China generally requires most foreign visitors to apply for a visa in advance.   However, several cities in China allow international visitors to stay without a visa for up to 3 days (72 hour visa free transit) provided they meet certain conditions which are explained below.  So if you are interested in travel to one of these Chinese cities, you may be able to visit for up to 72 hours without the need to obtain a visa in advance.

What Cities in China Offer 72 Hour Visa Free Transit?

The Chinese cities currently offering 72 hour visa free entry are Beijing, Chengdu, Chongqing, Dalian, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Shenyang, Xian, Guilin, Kunming and Hangzhou.   Beijing and Shanghai began allowing 72 hour visa free visits on January 1, 2013,  Guangzhou was added August, 2013, Chengdu, Dalian, Shenyang, Xian, Guilin, Kunming and Hangzhou were added in 2014.

What are the Requirements For 72-Hour Visa-Free Transit?

The requirements for China’s 72 transit without visa are as follows:

You must arrive and depart by air from the same city. Travel by land or sea does not qualify.

You must have a passport from one of the approved countries.  The approved countries currently are: Albania, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Brazil, Brunei, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macedonia (FYROM), Malta, Mexico, Montenegro, Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, Portugal, Qatar, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, South Korea, Sweden, Switzerland, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom and the United States.

Your time in the Chinese city you visit must be no more than 72 hours.  The 72 hour period starts on the date and time of your scheduled (not actual) arrival and ends on the time and date of your scheduled departure.  The only exception is Guangzhou which calculates the 72 hours from midnight following arrival, allowing a slightly longer visa-free transit period.

You are not allowed to leave the city during the 72 hour period (except in Guangzhou where you are permitted to travel anywhere in the Guangdong province).  Although we do not recommend breaking the law, in practice, there is no way to monitor if you leave a city (for example, many travelers in Beijing using the 72 hour visa free rule visit the Great Wall which is outside the city limits).  However, leaving a city would be a problem if you are planning on staying at a hotel outside one of these cities as hotels check that you have a visa.

You must have confirmed air tickets to a different third country (than the country arriving from).  So whatever country comes after China can’t immediately come before China. Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan are considered third countries.

For example, you cannot fly Chicago- Shanghai -Chicago. So if you want to visit Shanghai, you can fly Chicago-Shanghai – Hong Kong- Chicago.  It does not matter that eventually you are going back to the city your trip started (in this case Chicago).  You also cannot fly Chicago-Shanghai – Los Angeles because Chicago and Los Angeles are in the same country.  But you can fly Chicago-Hong Kong- Shanghai -Los Angeles.

You can visit more than one city in China, but not back to back.  The Chinese cities you visit need to be separated by visits to third countries.  In our case, we traveled Chicago-Tokyo-Chengdu-Taipei-Shanghai-Chicago.  Since we visited a 3rd country (in this case Taiwan) in between we were able to combine 2 cities in China.  There must always be a 3rd country in the middle of any Chinese cities you plan to visit.

There is no limit to how many times you can visit the same Chinese city visa free as long as you transit to a third country.  So, for example, you can travel Chicago-Shanghai-Taipei-Shanghai-Chicago if you want to spend more than 3 days in Shanghai.

What Procedures Do I Need to Follow If I Meet the Requirements for 72 Hour Visa Free Transit?

You do not have to do anything in advance to take advantage of 72 hour visa free rule other than book your flight out of China before landing in China and making sure that you have a printed copy of your flight with you when you check in for your flight to the Chinese city you are visiting.

When you check in for your flight to China, you should inform the airline you are using 72 hour visa free entry and they will request a copy of your ticket out of China.  (In our case, when we checked in for our flight to Chengdu in Tokyo, the agents had not yet heard that the rule applied to Chengdu. They consulted a book and we are guessing it was updated with the rule because we received our boarding passes.)   A couple of websites suggest letting your airline know in advance you will be taking advantage of 72 hour visa free transit but from reading other people’s experiences as well as our own this is not the case.

It might be a good idea to print a current copy of the rule from an official looking website, such as a consulate or embassy, just in case the airline agents are not familiar with the rule.  Some official looking websites that describe the 72 hour visa free rule include  http://www.travelchinaguide.com/ which has the most current information and the Beijing International Airport website.

When you land in China, immigration will also ask for a copy of your ticket out of that city as well as the address where you are staying.  Some cities have special lanes for 72 hour visa free transit but if there isn’t one or it is closed just go through any line for citizens of your country.

If you are not staying at a hotel or other accommodation, you must register at the local police station within 24 hours of arrival.  (Hotels automatically take care of this).

We think it is great that 3 day visa free visits are allowed for some of the more visited Chinese cities and that the list of cities is expanding.  Taking advantage of 72 hour visa free transit is a great way to visit parts of China without having to go through the costly and time consuming process of applying for a Chinese visa (cost for US citizens is currently $160).  If you use 72 hour visa free transit, there is no fee or cost because you are not obtaining a visa.  It is also the easiest way to visit China on a whim, allowing you to take advantage of a cheap last minute fare or last minute award availability!
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How to Visit Parts of China Without a Visa: Explanation of 72 hour Visa free entry rules which allows foreigners to visit certain cities in China for less than 72 hours without a visa.

Update – October, 2014:  This article was updated October, 2014 to reflect the current list of Chinese cities offering 72 hour visa free entry.
Update – December, 2015: A new 144-hour or six-day visa-free transit for foreigners will be implemented on arrival in the cities of Shanghai, Hangzhou and Nanjing. See these two articles from www.shanghaidaily.com and www.travelchinaguide.com for more information.

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