Disclaimer: This information was written October 2018. These are my own experiences with traveling without a China visa. Please check the US State Department website for official current information.
So you want to go to China, but don’t want to get a visa, here’s what you need to know and what you need to do.
How to Visit China Without a Visa
The Visa Free Transit policy (also known as Visa Free Transit) in China allows people flying into China for a short period of time to enter the country without first obtaining a China visa. Visas to visit China cost $140 for American citizens, which isn’t too bad, but if you’re traveling with such a large family as I have, that can add up pretty quickly. It would be nearly $1,000 for us to get visas.
Not only can it be expensive, but also time-consuming and stressful. You must purchase airline tickets first, then apply for the China visa and hope it all goes through smoothly before your trip. This also means absolutely no last minute trips to China.
A good option for travelers wanting to visit China without the hassle of a visa is to use the visa-free transit policy. This will allow you to enter China from 24-144 hours, depending on which city you choose to visit, without a China visa.
I always recommend that travelers add China onto the front or back end (or both) of a separate trip to Asia. Japan is a great choice because US citizens aren’t required to have visas to enter Japan.
If you need a few reasons why you should go to Japan or you’re planning to go already, read my complete guide to Tokyo.
However, there are a few things to know before you take advantage of China’s visa-free transit policy.
How Long Can I Stay in China Without a Visa?
How long you can stay in China without a visa is dependent on which city you fly into. Each city has separate rules about the length of time you are able to stay in China visa-free. Read the lists below to determine the best option for you.
24 hours (1 day):
You can stay up to 24 hours in most cities. Just ask for a temporary stay permit at the immigration counter.
You can stay 72 hours (3 days) in these cities:
You can stay 144 hours (6 days) in these cities:
If you’re booking a long layover in Beijing, be sure the read this article about what to do in Beijing during a layover.
How do I book a visa-free visit to China?
The first step to booking your visa-free visit to China is to find a great deal on a flight to China. Decide which city you’d like to visit. You can use the 24, 72, or 144 hours multiple times within any timeframe. So you could buy a flight to Beijing, then fly out of the country 72 hours later, then fly back into Shanghai for 144 hours, then leave China. You can do any kind of combination like that.
If you don’t know how to book cheap flights, be sure to read this comprehensive guide to getting the best flight deals on the internet!
How do I pack for my layover in China?
Now that you’ve booked your flight to China and understand how to use the visa-free transit policy, there are several important things to know about packing your bags for your layover in China:
- Absolutely NO lithium batteries in your checked luggage. This includes camera batteries, cell phones, portable chargers, and more. I learned this lesson the hard way so that you don’t have to. The airline in the US didn’t inform us of this when we checked our bag and we ended up having a $100 portable charger removed. Bummer!
- You may or may not have your checked luggage when you get to China. Each airline seems to be different and it depends on a lot of factors. When you check your bag, be sure to ask the ticketing agent if the bag is going directly to your third country or if you’ll need to pick it up in China.
- Pack a day bag. Be prepared for your bag to be sent all the way through to your destination and pack enough clothing and toiletries for the length of your stay.
- Better yet, only fly carryon! But beware of weight restrictions. I flew Air China and the weight limit for carryons was 5kg. Ouch!
How do I enter China without a Visa?
- Buy a flight into China
- Buy a flight out of China
Be sure when buying your flight out of China that you leave from the same airport that you flew into.
- Before you fly to China, print out a confirmation of your onward flight out of China
- Fly to China
Before leaving for your flight to China, let the flight attendant know that you will be staying in China and they may have the appropriate form. Once you arrive in China you will need to fill out a small white and blue form called “Arrival Card for Temporary Entry Foreigners.”
There will usually be a separate desk for this depending on which airport you fly into. If you can’t find it, save this picture and show it to someone at customs or any airport employee near customs. Do not get in the customs line first. They will see that you have no China visa and send you to find this form. Trust me! There will most likely be a slew of foreigners filling out the same card, so just keep an eye out.
- Go Through Immigration
Once you have filled out your form and have it approved, head over to the immigration line. Present your
- Arrival Card
- Arrival Card for Temporary Entry Foreigners
- Ticket for departing China within the correct timeframe for your city of entry
Which cities use the China Visa Free Transit Policy?
Almost all cities with an airport allow you to stay at least 24 hours. For longer stays, see above.
What should I do on my layover in China?
China has many options for private tours that are designed specifically for long layovers. Read about my layover experience in Beijing China here and check out some of the best things to do in China during a layover below.
I highly recommend taking a guided tour since your time will be limited. A layover specific tour is nice because they understand flight delays and know that you need to be back at the airport by a certain time.
We had an awesome time seeing the Mutianyu Great Wall during our layover in China. Our guide picked us up from our hotel and dropped us off at the airport. It all went very smoothly and he was very helpful. You can read more about my experience seeing the Great Wall of China during a Layover here.
I hope this advice helps with your decision about having a long layover in China. While visiting China for several weeks would definitely more preferable, if money and time is a concern for your, this visa-free travel is a good choice. If you go to China, I’d love to know how it went for you! Please feel free to reach out via email or on Facebook or Instagram! Happy Trails!