China had long been on my bucket list, as the ever-expanding superpower is among the least traveled places for U.S. citizens. With a brand new 72 hour visa free entrance policy - which, as a U.S. citizen, I used - at 13 Chinese airports, the traditional $140 visa fee and long application window can now be worked around. This makes the process of visiting this amazing country much, much easier.
What Is It?
First, let's start with the basics. The 72 visa free entrance is a policy that allows travelers to enter China for up to 72 hours prior to arrival without obtaining a visa. But there are a number of conditions to be aware of:
- Travel must be through one of the 13 Chinese airports shown in the picture below. Notable inclusions: Beijing, Shanghai & Guangzhou.
- Traveler must be a citizen of one of the 51 countries shown in the picture below. Notable inclusions: United States, Australia, Korea & Japan.
- Traveler must have an onward ticket direct to a third region (different from origin into China). Hong Kong, Macau & Taiwan count as third countries. More on this later.
- Traveler must inform the airline of the 72 hour visa request prior to boarding the outbound aircraft to China. The airline calls the Chinese airport to ensure your details work, so this is important.
- Traveler must remain in the province in which he or she arrives. Meaning no flying into Beijing and out of Shanghai, or visiting Hong Kong by car after flying into Guangzhou.
- 72 hours begins at 00:00 of the day following entrance into China. This is a tricky rule that is not eligible in Beijing. I took advantage of it in Guangzhou though and will expand on this in the next section.
Examples That Work
San Francisco > Beijing (direct, land at 20:00 on day 1) > Hong Kong (direct, depart 13:00 on day 3)
The first example works because a) Beijing is among the 13 eligible airports, b) the time frame in China is under 72 hours, and c) the flight out of Beijing is to a third region - in this case, Hong Kong. Here we assume that the traveler does not leave the greater Beijing province (but see the note further below on the Great Wall).
New York > Shanghai (direct, land at 18:00 on day 1) > Seoul (layover in Taipei, depart 16:00 on day 4)
The second example works for the same three reasons, but in instance "c)" the flight has a layover in Taiwan. Because Taiwan is considered a third region, the flight still counts even though it isn't "direct" to South Korea. Again, the same assumption is made that the traveler did not go outside of Shanghai province in the 72 hour window.
Seoul > Guangzhou (direct, land at 01:00 on day 1) > Koh Samui (direct, depart at 12:00 on day 4)
The third example is a bit trickier, as you are actually in China for 83 hours - but can still receive the 72 hour visa. Trust me though, it works, as I did this same itinerary in March 2015. Because the clock starts at 00:00 the day following entrance to China, you technically have until 23:59 on day four to depart. A word of caution though: the Guangzhou customs seemed to be unaware of this rule, so it is generally recommended to stay within 72 hours.
Examples That Don't Work
San Francisco > Beijing (direct, land at 16:00 on day 1) > Hong Kong (layover in Xian, depart at 23:00 on day 2)
Now, the routes that don't work. Example one does not work for one reason: the flight from Beijing to Hong Kong stops first in Xian, violating the third region condition. Even if you have no intention of leaving the airport in Xian, this route does not work for the 72 hour visa free entrance policy.
New York > Shanghai (direct, arrive at 23:59 on day 1) > South Korea (direct, depart at 00:01 on day 5)
Example two would be a really unfortunate itinerary. Arriving a minute before midnight on day one, the 72 hour clock would start at 00:00 on day two. Meaning it would expire at 23:59 on day four, just two minutes before the scheduled departure to South Korea. Those two minutes will cost the traveler $140 (if from the U.S.) plus the hassle of dealing with a China embassy to approve a traditional 10-year visa (see picture below).
San Francisco > Guangzhou (direct, land at 05:00 on day 1) > Los Angeles (direct, depart at 14:00 on day 2)
Example three violates the third region condition, a shame for those with a standard roundtrip ticket. Even though the timing is well within the 72 hour window and Guangzhou is the only city visited, this itinerary would not work.
What To Expect At The Airport
If you've made it this far - great job. Now it is time to board your flight and actually show up in China without a visa, which probably goes against every travel instinct you have ever had. As someone who has done this process twice now, I understand, and hope the below puts your mind at ease.
The process at the China airport is extremely simple, however, and is even better than the normal customs experience. This is because 72 hour visa free passengers often have a dedicated customs lane with far less people in it (for now). While photography in customs lines is prohibited, I can attest that we skipped a 50-person line in Guangzhou and were personally ushered to the separate lane.
One note is that while the major China airports - like Beijing and Shanghai - have signage indicating the 72 hour visa free entrance policy, smaller airports do not.
For example, in Guangzhou we had to seek out an airport staff member and ask where the 72 hour line was. Because your airline called prior to departure, the staff at the arrival airport in China will be aware you are coming.
Having completed this process twice now, I highly recommend utilizing the policy - while being sure you understand the conditions.
I'll also repeat my note made above: print everything out prior to departing! While there are stories of mobile e-itineraries working, it is better to be safe than stuck in China (or sent back home).
Disclaimer: Photos credit to Travel China Guide.