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Visa entry requirement change frequently. I will not update this post. Check travel.state.gov for the latest information.

I just spent 70 hours in the Beijing area without a visa using China’s 72-hour Visa-Free Transit rules.

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As a recap, you can stay in China for 72 hours without a visa if:

  • you fly into Beijing (PEK), Shanghai (PVG or SHA), Guangzhou (CAN), or Chengdu (CTU)
  • fly out of the same airport
  • stay in the city/province the entire time
  • arrive with an onward ticket to a third country
  • departing less than 72 hours after arrival
  • hold a passport from one of 51 countries including the United States

The key one not to overlook is that “third country” rule. You cannot fly into Beijing from one country and fly right back to that same country. For instance, New York to Beijing to Los Angeles doesn’t work. New York to Tokyo to Beijing to New York does work.

  • How did the 72 Hour Visa Free Transit work?
  • What did we do upon arrival?
  • Are Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau “third countries” for the purpose of the visa?
  • What did we squeeze into 70 hours?
  • Do I recommend using the 72-Hour Visa-Free Transit program?

How to Get the Non-Visa

Upon arriving in Beijing from Hong Kong, we followed the signs toward immigration. Immigration was handled at a number of counters with who should use each line listed in lights in Chinese and English above each counter.

I was looking for a counter that said 72-Hour Visa-Free Transit in lights, but I didn’t see one. Instead we found this sign at the end of the counters, directing us to a counter that was closed.

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A Chinese immigration agent, seeing me looking at the sign and the closed counter told me “Counter Number 1” and pointed to the other end of the counters, just before the e-gates that Chinese citizens can use to enter without talking to any agents.

The counters were not visibly numbered, but the last one looked different than the rest. This counter actually had APEC in lights over it, but I confirmed with a nearby agent that this was the correct line, and I saw another American a few people ahead.

When I got to the front of the line, I handed the agent my passport and my entry card. I then showed him my itinerary for my next flight to Seoul on the United app on my phone.

I should have printed out the itinerary of my flight leaving Beijing to hand to him, but I hadn’t thought of it until I was on the road already.

The agent looked at my phone and asked where it showed my name to be sure it was my departing flight, which I pointed out. He asked me to write the date and flight number of my departing flight on my entry form. (Don’t do this in advance; he’ll tell you where.)

Then he stamped my passport and let me in. The stamp said I had to leave China in three days.

Three days later, as we flew out of Beijing, we went through the normal immigration and got the exit stamp that everyone else seemed to get. When leaving Beijing, there was no special line or procedure for folks with the 72-Hour Visa-Free Transit stamps.

What We Did with 72 Hours

Wednesday

  • 5:20 PM: touchdown in Beijing
  • 7:00 PM: arrive at hostel, have a beer, explore our hutong, and eat dinner

Thursday

  • 8:00 AM: picked up by our tour guide for 2 day-1 night hike of Great Wall. I will review this tour separately; it was awesome!

Friday

  • 4:00 PM: dropped off after tour. We just rested and caught up on work emails for the next few hours.
  • 9:00 PM: head out, it’s Friday night!

Saturday

  • 7:00 AM: wake up and head to Tiananmen Square and Forbidden City
  • noon: leave hostel in taxi for the airport
  • 3:20 PM: take off for Seoul

We accomplished a ton, and we could have even seen a lot more if we had done a one day Great Wall hike and hadn’t had to take breaks for a few hours to keep up with work.

I highly recommend spending close to 72 hours in Beijing to see the Great Wall and Forbidden City.

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Wild Section of The Great Wall near Jiankou

Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau

Remember that requirement that you need to fly into the mainland Chinese city from one country and fly out to a third country? Do Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau count as other countries for these purposes?

I can say that flying from Hong Kong to Beijing counted for us as entering from a foreign country.

Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan all have separate immigration from mainland China, and flights from all three places come in to the international terminal in Beijing.

I have read in comments here and elsewhere that Macau and Taiwan also work like Hong Kong worked for us.

Share your visa-free travel stories in China in the comments.


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