Beijing Transit Without Visa: Everything You Need to Know
Immigration into a foreign country can be a bit nerve-wracking, especially if it is your first time. Most don’t intimidate me, but our entry into China was one that did. When my older kids and I visited Beijing last fall, we entered using the 144-hour China “transit without visa” (TWOV) policy.
The Basics of China’s Transit Without Visa
For the typical tourist visit as a U.S. citizen, China requires a visa ahead of time. You must apply, pay the $160 fee, and have it processed by a Chinese consulate. This is time consuming and costly, not to mention a bit of a headache.
China’s transit without visa policy avoids all this. While China offers 24-hour transit without visa for long layovers, their 72-hour and 144-hour TWOV are different. The TWOV requires some careful planning. First, you must hold a passport from one of the 53 countries on the approved list (includes the U.S., UK, Canada, Mexico, and Schengen countries).
Second, you cannot simply book a ticket to China and expect to enter the country. The Chinese transit without visa policy only works if you’re continuing on to a third country. You may stop in China, but you can’t simply return to your point of origin. That’s not a transit.
Essentially, you must depart from country A, arrive in China (country B), and later depart for country C. The flights into and out of China must be nonstop, without additional domestic connections within China. An example itinerary is the following:
- Nonstop flight from LAX to PVG (Shanghai Pudong International Airport)
- Stop in Shanghai for 3 days
- Continuing nonstop flight to Bangkok, where you spend 5 days
- Return to LAX via Shanghai
These sorts of tickets are available all the time, and many Chinese airlines don’t charge any more for the planned stop. I’ve seen the exact itinerary I mention available for ~$450 out of LAX on China Eastern, which is a fantastic deal for a two-stop ticket.
Which Cities Allow TWOV?
Different Chinese cities offer different transit visa times. The original multi-day transit visas offered a stay of up to 72 hours. However, this has been increased to 144-hours in several locations, including Beijing. In addition, you can freely travel within both the Tianjin and Hebei provinces as well as the capital city. Some other cities restrict you to the single city to the city boundary. Here is the current full list of 72-hour TWOV cities:
- Changsha (can travel all of Hunan province)
- Xi’an/Xianyang (cannot leave these cities)
Here is the current full list of 144-hour TWOV cities:
- Beijing/Tianjin (can travel all of Hebei, too)
- Dailan (can travel all of Liaoning province)
- Guangzhou (can travel all of Guangdong province)
- Qingdao (can travel all of Shandong province)
- Shenyang (can travel all of Liaoning province)
If arriving into Shanghai, Zhejiang, or Jiangsu provinces, you can travel freely between all three of these. You must enter via an international airport.
Planning our Beijing Transit without Visa
When I was booking our flights to China I *really* wanted to make sure I didn’t mess up our planned Beijing transit without visa. Our itinerary was as follows:
- Domestic connection to a nonstop Delta from from Seattle to Beijing
- 6-nights and 6-days spent in Beijing
- Onward nonstop flight from Beijing to Hong Kong
- 3 days in Hong Kong
- Flight home to San Francisco
There were a few ingredients to our particular flights plans that caused me some anxiety. First, I’d booked two separate one-way tickets. We were flying on a one-way Delta cash ticket to Beijing, followed by a Cathay Pacific ticket coming home. Some sources I read stated that you need to book everything as one ticket in order to qualify.
However, others stated that this isn’t the case. You must simply have the onward travel booked. I finally found an authoritative source that confirmed this.
The second issue was the onward flight. We were flying from Beijing to Hong Kong. Hong Kong is technically part of China, just administered differently. I was worried that it wouldn’t qualify for the transit without visa. My fears were unjustified, as China clearly states that Hong Kong is a valid destination for onward travel in regard to TWOV (in addition to Macau and Taiwan).
Finally, our Cathay itinerary was booked as a one-way Alaska award with a stopover. It *might* appear that we weren’t really transiting. After all, our planned time in Beijing was longer than our time in Hong Kong. But this didn’t prove to be an issue either. It took some last minute data entry (and much confusion) at the gate in Seattle, but with the Cathay flight details for our PEK-HKG pulled up on my phone, we were finally cleared to board by Delta. You’ll need to inform whatever airline you book that you intend to use the TWOV.
Arrival into Beijing
In our hurry to head to the Foreigner line, we missed the “transit without visa” signage and desk. I’d read that you had to grab the paperwork, but it slipped my mind at we shuffled along in the line in a dazed stupor. A sleepless 12-hour flight on a 767 utterly exhausts you.
The immigration official kindly sent us over to the correct desk when she realized we didn’t have the right form. The China transit without visa form is blue while the standard entry card is yellow. Delta didn’t pass out any blue forms on board, so we had to get them at the desk and fill them out there.
On a second transit without visa this year (through Xiamen, not Beijing), I mentioned to the cabin crew that we needed the transit card. They had these on board and brought us the correct cards. Make sure you tell the airline at check-in (and I also suggest your cabin crew) your intent to use the TWOV.
Transit Without Visa Application
The temporary visa desk at PEK Terminal 2 is located off to the right in a corner beyond the entry queues to the Chinese National and foreigner immigration lines. They have the TWOV cards there for you to fill out and then present it to an immigration official.
We had to show confirmation of our onward travel when I brought the cards to the desk. Unlike our experience boarding our flight to Beijing where she wanted actual ticket numbers, a printout of the page with our names, seats and PNR was sufficient. I would play it safe and ensure you have the actual ticket numbers, as that is what Delta wanted.
The immigration official processed our applications one by one. I had to fill out three, one for myself and one for each of my two kids. The result was a temporary transit permit affixed in our passports clearly showing November 5 as the arrival date and November 11 as the departure date.
Afterwards, she is waved us to a separate line that was much shorter than the general foreigner queue. Even with the time spent standing in line the first time, the whole process took maybe 20 minutes.
Onward Travel to Hong Kong
We didn’t have any issues leaving Beijing. The two immigration officials processing us as we passed through customs and immigration at PEK gave us some weird looks, but that was it. Most of this I chalk up to white dad traveling with two of his beautiful brown-skinned kids.
One thing to note is that you’re supposed to keep the stub from your TWOV arrival form with you at all times during your stay, as you must present it when you leave. At least that is what it says on the form. We were not asked for the stub, but I would not ever take a chance.
Make sure you do not overstay your 144-hour transit time! I pushed ours as far as I was comfortable, with a planned departure only 8 hours shy of our 144 hours after we’d landed in Beijing. Some airports also give you 72 of 144 hours from midnight following the day you land. I didn’t even want to research and play games with this and decided to stick to the strict 144-hour window. It could be worth looking into which airports allow this.
Schedule changes can ruin plans. If the airline moves your flight so that you exceed the 72-hour or 144-hour window, you can be denied entry, and the airline may do nothing for you. What matters is scheduled time, though. If your flight is delayed and you don’t depart China on time, there should be no issue, as long as you were scheduled to depart before your TWOV window expires.
Utilizing the China transit without visa policy is a great way to visit China while still saving some serious money, especially for a family. Rather than paying $160 per person (plus the hassle of a trip to get them) for visas, we were able to spend a full five days in Beijing using the free TWOV policy.
China is continuing to roll out their transit without visa policy beyond major airports such as Beijing and Shanghai. The count of cities enjoying either a 72-hour or 144-hour TWOV policy is up to 14+ cities, and in many cases you can travel whole provinces. Consider adding a stop in China on your next trip to Asia!