Since the outbreak of COVID-19 in early 2020, China has imposed a strict “zero Covid” policy to prevent the spread of the virus and keep cases as close to zero as possible.
This policy has been largely successful, with the highest number of COVID-19 cases in 2021 numbering in the low thousands, far below that of many other countries.
Despite high hopes at the beginning of 2021 that China would begin to relax its rules and entry requirements, the recent Delta and Omicron outbreaks have only impelled the government to double down on prevention measures, including reducing the number of international flight routes, increasing the length of quarantines on arrival, and amping up domestic prevention measures.
In this article, we explain how foreigners can enter China – from booking a flight to obtaining a visa to undergoing pre- and post-flight testing and quarantine – and offer an overview of China’s domestic COVID-19 prevention measures and policies.
Despite hopes that China would gradually begin to ease border restrictions and allow more international flights into the country, the worsening global pandemic and the spread of the highly contagious Delta and Omicron variants have led the authorities to take tougher prevention measures during the winter and spring period. As such, on October 29, 2021, the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) announced that it would be reducing the number of international passenger flights in and out of China to just 408 per week from the period between October 31, 2021 and March 26, 2022. This is a 21.1 percent reduction from the same period in 2020.
The CAAC is responsible for approving direct international flight routes to and from China, as well as the airlines approved to operate on these routes. Below is an overview of the flight routes currently approved by the CAAC for the period from October 31, 2021 to March 26, 2022. Note that this list may not be exhaustive, and any given flight is subject to last-minute delays and cancellations. Passengers planning on flying to China are advised to keep a sharp eye on updates from the airline.
Last updated: December 29, 2021
Note that not all of the above flight routes have regularly scheduled flights; some may only have as few as one or two scheduled flights during the period between October 31, 2021, and March 26, 2022.
To see the dates of currently scheduled flights approved by the CAAC, look up the departure city and destination on the CAAC website’s flight search (Chinese only).
China has imposed strict travel restrictions on international arrivals since March 2020 to stop the introduction of COVID-19 cases from abroad. Since then, the restrictions have successively been loosened and tightened again in response to the changing situation of the pandemic worldwide.
In addition to reduced frequency of international passenger flights, restrictions include limited visa availability (including a suspension of tourist visas) and strict COVID-19 testing and quarantine requirements before and after arrival in China.
China has been adjusting its travel/entry policies from time to time based on the global pandemic situation, and so far, it has implemented four major phases of travel restrictions.
Phase I: China first imposed travel restrictions on March 28, 2020. At this time, foreigners from all countries were prohibited from entering China on most types of visas. Exceptions were given to those who held diplomatic, service, courtesy, or C visas; those traveling to China for necessary economic, trade, scientific, or technological activities; or out of emergency humanitarian needs. New visas issued after March 28, 2020 were not affected.
Phase II: The Phase I restrictions were temporarily lifted in September 2020, when foreigners with valid residence permits for work, personal matters, and reunion, would be allowed to enter the country without needing to re-apply for new visas.
Those whose visas or residence permits had expired in the meantime could re-apply for relevant visas by presenting the expired residence permits, without requiring a new invitation letter. The re-application had to be on the condition that the purpose of the visa or permit holders’ visit to China remained unchanged.
Phase III: On November 3, 2020, due to the worsening pandemic in several areas of the world, China re-imposed the initial rules set out in March of 2020 for foreign nationals from the following countries: the UK, France, Italy, Belgium, Russia, Ukraine, Philippines, Bangladesh, India, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Uzbekistan, and South Africa.
Under this policy, foreigners from these countries will need to fully follow the entry rules set during Phase I restrictions. New visas issued after November 3, 2020 were not affected.
Phase IV: In early March 2021, China announced that travelers who have received Chinese COVID-19 vaccines and obtained the vaccination certificate can enjoy streamlined visa applications from March 15, 2021. We discuss this in more detail below.
