Do you need a visa to travel to China?

  • imperial I
  • April 23, 2020

Last year I received an unexpected call from the son of clients I took around China over 10 years ago, when I started working with Imperial Tours as a China Host. Their son Josh had just got married and was transiting via Shanghai with his fiancée on en-roue to their honeymoon in Thailand. Back then, I had spent 14 days traveling with their family as a personal concierge, coordinating all activities and logistics, acting as a cultural bridge and making sure it all went smoothly.

Josh explained that he would like to spend some time in Shanghai because his fiancée loves architecture and art, and he remembered Imperial Tours arranged a private lecture on colonial architecture that blew his father´s mind. I told Josh that many art museums, galleries have opened in Shanghai in the last few years, including the Yuz Museum, the West Bund Museum, Power Station of Art, etc… and that our Contemporary Art Expert could take them around and include some private studio visits if they wish.  

“How about you spend a couple of nights in Hangzhou, Josh? You did not go there with your parents last time. It takes 2.5 hours by car and about the same by high-speed train once you account for transfers to/from the train station. Hangzhou is famous for its UNESCO listed West Lake, Longjing tea fields, Buddhist temples, and is is a perfect break from the bustling city. You can either stay at the Four Seasons or the Aman Fayun; our two recommended luxury options.  It is the perfect destination for honeymooners: you´ll start the day with a serene taichi lesson, and then board a private gondola to tour the romantic West lake, enjoying the full breadth of Hangzhou’s delightful vista while you sip a flute of champagne” 

And I had some good news for Josh: they´d be able to tour Shanghai and Hangzhou without a Tourist visa as they qualified for the Transit Without Visa arrangement.

Let me summarize the different visa options you have when visiting China.


1) Do you need a visa for China?

Yes. For most foreign nationals, a Tourist Visa is required to enter Mainland China (see below for those who visit the Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong or Macau only). It would be preferable to apply 1-2 months before your travel date, although express options are available if in a rush. Some nationals may apply for a 10 year China visa, which would allow multiple short stays of up to 3 months for tourist or business purposes. The duration for each stay can vary from 30–120 days depending on your nationality and purpose of travel. As of writing, the 10 year multiple entry Chinese visa is applicable to citizens from the USA, Canada, UK, and Argentina.

For your visa application, we recommend going through a visa agency such as Passport Visa Express for Americans (Imperial Tours clients are eligible for a $10 discount; other agency options are available too). All needed documents are listed online, including an invitation letter that your Imperial Tours Itinerary Designer will send you once the tour is confirmed (or alternatively, hotel confirmations covering your entire itinerary). Six working days are generally required to process the visa application.

If you are only spending a couple of days in China you might qualify for a transit visa waiver, available upon arrival at participating ports. These waivers allow eligible foreign travelers a visa-free visit for 24, 72, or 144 hours. Requirements for each waiver do differ but there is one common rule: the country you arrive from and depart to must be different. For instance, as with Josh, if you are flying from Los Angeles to Bangkok and transiting through Shanghai, then you may apply for a transit visa at the airport. When you pass through immigration, there will be a special line “Transit without visa”; you will need to present your passports and a copy of your onward ticket proving that you are not staying in China. For Josh and his fiancée, Imperial Tours had arranged a diplomatic Meet & Greet Airport Representative to meet them off the jet bridge and assist with the transit visa formalities – then escort through baggage claim & customs.

Not all Chinese cities offer transit visa waivers and some only allow for travel within the province, so rules do differ between cities. Also, not all foreign travelers are eligible for the waivers. For instance, Josh and his fiancée took advantage of a 144 hours transit visa – that is 6 days – they landed in Shanghai, visited Hangzhou for a couple of nights and traveled to their next destination, Bangkok. This would work within the rules (Shanghai and Hangzhou, although in separate provinces, are part of the same transit ‘zone’). On the other hand, they would not have been able to travel on to Beijing or Xi´an because those are in different zones. In their case, the 144 hours started from 00:00 or midnight on the day following their arrival, so if you arrive at 6am, it actually gives you closer to 162 hours in the country.

You are suggested to check the most up to date details with Chinese embassies / consulates abroad, or consult with a visa agency. While we at Imperial Tours are happy to share details about the different transit visa options, we are not visa specialists.


2) Do I need a visa if I only visit Hong Kong or Macau?

A Chinese visa is not needed by most visitors to enter Hong Kong. For citizens of Canada, Australia, USA or the European Union, you will be able to stay in Hong Kong for up to 90 days (180 days for British citizens). You are advised to check the full list at the Hong Kong Immigration Website.

If you plan to visit Mainland China after your stay in Hong Kong, you need to apply for a Chinese visa. It is possible to get a Chinese visa in Hong Kong; in general, it takes 4 working days to get the visa, either through the official China Visa Application Service Center (CVASC) or through a Hong Kong based agency such as the China Travel Service. Note that it is no longer possible to apply directly through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs office in Hong Kong.

Entry to Macau is similarly visa free for most foreign nationals, but you are advised to check the official list on the city’s Corpo de Polícia de Segurança Pública site. To apply for a Mainland Chinese visa from within Macau, you may do so through a local agency (recommended), or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (FMCOPRC) office there.


3) Do I need a visa for Tibet?

As you might know, travelers visiting Lhasa require a special permit. The Tibet permit is not related to the China Tourist visa that you must still apply for; it is an internal travel document that Imperial Tours will organize for you, for which we will require clear copies of your passports and visas a month prior to tour departure.

Note that if you are entering Tibet from Nepal then the procedure is different. You will be required to apply for a Chinese Group Visa through the Chinese Embassy in Kathmandu. Since individual application to the embassy is not permitted, tourists will need to entrust a local travel agency to apply for that group visa. This process generally takes 3 working days. With this one exception, there is need to apply for a Chinese tourist visa beforehand (in fact, any visa you may have will become invalidated) and no need for a Tibet permit.

Note that Tibetan travel policies may change without notice. If you plan on visiting the region, one of our dedicated Itinerary Designers would be happy to discuss options with you.