In this series, Lonely Planet’s team of writers and editors answers your travel problems and provide tips and hacks to help you plan a hassle-free trip. This week, Tom O’Malley, a contributor to our China guidebooks and resident of Beijing for 12 years, explains how to go about getting back to China now that the country has removed all of its pandemic travel restrictions. 

Question: I’ve heard travelers are now allowed to visit China once again, now that the “zero COVID” policy has ended. How can I make it happen?

Tom O’Malley: Ganbei! Now’s the moment to raise a glass of something strong: after three long years, the Forbidden City is forbidden no longer. China’s bucket-list sights like the Great Wall, the Avatar-like mountains of Zhangjiajie and Sichuan’s bamboo-loving pandas are once again within reach. But now that travel is back, there are several essential things you need to know.

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Two cute baby pandas, Chengdu, Sichuan, China
It’s hard to resist the pandas of Sichuan © kiszon pascal / Getty Images

Getting that shiny new visa

While there are various hacks to travel to China without a visa (more on those below), for trips above six days in length, all travelers will need to apply for a tourist “L” visa by filling out a form online, then making an appointment at your nearest visa-application center or consulate. A slightly different procedure applies for each country, but if you go to China’s COVA web portal (COVA stands for “China Online Visa Application”) you’ll be directed to the right site to get started.

Where you come from also dictates the length of the “L” visa you can apply for: 30 days is standard, while some nationalities qualify for 90 days. You can choose single or multiple entry – if you plan on seeing Hong Kong part way through your China trip, for example, you’ll need a multiple-entry visa. Perhaps the most deluxe way to prepare your passport is with a 10-year, multiple-entry “L” visa, which allows for as many 90-day stays as you’d like. It’s available only to citizens of a handful of countries (including the US, UK and Canada). 

On the day of the appointment, you’ll need to submit your documents in person (including proof of return flights and hotel bookings) and have your fingerprints taken. It’s important to be organized with the application process: make sure you arrange your visa one to two months before your planned travel dates, just to be safe.

Crowds in the Yuyuan Bazaar at night, Shanghai, China, Asia
If you’re headed onward to a third country, you can visit major cities like Shanghai for a certain number of days without prearranging a visa © xia yuan / Getty Images

Wait…I can travel to China without a visa?

Absolutely! Major cities including Beijing and Shanghai offer visa-free “transit” travel periods of six days. The only requirement is showing proof upon arrival of an onward flight to a third country within the six-day time period. So, for example, if you are an American headed to Japan, you can tack on almost a week in Beijing before you fly onward – without needing a visa. That’s more than enough time to see the Great Wall, Forbidden City, Summer Palace and other greatest hits. You can also get a similar five-day visa-on-arrival in Shenzhen and Guangzhou – especially handy if you’re in Hong Kong and fancy a few days on the mainland. 

What about COVID rules for travel to China?

As the pandemic wore on, China implemented – and stuck with – some of the world’s most onerous public-safety rules. Yet in a remarkable about-face, they have now been almost all swept aside. At time of writing, all travelers need to do is to show proof of a PCR test taken no less than 48 hours before flying – but even this requirement will likely be scrapped before long. Some parts of China still require mask-wearing on public transport; again, this will probably get relaxed as time goes on.

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