If you have a passport from the U.S. (or Europe, or Canada, or Australia, or…you get the point…), then you’ve had the good fortune of not needing a formal visa to visit most countries as a tourist. Until recently, China was one of the few countries where a formal tourist visa was still required — meaning you could certainly travel there, but a lot of people were deterred by the paperwork and fees needed to make the trip happen. Luckily, it’s not possible to plan visa free transit to China.
In 2016, China introduced a 144 hour (6 day) visa free transit option for citizens of 53 countries including the U.S., Canada, Australia, and most European countries. This policy was first introduced in Shanghai, and was later extended to Beijing and several other regions.
How Does Visa Free Transit Work?
This rule is only applicable to international passengers who are in transit through China (originating from point A, stopping at point B, and continuing on to point C). In order to qualify, you must have a confirmed ticket to a third country. Your flights don’t need to be on the same itinerary, so one-way flights are fine, as long as you can prove your onward journey to a third country or region is confirmed.
Domestic flights within China do not qualify, since this is not international transit. Non-stop, round-trip flights from the U.S. to China also do not qualify, as in this case China would be the destination instead of a through-point. For the purpose of the visa free transit option, Hong Kong, Macau, and Taipei are considered international destinations.
We visited Beijing earlier this year, arriving at Beijing Capital Airport (PEK) on April 14th from Hong Kong. We were staying in Beijing until April 17th, when we would fly to Tokyo on our way back to the United States. Technically, our visa free transit option was then valid in Beijing from April 14th through the 20th, if we had decided to stay longer.
When you check in at the airport when heading to China (in our case, when we checked in at the airport in Hong Kong), make sure to let the airline personnel know that you are traveling with the 144 hour visa free transit rule. Make sure to allow extra time for check in — in our case, the attendant checking us in was not very familiar with the rule so it took a while to get it straightened out. There were no issues, but a lot of back and forth with other airline personnel to get all the information input correctly.
Also, be prepared to show the confirmation information for your onward flight to a third country or region. In cases like this, where you are traveling under special rules or circumstances, we find that it’s a good idea to just print out a copy of the policy and have it with you. The homepage of the airport you are flying to in China should have a page explaining the 144 visa free transit option.
When we landed and got off the plane in Beijing, we needed to go to a special immigration counter for the 144 hour visa free transit permit. At the counter, we were required to fill out an application form to apply for the 144 hour visa free stay permit upon arrival. Be prepared to also show your boarding pass and your itinerary with your confirmed flight to a third country or region.
After we got our 144 hour visa free stay permit in our passport, we needed to walk back around the corner to the normal immigration lines to have our passport and entry permit checked and our biometrics taken. From there it was on to baggage claim and customs.
Some Useful Tips
Overall, we found the experience of traveling by using the visa free transit permit to be fairly straightforward. If anything, we mostly found that the process required a little extra time and a little extra planning.
If you want to take advantage of the 144 hour visa free transit option to China (and we recommend you do), here are some tips:
- Plan ahead and do your research. Make sure your travel plans qualify for the permit and double-check your passport expiration date — I have a feeling they aren’t lenient on that point.
- Leave extra time for check-in when traveling to China in case the airline personnel aren’t very familiar with the permit
- Keep all of your documents handy, including a copy of the visa free transit policy (we printed it in several languages, just in case), your itinerary, and boarding pass once you arrive in China.
Have you traveled to China using this option in the past? How was your experience? Let us know!