For ten months now, I’ve lived a one-hour subway ride from Mainland China but have never been there.
It’s more logistics than anything – as an American, applying for the visa is a pain and it’s relatively expensive for a double entry. While I plan to spring for it next year, this year it just wasn’t in the cards.
But wouldn’t it be great to get a couple days in Shanghai or Beijing without all that hassle? See the Wall, the Forbidden City or Asia’s tech hub?
Well good news, impatient or poorly-prepared U.S. citizen: you can! In 2013, the People’s Republic started a new program that allows onward travelers to stay 72 hours visa-free in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu and an ever-expending list of other cities. There’s no pre-registration, no visa, and best of all, no repeated trips to the Chinese consulate – you just book your ticket and go.
While I’d known about this program for awhile, no one I knew had used it yet, and whenever I brought it up among friends I frequently encountered skepticism that it could possibly be as easy as the ads described. But when one of my friends visited Hong Kong and our plans for a Thailand side-trip fell apart due to high temperatures and an inconveniently-timed military coup, I suggested we book a flight to Beijing instead.
Having done it, here’s the good news: provided you read the requirements, it really is as easy as it’s described. While I’d recommend you look at the actual text or a good summary of the program, these are the basic requirements:
- You Have to Be a Citizen of Certain Countries: But it’s a 51-country list that includes the U.S., U.K. and Canada, so if you’re reading this in English you’re probably golden. Still, check.
- NO ROUND TRIPS: This is a transit visa, so you can’t fly round trip – i.e. no Hong Kong to Beijing and back to Hong Kong. You can fly from Hong Kong to Beijing, stay 72 hours, and fly on to Singapore. The neat trick here is that Hong Kong and Macau count as two different countries – but more on that later. Note that you have to have an onward ticket already booked when you arrive in China.
- You Must Arrive and Leave by Air On a Direct Flight and Can’t Leave the City: The visa is only available in airports, and you can’t travel to another city during that 72 hour period. Your flight can’t have a layover inside China either on the way there or back (a layover outside China is fine).
- The 72 Hour Period Starts on Takeoff and Landing (Varies): This actually varies by airport, but in general your 72 hour period starts once you land/get issued your transit visa. In my mind it’s better to just make sure your tickets fall within the 72 hour period to avoid ambiguity – so if you arrive in Shanghai at 10:00 AM on Thursday, your flight needs to leave before 10:00 AM on Sunday. Check the requirements for your airport.
- Tell Your Airline You’re Using the 72 Hour Visa: They’ll inform immigration that you’re coming. Apparently you don’t have to do this for Beijing, but we did at check-in anyway. We did it verbally and didn’t have to fill anything out.
- Once You Arrive, You Need to Register: If you’re staying at a hotel, you don’t need to worry about this step as the hotel staff will do it for you. But if you’re staying with a friend, you have to register at a police station within 24 hours of arriving.
SO IS IT REALLY AS EASY AS IT SEEMS?
Yep, I’ve confirmed it: it’s certified easy. Provided you follow the fairly minimal rules, it’s a no-hassle experience – in fact since the program isn’t well known yet, we got through the 72 hour visa line faster than people with standard visas. When you arrive at your destination, have your passport, itinerary and arrival card all filled out and ready to go. The itinerary is to prove you have an onward ticket, and in our group we used both itineraries printed off email and those printed by the airline – neither caused a problem. The only issue is that since the program’s new, the immigration officer may need some walking through what you’re doing – ours didn’t speak great English, so be prepared to smile a lot and point at the relevant parts of your itinerary. Our guy rang his superior to ask a question, but let us through after that. The whole process probably took 90 seconds per person.
HOW TO FLY “ROUND TRIP” WITH THE HONG KONG-MACAU STRATEGY
The biggest sticking point for most people is that you can’t use the 72 hour visa on a round trip, meaning you need to chain your China visit with a longer travel itinerary or eat the cost associated with a triangular flight path. But there’s a way around that if you’re living in or visiting Hong Kong or Macau. Both Hong Kong and Macau are Special Administrative Regions of China, but they have independent legal systems and different immigration requirements. That means for the purposes of this program, they’re considered separate countries – which is great, because they’re also 45 minutes apart and connected by a cheap ferry. So when our guests visited, we worked it like this: we caught a flight from Hong Kong to Beijing, stayed 72 hours, boarded a flight from Beijing to Macau, and once we arrived in Macau partied until we lost energy and took a US$21 ferry ride home to Hong Kong. Since Macau’s entry requirements feature a free visa-on-arrival for U.S. citizens, you can basically just show up without any notice. And who doesn’t want to see the Las Vegas of Asia?
OKAY, BUT IS 72 HOURS LONG ENOUGH TO SEE BEIJING?
It depends. If you’re trying to embed yourself in the culture and get a thorough appreciation for what China means then no. But if you want to see the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, the Temple of Heaven, and buy live scorpion-on-a-stick at Donghuamen Night Market, then it’s totally adequate. But remember that it is a condensed schedule, so book a hotel near the things you most want to see. Transit represents wasted time, but it can also can drain your energy if it’s around rush hour and you can’t afford to tire out on a packed itinerary. Thankfully Beijing has an efficient and cheap subway system with stops near popular tourist sites. It’s preferable to cabs, since drivers will quote you a price that’s three to four times what a trip should cost. Best of luck travelers! And if you’re going to sling ink while you’re there, remember to pack your writer’s travel kit.