The journey to China is not easy these days but it can be done. We did it this summer. This guide is based on our personal experiences, conversations with quarantine hotel staff and neighborhood committees, and digging around the Internet.
We tried to cover everything here, but the rules differ so much by country and circumstance that we're giving you the broad outline – roughly what to expect on this odyssey – and then suggest that you refer to the specific policies for your country. Also, full disclaimer: some of this info may be outdated by the time you read this.
You too can probably get here if you have the right visa, stacks of money, and you follow these three tips:
1. Check your local Chinese Consulate or Embassy's website for the latest policies. You can usually find those on the "Important Notice" tab.
2. Email your local Chinese Consulate or Embassy and ask if your flight plan and COVID testing plan will work. In our experience, they are helpful and quick to respond.
3. Book a refundable ticket directly through your airline so you can bail if anything goes awry, like you test positive for COVID the day before your flight.
Indeed, entry is getting easier these days. Just be prepared for unexpected changes and canceled flights. Our first flight got canceled and rescheduled for three months later, but by then, quarantine time got cut in half and the testing requirements became way more relaxed. Good luck!
Note: This guide is written from a foreigner's perspective, but aside from the visa section, everything is basically the same for Chinese citizens – you still need to get a Health Declaration Code (HDC), multiple PCR tests, and a super expensive flight.
What kinds of visas is China issuing right now?
Like everything else, this differs by country, but in general, you can only come here for work, business, or family.
For example, the Chinese Embassy websites for the USA and Singapore say that people can currently apply for six kinds of visas:
- M/F (Business Visa)
- Z (Work Visa)
- S1/S2 (Child/Spouse/Parent/Parent-in-Law of Z/M/F Visa holder)
- Q1/Q2 (same as S1/S2, but for Chinese Citizens or Green Card holders)
- R (High-Level Talent)
- C (Crew Member)
Luckily, PU letters are no longer required!
Important: If possible, do not book your flight until you have a visa!
What about special circumstances, like a sick family member in China?
Again, it depends, but we have seen statements like this one on the website of the Chinese Embassy in Singapore: "For emergency humanitarian visas other than those mentioned above, such as those for funerals or visits to critically ill relatives in China, the identity documents of the deceased or ill relative (e.g. foreigner's passport, etc.), a death certificate or a certificate of diagnosis, critical illness notice issued by a hospital, proof of kinship, etc. shall be submitted." Check the relevant website or reach out to the Chinese Embassy or Consulate in your country.
I got a ten-year tourist visa in like 2015 or 2016. I heard those got suspended when the pandemic started. Will unexpired tourist visas work now?
No. You cannot enter China on a tourist visa these days. APEC Business Travel Cards are suspended too. Will these previously issued visas be valid after tourists are finally allowed back in? Who knows. Maybe.
What about students?
Student visas have been almost impossible to obtain since COVID started. Ask your school. They should be helping you sort that out. On an encouraging note, there are "positive signs" that more students will be able to return to China soon.
Can my family visit me again?
Yes, as we previously mentioned, family visits are possible again. We double-checked this with the Chinese consulates in Germany and the US and they both confirm that family members can apply for a visa.
What's the current situation with flights?
Long story short, inbound international flights to China are scarce and costly. According to Bloomberg, there were only around 200 international flights – total - into Pudong International Airport in June 2022. However, that same article predicts this number may increase to 3,361 flights by December 2022.
Good news: more routes have opened lately. Just this week, inbound international flights into Beijing resumed after two years.
Though we can't guarantee the validity of the information, the Ikky In China blog maintains a list of which flights you can take. It's a good resource to start with, then you can email the consulate to double-check your plan before you drop the loot on a ticket.
Wow. Are flights really that expensive? I can't believe it. Why is that?
Yeah. They really are. At the time of writing, flights from cities like London and Detroit can run 30k-100k RMB one-way, if you can even find one. Supply and demand. Also, airlines can only sell 75% of their inbound seats but 100% of their outbound seats, which explains why outbound flights are cheaper.
Why are so many flights getting canceled?