At present, foreigners are permitted to enter China if they have a valid residence permit or a corresponding visa obtained after March 28, 2020 (except for foreign nationals from the countries exempted in Phase III). Foreign nationals from the countries listed in Phase III are only permitted entry if they have obtained a visa or residence permit after November 3, 2020, when the Phase III restrictions were imposed.
Below is an overview of the types of visas that are currently being issued by Chinese visa offices.
Family members (including spouses, children, parents, grandparents, and siblings) of foreign citizens who have permanent residence in China.
– Invitation letter from the relatives in China
– Photocopy of the inviter’s Chinese ID card
Highly qualified talent with skill sets that are urgently needed in China.
– Invitation letter (PU) issued by the Provincial Foreign Affairs Office or Commercial Department, or work permit issued by a competent department in China.
– Formal letter from the company in the applicant country stating the specific reasons and necessity of visiting China.
Last updated: December 29, 2021
In addition to the above scenarios, foreign nationals who have been inoculated with a Chinese COVID-19 vaccine can enjoy an easier visa application procedure with looser requirements, although they are still limited to the above visa types. The applicants will be required to provide the vaccination certificate along with the other application documents.
The loosened application requirements are:
The below visa types are currently not being issued:
The following visa-free policies are also currently suspended:
Since July 20, 2020, the CAAC has required both foreign and Chinese passengers flying into China to obtain COVID-19 negative certificates, known as green Health Declaration Certificate (HDC) codes, before boarding if they are flying from or transiting in any of these countries.
Passengers must take two COVID-19 tests within 48 hours of boarding the direct flight to mainland China. The tests must consist of one nucleic acid test (PCR test) and one IgM antibody test. Passengers that take a flight from a third country before transferring to a direct flight to mainland China must take two COVID-19 tests in both countries before boarding the flight to China.
The COVID-19 tests must be done at facilities designated or recognized by Chinese embassies in the host country. The Chinese embassies will carefully assess the testing capacity of host countries and formulate travel procedures when testing conditions are met. Check the local Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) website for lists of designated testing facilities in the country of departure.
After having taken the two COVID-19 tests in the country of departure, passengers must apply for a green HS code (for Chinese nationals) or a green HDC code (for foreign nationals). Foreign nationals can apply for HDC codes by registering on the MOFA website and Chinese nationals can apply for HS codes on the WeChat mini program “防疫健康码国际版”.
The following documents are required when applying for the HDC code:
The HDC and HS codes are valid for two days from the date of the earliest COVID-19 test.
The green HDC code must be obtained in the country from which the direct flight to China departs and cannot be obtained in a third country. If you are transferring from a third country before getting a direct flight to mainland China, you must ensure that there is enough time between flights in the transit city to obtain the requisite COVID-19 tests and apply for the green HDC code.
When flying from a third country, travelers must also take two COVID-19 tests (PCR and IgM antibody) within 48 hours of boarding the flight in the origin country and apply for a green HDC or HS code in the origin country.
Travelers are advised to check the guidance of the airline they are flying with for information on airport COVID-19 testing facilities and for any other COVID-19 restrictions or requirements of the origin or transit countries that could interfere with travel plans.
All passengers arriving from overseas must undergo between 14 and 21 days of centralized quarantine in a government-designated hotel at the point of entry in China. The cost of the quarantine hotel must be covered by the passenger, and generally ranges between RMB 350 (US$55) and RMB 600 (US$94) per day, depending on the quality of the hotel. The passenger generally cannot choose which hotel they will be quarantined in, although sometimes they will be given the option to choose between different price points.
During this time, you will not be permitted to leave your hotel room for any reason. All travelers must quarantine in separate hotel rooms, but children under the age of 14 are permitted to quarantine in the same room as a parent. You will also be required to take regular COVID-19 tests throughout the duration of the stay at the quarantine hotel.
Some cities will also require an additional seven days of health monitoring in the arrival city before you can travel to other cities in China. Health monitoring restrictions vary between districts and cities but may involve home quarantine (if you are a resident of the arrival city), restricted movement (such as only within the community where your house or hotel is situated), and regular COVID-19 tests and temperature checks.
