China’s 72-hour Visa-Free Transit Rule: Flyer Beware

72-hour visa-free transit

You say you hate applying for a visa. You say you want to go to China. You say, out loud, “Oh I will just utilize the 72-hour visa-free transit option.”

To you I say, flyer beware.

You would assume that myself a lawyer would pay attention to details and given my past visa issues I would be extra vigil. But, oops I did it again. Home Alone 3 happened at Beijing airport when the immigration officer told me that I could not get a transit visa for Shanghai.

To recap, I had booked a beautiful points itinerary all in business class for $200, 30,000 points with US Airways’ codeshare partner Air China. Here was the itinerary:

ULN to PVG: (Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia to Shanghai, China with a connection in PEK (Beijing, China): 72-hour visa-free transit in Shanghai.

PVG to KIX: (Shanghai, China to Osaka, Japan) Third country of Japan to comply with 72-hour visa-free transit rule.

KIX-PEK: (Osaka to Beijing) Again using the 72-hour visa-free transit rule.

PEK-ULN: (Beijing to Ulaanbaatar) Less than 24 hour stopover to comply with US Airway routing rule.

Here’s what happened upon arrival in PEK (Beijing):

“Sorry you cannot go to Shanghai, you stand here, airline representative will help you.”

“Wally world dad?” ‎ran through my mind as I tried to negotiate a way into the country, but all the smooth talking in the world, both in English and Mandarin were getting me nowhere, literally.

After going through the immigration line for the third time like Victor Navorski, I finally came to terms that no meant no. I was left with two options:

Option 1: A transit visa for Beijing allowing me to stay there for 72 hours.

Option 2: A 24 hour visa that would allow me to board my flight to Shanghai provided I showed a ticket out of the country. (The Avios Lifesaver post is for another day).

Because the next flight on my itinerary was from Shanghai to Osaka and because I already had beautiful Hyatt on the Bund booked in Shanghai, I chose option 2 and got to work on securing my entry/exit strategy.

With only an hour till my flight to Shanghai departed, I paid for Boingo, went on BA.com and, without breaking a sweat, booked a roundtrip from Shanghai to Hong Kong returning to Shanghai after one night in Hong Kong.

Due to the madness of this experience, I’ve decided to share everything you don’t know and cannot know about the 72-hour visa-free transit rule.

To begin, prior to this trip I had read everything online about the 72-hour visa-transit rule and obviously things were not that clear. To spare all of you from dealing with this drama I’m going to break down the 72-hour visa-free transit rule FAQ style.

  1.  What is the 72-hour visa-free transit rule? The 72-hour visa-free transit is a way to visit China without going through the formal application process of applying for a tourist visa. It allows you to enter certain cities (Beijing, Chengdu, Shanghai, and increasingly a few more) without a tourist visa for a period of 72 hours.
  1.  ‎What do I need to show the immigration officer upon arrival at the airport? You need to show that you have a ticket out of China to a third country departing within 72 hours of your arrival.
  1. What is a third country? In my itinerary I was going from Mongolia to China then to Japan. Japan is my third country.
  1. Is Hong Kong a country? The old country count list question of what is a country comes into play here. For the purposes of the third country rule, Hong Kong and Macau qualify as countries.
  1. Suppose my itinerary is as follows: Saigon, Vietnam to Shanghai then Shanghai to Singapore, does this work? Yes. Here the third country is Singapore.
  1. Why didn’t this work for Michael Jeries when he booked that itinerary? What is the rule on connections in terms of a third country? Here is the complete itinerary for the issue in question 5:HCM-HKG (Saigon, Vietnam to Hong Kong connection)HKG-PVG (Hong Kong to Shanghai)PVG-HKG (Shanghai to Hong Kong connection)

    HKG-SIN (Hong Kong to Singapore)

    The problem with this itinerary in terms of the 72-hour visa-free transit rule is that immigration doesn’t look at the complete itinerary which shows the first country as Vietnam and the third country as Singapore. Instead, it sees the first country as Hong Kong and the third country as Hong Kong making it invalid for purposes of the transit visa.

    ‎It doesn’t matter that you were coming from Vietnam. Immigration only looks at the flight coming into China. In this case that flight is from Hong Kong.

    It doesn’t matter if your layover in Hong Kong on the way out of Shanghai going to Singapore is for two minutes. Their rationale is that you are returning to Hong Kong since you physically will be in Hong Kong. This closes a potential loophole for the clever traveler who would book a ticket onwards to Singapore and skip that segment.

    Simply put, you need to depart an airport in Country A‎ (Hong Kong) arrive in China then fly to another country besides Country A first. While it seems easy enough, finding direct flights to satisfy this requirement makes it challenging.

  1. ‎There are no direct flights from my departure city to Shanghai. All flights stop in Beijing. Can I make the connection in Beijing and obtain my transit visa when I arrive in Shanghai? No! This is what happened to me. Air China only flies to Shanghai via Beijing. There are no flights directly from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Don’t be fooled by the itinerary that says ULN-PVG (Ulaanbaatar to Shanghai) because there is a three hour layover in Beijing.The 72-hour visa-free applies only to the port of entry city. In this case the port of entry was Beijing.‎If you arrive in Beijing you have to go through immigration in Beijing ‎and are only eligible for the 72-hour visa-free transit for Beijing.Once again, it doesn’t matter if you have no‎ intention of ever leaving the airport. You are landing in Beijing, this means you can only utilize the 72-hour visa-free transit n Beijing.

