Airport Layover Guides

How to visit China for 72 hours without a visa – what is it really like?

This post will help you:
– Understand some of the complicated rules around China’s 72 hour visa waiver programme
– Get the details of a traveller’s experience of the China 72 hour transit visa
– Find answers to Frequently Asked Questions clearing up your questions and doubts.

Of course, I’m not an immigration official- this is just the perspective of one traveller’s experience of the Beijing ‘stopover visa’ and my best tips for 72 hours visa free in Beijing (formerly known as Peking). For all the official visa rules, see China’s government website.

China will allow you to stay there for 72 hours without a visa if:

  • you fly into Beijing (previously called Peking), Shanghai, Guangzhou, or Chengdu
  • you fly out from the same airport, without transiting between Chinese cities
  • you stay in the administrative area of the city you arrived in the entire time
  • you arrive with an onward ticket to a third country
  • your ticket shows you will leave within 72 hours or less
  • you hold a passport from a selection of countries (total of 51), including amongst other the UK, the US, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and many countries in Europe. You can find all the countries here.

I spent the pre-Christmas period in Beijing as part of a layover on my flight from Melbourne to London, it has an air of crisp wintery excitement and it was a gorgeous time to visit. I think  a layover in China is well worth your time! I booked my flight with Skyscanner, which has so far brought up some great deals.

How to get the 72 hour visa free transit:

All the official information I read told me I should apply to my airline in advance to get the transit arranged and advise them of my plans.

In reality I wouldn’t recommend calling your airline or the local visa centre as both will say they cannot help. Here is the number for international immigration at Beijing Airport but it is hard to get through to an English speaker : 0086-10-56095400.

The best option: In the end I would recommend checking other traveller’s experiences and reading the rules carefully yourself to make sure you can enjoy 72 hours visa free in China. Blog experiences of visa free stays are a great place to start.

I printed my ticket and also the paragraph in the official government website stating the rules for visa free travel and decided to hope for the best.
traveller's experience of the China 72 hour transit visa Forbidden City

What is it like arriving in China without a visa?:

I made my way through the airport corridors and eventually arrived at a large counter marked in Mandarin and English with 72 hour transit. But it was closed, very closed and deserted at 11am on a weekday. Next I joined a queue that had a few foreigners in it nearby. When I got to the desk the guard gestured that this was the wrong queue and had me step aside. I hung around desperately looking awkward and British about it.

A guard appeared and told me to go through the ‘Diplomatic officials only’ line. I was the only person there without a security team and a platinum credit card- a pretty new experience! When I got to the front I said ’72 hours transit’ and the officer stamped my passport and checked I had my onward itinerary- which I had printed. Note you will lose access to internet including Google and your email when you land if you haven’t made certain arrangements before you travel, so print the info beforehand that you need!

He stamped my passport saying I had the right to stay only 72 hours. After that I was free and breezy and there were no more difficulties with getting in. The process was straightforward once I got to the right queue and took about an hour in total.

FAQS: Traveller’s experience of the China 72 hour transit visa:

What about the requirement to register with a police station on arrival?

You can bypass this if you stay in a hotel, as the hotel officials are obliged to report your details from the hotel register. They will also check your passport and ID at check-in. Make sure you know the address of your hotel for the arrival form, I think this is 1000 times easier than queueing at a city police station during your precious layover hours.

Can I fly in reverse (from a 3rd country to my home via China)?

All the official documents you read say that you can get the transit visa free only if you are flying from your home country to a 3rd country. You CANNOT cheekily start and end your journey in 1 country and still count China as a transit stopover- that’s what is called ‘a holiday to China‘, and the Chinese officials know that- you’ll need a tourist visa.

For me I was wondering, can you make a reverse journey? I.e. can you start in a foreign destination and fly home via China as a stopover- the answer is yes. And that’s how I made it home in time for Christmas!

A guide to visiting China as a tourist without a visa for 72 hours- traveller's experience of the China 72 hour transit visa

Pin this for later and access it before your trip!

What can you do during your 72 hour visa free transit?

Well, here’s what I did.

11 am I landed and took the high speed train from the airport into Beijing (taking luggage with me, as they do not allow luggage storage at the airport).

Day 1 of the Chinese transit visa:

I tried some local food, explored shops and got to know the city.

