In March of 2020, in order to stop the spread of COVID-19, China closed its borders. Chinese citizens were restricted from leaving the country. It became extremely difficult for citizens outside of China to return home. Foreigners who were in the country could stay, but those with visas (of any kind) who happened to be outside of the country suddenly found those visas to be null and void. Embassies and consulates around the world closed down and declared that they would not accept applications for any visas. It was the beginning of what came to be known as the zero-COVID policy.
As I wrote about two weeks ago, the zero-COVID policy came to an abrupt end in December when China suddenly announced it was dismantling the internal covid control measures, such as health code apps and neighborhood testing centers and lifting travel restrictions.
Like so many others who have wondered the past few years if returning to China might ever be possible again, the news that travel restrictions were being lifted gave me a glimmer of hope that it might actually be doable. Perhaps even this year. I began asking, along with almost everyone I know who has been stuck outside of the country for the past three years, “can I really travel to China now?”
As is the case with most questions about China, the answer is complicated. For the past couple of months, I’ve been following various outlets, monitoring the website of the Chinese embassy in the United States, and connecting with friends who have been able to make the trip back or who are working to get foreign colleagues into the country.
While it may be technically possible for some people to travel there, it remains difficult, with visas and airline tickets being the biggest hurdles. This information centers on travel from the United States to China. Travel from other countries may be easier and cheaper. Please check with the Chinese embassy in your country for specific information.
Chinese embassies and consulates in the United States have started receiving applications and issuing visas, but only for certain categories. There is a priority for issuing family visit visas which allow Chinese expats to return to see family. There also seems to be a focus on getting “higher level” foreigners (engineers, high tech, business) into China, so those types of work visas are easier to come by. Some student visas are being issued as well. There have been reports of Americans receiving work visas (Z), but visas for spouses and family members being denied.
At this time, tourist visas are not being processed.
On January 20, a spokesman for the Chinese embassy in the US said this: “Visa application processing has been largely resumed, with the exception of application for tourism and medical treatment. Multi-year multi-entry visas issued before March 26, 2020 by the Chinese government are still suspended of use, mainly because many of them are tourist visas.”
In other words, those beloved 10-year, multiple-entry tourist visas that many of us have in our passports are still not valid.
A full list of visas that are being issued to US citizens can be found here. The list was last updated on January 8, 2023.
The time required to process visa applications seems to be longer than it was pre-COVID, so if you are hoping to obtain one of the visa types listed at the link above, be sure to give yourself plenty of time.
Ticket prices to China from the US remain exorbitant, mainly due to the fact that there are so few flights. In 2019, there were over 300 flights per week between the US and China; currently there are 18. Foreign carriers have submitted applications to the Chinese aviation authorities to increase flight frequencies, but it has not happened yet.
Obviously, it is not known when 2019 traffic levels return, but some airlines are estimating that it will take until late 2024.
Travelers who do manage to get a visa and a reasonably priced flight to China are still required to have a negative PCR test before flying.
Once you arrive, you will no longer be greeted by a phalanx of PPE-clad workers or forced to quarantine in a local designated hotel. You can go straight home. What is different is that arrival forms now need to be filled out on a WeChat app, so you will need to have WeChat on your phone and access to a WeChat account. The app will require you to enter your name, passport information, flight number, seat number, address in China, and contact persons. You will also be asked to verify your negative PCR test. Fortunately, the app is bilingual.
While travel to China no longer remains in the “can’t be done” category, it does remain difficult. But as one writer for this site recently noted in a post titled “Café Encounters,”
What I can tell you is this: If you’re willing to push past the most onerous travel restrictions imaginable, set foot on Chinese soil, and humbly place yourself alongside everyday urban residents racked with the inarticulate ache for life…Then amidst a society increasingly strained to the breaking point, you will find the harvest that awaits you as white as it has ever been.
Editor’s note: This post was edited on February 20, 2023 for accuracy regarding the current flight situation to China.
Joann Pittman is Vice President of Partnership and China Engagement and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University …View Full Bio
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