Most nationalities require a visa to enter China. A visa is not required, however, if you are in transit for a period not exceeding 24 hours as determined by scheduled flight arrival and departure times, and already have confirmed onward tickets. Multiple stops are permitted when transiting through China, i.e. you may fly into one city then connect by air to different cities before flying out of China. In the case of multiple stops in China, the 24-hour period is calculated from the scheduled first landing to the scheduled last departure in China. It should be noted that the passport you are using for travel can limit your choice of multiple transit points and it is highly advisable that you check for up-to-date regulations regarding acceptable routings by reference to the Timatic database which is the International Air Transport Association (IATA) reference for passenger compliance. This can be accessed here: http://www.staralliance.com/en/services/visa-and-health#
Transit passengers can apply for permission to leave the airport upon arrival at immigration control and may take advantage of a longer layover to do a little sightseeing. A special stopover permit will be stamped in your passport to allow this provided you have documentary evidence of your onward flight arrangements for inspection. There are currently no fees charged for this.
In addition to the general 24hr rule, a special privilege permits certain qualifying passengers to enjoy a visa-free transit period of up to 72 hours, again without charge:
72-hour visa-free transit in Beijing, Chengdu, Chongqing, Dalian, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Shenyang, Kunming and Xi'an.
If you meet the following criteria, you can stay up to 72 hours in any of the above cities without a Chinese visa. You can visit the city at your leisure and book a hotel, etc.
The conditions are the following:
– Your transit time is no more than 72 hours as determined by scheduled arrival and departure times (see below for the exception in Guangzhou).
– You have confirmed plane tickets to a third country (for immigration purposes, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan are not considered part of China. They have their own exit and entry protocols, including visa requirements. Flights between mainland China and any of these places are considered International and they are deemed to be different countries);
– You enter the country through one of the following: the Beijing Capital Airport, Chengdu Shuangliu Airport, Chongqing Jiangbei Airport, Dalian Zhoushuizi Airport, Guangzhou Baiyun Airport, Shanghai Pudong Airport or Shanghai Hongqiao Airport, Shenyang Taoxian Airport, Xi'an Xianyang Airport;
– You will leave the country by departing from the airport in the same city that you arrived in (for Shanghai you can arrive at one airport and leave from the other);
– Your inbound and outbound flights must not additionally transit through any other Chinese airports on their way to/from one of the above airports (see below examples of what is not acceptable);
– You cannot leave the city/municipality to go to another Chinese city during the 72 hours (except in Guangzhou where you are permitted to travel anywhere in the Guangdong province);
– You must hold a passport of one of the 51 approved countries:
Twenty four European Schengen countries: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland;
Thirteen other European countries: Russia, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Cyprus, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia (FYROM), and Albania;
Six American countries: the United States, Canada, Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, and Chile;
Two Oceania countries: Australia, and New Zealand;
Six Asian countries: Korea, Japan, Singapore, Brunei, United Arab Emirates, and Qatar.
The authorities have stated that those who enter other cities will face punishment, those who break the law during their stay will face a lifetime ban and that all visitors must carry identity papers with them at all times.
There are no restrictions regarding the number of times that a traveller may transit without visa provided that they meet the qualifying criteria for either the standard 24hr period or the special 72hr period.There are also no restrictions concerning which airlines a traveller may use for each separate leg of their journey. There is no requirement to apply for transit without visa in advance of initial check-in. Note, however, that you must satisfy your carrier that you do meet the relevant qualifying criteria in order to be permitted to board the first leg of your journey. This essentially means having your onward travel documents to hand, which you will need in any case at Immigration in China. You must also, if needed, have obtained any visa for your onward destination. Inform your carrier of your intent to use TWOV at check-in.
