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What are the requirements for travelling to China during the pandemic?

In March 2020, China closed its borders to nearly all foreign travellers, in response to the spreading of the COVID-19 pandemic in Europe. To date, China remains one of the very few countries in the world sticking with its notorious “zero-tolerance” policy. The following is a summary of the requirements for international visitors to go to China:

  • Entry in the country is allowed only to foreign citizens with a valid Chinese residence permit (for work or family reunion purposes). There are several cases of foreign citizens with valid residence permit leaving China and re-entering – but still subject to strict testing and quarantine requirements (see below).
  • Foreign citizens without a valid residence permit, need to be invited by a China-based entity, and apply for a new visa. As part of the application materials, the applicant must submitted an Invitation Letter (“PU Letter”) issued by the Foreign Affairs Office of the province where the inviting entity is based. However, applications for new PU letters were suspended in late 2021 in preparation for the Beijing Winter Olympics.
  • The number of international flights available is extremely limited, with skyrocketing prices which can be even 10 times more expensive than in pre-pandemic period. In addition, international flights are regularly cancellated and suspended for several weeks if positive cases are found on a previous flight.
  • Before boarding the flight to China, the foreign citizen must obtain a green Health Declaration Code (HDC) from the Chinese embassy in the country where it is located. This requires the applicant to upload reports of two negative PCR tests done within 48 hours if they are fully inoculated with vaccines; or alternatively one negative PCR test, and one negative IgM test.
  • Only direct flights from the foreign citizen’s home country to China are allowed. If no direct flights are available, transfer flights might be selected, but the foreign citizen must re-do two PCR tests (or one PCR test and one IgM test, depending on vaccination status) in the transfer country, and apply for a second HDC code to the Chinese embassy in the transfer country.
  • Pre-departure tests might only be taken in specific facilities officially designated by the Chinese embassy in the country, with prices easily reaching a few hundred euros per test.
  • After arrival in China, the foreign citizen must undergo a 14-day or 21-day centralized quarantine in specific facilities, at the traveller’s expense – even if the foreign citizen owns or rents an apartment in the destination city. During the quarantine period, it is not possible to leave the hotel room, and several throat, nasal and even anal swabs must be taken.
  • If local outbreaks occur in the city where the foreign citizen is having its quarantine, then at the end of the quarantine period it might still be impossible to return to the Chinese city of residence – even if for the entire period the person was locked in a hotel room.

There is no indication on when China might ease its international travel restrictions, but it is likely that these will remain in place at least until the end of 2022.