The Best Ways to Travel in China without a China Tourist Visa

by Rich Jones
How to See China if You don't have a Tourist Visa

Introduction

International travel can be exciting and fun, and destinations like China have a wealth of sites to see and rich cultural history to experience.  Like most international destinations, however, visas are often a requirement for admission.  China tourist visa programs can be expensive and take time to arrange prior to arrival.  While some China visa service companies exist to expedite the process, and various China tourism companies can sometimes get exemptions for their travelers, in general, a China tourist visa has been a hard requirement until very recently.

In an effort to increase the tourism rates in the country, improve business relations, and generally provide an infusion of additional dollars into its economy, the Chinese government has begun issuing various exemptions from the China tourist visa or China business visa requirements.  There is a great deal of variability in terms of eligibility based on country of origin of the travelers, purpose of visit, destinations, etc.  In total, there are 11 classes of current China visa exemptions, which bypass the need to apply for a Chinese visa.

In this article, we’ll attempt to briefly explain the normal visa application process, the visa on arrival process (a kind of emergency application system), and dive into the 11 visa exemptions and how they might apply to you, allowing you to enjoy travel in China without a China visa application, or the associated time and fees.

Disclaimer

It should be noted, however, that this information is only current as of this writing, and situations relating to world travel tend to be a bit fluid.  As such, anyone considering travel to China or elsewhere should always check with their travel agent or tour group, sponsoring business/company (if traveling for business), embassy/foreign office, and guidelines from their local state department or foreign ministry.  As ever, the motto “better safe than sorry” applies, and travelers are advised to do their homework before deciding on which visa or visa-free travel option is right for them.

If you’d like to learn more about what to see and do in other Asian countries, check out our article Top Tips and Advice for Planning An Affordable Asia Tour 2019.  Or, if you’re looking for travel in other destinations, we have full guides to travel in Australia, Africa, Europe, and more!  Just be aware that most of these destinations do NOT have the kind of generous travel without visa programs that China has, that we’re discussing in this article.

Normal China Tourist Visa Process

First, let’s briefly discuss the normal China tourist visa process before we get to the exemptions.  The normal process for obtaining visas requires an application for the relevant jurisdictions and duration of stay, prior to arrival.  The fees, availability, and speed of this process can vary based on the nationality of the citizen, as well as the reason for travel (i.e., business and economic reasons tend to be prioritized over tourism).  Tourism agencies, especially those located in China, often can get special deals, exceptions, longer visa periods, etc., especially for individual or group tours, which we’ll cover in the Exemptions section below.

For most normal China tourist visa applications, the dates of entry, multiple or single entry points, dates of stay, the reason for stay, as well as various other informational elements (passport, tickets/confirmations, etc.) are often required, in addition to hefty fees.  There are best sorted out before travel, or it is entirely possible you will be stuck in the airport at customs upon arrival!  Many China tourist visa services companies can help with this process, including VisaHQ, TraVisa, and TravelVisasPro.

Visa on Arrival (VOA)

For some emergency or short-lead-time situations, visas can often be obtained on arrival, usually within 24 hours.  Again, many of these situations are tied to business and trade, or family/health matters, i.e., for visiting the critically ill, funeral matters, and similar.  Most often, these need an explanatory letter from a valid, affiliated Chinese entity (such as a company) explaining the reason for the China tourist visa on arrival.  These visas can be applied for at the port of entry for residents of many (though not all) countries, but generally are not available to US residents, nor residents of France.   Unless this is the only choice due to incredibly short lead-time for a business purpose or true emergency, it should not be considered as a first-choice option for anyone, especially residents of the US or France.

Exemptions

There are 11 exemptions from China tourist visa or China business visa requirements, starting with the very specific and working out too much broader categories.  We’ve compiled these into a helpful list of sections – if you can’t find an exemption that applies at the top of the list, skip to the next item, and so on until you hit one or more that apply, and then read on for more information!

A.   Diplomatic or Special Service Personnel

Members of 98 countries (see PDF for reference) with mutual visa exemption agreements with China, who hold valid diplomatic or special service passports can enter and travel China for up to 30 days without having to apply for a Chinese visa.

B.   APEC Business Travel Card Holders

Members from the 21 countries that make up the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation group, holding valid business travel cards, can use the travel card as a multi-entry China visa for up to 3 years, with stays not to exceed 60 days.

C.   Alien Residence Permit Holders

Holders of X1 (foreign student) or Z (foreign business) visas, as well as resident foreign journalists, can apply for an Alien Residence Permit within 30 days of arrival.  Once granted, Alien Residence Permit holders can enter and exit China multiple times without having to apply for a Chinese visa each time.