5pm: I returned to Beijing airport by train as it was close to my hotel and used a payphone (no international mobile reception) to call my hotel as they offered a shuttle service to their door.

5.20pm: No bus, so I called again.

5.40pm: and again.

6pm: Security began to take an interest in me and wanted to re-check my bags as I kept running from the payphone in the terminal to the exterior doors where I hunted frantically for the bus.

6.10pm: Impending doom at having to sleep in the airport. Having paid the hotel, I didn’t have enough money for a taxi- rookie mistake.

6.20pm: Semi-total breakdown.

6.30pm: Decision to never travel again and 10th call to the hotel. They assure me that their bus is clearly labelled with the hotel name and has driven past many times.

6.45pm: I desperately encounter the bus driver. The bus is a white van identical to 1000s of others on the road and the only writing on it is Mandarin characters.

Day 2 of 72 hours visa free in Beijing:

9am: I took the train again to central Beijing and the local bus from there to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall. Read about my crazy experience heading to the Great Wall.

2pm: Exploring the Forbidden City. A friend joined me, whose baggage was lost on his flight to China, so I helped him shop for emergency clothes. He lent me cash also, as none of my international bank cards would work in the ATMs.

3pm: I located an ATM that would accept Australian bank cards- I found it in the mall close to Dongdan station.

4pm: Back to the airport! Time to end my Beijing 72 hour visa.

Where am I allowed to go?

You have to stay within the administrative area of the city you land in, which is a surprisingly difficult perimeter to narrow down. I ended up going with the outline given by Wikipedia, heaven help me, but I can confirm that all the touristic sections of the Great Wall around Beijing are OK to visit, such as Mutianyu and Badaling.


What questions do you have about tourists’ experience of China’s 72 hour visa free transit? Leave a comment below and I’ll do my best to answer.

PS: If you enjoyed this post you might also enjoy How to study abroad in Florence.

10 Comments

  1. Megan Johnson

    March 19, 2017 at 12:37 am

    I almost did this last year and so wish I did! It seemed a little intimidating and confusing at first but after reading about it for hours, I finally got the hang of it. I’ll definitely have to keep this in mind next time I end up in Asia!

  2. anna

    March 19, 2017 at 12:43 am

    Oh man! Sounds rough! hahaha. Thanks for putting this post together though- great to know these things!

  3. Bidisha Banik

    March 19, 2017 at 2:56 am

    Very informative and useful post and well written. Definitely to be kept handy while travelling to China. Thanks for sharing!

  4. mark wyld

    March 21, 2017 at 5:54 am

    We look forward to going to china people always come away with stories to tell whether its good or bad

  5. Candy

    March 21, 2017 at 6:33 am

    I had no idea you could visit China without a visa. I’ve only been to China once and of course I needed a visa to do so. Always a good idea to print out documents 🙂

  6. Amanda

    March 21, 2017 at 7:29 am

    Great breakdown! China is one of those places that at the time I was so so about but looking back I realised I really loved it. Looking forward to going back and might just use a few of these tips!

  7. Tamara - @ Girlswanderlust

    March 21, 2017 at 7:40 am

    I didn’t even know you could visit China with a 72 hour transit visa! That’s so perfect when you only have a stopover like you’ve had. Sounds like you made the best out of the time you’ve had there! 🙂 Only not that much fun when you need to sleep at the airport instead of sleeping in the paid hotel room… Thank you for the tips! I will definitely keep this in mind when I’m having a stopover in China one time!

  8. Cori

    March 21, 2017 at 7:40 am

    This is so neat, I had no idea this was an option! The one time I had a stopover in China we only had two hours, but I might have to work in a layover for my next trip. Thanks for sharing this!

  9. nicki

    March 22, 2017 at 2:34 am

    This is so cool! I was never sure about the short entries – I wish I had known this back when I had a layover for about 24 hours. I totally would have left the airport. Book marking for next time.

  10. Diana - MVMT Blog

    March 23, 2017 at 12:01 am

    I had just heard about this from a fellow traveler the other day! There is a 10 year visa option for Americans now though, and I have family in China, so I just got the visa, but my friend is traveling there with me in a couple of weeks and I feel bad I didn’t know about the 72 hour visa rule since she is only staying for 72 hours. Thanks for sharing this very useful info!

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