Most foreign visitors to China, including US citizens, need a visa in order to enter the country for stays more than 72-144 hours (there are visa exceptions for transit stays less than this time). The process is straightforward, but does require you or a proxy to deliver the paperwork to the embassy or consulate.
Note that this guide does not take into account any additional, temporary requirements in place during the Covid pandemic. For the most up-to-date Covid requirements, visit the China embassy website.
- Visa needed for US citizens: Yes
- Visa types for US citizens: Single-entry, double-entry, or multiple-entry visa
- Visa application: At the China embassy or consulate
- Visa issued: In passport
- Cost: $140
- Timing: Around 4 business days
- Length of validity: 3 months for single-entry, 6 months for double-entry, 6-12 months for multiple-entry
- Max length of stay: 30 days
Who Needs a Visa to Visit China?
Visitors from most foreign countries, including the United States, must obtain a visa in order to enter mainland China. Some exceptions that apply to US passport-holders are:
- US citizens who plan to visit Hong Kong or Macau only, and nowhere else in China, do not need to get a visa for stays of up to 90 days (Hong Kong) or 30 days (Macau).
- Passport-holders from several countries (including the United States) do not need to get a tourist visa if their visit is solely to Hainan Province, is no more than 15 days, and is as part of a tour group of five or more that’s been organized through a registered travel agency in Hainan.
- People who are merely traveling through China, flying into and out of the same city without leaving the airport, do not need a visa if their stay is 24 hours or less and they already have a ticket for the departing flight.
- Travelers transiting through China and staying in the country less than 72-144 hours (depending on airport) can enter through the Transit Without Visa (TWOV) program.
Note: If you have an expired passport that contains a China visa that’s still valid, you can travel with a new (valid) passport and still use the existing visa in the old passport—you just have to bring both passports with you.
Visa-Free Travel Exemptions
Travelers from several countries (including the United States) can take advantage of the Transit Without Visa (TWOV) program to stay in certain cities for 72-144 hours provided they have a confirmed ticket for the departing flight and all the necessary documents to enter their onward destination.
Note that this cannot be a round-trip from the USA and back—the onward destination must be a third country. Both Macau and Hong Kong count as a third country, however.
When you check in for your flight, tell the agent that you want to apply for TWOV. During the flight, you’ll get arrival and departure forms to fill out. Locate the 72-hour or 144-hour TWOV desk at the airport and submit your paperwork. After you collect any checked luggage and go through customs, you’re free to exit the airport for the specified duration.
The airports that allow 72-hour visa-free visits are:
- Guilin Liangjiang (KWL)
- Harbin Taiping (HRB)
- Changsha Huanghua (CSX)
The airports that allow 144-hour visa-free visits are:
- Beijing Capital (PEK)
- Chengdu Shuangliu (CTU)
- Chongqing Jiangbei (CKG)
- Dalian Zhoushuizi (DLC)
- Guangzhou Baiyun (CAN)
- Hangzhou Xiaoshan (HGH)
- Jieyang Chaoshan (SWA)
- Kunming Changshui (KMG)
- Nanjing Lukou (NKG)
- Ningbo Lishe (NGB)
- Qingdao Liuting (TAO)
- Shanghai Hongqiao (SHA)
- Shanghai Pudong (PVG)
- Shenyang Taoxian (SHE)
- Shenzen Bao’an (SZX)
- Shijiazhuang Zhengding (SJW)
- Tianjin Binhai (TSN)
- Wuhan Tianhe (WUH)
- Xiamen Gaoqi (XMN)
- Xi’an Xianyang (XIY)
What Types of Tourist Visas are Available for US Citizens?
- L Visa: Visa for travelers who are not Chinese citizens and will be in China as tourists; options under this umbrella include single-entry (valid for 3 months), double-entry (valid for 3-6 months), and multiple-entry visas (valid either for 6 or 12 months)
How to Apply for a China Visa
While the application for a China visa is a PDF you’ll fill in online, there is no online submission method—you must print the completed application. In addition, they won’t accept mailed applications. Instead, either you or a proxy working on your behalf must turn in the completed application and accompanying paperwork in person to the embassy or consulate and, later, pick up the visa.
Required Documents and Information
- A passport valid for at least six months past your entry date into China and with blank visa pages
- A recent color passport photo that meet the requirements detailed here
- Details of travel itinerary through China, including a reservation for accommodation and a confirmed ticket for a departing flight
- Accepted payment methods are: Visa, MasterCard, cashier’s check, or money order (no personal checks or cash)
- Cost for Single Entry Visa: $140
- Cost for Double Entry Visa: $140
- Cost for Multiple Entry Visa valid for 6 months: $140
- Cost for Multiple Entry Visa valid for 12 months: $140
- Regular service: The processing time is typically four business days (the Chinese Embassy recommends submitting your application roughly one month before your scheduled trip).
- Expedited service: For an additional $25, the process can be shortened to two-three business days.
Note: Upon arrival in China, visitors are required to register with local police within 24 hours. If you’re staying at a hotel, this is done automatically when you check in. If you’re staying in a private home, you’ll need to visit the local police station with your passport to do this yourself.
Process of Applying for a China Visa
Since Chinese visa applications must be delivered to the embassy or a consulate in person, either by you or a proxy, some travelers choose to pay a visa service to handle the process for them. If you’re doing it yourself, here’s the application process.
Application steps for ordinary L (tourist) visa:
- Identify the Chinese Embassy or Consulate that serves your state here: http://www.china-embassy.org/eng/zmzlljs/t84229.htm
- Start your China Online Visa Application (COVA) here: http://cova.mfa.gov.cn/qzCoCommonController.do?show&pageId=index&locale=en_US (this is a PDF application, so you must have Acrobat Reader installed to do this)
- Complete the nine-page COVA, noting your Application ID number (you can click “Save” and come back to finish the document later using the “Retrieve an Application” tab; your information is saved for up to 30 days)
- Print the completed application
- Make an appointment with the Chinese Embassy or Consulate, if needed
- Submit the application along with all required documents in person to the Chinese Embassy or Consulate that serves your state or have a visa agency or friend submit the application and documents on your behalf; mailed applications are not accepted and clicking “Save” on the online application does not submit it to the embassy or consulate
Note: When completing the COVA, you’ll choose the type of visa for which you’re applying (the Tourist or L Visa) and indicate the number of entries you would like the visa to cover. Choosing a visa type and number of entries does not mean they’ll be granted, however—you may request a multiple-entry visa, for instance, and be granted a single entry. The type of visa you’re granted is entirely at the discretion of the embassy or consulate.