If traveling to another city in China after completing the centralized quarantine and health monitoring, you may be required to undergo an additional seven to 14 days of quarantine, either in a designated quarantine hotel or under observation at home, depending on the local requirements of the city or district.
Some people can apply for an exemption to centralized quarantine and get permission to quarantine at home for all or part of the 14 days. Those people include those who are:
To prevent the spread of COVID-19 across provinces and cities in China, there are several domestic prevention measures in place for domestic travelers. The most common is the requirement to show a green health and travel code either before taking a train, plane, or bus to a different city or upon arrival.
Some cities will also require travelers to show a negative COVID-19 test taken in the last 48 hours, either before boarding the chosen mode of transport or upon arrival at the destination (or both).
Note that many hotels have temporarily stopped accepting foreign guests due to COVID-19 restrictions. Some that do accept foreign guests may also require them to provide a negative COVID-19 test taken within the last 48 hours, even if the city itself does not impose this requirement.
If you are staying in any other specialized or restricted area, such as a school, university campus, or government facility, you may also be required to provide a negative COVID-19 test to enter even if there is no city-wide requirement. It is therefore advised to call ahead to ensure that the hotel or other accommodation can accept foreign guests and to confirm which documents are required to stay there.
Quarantine requirements for domestic arrivals depend on whether the traveler has been to a medium or high-risk area (keep reading below for more details on China’s risk tier system).
All arrivals from high-risk areas within China will be required to undergo 14 days of centralized quarantine. The requirements for arrivals from medium-risk areas vary slightly from city to city.
For example, the city of Nanchang, Jiangxi Province, requires all travelers who come from medium-risk areas must undergo seven days of centralized quarantine and a further seven days of health monitoring at home. Shanghai, on the other hand, requires travelers from medium-risk areas to undergo 14 days of community health monitoring, where they can stay at home (if they are a resident of the city) but have limited movement and must undergo regular testing.
Travelers can search the latest local travel requirements by entering the departure and destination city in the travel policy search tool on the State Council app or WeChat mini program. This service is currently only available in Chinese.
To find the tool in WeChat, search “疫情服务” (yìqíng fúwù – pandemic services) and then choose “出行防疫政策查询” (chūxíng fángyì zhèngcè cháxún – travel pandemic prevention policy search) under the “tools” section (实用工具 – shíyòng gōngjù).
In general, if you are traveling from a low-risk area, you will not be required to quarantine, although negative COVID-19 tests may be required.
China imposes a three-tiered system for determining the risk level of a given jurisdiction in China. The risk level is divided into low-risk, medium-risk, and high-risk. The three levels are also color-coded: green for low risk, yellow for medium risk, and red for high risk.
These color codes also correspond to the color code of the health and travel codes that people must present in order to move freely around the country. We explain these codes in more detail below.
The risk levels are assessed based on the number of new cases:
As of December 30, 2021, there were two high-risk areas and 71 medium-risk areas in China. Check our COVID-19 tracker for the latest numbers.
China’s National Health Commission also launched a WeChat mini program for citizens to check out the infection risk level of a certain area and for frontline workers to check the countries and cities visited by a traveler in the past 14 days. A ‘visit’ in a given city or region constitutes a stay of over four hours in total.
The program also allows users to check if they have taken the same public transport as a person who has been diagnosed with COVID-19 in the last 14 days.
As part of the domestic COVID-19 prevention measures, citizens are required to present a green health or travel code to enter public places and travel between cities in China.
There are two main health codes required for traveling within China: The Health Code (健康吗/随身吗) and the Travel Code (行程卡). Both health codes are embedded into the popular messaging app WeChat, operated by Tencent, and the payment app Alipay, operated by Alibaba. The travel code can also be downloaded as a standalone app.
To obtain the codes, residents must input information, including an ID number, home address, health status, contact history, and residence history, into the apps. The apps will then generate a green, yellow, or red QR code depending on their travel and contact history.
The health code tracks the holder’s health status based on location services and the information they have provided. Most cities use the same health code, which will update automatically to the local version based on the phone’s location services (see image below). However, some cities, such as Beijing (which uses a mini program called the “Health Kit” (健康宝)), have their own standalone apps or mini programs. You may therefore have to register for a separate local health code when traveling to certain cities.
