China’s Travel Restrictions due to COVID-19: An Explainer
- This article provides information on the latest travel policies in China – implemented temporarily due to COVID-19 – to help business travelers understand the current situation and develop feasible travel plans.
- See also table below detailing China’s provincial quarantine policies for inbound travelers – last updated June 17, 2020.
- We address some frequently asked questions with regards to foreigners managing their China residence and work permits when stuck abroad due to the travel ban in our article here.
- For timely updates, you can track our COVID-19 timeline here, which is updated daily.
COVID-19 is now a global pandemic, and in a bid to prevent a second wave of the outbreak at home, China has not given up on drastic measures to contain infections or possibility of reinfection.
Since March 28, the country’s borders are closed to almost all foreigners. The Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) adopted the so-called five-one policy to cap international flights the following day. The number of international flights into China since then dropped 90 percent and only around 20 international flights can land on its soil each day.
The COVID-19 epidemic in China is basically under control. Most of the country is classified as low-risk areas. However, the virus hasn’t fully disappeared with sporadic outbreaks in individual cities.
Recently, a fresh cluster of COVID-19 cases emerged in Beijing from the city’s largest wholesale food market – Xinfadi wholesale market. With more than 100 people reported infected over the past five days, on June 16, Beijing raised its public health emergency response from the third to the second level. Compounds neighboring Xinfadi were fenced off with 27 now designated medium risk and one designated high risk. Beijing government called for residents of medium and high-risk areas, as well as those related to the Xinfadi market, to not leave Beijing. Other residents should not leave the city if the trip is not necessary. Those who have to leave should first have negative nucleic acid test results no older than seven days. All exhibitions, sports events, and shows will be stopped and tourist services to other provinces and overseas are suspended. All outbound taxi and car-hailing services were suspended on Tuesday. Other cities across China warned they would quarantine arrivals from the capital. Shandong, Zhejiang, Sichuan, Liaoning, Heilongjiang, Fujian, and Shanghai have introduced a range of quarantine measures for travelers from Beijing.
Not long ago, several northeastern cities like Shulan city in Jilin province and Harbin as well as Mudanjiang city in Heilongjiang province also experienced compound lockdowns, strict travel restrictions, and prevention of public gatherings due to cases imported by Chinese nationals from Russia.
China has since tightened the borders with Russia – curbing land border crossings in the northeast and surveilling the flights from Moscow. Meanwhile, China is negotiating with other countries to establish fast track channels allowing necessary entry into China to revive international business activities. Beginning June 8, the CAAC started to allow more foreign airlines to join the five-one policy – operating one international passenger flight to one Chinese city per week.
Within other areas of the country, provinces and cities are easing domestic travel restrictions in an effort to boost consumption and get the economy back to normalcy. But local quarantine policies and controls still exist and vary, adding to the confusion of many business travelers.
This article provides information on the latest travel policies in China – implemented temporarily due to COVID-19 – and meant to contain any internal spread of the coronavirus.
International travel restrictions
Suspending the entry of foreign nationals
From midnight (0 a.m.) of March 28, 2020, China suspended the entry of most foreign nationals, citing the temporary measure as a response to the rapid spread of COVID-19 across the world.
According to the announcement was made by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) on March 26, foreigners who hold the following visas, even valid ones, are not allowed to enter China now:
- Chinese visa;
- Residence permit;
- APEC business travel card; and/or
- Port visa.
The ban also applies on those who are planning to enter the country under the following policies:
- 24/72/144-hour visa free transit policy;
- Hainan 30-day visa free policy;
- 15-day visa free policy for foreign cruise group tours through Shanghai Port;
- Guangdong 144-hour visa free policy for foreign group tours from Hong Kong or Macao SAR; and/or
- Guangxi 15-day visa free policy for foreign tour groups of ASEAN countries.