D.   Residents of Singapore, Brunei, and Japan

Most normal or ordinary passport holders from these three countries can visit China without the need for a China tourist visa or China business visa, so long as their stay lasts less than 15 days, and they enter through a normal international port open to foreign visitors.

Exceptions to this exception include:

  • If the visitor stays for longer than 15 days
  • When the visitor intends to interview or take up residence for work or study in China
  • Or if the visitor is a diplomatic or official visitor from Japan

E.   ASEAN Tour Groups Visiting Guilin

Tourists visiting Guilin as a group, originating from ASEAN member countries (Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam), can enter through Guilin Liangjiang Airport without a China tourist visa, so long as they are met by local travel agencies in Guilin.  Tour group members are restricted to Guilin and must leave through the same airport within 6 days.

F.   Hong Kong and Macau Tourism Agency-Arranged Visits to Pearl River Delta Region

Members of tourist groups with valid passports from any of nation with diplomatic relations with China can visit the Pearl River Delta region. (which includes Dongguan, Foshan, Guangzhou, Huizhou, Shenzhen, Zhaoqing, Zhongshan, and Zhuhai) Without the need for China tourist visas so long as the group is organized by a registered travel agent from Hong Kong or Macau, and the group is formed/joins in those countries.  Travel for up to 6 days within mainland China is then allowed for these groups, in the regions indicated above.

G.   Cruise Tour Groups to Shanghai

A 15-day period of travel without a China visa is extended to members of cruise ship tour groups, originating outside of mainland China, and returning to a port outside of mainland China, when they travel to Shanghai and are met by a local travel agency.  The passengers with the group can travel (on the ship) to other port and coast cities including Beijing, Guangdong, Guangxi, Hainan, Hebei, Jiangsu, Liaoning, Shandong, Tianjin, and Zhejiang.  The 15 day period begins at midnight (0:00) on the day following initial arrival at the port of Shanghai.

H.   Hainan Travel Agency-Arranged Visits to Hainan Province

Anyone with a valid passport from the 59 qualifying countries (see J. 72 Hour Transit without a Visa (TWOV), below) can travel within Hainan province without a China visa so long as their visit has been arranged by a travel agency based in Hainan.  This exemption is valid for up to 30 days, with the time starting at midnight (0:00) on the day following arrival in Hainan.

I.   144 Hour Transit without a Visa (TWOV)

For many years, even a brief stopover in China would require a China transit visa.  That requirement has been recently lifted for select cities, regions, and countries of origin, of varying duration, as highlighted in this section, as well as J. 72 Hour Transit without a Visa (TWOV) and K. 24 Hour Transit without a Visa (TWOV) below.

Important note:  For this and the next two sections, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macau are considered countries that are outside of mainland China, and therefore valid origin or destination points to satisfy that criteria of the exemption.

I. Section 1

Passengers (mostly air passengers, though some sea and rail passengers as well – detailed below) from the countries listed in J. 72 Hour Transit without a Visa (TWOV), are eligible for travel without applying for a China tourist visa for up to 144 hours.  The following criteria must be met:

  • Origin and outbound flights must originate outside of mainland China and must have no stopovers in China (i.e., direct into China and out, even if there is a stopover in another country).
  • Travelers must enter and stay within one of the three areas designated in Section 2 below.

I. Section 2

Three geographic areas participate in this program, but there is no crossing between areas allowed.  The only travel without a China visa is within the area dictated by the port of entry.  These areas are:

  • Shanghai, Jiangsu, and Zhejiang
    • Allows entry from any air, sea, and rail ports in Shanghai, as well as Hangzhou Xiaoshan Airport and Nanjing Lukou Airport
    • Travelers can freely travel within any of these three cities
    • Travelers can enter and leave from different ports so long as they are one of those listed above
  • Beijing, Tianjin, and Hebei
    • Allows entry from Beijing’s Capital International Airport, West Railway Station, Tianjin’s Binhai International Airport and cruise ship port, and Zhengding International Airport or Qinhuangdao Port in Hebei
    • Travelers can freely travel within these cities
    • Travelers can enter and leave from different ports so long as they are one of those listed above
  • Liaoning (Dalian, Shenyang)
    • Allows entry from Zhoushuizi International Airport in Dalian and Taoxian International Airport in Shenyang
    • Travelers can freely travel within the entire Liaoning province
    • Travelers can enter and leave from either port

I. Section 3

Guangdong province in southern China has begun to roll out their version of this program as well, though travelers are advised to check with local government postings and travel agencies before their travel date, to determine if the program is valid for their itinerary for travel without a China tourist visa.  Preliminary details that have been released are as per the below.

