Stretching from the steppes of Central Asia and Mongolia to the tropical jungles of Laos and Vietnam, China is a land of endless travel opportunities. Though the country shut up tight after the world’s first COVID-19 lockdown in Wuhan in January 2020, China is making fast progress towards its 85% vaccination target and international tourism is expected to resume by 2022.

Here is everything you need to know about obtaining a tourist visa for China, based on the requirements in place before the pandemic, which are likely to remain when China reopens to international tourists. Always check the latest regulations with the Chinese authorities before you travel.

Who Needs a Chinese Tourist Visa?

The majority of foreign nationals require a tourist visa (also known as an "L visa") to enter and visit mainland China, though a few nationalities are granted visa-free entry. L visas are easy to obtain from Chinese embassies and consulates around the world, though the visa application process in some countries has been outsourced to a local branch of the Chinese Visa Application Service Center – their website has a handy list of locations and other useful country-specific information. To avoid the tedious bureaucracy when applying in person, many people obtain a visa via a tour operator or visa agent.

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Can I travel visa-free to China?

Holders of passports from a handful of countries can travel visa-free to mainland China for tourism or business purposes. Citizens of Brunei, Japan and Singapore get 15 days, citizens of the Bahamas, Barbados, Belarus, Ecuador, Fiji, Grenada, Qatar, Serbia, Seychelles, Tonga, and the United Arab Emirates get 30 days, citizens of Mauritius get 60 days, and citizens of Armenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and San Marino get 90 days.

Who can get a transit visa?

Visitors from 49 countries – including the US, Canada, UK, the EU, Japan, New Zealand, Canada, Brazil and Argentina – can spend up to 144 hours (6 days) transiting in China without a visa if they arrive by air, ship or train at selected Chinese cities. The list of cities includes Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an, Guilin, Guangzhou, Chongqing, Chengdu, Xiamen, Wuhan, Kunming and Qingdao, opening up some interesting quick trip opportunities.
To be eligible, travelers must hold a passport valid for at least 3 months after entry and proof of onward travel to a third country, or to Hong Kong or Macau. These visas start counting down at 12.01 am on the date following arrival and there are restrictions on where you can travel within each region. Check with your nearest Chinese embassy or consulate for the current list of eligible nationalities, entry points and specific movement areas.

People walking on the Bund in Shanghai
Promenading along the Bund is a popular way to pass the time in Shanghai © Robert Mullan / Shutterstock

What about Hong Kong and Macau?

Most nationalities do not require a tourist visa for stays of up to 90 days in either Hong Kong or Macau. British visitors to Hong Kong get 180 days, and South Africans get 30 days. To travel from here into China proper, a standard tourist visa is required. These are fairly easy to obtain via China Travel Service in Hong Kong.

Since May 2018, the Chinese resort island of Hainan has offered 30-day visa-free entry to citizens of 59 countries including the US, Canada, the EU, the UK, New Zealand, Malaysia and Singapore. You can’t leave Hainan island and travel to mainland China on this visa – if you want to roam deeper into China, you'll need a standard tourist visa.

How about Tibet?

To travel to Tibet by air, road or train, you'll need both a China tourist visa and a Tibet Tourism Bureau (TTB) permit. To obtain this mandatory travel document you must book a guide for your entire trip and pre-arrange private transport for trips outside Lhasa. No direct applications are accepted, which effectively means that Tibet can only be visited on an organized tour.

How to apply for a Chinese tourist visa

By far the most straightforward option is to apply in your home country. If your country of residence is different, the Chinese authorities may charge an extra processing fee for non-citizens. Either way, you’ll need to fill out a form giving a proposed itinerary for your trip (it’s advisable to never mention Xinjiang and Tibet in your application), plus a flight ticket, and proof of accommodation booked for your first night in China.

Some embassies require extra documentation, such as an invitation letter from a person or a company in China, bank statements, and documents proving your employment record. And your passport needs to be valid for at least 6 months beyond the expiry date of your visa. 

Remember that it can be hard to obtain a Chinese tourist visa from an embassy or consulate outside your home country. Caravanistan publishes a useful list of which Chinese embassies accept applications from third-country citizens.

Tourists viewing the head of the Le Shan Grand Buddha
Coming face-to-face with the Le Shan Grand Buddha © Ungvari Attila / Shutterstock

How much does a China tourist visa cost?

The cost of a Chinese tourist visa varies depending on the type of visa, the length of stay, the number of entries allowed, and your nationality. Most tourists pay around US$35 for a single entry visa valid for 30 days from the day you enter China. Reflecting frosty relations between China and some foreign governments, UK citizens pay £151, US citizens pay US$140, Canadian citizens pay C$142, Australian citizens pay A$109 and French, German, Italian, Dutch and Spanish citizens pay €126.

Some nationalities are entitled to long-term multiple-entry visas that allow travelers to visit China for stints of 30 to 120 days throughout the duration of the visa. Note these are not residence permits and do not grant any right to live or work in China. Citizens of the US, Canada, Argentina and Israel can obtain tourist visas with a validity of up to ten years, Brazilians and South Africans are eligible for tourist visas valid for up to five years, while citizens of the UK can get tourist visas lasting two years. Contact your local Chinese embassy or consulate for the latest fees for long-term visas.

How long is a Chinese visa valid for?

Regular China tourist visas are valid for 30 days and must be used within three (or six, if double-entry) months of their date of issue. Never overstay your visa: the fine is ¥500 a day, with the possibility of being deported and banned from re-entering China for the next five years. If you think you'll need to stay longer, start the process of applying for a visa extension well before your visa expires.

Cyclist passing hills in Yangshuo, Guilin
Cycling through iconic landscapes in Yangshuo, Guilin © GuoZhongHua / Shutterstock

Can I extend my Chinese visa?

Chinese visas can be extended once without too much difficulty at the Public Security Bureau (PSB) offices found in larger Chinese towns and cities, though an extension is not guaranteed. The process takes between 2 and 7 working days, the fee is ¥160 (or ¥760/500 for US/UK citizens). You can only extend your stay for as long as the duration of your original visa. You’ll need to provide your original passport, two photos and a receipt from your accommodation in the town where you are applying for your extension.

Because of the complicated permit system, extending your stay in Tibet is impossible, and Xinjiang, Beijing and Shanghai can also be tricky places to extend a standard tourist visa. The Caravanistan website has some useful visa extension reports from travelers. A second extension is harder to get, and a third extension is extremely unlikely.

You may also like:
The best time to visit China
China’s most epic high-speed train journeys
Where to see pandas in China

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