No particular difficulties exist for travellers entering China. Chinese immigration officers are scrupulous and highly bureaucratic, but not overly officious. The main requirements are a passport that’s valid for travel for six months after the expiry date of your visa, and a visa. Travellers arriving in China will receive a health declaration form and an arrivals form to complete.

Customs Regulations

Chinese customs officers generally pay tourists little attention. ‘Green channels’ and ‘red channels’ at the airport are clearly marked. You are not allowed to import or export illegal drugs, or animals and plants (including seeds). Pirated DVDs and CDs are illegal exports from China – if found they will be confiscated. You can take Chinese medicine up to a value of ¥300 when you depart China.

Duty free you’re allowed to import:

  • 400 cigarettes (or the equivalent in tobacco products)
  • 1.5L of alcohol
  • 50g of gold or silver.

Also note:

  • Importation of fresh fruit and cold cuts is prohibited.
  • There are no restrictions on foreign currency, but you should declare any cash exceeding US$5000 or its equivalent in another currency.

Objects considered antiques require a certificate and a red seal to clear customs when leaving China. Anything made before 1949 is considered an antique, and if it was made before 1795 it cannot legally be taken out of the country. To get the proper certificate and red seal, your antiques must be inspected by the State Administration of Cultural Heritage in Beijing.

Passports

You are required to carry your passport (护照; hùzhào) with you at all times – police may carry out random checks, all hotels require it for check-in, and many sightseeing spots and museums require passports for entry. It is also mandatory to present your passport when buying train tickets.

The Chinese government requires that your passport be valid for at least six months after the expiry date of your visa. You’ll need at least one entire blank page in your passport for the visa.

Take an ID card with your photo in case you lose your passport, and make digital copies or photocopies of your passport: your embassy may need these before issuing a new one. You must report the loss to the local Public Security Bureau (PSB), which will issue you with a 'Statement of Loss of Passport'.

Long-stay visitors should register their passport with their nation's embassy.

Visas

Visas are needed for all visits to China except Hong Kong, Macau and visa-free regions. Visa-free transits of 144 hours and under are available for visitors of 53 nations transiting in Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei; Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang; Liaoning province; Guangdong province; Chengdu, Xiamen, Kunming, Wuhan and Qingdao. Further 72-hour-and-under visa-free trips can be made via Beijing Capital Airport, Shanghai Pudong Airport, Shanghai Hongqiao Airport, and airports in Guangzhou, Chengdu, Chongqing, Shenyang, Dalian, Harbin, Xi'an, Guilin, Kunming, Hangzhou, Wuhan, Tianjin, Qingdao, Nanjing, Changsha, and Xiamen.

Applying for Visas

For China

Apart from visa-free visits to Hong Kong and Macau, 24-hour visa-free exemptions and useful 144-hour and 72-hour visa-free transit stays (for visitors from 53 nations) to a number of cities and regions, including Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei, Shanghai, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Qingdao, Shandong, Guangdong province, Chengdu, Xi'an, Liaoning province, Guilin, Chongqing and Kunming, you will need a visa to visit China. Citizens from Japan, Singapore, Brunei, San Marino, Mauritius, the Seychelles, the Bahamas and a handful of other nations do not require a visa to visit China. There remain a few restricted areas in China that require an additional permit from the PSB. Permits are also required for travel to Tibet, a region that authorities can suddenly bar foreigners from entering.

Visa requirements and restrictions continuously change, so always check with your Chinese embassy or Visa Application Service Centre about the latest regulations.

Your passport must be valid for at least six months after the expiry date of your visa (nine months for a double-entry visa) and you’ll need at least one entire blank page in your passport for the visa. For children under the age of 18, a parent must sign the application form on their behalf.

Citizens from the US, UK, Canada and Israel can apply for long-term, multiple-entry Chinese visas with a validity of between two and 10 years. These usually entitle the bearer to stay in China for 60 days per entry, and to come and go without having to reapply for a new visa each time.

At the time of writing the visa application process had become more rigorous. In many countries the visa application service has been outsourced from the Chinese embassy to the Chinese Visa Application Service Centre (www.visaforchina.org), which levies an extra administration fee. You'll need to book an appointment and prepare your application online beforehand. Applicants will need to have their fingerprints scanned as part of the application process. Visa Application Service Centres are open Monday to Friday.

