Even when you have all the legal rights and correct paperwork etcetera etcetera, trying to get into China is actually more difficult than breaking into Buckingham Palace in the middle of the Changing of the Guards. I haven’t *actually* tried breaking into Buckingham Palace, and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone, but getting into China was so pull out all your hair stressful that I would rather take my chances against MI5 and an angry Prince Phillip in his nightdress than do it again anytime soon.
Getting a tourist visa – or any visa for that matter – for China is notoriously difficult, stressful and frustrating.
Or so I’ve heard.
I wouldn’t actually know because I didn’t get one.
There’s this new(ish) programme in place over there called the Transit Without Visa programme. It’s only applicable for citizens of certain countries – United Kingdom being one of them.
The way it works is, if you are travelling from Country A to Country C via Country B (China) but not staying for longer than 72 hours (or 144 hours in some cases), and you have all the right entry requirements for all three countries (visa, letter of invitation etc), you are eligible for a visa exemption, only applicable at certain ports of entry (Beijing being one of them).
However, you need to have proof that you have already purchased your outbound flight, and both flights need to arrive/depart from the same airport in China. That part is crucial, because another of the conditions is that you can’t leave the boundaries of the city you arrive in.
It’s all very do as we say and you won’t get hurt.
So in my case I was travelling from LA to China to Malaysia, staying in China for just under 60 hours. No visa needed for LA, no visa needed for Malaysia. Flying into and out of the same airport; I was basically the perfect candidate. It couldn’t have been simpler!
Except for the fact that nothing in China is simple.
The first issue came when I was checking in at LAX.
The China Airlines representative took all my documents, checked all the things that needed to be checked and was just handing me my boarding pass – it actually brushed my fingertips – when he realised something.
“You are flying to Beijing? Where is your visa?”
His face fell when I told him I didn’t have one. He couldn’t have looked sadder if I told him Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny don’t exist.
I tried to explain in the simplest terms possible about the whole visa waiver thing. He told me that he knows all about it, but the Chinese embassy or whoever is actually in charge of entry and exit stuff keep changing the rules, adding and subtracting eligible cities as and when they feel like it.
“Beijing no,” he told me. “Only Haikou and Shanghai.”
I thought it odd that of all the options they were to take off the list, they’d thoose the main airport of the capital city of the country. Wouldn’t be a very smart move, China.
But he had this official looking document in front of him that did indeed state that British citizens could only take advantage of the 72 hour waiver scheme if they land at Haikou or Shanghai and so it was hard not to believe him.
I pulled up the gov.uk page with all the information on, showed it to him and he agreed that yeah, it does say I can go to Beijing, but it doesn’t matter what the British government says because they are useless little Lego men compared to China in this situation.
He took my passport hostage and went to make a bunch of phone calls to China Airlines in Beijing, the Chinese Embassy in London, the British Embassy in Beijing, even trying the Chinese Consulate in LA who quite frankly couldn’t have been any help because a) it was 2am so they were closed and b) I am British and they are America. Eventually a call was made to some man in Singapore. I don’t know who the man is, who he works for or what relevance he had to my travel plans, but it was him who eventually ironed out the whole situation and told them to let me on the plane.
So the nice man who had spent the past 2 hours fighting his case to not let me on the flight eventually conceded with a “We’ll let you on the plane but it’s at your own risk. I hope you don’t run into any problems.”
Cheers for the positive vibes, fella.
So I hopped on my plane at LAX with a dream and no cardigan… and flew to Taiwan.
Where I ran into exactly the same issue with Su the China Airlines rep.
Su’s main concern was that she didn’t think my onward flight from Beijing to Kuala Lumpur existed, because Air Asia didn’t provide me with a ticket number, just a PNR, and she hadn’t heard of my flight number before.
“We just want to make sure you’re not trying to enter the country illegally.”
And I appreciated her concern, I really did, but by that point I just wanted to grab Su by her dainty little shoulders, give her a little shake and ask her why on earth would she think I would want to illegally enter China of all places. Who in their right minds would even want to do that?! Other than North Koreans, of course, and they kind of have good reason. China is way up top on the list of countries I do not EVER want to get arrested in, alongside Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Syria and UAE.
So yeah, I appreciate your concern Su but I promise you that I value my freedom way too much to do a silly thing like that.
