airports though it may be in others. But you can’t really afford to argue with an airline gate agent and/or China immigration official)

          • Callum says:

            Thanks. So it seems that is not the case for the 72 hour TWOV we’re talking about, nor the 144 hour version then – only the 24 hour TWOV?

            Good to know, though less than 24 hours in China including time spent taking a domestic flight doesn’t seem worthwhile so I’m not annoyed I didn’t take it!

      • graham says:

        We used the transit no visa to fly from Osaka to Shanghai last November, The immigration official was clear we must not leave Shanghai ? Actually the biggest delay for us was in Osaka where the JAL check in rep told us we could not fly because we did not have a visa… took several phone calls to her supervisors before she would let us board.

  • Lumma says:

    When I did this in November 2015 it was far quicker than waiting in the normal immigration line. They just checked my downward ticket and stamped me in.

    The only difficult thing was on the way back there was no special 72 hour visa desk open, but I eventually found out that I could use the diplomatic passport desk for it.

    • Lady London says:

      I did it soon after the 72 hour visa was extended to Shanghai. The immigration officer I got told me I had no visa. He was not aware of the program. He consulted away somewhere for about 20min then processed me in. Apparently you should not lose the piece of paper they tuck inside your passport as they will look for it on your exit and there will be problems if you’ve lost it.

      I should China very wearing even though I was there just two days and that was just Shanghai! I suspect Shanghai is “China-lite” these days though. The real China experience must be much more intense.

      • Genghis says:

        It is intense. We were there 3 weeks and didn’t really like it overall. We don’t plan on returning.

        • Lumma says:

          Yeah, I only took advantage of the visa both ways to break up my flight to Australia at no extra cost. It’s not a country that I’ll be bothered if I never see again to be honest

  • Mark says:

    I think you got unlucky. I did this the same, on my way to Tokyo, but via Shanghai. Very small queue at the 72 hour visa desk but was through within a few minutes.

    • Waribai says:

      TBH, I had a similar experience to Rob, I was on a 17 hour stop via PVG At immigration, the guy on the desk handed my passport to someone else and asked me to wait. Slightly anxious seeing my passport disappear out of sight but he reappeared after 10 minutes, gave it back to the guy on the desk. It was promptly stamped and I was on my way. I assumed he was checking my hotel booking was kosher. I don’t think that is the same for everyone on 24 hour stopovers. So, I guess it is luck of the draw.

  • luke says:

    We had 12 hrs stopover at Beijing last year and it took 2,5 hrs to get through free trasit visa desk despite having only 20 people in front of us….connecting at Beijing airport on the was back was even worse – queue for connection flights desk was a couple 100s meters long basically blocking the whole arrival terminal building, but airport staff didn’t care at all…not talking about official airport taxi rip off…never again

    • Alex W says:

      I got ripped off there too. Put my credit card in a phone box for about 2 minutes and the bill was about 50 quid!

    • Genghis says:

      I nearly got ripped off in Shanghai after taking a taxi from the Maglev station to the WA. The guy wanted £50 for the 11km journey per his dodgy meter and he refused to drive into the hotel grounds. I threatened to call the police. He started crying. We settled on a fiver (which we later found out was cheaper than it should have been).

      • James67 says:

        You hear so many dodgy taxi stories from Asia but tbh I’ve had more problems in Europe. In Asia I always use the taxis but before Uber I was inclined to pass on them nearer home wherever possible.

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