However, those who hold the following visas will not be affected:
- Diplomatic, service, courtesy, or C visas; and
- New visa successfully applied for from Chinese embassies or consulates overseas after the announcement of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Meanwhile, as the outbreak eases, to maintain the necessary international business activities, China is communicating with the rest of the world to relax the border restrictions.
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 Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) 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 check our article here to understand the detailed application procedures.
Various countries’ embassies and chambers of commerce have been negotiating with the Chinese government to establish fast track channels. By far, China has signed fast track agreements with Germany, France, South Korea, UK, Japan, and Singapore.
On June 3, China and Singapore signed the agreement to launch a “fast track”, which will enable travelers from both sides to enter each other’s territories without serving quarantine periods, but the travelers will need to take a COVID-19 test 48 hours before departure. Starting June 8, the “fast track” has been implemented first in Shanghai, Tianjin, Chongqing, Guangdong, Jiangsu, and Zhejiang. Please check our article on how to apply for the fast lane travel from or to Singapore.
On May 16, Beijing News, a state-run newspaper, had reported that the governments of China and Germany negotiated to set up a “fast track” procedure for personnel to travel between each other’s territories. The first charter flight carrying German businesspeople who work in China but were unable to return flew from Frankfurt to Shanghai on May 25. Passengers will need to pass a nucleic acid test before taking off and will be tested again after landing.
On April 21, the spokesman Geng Shuang of the MoFA said that China and South Korea had reached an agreement in principle on establishing a fast track arrangement for urgent essential travel between the two countries. On April 30, at another regular press conference, Geng further revealed that a batch of 10 Chinese provinces and cities will be the first allowed to receive South Korean travelers. Relevant South Korean travelers will be granted visas after they pass health screenings but will still be subject to quarantines on arrival. Chinese travelers will not be subject to quarantines in South Korea once they meet all the necessary health requirements. A similar discussion took place between China and Singapore, according to Geng.
China’s flight restrictions
China now accommodates 134 international flights a week under restrictions imposed in late March in response to the pandemic.
On March 29, the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) had announced the so-called “Five One” policy – Chinese airlines would be only allowed to maintain one international route to any specific country – with no more than one flight every week. Foreign airlines are only allowed to maintain one route to China, with no more than one weekly flight.
All airlines shall apply for Pre-Flight Plans to the Operation Supervisory Center of CAAC in advance. This policy will last until October 2020. Business travelers must check if their flight is approved by the CAAC, or they will risk having their air tickets cancelled. International flights operating in June can be found here.
On June 4, the CAAC said it would allow all foreign airlines, including those which were barred from operating flights to China, to choose from a list of approved cities to operate on one international passenger flight a week beginning June 8. The announcement came right after the US Trump administration issued an order to suspend Chinese airlines. After Beijing said it would allow in more foreign carriers, on June 5, the US amended its order to permit Chinese passenger air carriers to operate two flights per week.
Border curbs between China and Russia
According to the Chinese embassy in Russia, starting May 8, passengers flying from Moscow to China must present test results from any of six designated testing organizations proving that they’re free of the COVID-19 virus within 120 hours before boarding so they can enter China.
Not long ago, the embassy announced a similar policy, effective from May 1, requiring travelers to show a negative test result within 72 hours before boarding Air China flights from Moscow to China.
These moves are made after dozens of COVID-19 cases were found among passengers on several Air China flights arriving from Moscow since early April.
While most areas of China is seeing few to no increases in cases, in the last month, a cluster of COVID-19 cases have broken out in the northeastern and southern border areas.
On May 11, in Shulan of Jilin city in Jilin province, one of China’s three northeastern provinces, the city’s risk level was raised from medium to high, as one woman tested positive on May 7 and infected many of her family members. Hundreds of people were placed in medical quarantines. But after adopting a Wuhan-style lockdown, the area had been classified as a low-risk since June 3.
