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Should I get a Chinese visa or use the visa-free transit?

Should I get a Chinese visa or use the visa-free transit?
April 3, 2016

WHAT IS A CHINESE TOURIST VISA?

A tourist (Type L) visa will allow you to travel throughout most of China as a tourist for as long as the visa remains valid.  It of course also allows you to transit through airports in China on your way to the DPRK or elsewhere. 

There are a few different types of Chinese tourist visas available.  These are differentiated on the basis of the number of entries you get (single-, double-, or multiple-entry) and the period of the visa’s validity (3 months, 6 months, 1 year, 2 years, or even 10 years).

You should apply for a visa of the maximum length and the maximum number of entries that you are eligible for based on your nationality, since it’s the same process and generally the same price no matter which you apply for.  However, be aware that you may or may not be issued a visa with the number of entries and length that you requested.  If you’re only issued a single-entry visa, don’t worry – you may be able to use visa-free travel (see below for details) for your return trip back through China.

HOW TO GET A TOURIST VISA

You have to fill out an application and deliver it to your local Chinese embassy (or consulate) along with your passport and processing fees.  You’ll need to check with your local Chinese embassy to confirm the requirements for applicants of your nationality, but the important points to know are that you’ll need to submit an application form, evidence of your flights to/from China, two passport-style visa photos, and copies of hotel reservations in China.

FAQs

Do I need an “inviter” or a sponsoring agency in China?
No, you need to show evidence of your own funds and hotel reservations, or an inviter / sponsoring agency.  This category is a relic of an older set of visa requirements.  You can ignore it.

Do I need a hotel reservation?
Yes, you should show that you have a hotel reservation in China, but the reservation does not need to cover the entire length of time you will be in China – a reservation even for one night usually suffices (but you’ll need to show this even if you’re staying with a friend).  We would suggest booking with an online booking agency that makes penalty-free cancellations easy (such as hotels.com).  Many DPRK flights leave early in the morning, and for these connections we’d recommend arriving the night before and staying at a hotel in China anyway.

Do I need to show details for my entire itinerary? 
No, what is most important is your flight into China, your flight back home out of China, and a hotel for the first night of your arrival.

Do I need to show my DPRK Visa or my DPRK flight reservations? 
If you’re applying for a Chinese tourist visa in order to transit for DPRK travel, you do not need to submit your DPRK tourist visa or the itinerary for your Pyongyang flights.  The Chinese embassy will generally be interested in the China-portion of your trip; for this, information about your DPRK trip is not relevant.  At the time you apply for your Chinese visa, you won’t have the DPRK visa anyway – this will be delivered to you by Uri Tours at the Beijing/Shanghai airport when you check in for your fight to Pyongyang.

ADVANTAGE OF GETTING A TOURIST VISA

The pros of getting a tourist visa are huge, and this is why we recommend that you apply for one:

    Depending on what kind of tourist visa you are issued, you can potentially have a multiple-entry visa that is valid for as many as 10 years (citizens of several countries, including the U.S. now are eligible for 10-year multiple-entry visas).
    China is a huge country with increasing air connections to the rest of the world, so your tourist visa is sure to come in handy for future travel in the region, as well as for your current DPRK trip.
    You also won’t have to worry about any of the issues that sometimes arise with the 72-hour visa-free program, described in more detail below.

DISADVANTAGE OF GETTING A TOURIST VISA

The cons are mainly logistical and cost-related:

    You need to apply well in advance for the visa, typically either in-person at the Chinese embassy/consulate in your home country, or (where permitted) via mail with a professional visa courier service. 
    You’ll have to relinquish your passport while your visa is being processed, which means that you can’t travel elsewhere during this period.
    And finally, it can also be expensive.  At the time of writing, it’s US$140 for U.S. citizens, and US$30-90 (depending on your nationality) for citizens of other Western countries.  If you need rush delivery or other special services, the price increases.

CHINA’S NEW 72 OR 144 HOUR VISA-FREE TRANSIT PROGRAM

China offers 72 hours of visa-free transit for foreign visitors who are transiting through Beijing, Shanghai and a number of other Chinese cities to a third country (including the DPRK).  For Shanghai, the 72-hour period has been extended to 144 hours (6 days).

Just so we’re all on the same page (no pun intended), this is not a “transit visa.”  It’s a program that offers visa-free travel for transiting passengers.  What’s the difference?  A transit visa, like a tourist visa, is something you have to apply for in advance in your home country.  For the visa-free travel program, you don’t need a visa at all.  Of course, you still have to show that you are eligible for visa-free transit, as described below.