    For me, this was a surprise because there was no way I could’ve arrived directly to Shanghai via Ulaanbaatar. Unless I wanted to visit Beijing for 72 hours (which I certainly do not) I can’t take advantage of the 72-hour visa-free transit rule.

    Imagine if the United States had a 72 hour option restricting a traveler to a certain city. You fly from Shanghai to Dallas and since this is your port of entry you have to stay in Dallas (perhaps Fort Worth). That seems silly since hubs like Dallas in the US or Beijing in China also serve as gateways to the rest of the country.

    At the same time, it must be understood that each province in China much like the UAE has some level of autonomy. Indeed Shanghai and Beijing have a LA vs NY rivalry. The 72-hour visa-free transit rule was implemented to encourage tourism within certain cities. With this in mind, it makes some sense that the rules are the way they are. ‎What doesn’t make sense is how come it isn’t explicitly stated! (Google 72-hour visa-free transit and read the chatter, even the State Department’s website doesn’t spell it out as clearly as I have.)

  1. I didn’t read this post in time. Now I’m at the airport being denied entry, what can I do? First, don’t panic. Second, you can take comfort in knowing that China as a whole has a 24 hour visa free rule. In this case, you can enter China via Beijing without a visa, without a 72-hour visa-free transit stamp, and still take the connection flight to Shanghai so long as you leave mainland China within 24 hours.
  1. That’s great news but I’m in a panic and a hurry, can I book any flight to get out of mainland China then change it later? After all, carriers do give you a 24 hour window to cancel. To get past the immigration officer, all you need is a reservation confirmation showing you are leaving the country on time. But, on your arrival card you will be required to write down your departing flight number. So while technically you can book any flight, it is prudent to pick one that you will take.
  2. What happens if I booked a random flight to comply with the immigration rules, made it past the immigration officer, arrived in Shanghai but now I want to change my flight? Let’s tackle this question by returning to Michael Jeries’s itinerary.MJ found out in Hong Kong that he could not come to China because his itinerary didn’t meet the third country requirement. Resilient, he booked a flight from Shanghai to Macau. Upon arriving in Shanghai, he pondered whether he should:
    1. Fly to Macau and find a flight to Bali from there (the second stop on our vacation)
    2. Cancel the Macau reservation and stick to the original itinerary. What if he did just fly back to Hong Kong? He was leaving the country within the 72 hour period anyway and could probably convince the immigration officer that it was an honest mistake and that his third country was Indonesia (Bali) in spite of the connection in Hong Kong.
    3. Cancel Macau and find a more convenient route to Singapore not via Hong Kong.

    MJ didn’t go with option 1 and was understandably nervous of going with option 2. He opted for option 3, changing his flight to one that went directly from Shanghai to Singapore.

    What happened? MJ arrived at the airport and the Chinese were far from pleased that the flight on his arrival card out of China did not match the flight he was taking. First he was detained and questioned. Second his bags were unpacked and each individual item was scanned in the x-ray machine. After that harrowing experience, he was permitted to leave.

    ‎So maybe you can change your flight but it’s anyone’s guess what they’ll do to you if you do.

  3.  I didn’t change my flight after reading #10 and have successfully made it to the third country. But, because I wasn’t aware of these rules I still have to get back to Shanghai to continue my routing. How long do I have to be out of China before returning? I arrived in Beijing on the 29th, was given a 24 hour visa to get me to Shanghai. On the 30th I left for Hong Kong. On the way out I explicitly asked this question and was told I could return on the 31st so long as I had proof of a flight out of Shanghai within 72 hours.So it all comes full circle. Technically, I was able to stay in Shanghai for 24 hours, leave for one calendar day, and then return to get 72 more hours of transit visa-free glory.
  4. What happens if I receive a 24 hour visa, get to Shanghai then decide I’ll risk it by sticking to my original itinerary, i.e., why should I deal with going to and fro to Hong Kong, I’ll just stay in Shanghai and deal with my visa violation when I depart.  I pondered what the worst thing that could happen if I stayed in Shanghai and showed up to the airport to take my flight to Osaka 2 days later. My passport showed a 24 hour visa with the port of entry as Beijing. I thought eventually they’d have to let me leave? It’s not like they want me to stay. Perhaps they may ban me from returning for a period of time. Perhaps they may detain me long enough that I miss my flight out and then when they do let me go they fine me as well.For me, that seemed like too much to risk which is why I went to Hong Kong instead.
  5. Now I’m fully compliant and prepared to utilize the 72-hour visa-free transit rule thanks to this great FAQ. Obviously, I will have no trouble with the check in agent at the airport, right? That’s what I thought as I returned from Hong Kong back to Shanghai. The answer is no. The agents at the airports know next to nothing about the 72-hour visa-free transit rule. They will insist that you need a visa, that you will not be permitted to board the plane, and will test your patience as they delay you to the point that you may miss your flight altogether. Do not give into their lack of training and general ignorance. Lay out the rule for them step-by-step and remain confident. After they take your passport and huddle up with everyone at the ticket counter, they eventually will yield in your favor.

The Conclusion 

On its face the 72-hour visa-free transit rule ‎may seem like a convenient option instead of dealing with the process of obtaining a normal tourist visa. But, as you have read, the rule is not clearly outlined on any website (maybe it is on a Chinese site). And, even if you do comply with the rules, in the end 72 hours is not nearly enough in a city like Shanghai. Thus, I recommend paying for a tourist visa and hope that it’s multiple entry.

Otherwise, I’d say fuck it and go to Thailand.

Good day!

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