However, some cities and provinces neighboring Shulan are not letting down their guard so quickly. For example, Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang province, is still implementing a 28-day quarantine (14-day quarantine at a designated place and 14-day isolation at home) for travelers from or having passed by Shulan.
Since April, Harbin and Suifenhe city in Heilongjiang province, which borders Russia, also implemented strict lockdown measures due to a resurgence in new cases. But now, both cities are rated as low risk.
Strict inbound restriction policies may still exist. Harbin announced a 28-day quarantine (14-day quarantine at a designated place and 14-day isolation at home), with two nucleic acid tests and one antibody test mandatory for all arrivals from abroad. Inbound persons crossing through Suifenhe must be put under quarantine for 35 days (14-day quarantine at Suifenhe, 7-day centralized quarantine at the destination place of the traveler in Heilongjiang province, and another 14-day self-isolation at home), with three nucleic acid tests.
Guilin city in southern Guangxi province employed the same 28-day quarantine policy. On April 27, a National Health Commission (NHC) official said at a State Council press conference that sparsely populated southern border areas with less-prepared health systems, such as Tibet, Yunnan, and Guangxi bordering India, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam are at heightened risk of imported cases, although these southern neighbors have officially recorded fewer cases than Russia.
Provincial travel restrictions
Domestically, many provinces and cities require mandatory home-based or centralized quarantine for inbound travelers either from overseas or other Chinese provinces and cities that are at medium- or high-risk level, although the policy details can differ.
Quarantine policies for inbound travelers
From April 1, the Customs authorities have said they would cooperate with local governments to carry out nucleic acid testing for all overseas passengers entering China by air, sea, or land.
Here, we have consolidated a table detailing the latest travel policies across the country for your convenience.
In Beijing, all international flights are currently being redirected to one of 16 other cities – Chengdu, Changsha, Hefei, Lanzhou, Tianjin, Shijiazhuang, Taiyuan, Hohhot, Jinan, Qingdao, Nanjing, Shenyang, Dalian, Zhengzhou, and Xi’an, with Wuhan as back-up, which are officially called “the first entry point”. Travelers will be subject to a 14-day mandatory quarantine in the first entry point city. After they complete the fortnight quarantines and test negative for the virus, if they proceed to Beijing on the same or following day, they will not need to undergo another 14-day quarantine in Beijing. Otherwise, they will be subject to another 14-day quarantine upon arrival in Beijing.
Those older than 70, younger than 14, pregnant, with underlying medical conditions, or in other special situations – can apply for self-isolation at home. Others must pay for their own 14-day quarantine at designated hotels.
Domestic arrivals from other low-risk infection areas of China no longer need to undergo the 14-day home isolation after the city lowers its public health emergency response rating from level one to level two.
Similarly, from March 28, all international flights to Shanghai are directed to Pudong Airport. All passengers entering Shanghai from abroad, including those transferring in Shanghai, will be subject to virus testing and centralized quarantine for 14 days. Domestic travelers may not need to be quarantined if they come from low-risk areas.
Effective from March 25, Hong Kong banned all entry of non-Hong Kong residents coming from overseas countries and regions by plane. And non-Hong Kong residents coming from the Mainland, Macau, and Taiwan will be denied entry to Hong Kong if they have been to any overseas countries and regions in the past 14 days. You may check the updates on Hong Kong’s quarantine policy on this website: coronavirus.gov.hk/eng/inbound-travel.html.
China’s color-coded health scheme to monitor for COVID-19
All of China’s provincial and municipal governments are adopting different quarantine policies or various restrictive measures – based on a health code scheme.
Since February, Chinese tech giants Tencent and Alibaba have launched health code related services around the country.
The health code systems of Tencent and Alibaba are embedded in their popular messaging app WeChat and payment app Alipay. Residents get a colored health code after reporting information, such as ID card, address, health status, contact history, and residence history in the apps.
The health code serves as a proof for citizens to enter or exit the public place, also a necessary condition to resume work or study. In addition, enterprises and communities can classify citizens based on the color of the health code to carry out correct controlling measures.
