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Entry & Exit Formalities

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 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 Běijīng.

Passports

You must have a passport (护照; hùzhào) on you at all times; it is the most basic travel document and all hotels will insist on seeing it for check-in. It is now mandatory to present your passport when buying train tickets; you will also need it for using internet cafes that accept foreigners.

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 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), who will issue you with a 'Statement of Loss of Passport'.

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

Visas

Needed for all visits to China except Hong Kong, Macau and 72-hour-and-under trips to Shànghǎi, Běijīng, Chángshā, Chéngdū, Chóngqìng, Dàlián, Guǎngzhōu, Guìlín, Harbin, Kūnmíng, Qīngdǎo, Shěnyáng, Tiānjīn, Wǔhàn, Xiàmén and Xī’ān.

Residence Permits

The ‘green card’ is a residence permit, issued to long-term foreign residents in China. Besides needing all the right paperwork, you must also pass a health exam, for which there is a charge. Green cards are valid for five or 10 years. If you lose your card, there's a hefty fee to have it replaced.

Visa-Free Transits

Citizens from 51 nations (including the US, Australia, Canada, France, Brazil and the UK) can stay in Běijīng for 72 hours 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 Běijīng. Similarly, citizens from the same nations can also transit through Chángshā, Chéngdū, Chóngqìng, Dàlián, Guǎngzhōu, Guìlín, Harbin, Kūnmíng, Qīngdǎo, Shěnyáng, Tiānjīn, Wǔhàn, Xiàmén and Xī’ān for 72 hours visa-free, with the same conditions. Visitors on such three-day stays are not allowed to leave the transit city, with the exception of Chángshā, Chéngdū, Guǎngzhōu and Qīngdǎo, where visitors are given more movement and are not allowed to leave the transit province. Dàlián and Shěnyáng also allow movement between the two cities.

Similarly, citizens of the 51 nations arriving in Shànghǎi, Nánjīng or Hángzhōu can now stay even longer (144 hours) without a visa. An added benefit is that visitors on such six-day stays can move between Shànghǎi, and Zhèjiāng and Jiāngsū provinces – regardless of the transit city of entry. Also, in addition to airports, visitors may enter by ports and train stations.

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 over 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.

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

Hǎinán has a complicated, 15-day visa-free policy for tour groups of five or more citizens of 21 countries. See this website for details: http://en.visithainan.gov.cn.

Applying for Visas

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. If you require a visa, apply at a Chinese embassy or consulate before arriving. If you visit Hong Kong from China, you will need a double-entry, multiple-entry or new visa to re-enter China.

For China

Apart from visa-free visits to Hong Kong and Macau and useful 72-hour visa-free transit stays (for visitors from 51 nations) to Běijīng, Shànghǎi (144-hour visa-free transit), Guǎngzhōu, Xī’ān, Guìlín, Chéngdū, Chóngqìng, Dàlián and Shěnyáng, among others, you will need a visa to visit China. Citizens from Japan, Singapore, Brunei, San Marino, Mauritius, the Seychelles and the Bahamas 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 the authorities can suddenly bar foreigners from entering.

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.

At the time of writing, the visa application process had become more rigorous and 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 a hotel in China, confirmation from the hotel (this can be cancelled later if you stay elsewhere and often just showing the first night is enough)
  • 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.

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

  • UK£85 for UK citizens
  • US$140 for US citizens
  • US$40 for citizens of other nations.

Double-entry visas:

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

Six-month multiple-entry visas:

  • UK£85 for UK citizens
  • US$140 for US citizens
  • US$80 for all other nationals.

A standard, 30-day single-entry visa can be issued in four to five working days. In many countries, the visa service has been outsourced from the Chinese embassy to a compulsory Chinese Visa Application Service Centre (www.visaforchina.org), which levies an extra administration fee. In the case of the UK, a single-entry visa costs UK£85, but the standard administration charge levied by the centre is an additional UK£66 (three-day express UK£78, postal service UK£90). In some countries, such as the UK, France, the US and Canada, there is more than one service centre nationwide. Visa Application Service Centres are open Monday to Friday.

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. Travel visas of 60 days and 90 days are harder to get but possible just by applying. To stay longer, you can extend your visa in China.

Visa applications require a completed application form (available from the embassy, visa application service centre or downloaded from its website) and at least one photo (normally 51mm x 51mm). You generally 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, which offers prompt service. The procedure takes around 10 to 14 days. CIBT (www.uk.cibt.com) offers a global network and a fast and efficient turnaround.

Hong Kong is a good place to pick up a China visa. China Travel Service (CTS; 中国旅行社; Zhōngguó Lǚxíngshè) will be able to obtain one for you, or you can apply directly to the Visa Office of the People’s Republic of China.

Be aware that American and UK passport holders must pay considerably more for their visas. You must supply two photos. Prices for China visas in Hong Kong are as follows:

  • Standard visa One-/two-/three-day processing time HK$500/400/200

  • Double-entry visa One-/two-/three-day processing time HK$600/500/300

  • Multiple-entry six-month visa One-/two-/three-day processing time HK$800/700/500

  • Multiple-entry one-, two- or three-year visa One-/two-/three-day processing time HK$1100/1000/800.

You can buy a five-day, Shēnzhèn-only visa (¥168 for most nationalities, ¥469 for Brits; cash only) at the Luóhú border (Lo Wu; 9am-10.30pm), Huángǎng (9am-1pm & 2.30-5pm) and Shékǒu (8.45am-12.30pm & 2.30-5.30pm). US citizens must buy a visa in advance in Macau or Hong Kong.

Three-day visas are also available at the Macau–Zhūhǎi border (¥168 for most nationalities, ¥469 for British, US citizens excluded; 8.30am to 12.15pm, 1pm to 6.15pm & 7pm to 10.30pm). US citizens have to buy a visa in advance in Macau or Hong Kong.

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 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 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.

Visa Types

There are 12 categories of visas (for most travellers, an L visa will be issued).

TypeEnglish NameChinese Name
CFlight attendant乘务; chéngwù

DResident定居; dìngjū

FBusiness or student访问; fǎngwèn

GTransit过境; guòjìng

J1Journalist (more than six months)记者1; jìzhě 1
J2Journalist (less than six months)记者2; jìzhě 2
LTravel旅行; lǚxíng

MCommercial and trade贸易; màoyì

Q1Family visits (more than six months)亲属1; qīnshǔ 1
Q2Family visits (less than six months)亲属2; qīnshǔ 2
RTalents/needed skills人才; réncái

S1Visits to foreign relatives/private (more than six months)私人1; sīrén 1
S2Visits to foreign relatives/private (less than six months)私人2; sīrén 2
X1Student (more than six months)学习1; xuéxí 1
X2Student (less than six months)学习2; xuéxí 2
ZWorking工作; gōngzuò

Visa Extensions

For Macau

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

For China

The Foreign Affairs Branch of the local Public Security Bureau (PSB) deals with visa extensions.

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.

Extensions to single-entry visas vary in price, depending on your nationality. At the time of writing, US travellers paid ¥185, Canadians ¥165, UK citizens ¥160 and Australians ¥100. 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 upon 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.