Customs Regulations

Chinese customs generally pay tourists little attention. There are clearly marked ‘green channels’ (nothing to declare) and ‘red channels’ (something to declare) at the airport.

Duty Free You’re allowed to import 400 cigarettes or the equivalent in tobacco products and 1.5L of alcohol. Importation of fresh fruit and meat is prohibited. There are no restrictions on foreign currency; however, you should declare any cash that exceeds US$5000 (or its equivalent in another currency).

DVDs Pirated DVDs and CDs are illegal exports from China as well as illegal imports into most other countries. If they are found, they will be confiscated.

Antiques Objects considered antiques require a certificate and red seal to clear customs. To get the proper certificate and seal, your antiques must be inspected by the Relics Bureau, where no English is spoken. Anything made before 1949 is considered an antique and needs a certificate, and if it was made before 1795 it cannot legally be taken out of the country.

Passports

Chinese law requires foreign visitors to carry their passport with them at all times; it is the most basic travel document and all hotels (and internet cafes) will insist on seeing it. You also need it to buy train tickets or to get into some tourist sights, particularly those which are free.

It’s a good idea to bring an ID card with your photo in case you lose your passport. Even better, make photocopies, or take digital photos of your passport – your embassy may need these before issuing a new one. You should also report the loss to the local Public Security Bureau (PSB). Be careful who you pass your passport to, as you may never see it again.

Visas

Passengers in transit are allowed 72 hours without a visa. Otherwise, visas are required for almost all nationals. A 30-day visa is standard. One extension is usually possible.

Applying for Visas

Citizens of 51 countries, including Australia, France, Germany, the UK and the USA, are allowed to stay for up to 72 hours in Běijīng without a visa, as long as they have an onward travel ticket to another country. However, if you are staying longer, citizens of every country, bar Japan, Singapore and Brunei, require a visa. Note that visas do not allow you to travel in areas of China, such as Tibet, that require special permits to visit.

Your passport must be valid for at least six months after the expiry date of your visa and you’ll need at least one entire blank page in your passport for the visa. You may be required to show proof of hotel reservations and onward travel from China, as well as a bank statement showing you have $100 in your account for every day you plan to spend in China.

At the time of writing, prices for a single-entry 30-day visa were as follows.

  • £85 for UK citizens
  • US$140 for US citizens
  • US$30 for citizens of other nations

Double-entry visas:

  • £85 for UK citizens
  • US$140 for US citizens
  • US$45 for all other nationals

Six-month multiple-entry visas:

  • £85 for UK citizens
  • US$140 for US citizens
  • US$60 for all other nationals

Most Chinese embassies abroad can issue a standard 30-day single-entry visa in three to five working days. Express visas cost twice the usual fee. In some countries (eg the UK and the US) the visa service has been outsourced from the Chinese embassy to a Chinese Visa Application Service Centre, which levies an extra administration fee. In the case of the UK, a single-entry visa costs £85, but the standard administration charge levied by the centre is a further £66.

A standard 30-day visa is activated on the date you enter China, and must be used within three months of the date of issue. The 60-day and 90-day tourist visas are reasonably easy to obtain in your home country but difficult elsewhere. To stay longer, you can extend your visa in China at least once, sometimes twice.

Visa applications require a completed application form (available at the embassy or downloaded from its website) and at least one photo (normally 51mm x 51mm). You normally pay for your visa when you collect it. A visa mailed to you will take up to three weeks. In the US and Canada, mailed visa applications have to go via a visa agent, at extra cost. In the US, many people use the China Visa Service Center (www.mychinavisa.com), which offers prompt service. The procedure takes around 10 to 14 days.

Hong Kong is a good place to pick up a China visa. However, at the time of writing only Hong Kong residents were able to obtain them direct from the Visa Office of the People’s Republic of China. Single-entry visas processed here cost HK$200, double-entry visas HK$300, while six-month/one-year multiple-entry visas are HK$500. But China Travel Service (CTS) and many travel agencies in Hong Kong can get you a visa in two to three working days. Expect to pay HK$650 for a single-entry visa and HK$750 for a double-entry. Both American and UK passport holders must pay considerably more for their visas.

Be aware that political events can suddenly make visas more difficult to procure or renew.

When asked about your itinerary on the application form, list standard tourist destinations; if you are considering going to Tibet or western Xīnjiāng, just leave it off the form. The list you give is not binding. Those working in the media or journalism should profess a different occupation; otherwise, a visa may be refused or a shorter length of stay may be given. There are many different categories of visa. The eight most common are listed here (most travellers will enter China on an 'L' visa).

C

English name

flight attendant

Chinese name

chéngwù; 乘务

D

English name

resident

Chinese name

dìngjū; 定居

F

English name

business, student or person on exchange program

Chinese name

fǎngwèn; 访问

G

English name

transit

Chinese name

guòjìng; 过境

J

English name

journalist

Chinese name

jìzhě; 记者

L

English name

travel

Chinese name

lǚxíng; 旅行

X

English name

long-term student

Chinese name

liúxué; 留学

Z

English name

working

Chinese name

gōngzuò; 工作

Visa Extensions

The Foreign Affairs Branch of the local PSB – the police force – handles visa extensions. The visa office at the PSB main office is on the 2nd floor, accessed from the North 2nd Ring Rd. You can also apply for a residence permit here. You should apply for your visa extension at least seven days before your current visa expires, but this rule is not always enforced.

First-time extensions of 30 days are usually easy to obtain on single-entry tourist visas; further extensions are harder to get, and may only give you another week. Travellers report generous extensions in provincial towns, but don’t bank on this. Popping south to Hong Kong to apply for a new tourist visa is another option.

Extensions to single-entry visas vary in price, depending on your nationality. At the time of writing, US travellers paid the most, ¥960, while Canadians and Australians paid ¥160. Expect to wait up to five days for your visa extension to be processed. You may be asked to prove that you have adequate funds (US$100 per day, or the equivalent in other currencies) for the time you are staying in China.

The penalty for overstaying your visa in China is up to ¥500 per day. Some travellers have reported having trouble with officials who read the ‘valid until’ date on their visa incorrectly. For a one-month travel (L) visa, the ‘valid until’ date is the date by which you must enter the country (within three months of the date the visa was issued), not the date upon which your visa expires.

Residence Permits

Residence permits are available – normally issued for a period of one year at a time as a sticker in your passport – to people resident in China for work, who are married to Chinese citizens (although that doesn't guarantee you will be allowed to work while in China) and long-term students. Requirements are stringent; you will need to be sponsored by a Chinese company or university, or a foreign company with an office in China, and undergo a health check. Long-term residency permits, valid for five years and known as 'green cards', are available but are issued under even more stringent conditions.