How to Get Into China Without a Visa: The 72 Hour Visa-Free Transit and 24 Hour Airport Transit

Getting a visa to visit China is nothing short of a monumental pain in the bureaucracy. Many friends and readers have asked me if there is a way around it, so I investigated further. Believe it or not, there are perfectly legal ways to get into China without a visa.

1. Visa-Free Airport Transit 

A foreign citizen who is transiting through China by air is exempted from a visa if he/she stays only inside the airport (without entering border control) for no more than 24 hours, and has a valid connecting ticket with confirmed seating on an international flight. 
Source: Chinese Embassy

2. 72-Hour Visa-Free Transit
This fairly new visa arrangement allows foreign citizens of 51 allowed countries to spend 72 hours in one of thirteen cities in China, without a visa. 

Countries Allowed: 
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, Japan, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Macedonia,  Mexico,  Montenegro, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, Portugal, Qatar,  Republic of Korea, Romania, Serbia, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Russia,  Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, United States.

Chinese Destinations Allowed:
Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu, Chongqing, Shenyang, Dalian, Xian, Guilin, Kunming, Wuhan, Xiamen, Harbin and Hangzhou

Upcoming cities include Urumqi in Xinjiang, and hopefully Guiyang in Guizhou Province (see 72 Hour Guizhou Selfie below for a giggle)

Rules around the Visa-Free Transit:
Travellers must be from one of the 51 permitted countries
Travellers must arrive by air into one of the 14 permitted Chinese cities
Travellers must have an onward international ticket to a third destination with a departure date and time within 72 hours of arrival. Taiwan and Hong Kong are permitted as eligible destination countries. For example, London-Shanghai-Hong Kong is permitted. London-Shanghai-London is not permitted.
Source: Ministry of Public Security and FlyerTalk

How is the 72 Hours Calculated?
72 hours is calculated in most airports from 00:01hrs on the day after arrival. In others, however, 72 hours is calculated from the minute of arrival.
Source: FlyerTalk TIMATIC

Where Can You Go?
Travel is restricted to the city or region in which you applied for the Visa-Free Transit. In Guangzhou, you are permitted to travel anywhere in Guangdong Province, but in other cities your travel is restricted to the city itself. 
You must fly out of the same airport that you entered, with the exception of Shanghai (in Shanghai both Hongqiao and Pudong airports are approved and you can fly out of either).

How to Apply for Visa-Free Transit:
Inform your airline when checking in
Fill out an Arrivals Card on the flight
Submit the completed Arrivals Card to border control authorities at the airport, along with the following documents:

• Valid passport
• Onward dated ticket with confirmed seat for another country or region
• Visa for third country or region (if needed for that destination)
Source: China National Tourism Organisation

FAQs answered here at the Ministry of Public Security
Additional useful info here at Travel China Guide

3. Hong Kong, Macau and Hainan Island Visa-Free Entry
 Hong Kong has maintained the liberal visa-free access originally instituted by the British Government. Travellers from over 160 countries can gain visa-free entry for up to 180 days.In addition, travellers visiting the Pearl River Delta from Hong Kong may have up to 15 days of visa-free entry approved if travel with a registered travel company.
Source: Immigration Department, Hong Kong

Macau is similar but with a smaller range of eligible countries.

Hainan Island has special policies for 15 day visa-free entry for travellers from 26 countries including the US, as long as they travel with a registered tourist agency. 
Source: Chinese Embassy

72 Hour Selfie in Guizhou Province

When I was last in Guizhou I filmed a '72 Hour Selfie' with True North Productions for the China Icons video channelIt was loads of fun, and as you can see, 72 hours in Guizhou includes drinking lots and lots of rice wine, and sleeping in cars. Guiyang's approval as a Visa-Free Transit city is still pending, but clearly not because of a lack of rice-wine-drinking effort on my part.