China does actually have a transit visa (Type G), but it requires evidence of residency in the country that is your final destination.  You of course do not have residence in the DPRK, making this kind of visa inapplicable for DPRK travel.  Please don’t accidentally apply for it.

HOW TO GET IN VISA FREE

Aside from other obvious essentials (such as a valid passport), you just need to present airline tickets or confirmed flight itinerary for onward travel to a third country that departs from the same airport within 72 hours of your arrival in China.

In your home country, when you check in for your flight to China, the airline will need to confirm that you are indeed traveling to a third country within 72 hours.  Chinese immigration will then do its own confirmation when you arrive in China.  In both cases, it’s crucial that you have your entire flight itinerary printed before you leave home.  Don’t forget connecting flights, and don’t forget the itinerary for your return flights.

See our post on Beijing & Shanghai 72-Hour Visa Free Policy for certain important limitations and procedural details on 72-hour visa-free transit.  Also important to know is that airports in only certain Chinese cities permit visa-free transit (at the time of writing, it is permitted in Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Shenyang, Xian, Guangzhou, Chengdu, Chongqing, Dalian, Guilin, Kunming and Hangzhou).

Please also be aware that only citizens of certain countries are eligible (at the time of writing, citizens of the U.S., the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, most EU-member states, Japan and a number of other nations are eligible; an important exception is South Africa, whose citizens are currently ineligible).  If you’re not eligible for 72-hour transit, you may still be eligible for 24-hour visa-free transit (because it’s open to more nationalities), but using this program runs almost exactly the same risks described below that apply to 72-hour transit.

ADVANTAGES OF VISA FREE TRANSIT

It’s free, and you don’t need to apply in advance.

DISADVANTAGES OF VISA FREE TRANSIT

We put the cons into two categories.  These go from bad to worse.

The first category are things that are mildly inconvenient because they limit your options and flexibility, but that you would probably expect anyway: 

    You’re generally not permitted to leave the “port” (generally, this means “city-limits”) of whatever city you’re transiting through
    You have to arrive directly into the city you’re applying for transit in (i.e. cannot travel from Rome to Xiamen to Beijing; you must go from Rome directly to Beijing, and then fly out of Beijing to a third country)
    You of course need to catch your departing flight within 72 hours of your initial arrival.
    You have to exit the “port” on a flight, meaning that you can’t leave on train, ferry, etc. 

For most travelers, these limitations won’t cause any issues, but you do lose the flexibility to change your travel plans or to take a spontaneous side-trip in China.

The second category are major procedural issues that could totally ruin your trip. 

Some airline counters aren’t in the know about 72-hour visa-free transit.  When you check in for your flight to China, the airline representatives at the airport will check your passport before you board to make sure you have a Chinese visa.  This has been the procedure for years, and the 72-hour visa-free travel program is still relatively new.  Thus, even though you don’t need a Chinese visa if you’re planning on using 72-hour visa-free transit, not all airline counters know this (particularly in the U.S.).  Uninformed and recalcitrant airline representatives may prevent you from boarding your flight to China on this basis.

Most airline counters aren’t in the know about DPRK travel.  Even if the airline counter knows about visa-free transit in China, their next question will likely be a request to see your DPRK visa.  Here’s where it can get complicated…

You won’t have your DPRK visa with you – there’s simply no way for us to get it to you before you depart.  The DPRK embassy usually does not issue tourist visas until a couple days before your Pyongyang flight, and by the time it’s been issued, there’s a good chance that you’ll already be on your way to China.  If requested, we can do our best to send you a .pdf of the visa ahead of time, but we may not have it until you’ve already left.  Even if we can get it to you, it may not do you any good since it’s just a scan. 

Though you won’t have your DPRK visa, you will have your flight itinerary for your connection to Pyongyang – Uri Tours will email this to you before you depart.  The itinerary generally proves quite useful at the airline counter, but be aware that it is not always sufficient.

The rabbit hole can go quite deep here, and we’ve even had travelers told by airline counter reps that travel to North Korea is impossible, or illegal.  As a result of all this, travelers are occasionally denied boarding for their flight for China because they don’t have a Chinese visa, a DPRK visa, or both. 

SO SHOULD YOU GET A CHINESE VISA OR NOT? CONCLUSION:

For these reasons, we strongly recommend that all travelers apply for a Chinese tourist visa when visiting the DPRK.  If you travel through China to the DPRK without a Chinese visa, you do so at your own risk.