At the time of writing, applicants were required to provide the following:

  • a copy of flight confirmation showing onward/return travel.
  • for double-entry visas, flight confirmation showing all dates of entry and exit.
  • if staying at hotels in China, confirmation from each hotel (these can be booked on reservation platforms such as booking.com for the purposes of proof and later cancelled or amended).
  • if staying with friends or relatives, a copy of the information page of their passport, a copy of their China visa and a letter of invitation from them.
  • you may be required to show you have sufficient funds in your bank account for each day you plan to spend in China.

Check with your Chinese embassy or at www.visaforchina.org for the latest application requirements.

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

  • £151 for UK citizens
  • US$140 for US citizens
  • C$142 for Canadian citizens
  • A$109 for Australian citizens
  • €126 for French, German, Italian, Dutch and Spanish citizens
  • US$40 for citizens of other nations.

Prices are higher for double-entry or multiple-entry visas, and significantly higher for visas valid for two, five or 10 years.

A standard, 30-day single-entry visa can be issued in four to five working days; express visas will be more expensive.

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. To stay longer you can extend your visa in China.

Hong Kong is a good place to pick up a China visa. Visas can be arranged by China Travel Service, the mainland-affiliated agency, as well as a good many hostels and guesthouses and most Hong Kong travel agents.

At the time of writing, holders of Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, US and most EU passports can get a single visa on the spot for around HK$150 at the Lo Wu border crossing, the last stop on the MTR’s East Rail. This visa is for a maximum stay of five days within the confines of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone (SEZ). However, the rules about who can get what change frequently, the queues for these visas can be interminable, and there have been reports of tourists being rejected on shaky grounds (such as certain passport stamps).

Taking that into consideration, it is highly recommended that you shell out the extra money and get a proper China visa before setting off, even if you’re headed just for Shenzhen. If you have at least a week to arrange your visa yourself, you can go to the China Visa Application Service Centre in Hong Kong. For further details see www.fmprc.gov.cn.

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 Xinjiang, just leave it off the form. The list you give is not binding. Those working in media or journalism may want to profess a different occupation; otherwise a visa may be refused or a shorter length of stay than requested may be given.

For Hong Kong

At the time of writing, most visitors to Hong Kong, including citizens of the EU, Australia, New Zealand, the USA and Canada, could enter and stay for 90 days without a visa. British passport holders get 180 days, while South Africans are allowed to stay 30 days visa-free. Anyone requiring a visa or wishing to stay longer than the visa-free period must apply before travelling to Hong Kong. See www.fmprc.gov.cn for your nearest Chinese consulate or embassy where the application must be made.

If you visit Hong Kong from China, you will need a double-entry, multiple-entry or new visa to re-enter China. Visas can be arranged by China Travel Service, the mainland-affiliated agency, as well as a good many hostels and guesthouses and most Hong Kong travel agents.

For Macau

Most travellers, including citizens of the EU, Australia, New Zealand, the USA, Canada and South Africa, can enter Macau without a visa for between 30 and 90 days. British passport holders get 180 days. Most other nationalities can get a 30-day visa on arrival, which will cost MOP$100/50/200 per adult/child under 12/family.

If you’re visiting Macau from China and plan to re-enter China, you will need to be on a multiple- or double-entry visa, or reapply for a visa. Nationals of Australia, Canada, the EU, the UK, New Zealand and most other countries (but not US citizens) can purchase their China visas at Zhuhai on the border, but it will ultimately save you time if you get one in advance as lines can be long. Express visas (MOP$1250 plus photos) are available in Macau or Hong Kong from China Travel Service, usually in two to five working days.

Visa Types

There are 12 categories of visas:

C

English Name

Flight attendant

Chinese Name

乘务; chéngwù

D

English Name

Resident

Chinese Name

定居; dìngjū

F

English Name

Business or student

Chinese Name

访问; fǎngwèn

G

English Name

Transit

Chinese Name

过境; guòjìng

J1

English Name

Journalist (more than six months)

Chinese Name

记者1; jìzhě 1

J2

English Name

Journalist (less than six months)

Chinese Name

记者2; jìzhě 2

L

English Name

Travel

Chinese Name

旅行; lǚxíng

M

English Name

Commercial and trade

Chinese Name

贸易; màoyì

Q1

English Name

Family visits (more than six months)

Chinese Name

亲属1; qīnshǔ 1

Q2

English Name

Family visits (less than six months)

Chinese Name

亲属2; qīnshǔ 2

R

English Name

Talents/needed skills

Chinese Name

人才; réncái

S1

English Name

Visits to foreign relatives/private (more than six months)

Chinese Name

私人1; sīrén 1

S2

English Name

Visits to foreign relatives/private (less than six months)

Chinese Name

私人2; sīrén 2

X1

English Name

Student (more than six months)

Chinese Name

学习1; xuéxí 1

X2

English Name

Student (less than six months)

Chinese Name

学习2; xuéxí 2

Z

English Name

Working

Chinese Name

工作; gōngzuò

Visa Extensions

For China

The Foreign Affairs Branch of the local Public Security Bureau (PSB) deals with visa extensions. We list PSB offices that can grant visa extensions, where an office authorised to administer such extensions exists.