If an inbound flight has a certain number of positive COVID cases, that airline's flights will get suspended for several weeks. It's called a circuit breaker and the suspension period depends on the number of cases. If five people test positive, the flight gets suspended for two weeks. If ten people test positive, the flight gets suspended for four weeks.
There are carrots too. If a flight has zero cases for three weeks in a row, that airline can increase its flights to twice a week. [Source]
This all affects outbound flights too. If an airline doesn't have inbound planes, well, they're probably not flying out, because they don't have any planes to fly.
Suspensions happen often. You can find the latest news on the Civil Aviation Administration of China's (CAAC) website.
What kind of ticket should I book?
Book directly with the airline! Read the fine print. Plans change. And if you catch COVID a few days before your flight, you can cancel the flight and still get your loot (or at least a credit).
Again, we can't emphasize this enough – check with the consulate to make sure your flight plan is acceptable. Many travel websites will let you buy flights that you absolutely cannot take, like those with multiple stops, or layovers in certain regions. And that's on you, not the airline or the travel agent.
Do I have to fly direct? Can I transit in another country?
China now allows some people to transit in a second country. This is new because up until very recently, if your country had a direct flight to China, well, that was your only option. Many countries do not have direct flights to China these days, so this has long been the only option. Again, check with your local Chinese consulate or embassy. We don't know which flights will work for your situation.
However, if you transit somewhere, you will probably have to do two PCR tests in your country and two more PCR tests in your transit country. This becomes especially difficult when the airport doesn't have testing facilities in the terminal.
What's up with Hong Kong? Can I transit there?
In theory, yes, you can fly to Hong Kong, do seven days in a quarantine hotel there (expensive), and then fly to a city like Shanghai. And then you'll need to quarantine again in Shanghai. And remember, Hong Kong has their own requirements for entry, which may differ from Shanghai's. Here's a guide to going to Hong Kong, from the local government.
Crossing into Guangdong from Hong Kong by bus is possible in theory but very difficult in practice, due to a limited number of slots each day, which are allocated by a lottery system. So, you might save some money compared to flying direct, but also you'll spend a lot of effort. And getting stuck in Hong Kong is wallet-drain on 2x speed.
Are there any alternative flight options?
Some of the business chambers offer charter flights. For example, the German Chamber of Commerce has 11 charter flights between now and March 2023 from Frankfurt to Qingdao on a first-come-first-serve basis, at a pricy 3,700 Euro for non-members. The big advantage of these flights, and that's what you pay for, is that you're facing less uncertainties. For example, they guarantee a five-star hotel in Qingdao (around 1,000rmb per night) and help parents to stay together with their kids at the quarantine hotel. You also have an experienced team from the Chamber helping you and answering questions, so it's often worth the money.
The Italian Chamber of Commerce is planning on offering cheaper flights at around 2k Euro, the French Chamber of Commerce is planning on having 2 flights in August to Nanjing starting at around 1,500 Euro for Economy Class tickets. The Swiss Chamber is opening up registrations for a charter flight too, they plan on offering flights in both directions, Hangzhou to Zurich on Sep 12 and Zurich to Hangzhou on Sep 14.
The big advantage of charter flights is that they are not subject to the above mentioned flight cancellation rules and hence more reliable. The downside is that none of these flights go directly to Shanghai.
What if I pay 80k for a flight home for Christmas and then they add tons of new flights and prices go down?
Maybe they will, maybe they won't. This is why you should spend the extra money for a refundable ticket.
Wait... can I just enter China by land or sea? Could I cross over via the border with Vietnam or Mongolia? How about a ferry from South Korea or Japan?
Good idea. Unfortunately, this is not an option for foreigners. Besides, at the time of writing, those ferries aren't even running.
Can my pet fly with me?
Yes, it is possible to bring pets into China, but COVID complicates the process. You also risk the possibility that if you want to leave China, it will be difficult to get your pet out, especially if you have multiple pets. You may want to look into pet-relocation companies, though we can't vouch for any. Here's some more info on bringing your pet in.
Prepare For Your Flight
What's an HDC and why do I need one?
An HDC is a QR code you get from your local Chinese Embassy or Consulate. This code basically says you've passed your PCR tests, your itinerary has been approved, and you're clear to fly.