  • Allows all air travelers coming to Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Jieyang airports to enter without applying for a China tourist visa
  • Travelers can freely travel within the entire Guangdong province
  • Travelers can enter and leave from different airports so long as they are one of those listed above

I. Section 4

Regardless of which of the 3 (plus 1 with Guangdong) regions you may travel to for visa-free travel, the requirements for documentation include the following:

  • A valid passport from one of the 59 countries, valid for at least 3 months after the date of entry into China
  • A ticketed and confirmed seat to a country outside mainland China within 144 hours, with the time counter starting from midnight (0:00) on the day following entry
  • A completed arrival/departure card
  • A valid visa for the outbound flight destination country, if required

J.   72 Hour Transit without a Visa (TWOV)

J. Section 1

This program is a bit different than the 144-hour program detailed above.  It is designed for travelers transiting through mainland China in one of 18 designated Chinese cities and allows them to stay for up to 72 hours without a China transit visa or another form of visa.  It should be noted that this list of cities is likely to expand, as the government has announced that more cities will be incorporated into this program in the future.  Current cities include:

  • Beijing
  • Changsha
  • Chengdu
  • Chongqing
  • Dalian
  • Guangzhou
  • Guilin
  • Harbin
  • Hangzhou
  • Kunming
  • Nanjing
  • Qingdao
  • Shanghai
  • Shenyang
  • Tianjin
  • Wuhan
  • Xiamen
  • Xian

J. Section 2

This program for visa-free travel is only available for airport passengers and does not extend to cruise/ship or rail passengers.

J. Section 3

The program for travel without a China tourist visa is only open to passengers from 53 countries, as follows:

  • The 24 European Schengen area countries, listed below for convenience:
    • Austria
    • Belgium
    • Czech Republic
    • Denmark
    • Estonia
    • Finland
    • France
    • Germany
    • Greece
    • Hungary
    • Iceland
    • Italy
    • Latvia
    • Lithuania
    • Luxembourg
    • Malta
    • Netherlands
    • Poland
    • Portugal
    • Slovakia
    • Slovenia
    • Spain
    • Sweden
    • Switzerland
  • 15 additional European countries as follows:
    • Albania
    • Belarus
    • Bosnia-Herzegovina
    • Bulgaria
    • Croatia
    • Cyprus
    • Ireland
    • Macedonia
    • Monaco
    • Montenegro
    • Romania
    • Russia
    • Serbia
    • UK
    • Ukraine
  • 6 countries from the Americas region, specifically:
    • Argentina
    • Brazil
    • Canada
    • Chile
    • Mexico
    • US
  • 6 countries from the Asia region including:
    • Brunei
    • Japan
    • Korea
    • Qatar
    • Singapore
    • UAE
  • 2 countries from Oceania:
    • Australia
    • New Zealand

J. Section 4

There are additional restrictions on whether or not you can travel outside of the arrival city or province, based on the points of entry, detailed below.  In ALL CASES except section d below, passengers must enter and exit from the same airport.

  • Changsha, Chengdu, Guangzhou, and Qingdao allow traveling through the entire Guangdong province
  • Chongqing, Harbin, Guilin, Kunming, Wuhan, and Xiamen do not allow travel outside of the arrival city
  • Xian Xianyang Airport arrival allows for travel in both Xian and Xianyang
  • Shanghai, Zhejiang, and Jiangsu allow movement between these three places
    • This is the only exception where 72 Hour TWOV travelers can leave from a different airport than the one they entered from
  • Beijing, Tianjin, and Hebei allow movement between these cities
  • Dalian and Shenyang allow travel within the whole Liaoning province
    • Despite the fact that these cities also participate in the 144 Hour TWOV program, they do not currently allow 72 Hour TWOV travelers to leave from a different airport than the one they came in from

J. Section 5

The documentation requirements to get through customs with a 72 Hour TWOV, and without a China tourist visa include:

  • A valid passport from one of the 59 countries, valid for at least 3 months after the date of entry into China
  • A ticketed and confirmed seat to a country outside mainland China within 72 hours, with the time counter starting from midnight (0:00) on the day following entry
    • The time count starts from midnight (0:00) the day following entry, except for Beijing Airport, which counts the actual scheduled arrival time of the flight
  • A completed arrival/departure card
  • A valid visa for the outbound flight destination country, if required
  • Entry and exit flights must be from the same city, with the exception of Shanghai, Zhejiang, and Jiangsu
  • Transfer flights are the only applicable mode of transit for this visa – boat, train, or single direct flights are not acceptable

K.   24 Hour Transit without a Visa (TWOV)

K. Section 1

Unlike the above two programs, that offer travelers the change to see the sights of China a bit during their stay, this program is mostly designed to replace traditional China transit visas for connecting flights and stopovers.  For travelers transiting mainland China in one or multiple cities, with a limit of 24 hours total, this program allows them to skip the China tourist visa requirement in the case of a plane, train, or boat stopovers at Chinese ports.  Again, like the other programs, the inbound and ultimate outbound plane/train/boat must be outside mainland China.

