January 2019: we have an updated post: 2019 Guide to China 24-, 72- and 144-hour Transit without Visa (TWOV).
No one likes long layovers, but cheaper ticket prices often mean you do have to stop somewhere mid-way before arriving at your final destination. You are lucky if you have a layover in China, for China provides 24-hour temporary entry permits and 72-hour transit visas for visitors, which means you have the choice of exploring the city you are stopping at for up to 3 days instead of sulking in the airport!
There are two types of transit visas: 24-hour temporary entry permits and 72-hour transit visas.
24-hour temporary entry permits
This type of permit is for direct transit travelers, a.k.a. travelers who have no more than 24 hours between the scheduled landing time of arrival in China and the scheduled time for last departure from China. You can leave from a different city, but they must be connecting flights arriving and departing within 24 hours. e.g. Tokyo – Beijing – Guangzhou – Bangkok.
This permit is available for any nationality travelers for free and applicable to any vehicles (eg trains, ferries, planes…), as long as they hold tickets to their final destinations.
Apply for the permit upon arrival at immigration control. You typically have to queue at a different lane to apply for a permit so ask immigration officers around for instructions. A stopover permit will be stamped in your passport and you can leave for some sightseeing around.
If you already have a China visa in your passport, you can possibly ask the immigration official to provide you a 24 hour visa and preserve your existing China visa for another time. However, this may depend on your sales and negotiation skills.
72-hour transit visas
If your layover is longer than one day, you seriously have to consider getting this 72-hour transit visa, which again is free. The 72-hour visa-free transits are only issued to certain qualifying passengers at certain airports though. Generally you must stay in the same city or area which you arrive, see list below.
Which airports offer this visa? (you must arrive + depart from these cities)
Airports in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu, Chongqing, Shenyang, Dalian, Xian, Guilin, Kunming and Hangzhou.
Updated Dec 10, 2016:
Passengers transiting in Guangzhou, Chengdu, Qingdao, or Changsha are allowed to travel in the whole province.
Passengers transiting in Beijing, Chongqing, Harbin, Guilin, Kunming, Wuhan, Xiamen, or Tianjin cannot leave the administrative area of the transit city.
Passengers transiting in Shanghai, Zhejiang, or Jiangsu can move around the three places.
Passengers stopping over in Dalian or Shenyang can travel in these two cities.
Passengers transiting in Xian Xianyang Airport are permitted to travel in the administrative areas of Xian and Xianyang.
- You must hold the passport of these 51 approved countries (sorted alphabetically):
Albania, Argentina, Australia, Austria,
Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Brazil, Brunei, Bulgaria,
Canada, Chile, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic,
Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary,
Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Korea, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg,
Macedonia (FYROM), Malta, Mexico, Montenegro, Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, Portugal, Qatar, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Ukraine,
United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, the United States.
- You have to hold an onward ticket with confirmed seats to a third country aka your destination.
- Only for passengers who travel by planes.
- You cannot leave the city during the 72-hour visa-free period, except in Guangzhou and Hangzhou, where you can leave for other places in the Guangdong province or the Zhejiang province respectively.
- Inform airlines when you are boarding
- Fill in Arrival/Departure Card
- Apply the 72-hour transit visa
You again have to queue at a different lane to apply for a permit so ask immigration officers around/follow instruction boards for directions.
If you plan on staying in China and need a regular visa, refer to our other article.
Blogger: Frances Sit