What do I need to apply for an HDC?
Apply for the travel health code or Health Declaration Code for foreigners (HDC) using this Link and upload the following documents.
- Negative nucleic acid test (PCR) results, usually once within 48 hours of your flight, and again within 24 hours of your flight*. Generally, these tests should be 24 hours apart
- A valid flight itinerary
- A 身份证or a passport with a Chinese visa or resident permit
*In our experience, it was more about the days than the hours. For example, if your flight is on August 3rd, you could test on August 1st and August 2nd, apply for the health code on August 2nd, then fly on the 3rd. Again, check with your local Chinese Consulate or Embassy because the rules may differ where you are.
The turnaround is a few hours and they seem to work in the evening, but give yourself as much time as possible.
Chinese citizens can also scan the QR code below to enter the mini-app for the International Travel Health code:
Do I have to be vaccinated to apply for an HDC? Which vaccines are accepted?
Maybe. Requirements differ from country to country. In our experience, we did not have to provide any proof of vaccination.
What if I've had COVID?
If you've recovered, you'll probably still be allowed to come in. But you need to be recovered enough to where you're testing negative on PCR tests. You may have to provide more information. Look for details in the same place you found the HDC info.
Does my baby / toddler also need an HDC?
Depends on the country. The Chinese Consulate in Chicago, as of July 1, 2022, says: "Babies and toddlers under the age of 3 do not need to be tested or apply for a health code." However, we did not find this notice on a similar page on the website for the Chinese Embassy in Australia.
What if I get rejected?
Have you followed all of the instructions? Have you contacted the consulate or embassy to check your itinerary and testing plan? If so, you're probably good. We do know people that had to apply multiple times and they finally got a green code. It's probably a good idea to contact the embassy or consulate with the same email address that you're using to apply for your code.
Money-Saving Tip: Try to time your flight so that you can apply for your health code at least 24 hours before your flight. That way, if you get rejected, you'll [hopefully] still qualify for the full refund on that refundable flight you bought.
Test before you test!
PCR tests can be expensive, and if you're COVID positive 48 hours before your flight, you're definitely not getting on that flight. Consider taking an at-home test first. If you're positive, you can get a refund on your flight and save the stress of getting rejected.
Arriving & Testing
What's the entry process like?
Plan on spending about five or six hours between the time your plane lands and the time you arrive at your quarantine hotel. The process goes something like this:
- Land at the airport.
- Sit on the plane for a while, wait for some white suits to get onboard, then finally get off the plane.
- Show your 黄码 (huang ma) at the first checkpoint. That's another QR code you'll need to apply for, but don't worry, your airline will explain this to you, and screenshots are ok for this one.
- Take another PCR test.
- Go through immigration.
- Get your luggage.
- Get another QR code. This one is about where you live, which determines which quarantine hotel you'll go to. To avoid delays, make sure you spell your name exactly as it appears on your passport – do not forget your middle name.
- Wait around for the bus. The waiting area is divided up by district, so if you live in Jing'an, go to the area that says Jing'an. The waiting area has water, AC, and bathrooms.
- Take the bus to your quarantine hotel.
- Arrive and fill out another long form. This one is about your quarantine details. It's a long form, and everyone is filling it out, so this might take a while.
- Get to your room, try to figure out how to use an old-school thermometer, and pass out.
What happens if I test positive when I land?
We called 12320 (The CDC's hotline). They said that when someone is confirmed positive, they'll be assigned to a designated hospital. The length of the stay depends on the patient's symptoms. Officially, patients cannot leave until their cycle threshold (CT) value – a number that shows how infectious a person is; the lower the number, the more infectious – is 35 or above, according to the national standard.
However, we have heard of people in other cities who had to spend many weeks in the hospital because an even higher CT value was required for release.
How long will I have to quarantine in Shanghai?
At the time of writing, Shanghai quarantine is officially 7 days in a hotel and 3 days at home, as detailed in this post from 上海发布 on June 29 this year:
However! Different parts of the city may implement the rules differently. We know folks who live in Pudong, and their neighborhood committee would not allow them to do the +3 at home, so they had to stay – and pay for - the full 10 days in the hotel. We have heard similar stories about other districts. If this happens, you probably just have to deal with it. Hey, it could be worse.
