Getting into China without a visa
The visa regime in China can be a source of frustration especially for those who need to visit the country at short notice. The good news is that there are some things which can be done if you need to visit the country at short notice and don’t have a visa. Below are our tips on the best way to visit China at short notice when you don’t have much time to apply for a visa before your journey.
One big caveat which a lot of inexperienced travellers to China may not appreciate is that this is all a moveable feast. The regulations and practice change constantly, especially for example in regard to which nationalities are eligible for which visas. Short term localised or national suspensions of rules occur for certain events, such as a major meeting, and may not be publicised in advance. Moreover, publicity in general is inconsistent – sometimes a visa rule changes seemingly overnight and it may not be obvious until people start being unable to get a certain type of visa. Please feel free to share your up to date experiences in the comments section below to help fellow travellers.
1. Visa Free
It is worth checking first if you actually need a visa to visit. Most nationalities do, but some are exempt, most notably in Asia Brunei, Japan and Singapore. Also APEC business card holders whose cards state that it is valid for entry to China can enter without a visa as long as their passport is issued by a full member of the scheme, other than Taiwan (so for example, Canada and U.S. passports are ineligible).
Those travelling on a HK permanent resident card and APEC card don’t need a visa if they are not of Hong Kong/Chinese nationality – if they are then they are still visa free but need a Mainland Travel Permit for Hong Kong and Macao Residents 港澳居民來往內地通行證.
2. Emergency visit
There are provisions for short notice visits without visa where you meet certain criteria. These usually involve for example a family emergency or a short notice business meeting.
For this you’ll need a genuine emergency at short notice, an invitation letter from Chinese authorities or relevant sponsor, arrangements made with the arrival airport and a government-approved sponsor to meet you at the airport.
In practice if for personal reasons this will likely be easier if you are ethnically Chinese or have blood relatives in mainland China and even then probably won’t be easy to arrange without persistence and/or good connections.
For business purposes it may be easier if the Chinese side of your deal has good connections. Alternatively, although it’s a long shot, if you’re going to be staying at a high end hotel with a good concierge, or have a travel agent in or connected to China who understands the system well, it may be worth asking them if they can help with the arrangements.
Certain nationalities are excluded, significantly France and the United States. Others are excluded at certain airports, for example U.K. passports at Beijing and Canada, Israel and South Korean passport holders at Shanghai, Chengdu, Fujian and Xiamen airports.
3. Getting a visa in Hong Kong
Even if you do not have time to go through the formal visa process before your trip, consider whether you can route through Hong Kong and get a visa there. Hong Kong is amongst the smoothest and quickest places to get a mainland Chinese visa. For many passports an express service is available from some agents, so for example you can hand in your passport by two p.m. and get the visa the same day so for example you could fly into Hong Kong, take the Airport Express into Kowloon, get the visa, and return to the airport for an evening connection to mainland China (if planning this, make sure that your ticket is not issued in such a way that you are denied boarding at your point of origin because you do not have a Chinese visa). Typically such express services are more expensive than normal processing, adding a thousand or more Hong Kong dollars onto the cost of your visa. Many visa agents advertise same day service for passports submitted early in the morning – for the several hour service you may need to find a specialist agent, who are often Kowloon side.
4. Visa on arrival
Visas on arrival are available at certain land crossings. One convenient example is Shenzhen, on which we have a popular blog post. That is convenient as many international flights land at Hong Kong and from Hong Kong airport it is easy to get to the land border at Shenzhen. It is also possible to get a visa on arrival at Shekou port in Shenzhen, which has a direct ferry service from Hong Kong airport.
Similar schemes (with three not five day validity, as at Shenzhen) operate at Zhuhai ports and at Xiamen airport. Hainan has a scheme for certain passport holders arriving at Haikou or Sanya airport.
These visas on arrival are valid only for the city of issue. If you’re tempted to veer out of the city limits, bear in mind that Chinese hotels will normally ask to see your visa when you check in, and you will also need to show your passport if booking tickets such as train tickets, although sometimes providing a passport name and number is sufficient when done through an agent.
If you caught violating the terms of your visa, for example overstaying or trying to leave from a different port, you’ll be questioned. Overstaying by a day or so may be overlooked depending on circumstances, but more than that and you’ll face a fine of 500 RMB for every day overstayed. This might be calculated including days which you don’t think counted, but you are unlikely to be able to change the fine. If you don’t immediately settle the fine in cash you’ll be held in custody and if you continue not to pay, you’ll be jailed (overstaying a week would result in roughly two to three weeks in jail, for example) and may be blacklisted, jeopardising your chances of getting a Chinese visa in coming years. If you arrived by plane, you may also need to purchase a new ticket out of China depending on the terms of your original one.
If you foresee that you may violate the terms of your visa, you can apply to the county level Public Security Bureau in the city of issue and they may be able to extend it for you. However, this will take time, may require cost and is in no way a sure option. In any case, it would be strongly preferable to do that before not after expiration, as at that stage they would be within their rights to detain you while they considered your application, a process which takes some days.
5. Transit visa
Many passports are eligible to enter China on a transit visa.
There are several types of transit visa. A 24 hour transit visa is available to a wide range of passport holders in most international airports (though beware that Shenzhen Bao’an, Fuzhou and Yanji airports are excluded). It allows up to twenty four hours inside China, including domestic flights (although some airports restrict this for those travelling on United States or Canadian visas).
A number of cities offer a 72 or 144 hour visa. This is available to holders of passports from a smaller but significant group of countries, including most major European countries, the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the like. This is available for the main cities like Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou and Chengdu, as well as smaller ones – it’s best to check for a current listing although it’s more likely that other cities will be added than current ones removed. It is also available at Shanghai port and Shanghai rail station for the through train from Kowloon. Note that different cities interpret the time period differently – in some it is counted in hours from arrival, in others it is basically counted in days, starting only at midnight at the end of the day of arrival.
The key point about a transit visa is that your direct flight into mainland China must not be coming from the same country as your direct flight out. For this purpose, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan are counted as third countries. So, to use some examples:
– London to Shanghai to Tokyo would be eligible.
– London via Tokyo to to Nagoya would not be eligible, as the flights in and out of mainland China are in the same country (Japan), even if you did not personally disembark in Tokyo.
– Hong Kong to Chengdu to Vancouver would be eligible.
– Hong Kong to Chengdu to Hong Kong and onto Vancouver would not be eligible as the flights in and out of mainland China are from the same third country (Hong Kong).
The transit visas are valid for travel within a wider area than a visa on arrival, but it is still restricted. For example, a Shanghai visa on arrival allows travel not only within Shanghai but across Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces – Guangdong is supposed to be implementing a similar scheme this year.
When boarding your airline may query your lack of Chinese visa – you should be prepared to explain to them your plan to get a transit visa.
The above comments on overstaying a visa on arrival also apply to transit visas.