Navigating China’s 72-Hour Visa-Free Travel Policy

Copyright: Beijing Capital International Airport

International travelers allowed 72-hour visa-free transit through Beijing, Shanghai & Guangzhou

One year ago China began allowing passengers from 45 countries transiting through Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou (Guangzhou was added August 1st 2013) to a third country can enjoy a 72-hour visa-free transit stay in Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou. Passengers must hold valid travel documents that confirm their nationality and visa permission to enter a third country.  You can find more information on the government’s website.

Copyright: Beijing Capital International Airport

Copyright: Beijing Capital International Airport

When I arrived in Beijing I was asked to show proof of an Australian Visa and asked for a boarding pass or itinerary showing the flight information for travel to the third country.  Of course I didn’t have a boarding pass, airlines won’t issue boarding passes for flight 2-3 days in advance. I was prepared with my itinerary since I’d done this once before. I had a moment of panic when they asked me to show them my full name matching my passport on the itinerary document. I had printed out my itinerary from the US Airways Website and it was three pages long. As I scanned through the pages I didn’t see my name anywhere. On the last page I finally saw my name. But this is something you might want to check in advance.  I was also asked to write on my arrival/departure card, which I was given to fill out onboard the flight to China, the date of my departure, the airline and flight number.

When you arrive at Beijing’s airport it can be confusing if you’ve never navigated it before.  The first time I flew through Beijing I was just transferring to another flight and I got into the wrong line.  Lines can be very long in Beijing – this should not surprise you – and getting in the wrong line can be costly time wise if you’re trying to make a connection.   Here are some tips to make it a bit easier:

  • When you arrive, make sure all your paperwork is completely filled out. You don’t want to get to the front of the line and discover you’ve missed something.
  • The main customs and immigration area for international flights has 5 sections:
    • transfer for airline employees and diplomats
    • Immigration for Chinese citizens
    • Immigration for Foreigners
    • transfer for international passengers
    • Immigration for 72-hour visa-free travel
  • The key to making through the lines is knowing which ones you need to be in and where they are located.  (From left to right as you’re looking at customs and immigrations’ primary entry point)
    • As you look directly at the customs and immigration area the transfer for international passengers is on the far left – do not get into the Immigration for Foreigners lines.  There are typically two to three desks open for transfers.
    • Just to the right of the international transfers line is the 72-hour visa-free travel desk. There are one or two desks dedicated for this.
    • To the right of the 72-hour visa-free desk is the immigration for foreigners lines. These are very easy to see and there are many desks for this.   To the right of the foreigners lines are the local citizens lines
    • Finally, on the far right is the entry point for airline employees, diplomats and VIPs.

Updated (2/09/14) Special Thanks to Sara for sharing her experience of arriving when the 72-hour visa-free desk was closed.  She was directed to the VIP line for processing and got through quickly.  She also pointed out that her itinerary had her husbands name on it and they questioned who that was, since he wasn’t present with her.  Once she explained that he had a visa and was in the other line, they  processed her.

It’s not always easy to see the 72-hour visa-free desks – especially if there are long lines.  So make sure you look specifically for them.  When I arrived the lines were very long in all the other lines, but there was no one at the 72-hour visa-free desk.  I made it through in less than 5 minutes.  On my first trip I waited about 10-15 minutes in line.


72-hour Visa Free Desk in Beijing Capital Airport

72-hour Visa Free Desk in Beijing Capital Airport

After clearing customs and immigration you’ll take the train to the baggage claim terminal, claim your bags (if you’ve checked them) and then exit the customs area. I was waived directly through the exit area. I noticed several people being waved to a lane with an x-ray machine for baggage. This is typical with most countries as customs is looking for undeclared goods or illegal goods.

The train from the main terminal to baggage claim is no different from most public transportation throughout Asia, people pack themselves into the trains and have no regard for “personal space.”  Be prepared to be pushed and smooshed into the train.

After exiting customs you’ll find a swarm of people waiting to meet passengers and it can be overwhelming if you’re trying to spot someone. I choose to take hotel car so I had to find the person with a sign for my hotel.  Once I found him it was an easy walk from the arrivals area to the pick-up zone.  The signage is clear and you’ll find it easy to get a taxi.  I have heard several times, and most recently from Howie at Frugal Travel Guy, that taxi drivers aren’t always familiar with hotel locations and it’s a good idea to have directions to the hotel on-hand.  If I’ve never been to a country before I tend to email the hotel in advance and ask for directions in English and the local language.  While there are many drivers who do speak English, you never know when you’ll end up with one who doesn’t.

Enjoy your time in China, it’s a great opportunity to visit a country during your stop-over!

6 Comments on "Navigating China’s 72-Hour Visa-Free Travel Policy"

  1. Excellent post…best I have read on navigating the process once on the ground!

  2. Our flight arrived late, close to midnight, so the 72 hour desks wasn’t opened. We were one of the first to the desks so I just got in a regular line and they directed me to the VIP line for processing. It had no one in it so I was through in about 5 minutes. I was only questioned because my flight printout had mine and Howie’s info in it so they wanted to know who/where he was. I quickly explained that he is my husband and has a Visa so he was in the regular line. They stamped my passport and sent me on my way. Easy peasy but would have been annoying if I had to wait in a long line first.

  3. @Sara, great to know how it works when the 72-hour desk is not open. I will update the article with the info.

  4. This is a helpful post. Thanks.

  5. @NYBanker, glad that you liked! I think I’ll do more like this in the future for other countries.

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