China visa rules: Beijing and Shanghai issue free transit visas but cruise line tells Brits they still have to pay

Exclusive: Transit permit saves £200 and the gruelling process of applying for a full Chinese visa

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Sunday 01 April 2018 16:52 BST
China issues free transit visas for Beijing and Shanghai

Red tape for travellers is getting ever more tangled, with one shining exception: China is actually loosening its draconian visa rules for tourists.

Both Beijing and Shanghai now allow a visitor to stay almost a week without formality, so long as they fulfil a few conditions for what is in effect a free transit visa. They must arrive from outside China; stay no more than six days from midnight on their day of arrival; and depart to a different destination outside the People’s Republic.

With Chinese tourist visas so expensive and complicated to obtain, this is excellent news for thousands of cruise passengers, who can join or leave a cruise at Shanghai without needing a visa.

Yet one of the world’s biggest cruise lines told British passengers they did not qualify, and must instead spend around £200 to obtain a tourist visa.

Sandra Collinson has a cruise booked next March from Singapore to Shanghai aboard Majestic Princess. She plans to spend one night in a hotel in Shanghai and fly home the day after disembarking.

Ms Collinson told The Independent: “Princess are stating they will deny boarding to any passenger who do not have a visa.”

“This is an added expense the cruise passenger does not need.”

Initially Princess Cruises said that the Chinese authorities had stipulated all passengers must have visas.

After The Independent intervened, however, the cruise line changed its attitude.

A Princess Cruises spokesperson said: “The China visa situation is complex and dependent on a number of factors.

“As the local authorities state visitors must be in possession of a valid visa, we recommend to all our guests that they have a single-entry visa to ensure they can travel.

“However, under very specific circumstances the 144-hour exception visa is valid. As such, guests are able to use it if it satisfies the criteria of the local authorities.

”Guests who require more information should speak to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.”

The Independent made a test call to the Foreign Office to seek more information. The operator said he could not himself provide advice on Chinese visa rules, but that UK Visa and Immigration could help. But the number he provided, 0300 123 2241, is a helpline entirely for people wanting to visit the UK.

Many British cruise passengers book through travel agents who are members of Abta. The travel association’s code of conduct stipulates: “Members shall, before a contract is made, advise their clients of passport, visa and other entry and transit requirements for the journeys to be undertaken where it is reasonably practicable for the members to obtain this information.”

A spokesperson for Abta said: “While there are occasions where a visa to visit China is not required, China’s visa rules are complex with specific visas for difference circumstances.”

For the past 16 months, the Shanghai General Station of Immigration Inspection has provided a straightforward, English-language Interpretation of 144-hour Visa-exemption Transit Policy, which explains the rules.

They can be summarised as follows:

1. Arrive from an airport/port/railway station outside the People’s Republic of China (PRC) by air, ship or rail. For this purpose, Hong Kong is regarded as outside China.

2. Show proof of booking to a destination airport/port/railway station in a different country.

3. Remain within Shanghai Municipality, Jiangsu Province (a vast province stretching north of the city and including Nanjing) and Zhejiang Province (to the south). Note that this does not include most other prime tourist cities, such as Beijing, Xian and Guangzhou.

4. Leave before midnight six days after arriving in China (eg arrive lunchtime on Saturday, must leave by 11.59pm on Friday).

If the traveller meets these requirements, he or she can follow the signs on arrival to a special 144-hour transit desk for processing, saving money and the gruelling process of applying for a full Chinese visa.

Click here to find hotels in China

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