Traveling in China can be a bit difficult as a tourist. There is a significant language barrier, the culture is quite different, and just getting into the country basically requires handing over your first born in some extreme effort to see the Great Wall. For this reason planning a trip to China can be confusing and overwhelming.
When we first started planning our trip to China, we planned on spending 8 days there before continuing on to Japan. But getting a Chinese visa with a US passport can be a daunting process, and an expensive one. It was originally going to cost us approximately $800 for our family of three to get visas for China, so we decided to take advantage of China’s visa-free transit option.
At the time of our travels, the transit visa to China only allowed us 72 hours in the country. However, the government has since increased the China transit visa to 144 hours in most cities, including Beijing, Shanghai and Xi’an. So, instead of 3 days in China, you can now spend 6 days in China using a transit-visa. This option will save you hundreds of dollars! If you also plan on utilizing the transit visa to China, this step-by-step guide will walk you through the entire process.
What is the transit visa to China?
If you hold a passport from one of 53 countries, including the USA, you can enter China without obtaining a tourist visa as long as you can prove you are leaving within 144 hours. You also must be transiting through the country, meaning you must be arriving from one country and going to another. For example, we flew from the United States to Beijing, China.
We then flew from Beijing to Seoul, South Korea. You would not be able to obtain a transit visa to China if you were to fly from the US to China and back to the US in 144 hours unless you had a layover (regardless of length) in another country.
What to do before departure if you plan to use the 144 hour visa to visit China
There are a few things you must have to apply for the transit visa to China.
- You must have your onward flight booked and a copy of your tickets leaving China in hand when you arrive at your departing airport.
- You must have your hotel booked. (Although they just asked us to provide the name of the hotel and didn’t ask for documentation of our reservation.)
- Three blank pages in your passport.
- You also must be arriving directly into the city in which you plan to use the transit visa from another country.
- At check-in, the airline attendant will ask for your Chinese visa or your onward tickets showing you are leaving China within 144 hours along with your passport. They will ask for this again at the gate as you board your flight to China, so keep it handy. It is important to note that your flight must leave within 144 hours of your arrival… not 145, or 146… 144 max! This applies to Beijing, Shanghai and most other areas of China. And travel to Hong Kong does not require a visa for US passport holders or those from roughly 170 other countries.
What to do upon arrival in China if using the transit visa to China
You will still have to fill out a customs form (one per person). This will be handed out on the plane. Bring a pen. (I always forget that!) Once you arrive at the airport you will NOT go straight to the customs line like the majority of passengers.
Instead, you will stop just before entering customs to apply for your temporary Chinese visa. In the Beijing airport, this line is not as obvious as it should be. When we arrived, we did not see this line and ended up standing in the customs line only to be told to exit back into the terminal and obtain a temporary visa. Don’t make the same mistake.
The customs line is long and we wasted about 45 minutes. That’s no fun when traveling with an impatient toddler. Plus, when you only have 144 hours and the clock starts ticking once you land, wasting time is likely not on your itinerary.
Before you get in the line to apply for your temporary transit visa to China, walk up to the front of the line and grab an application. It’s only a short one-page form that every person in the family (including kids) must present. You may have to interrupt the attendant and ask for one. Sometimes the forms are sitting out on the counter, but if they aren’t, you need to ask.
The attendant will probably not acknowledge you unless you speak up and ask for a form. I stood there for 10 minutes trying to be polite, until finally another traveler told me I had to just interrupt. Once I did, she instantly handed me the forms and went back to work. It should be a more efficient process, but unfortunately in our experience it wasn’t.
Be forewarned, this process takes forever!! We were in line for 2 hours and there were probably only 15 people in front of us when we got there.
What happens at the China transit visa application counter?
Despite the two-hour wait, once you are at the counter it doesn’t seem like it takes that long to process the visa. The attendant reviewed our applications and looked at our onward tickets and passports. She punched a few buttons on her computer, then scanned our documents a couple of times and sent us on our way with our new temporary transit visa.
The good news is, we were given a sticker to use a special expedited customs line that is typically reserved for diplomats. So we didn’t have to stand in the long customs lines again. Instead, we zipped through the expedited line. We handed them our customs forms, our passports, and our new transit visas. The customs agent gave us a special stamp in our passports documenting our allotted time in the country, and we officially entered China!
Pros and cons of the transit visa to China
Disadvantage #1: Time
The obvious disadvantage is the short amount of time you will have in China. You must leave within six days. Sure, you can see the popular tourist sites like the Great Wall of China, the Forbidden City, and the Temple of Heaven, if transiting through Beijing… but you won’t have time for an extended vacation. It’s hard to truly appreciate a culture in just a few short days.
For us, having a limited time unfortunately meant we only saw China in the rain, as well. It rained the entire three days we were there. Had we stayed longer we would have been able to see Beijing in sunny weather. I’m sure that would have been a much more pleasant experience.
Disadvantage #2: Stuck in one city / area
The second disadvantage is you can’t leave Beijing. But wait… the Great Wall is technically outside of Beijing isn’t it? Does that mean you can’t visit the Great Wall on a 144 hour visa to China? I don’t know the technical answer, but I can tell you, we visited the famous landmark without any problems. No one is stopping to check visas on the highway or at the gates to the Great Wall of China. You basically just need to be spending the night in Beijing during those 144 hours, so a day trip to see the wall is totally fine.
Advantage #1: Cost-savings
Now for the pros… You will save a lot of money. As I mentioned earlier, for our family of three to get tourist visas to China we were going to be out $800. Considering we were originally only planning on staying seven or eight days in China before continuing on to Japan, that was going to be pricey.
If you are considering a full tourist visa, it is less expensive if you can actually go to the Chinese Consulate and apply in person. We live 11 hours from the consulate that serves our state, so that wasn’t an option for us. So we were going to have to pay for a visa courier service to deliver the applications for us. But the transit Chinese visa costs nothing!
Advantage #2: Time to see the highlights
If you don’t want to fork over the extra money to get a full tourist visa, the 144 hour visa-free transit option to China is a good alternative. It allows you to get a small taste of a very big country. You can definitely see Beijing’s highlights in that amount of time and you’ll be able to mark one of the seven wonders of the world off your bucket list! Beijing and the Great Wall are among the best destinations in Asia for families, so experiencing them, even for a short time is worth it.
I hope this helps make the process easier to navigate! We’ve put together a short video of our time in the Beijing (PEK) airport to show you what to look for and where to go once you land.
Have you been to China? Did you visit on a transit visa to China? We’d love to hear from you! Leave us a comment and let us know your experience.
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This post was originally written in October 2017 but has been updated for accuracy and current information.