There *may* be exceptions that allow the elderly, pregnant women, and children to quarantine at home for the full 10 days. Call 12345. They speak English and they can get in touch with your neighborhood committee.
Do we get any kind of choice about quarantine hotels? Or is it strictly by district?
In some districts, travelers could choose quarantine hotels based on price ranges, in other districts you can't. You may be able to choose a room, if your hotel has options.
Families will be placed in the same hotel and may request suites under certain conditions. Generally, it is strictly one person (over 14 years old) per room. Children under 14 years old may stay in a room with a parent.
Are there any circumstances in which I might be able to apply for home quarantine?
According to AmCham's website, under certain circumstances, travelers in the blow categories could apply for home quarantine.
- Age 65 or above
- Disabled or in need of special medical attentions
In order to obtain approval for home quarantine, travelers need to contact their neighborhood management ahead of their arrival. To qualify for home quarantine, the apartment should have an individual entrance, an AC unit, and / or other facilities required by the local epidemic control and prevention office. According to community standards, travelers may also be required to install surveillance equipment at the entrance to their apartments.
What's quarantine like?
Depends! We lucked into a huge room in a four-star international hotel for 350rmb a night. However, it's not exactly a staycation. You will likely feel jet lagged and disoriented from the six-hour processing experience, and people will come to your door constantly. They'll come first thing in the morning (like 5:30am) for COVID tests almost every day. They'll come three times a day to deliver your meals, starting around 6:30am. They'll come to deliver items you order like water. And every time they come, they will ring the doorbell repeatedly, even if you shout "Xiexie!", because the dabais are kind of deaf from wearing full protective gear.
Also, you might have to handle all requests in a group with everyone else in the hotel. Need more toilet paper? Ask in the group with 120 people. Need to buy more bottled water? Ask in the group, and show a screenshot of your payment in the group. There may be some drama in the group. You probably wanna mute notifications and minimize it.
Can I get deliveries in quarantine?
In our experience staying in a quarantine hotel and calling some others, getting deliveries from shops is fine, but you cannot order food from restaurants. Our hotel also had a rule against ordering alcohol or cigarettes, and they did check the delivery bags. In fact, the driver called to say, "Hey, they're going to check your bag, and if they reject anything, I'll take it back to Family Mart and help you get a refund." Shout out to the drivers.
How much does quarantine cost? When and how do I pay?
Should be around 200rmb-400rmb per day plus food. In our case, food was an extra 100rmb per day. You can usually pay by Alipay, WeChat, or Credit Card when you check out.
We've also heard of some people paying as much as 1000rmb per night in other cities.
How's the food? Do they have special meals?
Better than expected! About a level up from the meals on the high-speed trains, and fresher. However, the food tends to have a lot of meat. You can request vegetarian meals, though you may have to ask more than one person or tell them you're Buddhist.
Can I bring snacks from my country to quarantine?
Yes. The hotel isn't going to inspect your bag. Just don't bring any pork chops or apples or anything banned like that.
What else should I bring to quarantine? Any tips?
These are some items we are glad we brought or regret not bringing:
- An HDMI cable for hooking up your laptop or video game console to the TV
- Nintendo Switch
- A coffee cup or thermos + instant coffee
- Earplugs and eyeshades
- A plan for exercising, and any equipment you might want, like one of those stretchy bands. A jump rope would be great
- A power strip, in case there aren't enough outlets
- A topped-up SIM card so you can make phone calls to friends and family when you're losing your mind
- Some gospel music to heal your soul
When I do the "+3", what happens to the other people who live in my home during those days? Can they stay at home with me, or do they need to go somewhere else?
That's up to your neighborhood committee. We don't know.
After the +3 (or 10), are we just on our own like everyone else?
In theory, yes! Welcome back!
Other Helpful Resources
- Reddit.com/r/chinavisa: Lots of activity and people posting their anecdotes. Good resource but take everything with a grain of salt