First-time extensions of 30 days are usually easy to obtain on single-entry tourist visas, but must be done at least seven days before your visa expires – a further extension of a month may be possible, but you may only get another week. Travellers report generous extensions in provincial towns, but don’t bank on this. Popping across to Hong Kong to apply for a new tourist visa is another option. Note that if you enter Hong Kong (or Macau) on a single-entry visa and do not extend or obtain a new visa, you will not be able to re-enter the PRC.

Extensions to single-entry visas vary in price, depending on your nationality; most nationalities pay ¥160. At the time of writing, US travellers needed to pay ¥760 and UK citizens around ¥500. Expect to wait up to seven days for your visa extension to be processed.

The penalty for overstaying your visa in China is up to ¥500 per day, and you may even be banned from returning to China for up to 10 years if you overstay by more than 11 days. 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 on which your visa expires.

For Hong Kong

For tourist-visa extensions, inquire at the Hong Kong Immigration Department. Extensions (HK$160) are not readily granted unless there are extenuating circumstances, such as illness.

For Macau

If your visa expires, you can obtain a single one-month extension from the Macau Immigration Department.

Residence Permits

Residence permits can be issued to English teachers, business people, students and other foreigners who are authorised to live in the PRC. Permits range from one to five years – depending on certain criteria the applicant must be able to meet – and allow unlimited exits and re-entries. International students who graduate from a Chinese university are now eligible to apply for a residence permit valid for two years. Since 2018 highly skilled foreigners (those working in high-tech and new technology, plus research and development, among other professions) can also apply for permanent residency.

To get a residence permit you first need to arrange a work permit (normally obtained by your employer), health certificate and temporary visa ('Z' type visa for most foreign employees).

You then must go to the Public Security Bureau with your passport, health certificate, work contract or permit, your employer’s business registration licence or representative office permit, your employment certificate (from the Shanghai Labour Bureau), the temporary residence permit of the local PSB where you are registered, passport photos, a letter of application from your employer and around ¥400 for a one-year permit. In all, the process usually takes two to three weeks. Expect to make several visits and always carry multiple copies of every document. In most cases your employer will take care of much of the process for you.

Visa-Free Transits

Citizens from 53 nations (including the US, Australia, Canada, France, Brazil and the UK) can stay in Beijing, Tianjin and parts of Hebei for 144 hours (six days) without a visa as long as they are in transit to other destinations outside China, have a third-country visa and an air ticket out of China. Similarly, citizens from the same nations can transit through these individual regions and/or cities: Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang; Liaoning province; Guangdong province; Chengdu, Xiamen, Kunming, Wuhan and Qingdao (and Shandong province). You are permitted to travel within each region, but not between regions, so you can travel within Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei but you cannot travel from that region to Shanghai.

Chongqing, Harbin, Xi'an, Guilin and Changsha also exercise a 72-hour (three-day) visa-free policy, with the same conditions. Visitors on such three-day stays are not allowed to leave the transit city. Chongqing and Xi'an are expected to move to the 144-hour policy in the near future.

China also exercises a 24-hour visa-free transit policy for most nationalities whereby you do not need a visa for transits of less than 24 hours. It's applicable at most airports, except those in Shenzhen, Fuzhou, Yanji and Mudanjiang. You will need to have a ticket to a third country with a confirmed seat.

For visa-free transit:

  • You must inform your airline at check-in.
  • Upon arrival, look for the dedicated immigration counter.
  • Your transit time is calculated from just after midnight, so you may actually be permitted a little more than 72 or 144 hours.
  • If you are not staying at a hotel, you must register with a local police station within 24 hours of arriving.
  • Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan are eligible third countries.
  • Visitors on the 72-hour visa-free transit must leave the country from the same airport of entry. The exception is certain cities adopting the 144-hour visa-free transit scheme, where visitors may enter or leave from land or sea ports.

Check your eligibility as the rules change quickly and new cities are being added.

Hainan Island has a scheme that gives you 30 days visa-free travel if you book your trip through a registered travel agency on Hainan Island.