Make sure that you have a printed copy of all your flight tickets or other receipts of passage/boarding passes or stubs. Note that the 72 hours (like the standard 24 hours permitted) are calculated based on your flights' scheduled arrival and departure times and not the actual arrival or departure times nor the times when you show up at immigration (or even, as someone actually fretted about, when you enter the air-space controlled by China). In Guangzhou, however, the 72 hour TWOV is calculated from midnight following arrival, thus effectively allowing a longer visa-free transit period. It has also been reported that this same rule of beginning the transit period from midnight following arrival in Guangzhou applies to the standard 24hr visa-free period available to all travellers. However, no confirmation of this has been forthcoming and it would not apply in the case of multiple transits. Confusion has arisen because travellers have reported that their passports are not time-stamped when transiting without visa, regardless of which airport it is that they have arrived at. The stamp in the passport just shows the calendar date that you are permitted to stay up until (and including). This in itself has no bearing upon how long you can actually be in transit for and should not be considered when booking your flights. You must ensure that your scheduled arrival and departure fits within the prescribed time limits, otherwise your carrier can and will refuse to convey you. It does not matter if your flight arrives ahead of schedule and you gain a little extra time, nor does it matter if it's late (you won't get any extra time to make up for it). Similarly, it does not matter if your onward flight is delayed and effectively takes you over your time limit. However, if your onward flight is rescheduled for a later time once your trip is already underway you may be required to apply for an additional stay permit or visa. The concept of force majeure allows travellers to remain without penalty, though a fee may be levied to issue a visa. There have been no reports in the China forums of this happening.
After getting off the plane you will head for immigration. Look for a counter that says "Transit visa exemption" or "Special Lane" or something like this. Fill in the Arrival & Departure Card form distributed on the plane. If you misplaced it or did not get one, there will be a bench next to the desk with these cards. Show your tickets and passport. Tell the immigration officer that you wish to transit without visa. This is especially important if you have an unused visa that you wish to use at a later date. Don't assume it won't be stamped by mistake and invalidated for future use. Your passport should be stamped with a different stamp than if you have a regular visa. Similarly, in the case of those seeking to use the standard 24hr TWOV, don't assume that the immigration officer will know that you want to leave the airport if you arrive waving boarding passes for an onward flight departing in a few hours. The natural assumption would be that you've gone to the wrong place and you will be pointed to the transfer counters so you can go and wait for your next flight. Travellers have reported being "denied" transit privileges where this would seem to be the most logical explanation. There is no automatic right to leave the airport under the standard 24hr TWOV rule – you must apply at passport control with all your documents to hand. It is implicit in the special 72hr TWOV, however, that the passenger will leave the airport and therefore it should merely be a formality to have your documents checked.
After clearing immigration, you then pick up your luggage and head to the taxi line or subway. If you are staying more than 24 hours (essentially overnight) you must register with the local police within 24 hrs of arrival (in an urban area). If you are staying in a hotel or other commercial lodging they will automatically regsiter you as part of the check-in procedure. If you are staying elsewhere, e.g. with friends or family, then you must do this yourself with the help of your hosts. Registration needs to be done at whichever local police station holds jurisdiction over the household where you are staying. Registration is free of charge. You must take your passport with you and your host must provide their identity document(s). Travellers who were unaware of this procedure and did not register with the local police station have reported being temporarily detained and questioned when leaving the country
What is not acceptable
Transit without visa is only available to air travellers and is not applicable to any combinations of land or sea passage.
You cannot fly standby to the third country nor can you claim that you will buy an onward ticket once you arrive in China. You must have confirmed onward flights to country #3 and, if necessary, a visa to enter country #3.
Going back to the same country is not a valid transit. For example, you cannot fly Vancouver-Beijing-Vancouver. Nor can you fly Vancouver-Beijing-Toronto. You must arrive from country #1 – China is country #2 – and fly out to country #3. Each #country is a different country. (Note that Hong Kong-Beijing-Macau is accepted.) Where you travel from/to outside this sequence is irrelevant; thus, countries #1 and #3 could themselves both be transit points for you in your overall journey. As long as they are different countries this is all that matters.
You do not qualify for the 72 hour visa-exemption if you have a double or multiple transit in China, such as Vancouver (Canada)-Beijing (China)-Kunming (China)-Hanoi (Vietnam) or Tokyo (Japan)-Shanghai (China)- Beijing (China)-Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia). In these cases you can only get the 24-hour transit visa exemption. It does not matter how brief any stop en route may be – if your plane makes a stop anywhere else in China you have a double-transit.
The 72 hour TWOV requires passengers to transit China through one city/airport only. Be advised that in airline-language a direct flight does not necessarily mean a non-stop flight. If your flight has a short stop in another city in China, either on your inbound or outbound leg, even if you do not change plane and the flight number is the same for both legs, then you do not qualify for the 72-hour TWOV. In such cases it is irrelevant where you actually clear immigration and 'enter' or 'leave' China because of the fact that your intention is to be deemed a passenger in transit and therefore the only concern is how many transit points, including direct airside transit, you have.