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This article is part of our ongoing Business Travel 101 series for newcomers to the world of business travel.
Australian citizens normally need a pre-arranged visa to enter China, but the country’s Transit Without Visa (TWOV) program allows foreigners to enter the country for up to six days visa-free, provided their travel plans meet certain requirements.
Available in major destinations like Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou, and a host of secondary cities too such as Nanjing, Xiamen, Tianjin and more, here’s what you need to know to visit China for business or tourism, without getting the usual visa.
China’s Transit Without Visa scheme: the golden rule
Above all else, there’s one key rule you need to follow: you must arrive into China from one country, and depart from China bound for any other country: that’s why the program is called “Transit” Without Visa (not "Visit" Without Visa).
If you’re simply taking a return trip to China, flying in from one country and flying straight back to that same country, you won’t be eligible for this visa waiver and will need to apply for a pre-arranged visa through the normal channels.
For example, booking a return trip from Sydney to Shanghai doesn’t qualify, as you’re flying back to the same country (Australia) rather than travelling onward somewhere else.
However, flying from Sydney to Shanghai and then onward from Shanghai to Paris is just fine – handy to keep in mind when booking China Eastern flights using Qantas Points, as has just become possible on the Qantas website.
Interestingly, China considers Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau to be separate countries for this exercise – so you could fly into China from Australia, and then fly onward from China to Hong Kong, and still take advantage of this Transit Without Visa scheme.
However, once you’re in China, you need to remain in the city or region where you entered the country for the entirety of your stay, so you can’t enter China in Shanghai and then travel to Beijing, for example: for that, you’d need a normal, pre-arranged visa.
China’s Transit Without Visa scheme: eligible cities
China’s policy on this program varies from city to city – in some places, you can stay for up to 72 hours (three days), and in others, you can stay for up to 144 hours (six days). Whether you can venture beyond your transit city also varies from place to place.
Beijing and Shanghai are on the more generous side, each welcoming transit travellers for up to 144 hours in China, along with the provinces of Jiangsu (including Nanjing), Zhejiang (including Hangzhou), Liaoning (including Shenyang) and Hebei, along with Tianjin.
You can also travel to Guangzhou, Chengdu, Chongqing, Harbin, Shenyang, Dalian, Xi’an, Guilin, Kunming, Wuhan, Xiamen, Qingdao or Changsha for up to 72 hours visa-free.
Again, you can’t normally travel between cities when you’ve entered the country as a Transit Without Visa passenger, which means the international flights you take to and from China also need to run non-stop, rather than via other Chinese cities.
For example, China Eastern’s flights from Sydney to Beijing (MU728) stop via Nanjing in each direction, so you can’t use this flight as part of a Transit Without Visa journey, even if you fly onward from China to a different country after reaching Beijing.
That’s because passengers jetting from Sydney to Beijing on MU728 clear Chinese passport control en route in Nanjing, before flying Nanjing-Beijing as a Chinese domestic passenger, which isn’t permitted when you're 'in transit'.
It doesn’t matter that both Nanjing and Beijing participate in the Transit Without Visa scheme: where you enter the country is where you need to stay until you leave, and while there are a few exceptions for travellers exploring nearby cities, travelling between Nanjing and Beijing is a no-no.
China’s Transit Without Visa scheme: what to do
When checking-in for your flight to China, you’ll need to tell your airline that you’re travelling under the “72/144-hour Transit Without Visa program” to get the ball rolling, because the check-in agent will otherwise start flipping through your passport in search of a Chinese visa, which you don’t have.
You’ll also need to present a printed copy of your flight itinerary, showing not only the flight you’re checking-in for that day, but also your onward flight to a third country departing within the permitted time period, as applicable to the city you’ve visiting.
If that onward flight is part of a separate ticket or reservation, ensure you have everything printed out, as the check-in agent will need the specifics of your onward flight including departure date, departure time, flight number and destination, and needs to check that you have a confirmed booking: not a standby ticket.
Once you reach Chinese passport control, look for a lane labelled “transit without visa”, “72-hour transit”, “144-hour transit” or similar, and have the same printed reservations ready for inspection by border staff, as they’ll need to be verified a second time, as part of your entry into China.
(You also need to complete a landing card, so don’t forget that either, and to be safe, consider carrying more than one print-out of each ticket or booking.)
Provided everything goes smoothly, you’ll get a small “temporary entry permit” sticker in your passport listing the places you can go and when you need to leave the country by, which will be stamped when you exit China en route to your third destination.
There’s no fee involved to take advantage of China’s Transit Without Visa scheme, so you’ll not only save on visa costs, you’ll also preserve valuable space in your passport, as the entry permit sticker is considerably smaller than a full-page Chinese visa, and doesn’t require having a ‘double blank’ page as otherwise needed to get a visa.