K. Section 2

Typically, this program only applies to transit within the transiting passenger area of the port.  Travelers wishing to leave the port to visit the city require an application for a Temporary Stay Permit and still must leave within 24 hours.

K. Section 3

Multiple mainland cities can be included in this program in a single trip, but the total time, from initial arrival in the country to scheduled departure, collectively, must not exceed 24 hours.

K. Section 4

Nearly all nationalities of citizens are eligible, as are nearly all cities and ports within mainland China.

K. Section 5

Exceptions to this program are listed below.

  • Nationals and passport holders from any of the below countries are ineligible and must obtain normal China tourist visas or make other arrangements:
    • Afghanistan
    • Azerbaijan
    • Iran
    • Iraq
    • Kazakhstan
    • Kyrgyzstan
    • Malaysia
    • Nigeria
    • Oman
    • Pakistan
    • Saudi Arabia
    • Sri Lanka
    • Thailand
    • Turkey
    • UAE
    • Yemen
  • The following cities do not participate in this program for any nationality or country of origin:
    • Fuzhou
    • Mudanjiang
    • Shenzhen
    • Yanji
  • For citizens of the United States or Canada who are transiting in mainland China under this program, you are unable to have multiple stops within the 24 hour period in mainland China if transiting through the following cities:
    • Weihai
    • Wuhan
    • Xian
    • Zhengzhou
  • Most visitors entering through in Urumqi Diwopu International Airport only get a 2-hour visa-free transit window in the airport, but there is no issue so long as they fill out the paperwork for a 24 hour TWOV and leave the mainland in the remaining 22 hours.

K. Section 6

The documentation requirements for this program are as follows:

  • A valid passport from one of the 59 countries, valid for at least 3 months after the date of entry into China
  • A ticketed and confirmed seat to a country outside mainland China within 24 hours.
    • NOTE:  In this case, the time counter starts at the scheduled arrival time, and ends at the scheduled departure time.
  • A completed arrival/departure card
  • A valid visa for the outbound flight destination country, if required

Summary

As should now be evident, there are many different options for traveling in China without obtaining a China tourist visa, China business visa, or the need for the antiquated China transit visa.  While many of these exemptions have several documentation requirements and restrictions, they are far easier and quicker to manage than the traditional China tourist visa application.  The TWOV program, in particular, offers many new exciting opportunities for travelers from many countries around the world.  The arrival/departure card is often offered on airlines flying to China, and so long as you have the documentation and your itinerary, entrance, and egress ports match the requirements, everything else is quickly handled at customs, and you can get on with your sightseeing, business, or other vacation experience!

Before Visiting China, Don’t Forget to Buy…

DK Eyewitness Travel Guide: China

Reliable advice from a trusted expert, DK Eyewitness Travel Guide: China offers this and more.  Coverage of all major landmarks and tourist attractions, including methods and information on maximizing your time on the ground are included, which are particularly valuable for those traveling without a China tourist visa using one of the methods from our article.

Lonely Planet China (Travel Guide)

Another useful travel guide, the Lonely Planet China Travel Guide features concise information on what sights are worth seeing, and which ones are overrated and should be crossed off your itinerary.  Includes helpful information and guides to transit prices and much more, all in full-color paperback format, along with a pull-out map of Beijing – what more could you need?

China Survival Guide: How to Avoid Travel Troubles and Mortifying Mishaps, 3rd Edition

This survival guide is both informative and cute.  It offers all the usual sightseeing information, but also focuses on insider tips, commentary, and in general is aimed at helping you to stay safe, sane, and polite while visiting China.  It will help you avoid embarrassing cultural clashes or misunderstandings, provide entertainment, as well as practical trip information like any other guide – best of all worlds in one handy 264-page guide.

We hope you enjoyed this article!  Please feel free to comment with suggestions for new content and follow us so you’ll never miss another post.

ALSO READ: Top Tips and Advice for Planning An Affordable Asia Tour 2019

Related Articles

1 comment

Trip Advice and Review of Top Australia Tours and Sites - LifeGuideBlog June 16, 2019 - 8:07 am

[…] on the other hand, has several exceptions to their visa rules.  This trend may spread to countries like Australia in the future, but for now, a visa is an […]

Comments are closed.