The travel code, meanwhile, tracks and lists all the cities you have traveled to in the last 14 days. It will turn yellow if you have traveled to a medium-risk area or red if you have traveled to a high-risk area in the last 14 days.
The travel code has recently also added an asterisk (*) next to cities that currently have a medium or high-risk area, even if other areas of the city are low-risk and the holder has not traveled to the medium/high-risk areas. Some cities and districts may impose additional requirements on inbound travelers who travel from a city with an asterisk, such as COVID-19 testing, even if the person hasn’t traveled to the medium/high-risk area and the code is green.
The significance of holding a green, yellow, or red health code differs in different cities and regions. A green health code generally means citizens can freely move around and travel to different cities, although some cities and regions will still require inbound travelers to quarantine or self-isolate upon arrival. The yellow or red code may subject the holder to seven and 14 days of quarantine respectively, at home or at a designated hotel.
Generally speaking, as long as you are traveling from a low-risk area, the green color in your health code system won’t change. But if you are from medium or high-risk areas, your travel to other Chinese provinces and cities will probably be restricted and you will be required to quarantine upon arrival.
China has set up fast track channels with various countries that will make it easier for those traveling for essential business or official visits to travel to and from China. So far, China has signed fast track agreements with Germany, France, South Korea, the UK, Japan, and Singapore.
In addition to the above, in November 2021, the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) in Shanghai announced that it had reached an agreement with the local Foreign Affairs Offices (FAO) to implement a US-China fast track program in early 2022. Details of the fast-track program have yet to be released.
To qualify, applicants must get a letter from the local Chinese embassy granting approval for the fast lane program. Fast track travelers are required to undergo COVID-19 testing before departure and after arrival in China. Those who test negative after arrival in China are not required to undergo centralized quarantine but must adhere to a strictly monitored itinerary for the first 14 days and take regular tests.
According to the European Chamber of China, supporting measures to facilitate the return of foreign nationals to China for urgent or necessary purposes are being conducted at a local level, including in Beijing, Chongqing, Guangdong, Jiangsu, Shandong, Shanghai, and Tianjin.
In Shanghai, the MOFA and the Shanghai Municipality Government have issued two channels – a normal channel and a fast track channel – to facilitate the entry into China of employees essential for business operations.
The fast-track channel is only applied to employees of companies whose country of origin has signed a fast-track agreement with China.
Employees entering Shanghai following the fast-track procedure will be allowed to start work within 48 hours after arrival, subject to negative COVID-19 test results. Those entering Shanghai following the normal procedure will be subject to a 14-day quarantine at a designated central facility. Please see our article here to understand the detailed application procedures.
For South Korea, in addition to the other fast track privileges, China has also resumed issuing visas to South Korean students, employees hired to work in China, and those with residence permits.
In April 2021, China confirmed it would accept US travelers inoculated with American-made vaccines. The Chinese Embassy in the United States issued a notice on April 21, 2021, allowing US passengers vaccinated with American-made non-inactivated vaccines to depart from Dallas and enter the Chinese mainland. The accepted American-made non-inactivated vaccines include vaccines made by Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson. The Notice required that passengers must get all the required shots before their trip to China. China-bound passengers are still required to provide positive IgM antibody test results as well as negative PCR test results.
When discussing China in 2022, some of the most pressing questions on the minds of businesspeople are whether the country will allow quarantine-free entry, reinstate tourist and business visas, and relax its zero-Covid policy.
The short answer, unfortunately, is not likely.
China’s zero-Covid policy has proven, thus far, to be extremely effective at preventing the spread of the virus through the population, even with the arrival of the more infectious Delta variant. As of December 23, the total number of confirmed cases in China was just 4,245.
Although the prevention measures would be considered drastic in other parts of the world, they largely have the support of the wider Chinese population. This is helped by the fact that, due to the highly targeted nature of the lockdowns and travel restrictions, only a very small proportion of the population is affected at one time – usually only those living in the district or housing community in which a case was detected – thereby allowing the majority of the population to live life as normal.