It took about an hour and a half to get it sorted and again involved phone calls to China Airlines head office, China Airlines back at LAX and the woman who worked in the administrative office upstairs. The whole time she was sorting it out, Su held my passport and my phone hostage. The passport I understand, the phone I don’t.
Maybe she thought I was some sort of hardened criminal who she dare not release onto the unsuspecting citizens of Taipei, and no self-respecting hardened criminal goes out without his or her phone, of course, so keeping it on her person was her only option.
Eventually she released phone and passport back into my custody and waved me off with a “Good luck!”
Again, thanks for the support hun.
So I finally arrived at China, thinking that it would be easy breezy from there because they must know what they’re doing, right? LA and Taiwan could kind of be forgiven for not being up-to-date with China’s entry requirements, but China should know, right? It’s their country, their rules.
No, no, no.
There was a separate customs desk for “Transit Leaving Airport” passengers, which was absolutely fan-bloody-tastic because there was only about 4 people waiting there as opposed to 400-odd at the ordinary desk.
So it’s a shame really that I ended up leaving customs long after everyone else. I have now completely lost all faith I ever had in short lines.
On giving the lady at the desk my passport and landing card, she gave me a form and said “fill that”. The form in question had only 3 parts in English, the rest all in Chinese. Without specific instructions as to which parts to fill in, and not wanting to play Russian Roulette with Chinese Immigration, I took a gamble on only having to scribble stuff down in the English parts. Gamble paid off, nothing more was needed.
She took the form back, then called a guy who came down to collect it. He disappeared with passport, landing card and the form, not reappearing for a good 45 minutes. Then the lady called me back over, pained expression on her face and pointing at my landing card.
“But you didn’t put your phone number.”
I would like to take this opportunity to say that there is nowhere on the landing card that says you have to put your phone number. She stamped my passport and finally I was free to go.
The whole process took so long that by the time I got to baggage claim, they’d unloaded whatever bags were left on the conveyor belt from my flight and sort of shoved the leftovers in the corner of the room.
Thinking that I was finally done with the whole visa/no visa debacle, I was practically giddy skipping out of the airport.
So you can imagine my delight when two days later, on my 3rd and final night in the country, I get a knock on my hotel room door.
About five minutes earlier reception had called up wanting to double check if there was one or two people in my room, so when I went to the door I was half expecting it to be them just wanting to double check I wasn’t lying about being alone.
It was the receptionist…along with two of the youngest looking policemen I’ve ever laid eyes on.
“They need to see your passport,” the receptionist told me. This was at about 8pm, and before they came I’d been trying to get some sleep before having to wake up at 2am to go to the airport, so I was quite scantily clad in the shortest shorts in the history of short shorts, hair in a crazy bun on top of my head and no bra.
Exactly the sort of look you wanna go for when potentially getting arrested by 12-year old policemen.
I handed over the passport and the rest of the dialogue went something like this:
Police #1: “What is the purpose of your visit?”
Me: “I’m just visiting. Tourism.”
Police #1: “But what is the purpose?”
Me: “I want to see the Great Wall.”
Police #1: “You want to see the Great Wall?
Receptionist: “She wants to see the Great Wall!”
Police #2: “The Great Wall!”
Police #1: “You want to see the Great Wall?”
Me: “Yes. I saw it today, it’s nice. I’m leaving tomorrow.”
Police #2: “Tomorrow? Already?”
Me: “Yes. I’m on my way to Malaysia.”
Police #1: “You came just to see the Great Wall? Just to see the Great Wall?”
Me: “Yes. It’s a very famous wall and I wanted to see it.”
*all nod at each other*
Police #2: “Okay thank you, goodnight”
Probably the most favourite conversation I’ve ever had with any sort of law enforcement officer in any country EVER. They were like the aliens on Toy Story repeating what each other was saying. The claw, it moooooves.
To cut a very long (lol, sorry about that) story short, despite several hints by many people that there would be no other eventual outcome, I was not arrested for trying to illegally enter China. Because I wasn’t ever trying to illegally enter China anyway.
If there are any British folk out there planning on doing the whole 72-hour in China thing, make sure you bookmark or screenshot the UK Gov Travel Advice page to use as “in your face” evidence when somebody tries to tell you what you’re doing isn’t allowed. Because someone will try and tell you that.
And for anyone not British who are wondering if it’ll work for them you can find a list of all eligible countries here. The link also has a list of the Chinese ports of entry that the TWOV programme apply to, and incidentally Haikou is not on the list.