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In some cases you don’t even need one.
But if you do need one, it’s best to be prepared and apply for it early.
So, whether you’re planning a trip to China or moving there for work or study, here’s a summary on visas and what you need to do.
Most foreigners need a visa when they go to China, but there are some exceptions.
Here are the most common scenarios.
Are you on a connecting flight in China?
As long as you stay in the airport, and have a confirmed seat on an international flight within 24 hours, you don’t need a visa.
You can now see many parts of China for a few days without getting a visa before you leave home.
Known as Visa-Free Transit, it’s a great way of seeing China without the hassle or expense of a traditional visa.
You simply apply for it when you arrive in China, e.g. at the airport.
There are some rules with this visa exemption. For example:
To find out if you’re eligible for Visa-Free Transit, use the Chinese government’s online checker.
If your country or stopover location isn’t listed, it means you’re ineligible.
If Visa-Free Transit doesn’t apply to you, or you want to check out China for more than six days, you’ll need to apply for a tourist visa.
This is the most common visa for China, and is known as the L visa.
With an L visa, you can travel throughout most parts of China for 30 days.
If you’re travelling with a tour group, then your tour agent may get a group visa. This means that you won’t have an individual visa in your passport.
Instead, your tour leader will have a group tour visa with your name on it. This is a fairly easy way to travel, as you just leave all the visa details to your tour agent.
However, if you want to travel on your own then you’ll need to apply for your own visa.
If you want to live and work in China, then you’ll need a Z visa.
You must be invited (i.e. receive an invitation letter) from an employer to apply for a Z visa.
You can get a Z visa for anywhere between 90 days and five years. It depends on the length of your work contract and the discretion of the Chinese consulate you apply to.
You need to be younger than age 60 to work in China as a foreigner.
Once you arrive in China, your employer will help you get a temporary residence permit.
Want to study in China? Then you’ll need an X visa.
An X2 visa is for a study period of up to six months, while an X1 visa is for more than six months.
You’ll need to grab a special form from the school, as well as a letter of admission.
In many countries, the China Visa Application Service Center processes visa applications.
It means you don’t have to visit or post your application to the nearest Chinese consulate or embassy.
So, if you’re from the UK, Canada or Australia (or another one of the 40+ participating countries), simply apply directly at the China Visa Application Service Center.
A notable exception to the list of participating countries is the US.
If you’re American and want a Chinese tourist visa, you’ll need to visit your nearest consulate in person. The locations are Washington DC, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
If you live nowhere near one of these cities, you can pay a visa agent to get the visa on your behalf.
Residents of all other countries not serviced by the China Visa Application Service Center should contact their nearest consulate or embassy.
For a tourist (L) visa, here are the main things you’ll need:
The requirements may differ slightly depending on where you’re from.
If you submit incorrect or incomplete information, your application may be rejected or delayed.
That’s why it’s important to get your application right the first time, especially if you’re traveling in a few weeks’ time.
It varies depending on your nationality and the kind of visa you’re applying for.
For example, US citizens can get a tourist visa from $140, UK citizens from £151, and Australian citizens from $109.50.
You can pay a rush fee to get your visa expedited.
Not everyone needs a visa to go to China.
The main exceptions include:
If you do require a visa for China, make sure you apply early as the process can take some time.
The last thing you want to do is run around the week before you leave trying to get everything sorted.
Consider getting help from a visa agent.
It may cost a bit more than if you do it yourself, but it’ll save you time, effort and worry.
For example, try VisaHQ. They will even stand in line at the consulate for you!
Commercial relationship disclosure: The Helpful Panda has commercial arrangements with organizations that may appear on this page, such as affiliate links. See our terms for more info. Page last updated 18 May 2021.
All your favorite websites and apps like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, WhatsApp, Google and Gmail are banned in China. So, you’ll need to download a virtual private network (VPN) app before you go. We’ve reviewed the best VPNs to help you access the internet freely in China.