In addition, the recent spread of the Omicron variant has given even more credence to China’s prevention strategy and has only led it to double down on its current policies. This is compounded by the fact that China’s domestic booster vaccines (which have been used to administer 2.695 billion doses as of December 20, 2021), appear to be weaker against the new Omicron variant than previous strains. China recorded its first Omicron case in December 2021, although the variant has thus far not spread further in the population.
The latest outbreak and concerns over the spread of the new variant have led the government to discourage people from traveling during Chinese New Year – the single most active travel period in China – for the third year in a row. Measures to deter people from traveling have also been put in place, such as prohibiting online travel agencies from selling tour tickets.
Apart from genuine concern for the health and well-being of the population and stability of the healthcare system, China also has political and economic reasons for remaining unwavering in its zero-Covid stance.
During the first wave of COVID-19 in Wuhan in early 2020, the government found itself the subject of a rare bout of criticism from the general population as case numbers and the death toll rose. The government has since worked hard to regain the confidence of the people, and one way to do this is to ensure the basic livelihoods of the people – by providing fiscal stimulus and support, but above all else, by ensuring that COVID-19 is not permitted to spread as it did in early 2020.
On the other hand, the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on China was devastating – as it was in most of the world – and yet the country has succeeded in mostly bouncing back without reopening to foreign travel. One of the major contributors to the post-COVID recovery was domestic consumption, which has been greatly boosted by low COVID-19 numbers allowing a return to normal work and productivity.
In short, the economic impact of keeping borders closed is far lower than the impact of COVID-19 spreading through the population.
So, is there no chance of eased restrictions in 2022?
Many have speculated that China will begin to ease restrictions after some of the major events in 2022 are over, namely, the Beijing Winter Olympics in February and the 20th Party Congress in Q4 2022. As discussed above, there are many other issues of concern for the government with regards to reopening quarantine-free international travel. The restrictions are therefore likely to continue after these events are over.
There are, of course, some situations that could help convince authorities to ease some restrictions. One is the roll-out of a highly effective vaccine. China is developing its own mRNA vaccine, which is expected to hit the market next year. In addition to a domestic vaccine, the mRNA vaccine developed by Germany’s BioNTech and Fosun Pharma is now under administrative review, while the Shanghai-based biopharma firm Everest Medicine has signed a license agreement with the Canadian biotech company Providence Therapeutics to produce and sell its potential mRNA COVID-19 vaccine in China. Everest Medicine hopes to complete the China factory by the end of the year.
In addition to an effective vaccine, an effective drug to treat COVID-19 could also mark a significant step toward reopening. On December 8, 2021, China’s top medicine regulator, the National Medical Products Administration (NMPA) approved a neutralizing antibody combination therapy against COVID-19, which can be used for adults and adolescents with mild to moderate symptoms who are at risk of developing more severe symptoms. Clinical trials show a significant reduction in hospitalization and death, and the drug has already been used on patients in China.
As it currently stands, however, China is not ready to fully reopen quarantine-free travel, and restrictions are expected to persist. The next best thing may be opening travel corridors with specific countries or regions that have high vaccination rates and low numbers of COVID-19 cases, such as Singapore. There have been discussions of a Hong Kong-Singapore quarantine-free travel bubble since November 2020, but each round has subsequently been tabled after outbreaks in one of the two jurisdictions.
China Briefing is written and produced by Dezan Shira & Associates. The practice assists foreign investors into China and has done so since 1992 through offices in Beijing, Tianjin, Dalian, Qingdao, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Ningbo, Suzhou, Guangzhou, Dongguan, Zhongshan, Shenzhen, and Hong Kong. Please contact the firm for assistance in China at [email protected].
Dezan Shira & Associates has offices in Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore, United States, Germany, Italy, India, and Russia, in addition to our trade research facilities along the Belt & Road Initiative. We also have partner firms assisting foreign investors in The Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, Bangladesh.
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