Each city’s health code has a set of rules.
Taking Hangzhou as an example, after the systematic analysis of personal information, the system will generate a color code to be obtained by individuals. Among them, the ‘green’ code can allow citizens to move around the city freely; the ‘red’ code and ‘yellow’ code may subject the code owner to 14 days and seven days of quarantine, respectively, at home or at a designated hotel.
Previously, the health color code systems in different provinces and cities showed variations, which added layers of inconvenience to intercity travelers.
To solve their complaints, on March 18, Beijing urged that local areas shall recognize each other’s health certificates (color codes), stating that low-risk areas (those with no confirmed cases or no new confirmed cases for 14 consecutive days) shall not “set up barriers” or “take isolation measures”.
Now, localities have been completing technology docking to allow citizens to freely pass using one health code system. For example, users of Alipay can easily get a local color code by entering the “health code” port and picking an area as the picture shown below.
China’s regional outbreak risk level
China’s National Health Commission launched a WeChat mini program (see the below graphic) for citizens to check out the infection risk level of a special area, for epidemic personnel to check out the countries and cities visited (staying for more than four hours) by the traveler during the past 14 days.
The program also allows users to check if they used the same public transport as the confirmed cases during the last 14 days.
Similar to the color scheme of the health code system, the outbreak risk level system grants “green” color to low-risk areas, “yellow” to medium-risk areas, and “red” to high-risk areas.
Risk levels are assessed based on the number of new cases.
- Low-risk areas – are areas with no confirmed cases or no new confirmed cases for 14 consecutive days;
- Medium-risk areas – are those with new confirmed cases within 14 days – but the total new cases are no more than 50, or with cumulatively more than 50 confirmed cases – but no cluster epidemic within 14 days; and
- High-risk areas – are those where the cumulative number of confirmed cases have exceeded 50 cases, and a cluster epidemic was recorded within the last 14 days.
By June 15, the entire country is classified as low risk except for its capital Beijing. Several streets in Fengtai district and Daxing district of Beijing have been rated as medium- or high-risk areas.
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.
Pay attention to micro-control measures
Overall, in a bid to boost business and consumption, China is relaxing travel restrictions within its borders. However, while the various levels of government advocate the mantra – “resuming work, resuming production”, many micro-control policies are still being implemented.
For example, many tourist and entertainment facilities have still suspended operation, and cinemas are still not allowed to reopen. Some office buildings, scenic spots, hotels, shopping malls, subways, public transports are still conducting measures to check body temperature and color code of passengers and require them to wear a mask.
Hainan has issued a notice requiring passengers from six areas – including Manzhouli city (Inner Mongolia), Jieyang city, Yuexiu and Baidu districts in Guangzhou, Bao’an district in Shenzhen (Guangdong province), and Suifenhe city (Heilongjiang province) – to present their COVID-19 negative test results before entering the province.
In addition, some national parks have issued local travel bans as well. For example, Huangshan in Anhui announced that from April 22, it would deny entry for tourists traveling from medium- or high-risk areas.
During the Labor Day holiday, tourist sites across the country all put a cap on daily visitor numbers and people will need to book tickets in advance. People are still getting out, but trips are getting shorter and more localized, compared with previous years.
China has revealed plans to reopen cinemas, museums, art galleries, and stadiums. The Guidelines on Regular Prevention and Control of COVID-19 issued on May 8 notes that shopping malls, supermarkets, hotels, and restaurants should be all opened with strict prevention measures; reservations can be used for parks and tourism scenic spots. Indoor areas and closed entertainment places like libraries, museums, and cinemas can hold conferences and exhibitions if necessary.
We recommend that travelers check their destination’s risk level, quarantine policies, and local control measures and prepare their color code in advance – to avoid any obstacles on their way.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published April 1, 2020. It was last updated June 17, 2020.