MIAMI — A recent $500 fare from the US to Beijing is setting online travel communities ablaze, and American Airlines’ nonstop Dallas-Beijing flight is due to begin on May 7. Airways is here with some on-the-ground experience of how China’s 72-hour “visa-free transit” option works at a dozen Chinese airports — and what you need to prepare in order to make the process as smooth as possible.
Allowing you to avoid traveling to (or paying a visa service to deal with) a PRC Consulate in order to purchase a $140 visa, China offers nationals of more than 50 countries the option of a visa-free transit that can last up to three days. But the information out there is spotty — and much of it is out of date. We transited Shanghai’s Hongqiao airport in November last year and Pudong airport just last week, so here’s the very latest from the Middle Kingdom.
First, check your transit airport. As of February 4th, Beijing (PEK), Shanghai (Pudong PVG and Hongqiao SHA), Guangzhou (CAN), Chengdu (CTU), Chongqing (CKG), Shenyang (SHE), Dalian (DLC), Xian (XIY), Hangzhou (HGH), Guilin (KWL), and Kunming (KMG) were eligible according to the PRC Embassy to the USA.
Importantly, the Chinese city where you transit must be your first landing within China, so (for example) a flight that first stopped in Shanghai and continued to Beijing would be eligible for transit in Shanghai only.
Second, check your country is in the ever-increasing official list (here’s the list as of February 4th from the PRC Embassy to the USA): Albania, Argentina, Austria, Australia, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, Brunei, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Malta, Mexico, Netherlands, Montenegro, New Zealand, Poland, Portugal, Qatar, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, Republic of Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Arab Emirates, Ukraine, United Kingdom, and the United States.
Third, the key part of the deal is that you must actually be in transit: from country A to China to country B. A simple return from country A back to country A is not allowed. Note that Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan are valid ultimate destinations for the purposes of visa-free transit.
However, we can confirm that the transit does not have to be on the same airline. We traveled Paris-Seoul-Shanghai-Auckland, Auckland-Shanghai-Seoul (and are soon to head onwards to Paris) on completely unlinked mileage redemptions on Korean Air and Air New Zealand.
You’ll need to prove your eligibility to the airline you’re flying to China at the airport. If you’re a worrying type, there’s nothing wrong with calling the airline up before departure and letting them know that you are intending to make a visa-free transit, reminding them of your nationality’s eligibility, your onward connection and asking them to make a note in your record in the event you end up with a clueless check-in agent.
Bring proof your airline-issued itineraries with you to show at the customs desk. Top tip: try to make it print out each leg on a separate page and prepare just your very next flight’s page to hand over to the customs officer, who will be working in a second language and doesn’t immediately need to read about the flights that aren’t relevant to your eligibility for visa-free transit.
When we transited Hongqiao — Shanghai’s older and closer airport, which deals with few international flights that are mainly inbound from city-center airports like Tokyo Haneda or Seoul Gimpo — in November, the visa-free transit process took about ten minutes. We fronted up to the Foreigner desks, said “ni hao, visa free transit” and handed over passport and printout. The officer took us to a small seating area in the open (not any kind of secondary screening room) and went off to process the forms. No worries, just a bit of a wait.
Things at Pudong, the larger airport, last week were even smoother. We handed over the forms, the officer checked the printout, and stamp-stamp-stamp we were heading for the maglev into town.
So: check you’re eligible, make sure you’ve got your printouts, and zai jian!