One of my favourite things about living in Korea is the access to the rest of Asia. This year, a number of different factors conspired to mean that we have spent summer in Korea, and making our home leave visits later in the year. We’ve used a fair amount of that time to go into Seoul and more recently, made the 2 hour flight to Beijing, for my first trip to China.
Visa Free Layover
A lot of nationalities (and I can confirm this from a British Passport Holder point of view) can do a 72 hour layover in China visa-free having met certain conditions:
- You must fly in and out of the same airport around the 72 hour layover (e.g PEK)
- You must be flying to a third country and possess a ticket to prove this journey. For these purposes, Hong Kong does count as a third country (e.g. Incheon ⇒ Beijing ⇒ Hong Kong ⇒ Incheon) NB. In the given example, if you wanted to re-enter Beijing after Hong Kong, you would need a visa for the second re-entry into China
- You need to have your accommodation in Beijing booked, with a printed copy as proof.
If you are taking the layover option, there is a separate immigration queue that you can use – in fact there are two options here as well. You can either use the immigration queue that allows entry into the city itself, or if just transiting, there is another queue for visa-free-remaining-in-the-airport. Take a moment to make sure you are in the right queue and save yourself some time.
Although pretty much everyone needs a visa to visit China, there are exceptions so it’s worth your while to check the requirements for your trip yourself.
Note: The Chinese Embassy no longer issues travel visas to individuals. One must go through one’s travel agent to get the required visas. Also, foreign nationals must now have 6 months remaining on their ARC (visa) to qualify for a visa to China.
For our visas, we went to Mode Tour, which is right by Central Park 2. The staff don’t speak a lot of English, but enough to help you get your visa. You need a passport photo, your passport and your Alien Registration Card as proof of residence. If you don’t have an ARC then you’re better off applying for a multiple entry visa in your home country. We had a little issue because our ARC doesn’t have an expiry date, but luckily we have Korean visas in our passports which do have an end date, so it worked out OK. The staff in the agency fill out most of the form for you while you are there, and the standard service takes about 4 days. You pay, in cash, on collection – about 80,000 per visa. You probably can get a multiple entry visa via the agency, but we just got a single entry for this trip. The recommendation is that you have your flights and accommodation booked before you apply for your visa but the travel agents didn’t take the printed copies when applying for our visas, so I’m not sure about that. There is also an express service for the visas as well, and as expected it costs a little more.
I don’t have a lot to say on this – where you stay depends on what you want to do and what your budget is, but I will say this. All visitors have to register with the local police office within 24 hours of arriving in China. If you stay in a hotel, they take photocopies of your passport photo page and visa and do this for you. If, however, you stay in an Airbnb or with friends, I think you would have to arrange this yourself – just make sure you’ve done the necessary admin. It’s also a requirement to always carry your passport (or Chinese ID if you have it) on your person, so a good cross body bag for essentials is useful.
The subway is getting larger and is pretty easy to use. You can get a T-money card equivalent but we just did a few single journies, as taxis are really affordable in China and we were being a little bit lazy (totally allowed on holiday). When you are taking taxis, always make sure they switch on the meter (and get out of the taxi if they don’t want to), don’t take private cars masquerading as taxis and have plenty of smaller notes to pay for the taxis as well (see money, below). There isn’t a lot of English spoken, so yo need to have Chinese addresses to give to taxi drivers. To this end, Google maps isn’t 100% reliable in terms of location but you can use it to obtain said Chinese addresses. Taxis start at a base rate of 13.00 RMB and if you are spending a bit longer in China, it might be worth downloading the Didi app (available in English) to hail taxis with. We didn’t hire a local sim card as it was just 4 days so used our Korean data but this is an option at the airport I believe. One thing you will want to have set up on your phone is a VPN, as access to many Western apps is restricted in China.
Cash v Card
China isn’t as card-friendly a society as Korea is, as locals tend to load money onto their ‘wechat’ apps and use this for paying for everything – restaurants, shops, taxis, cinema etc. Foreign cards are especially hit and miss – even when it comes to ATMs. I’d recommend using cash for most transactions and to withdraw cash, your safest bets are Citibank, Bank of China, HSBC and the airport ATMs.
Cash fraud is, however, still a big deal – especially with 100 RMB notes. Our hotel (Holiday Inn Express Dongzhimen) had a little list of checks to make when money is handed back to you but I’m going to get a friend to write a little note about this as well. Watch this space. I mentioned above that you should have correct change for taxis – this is because the following scenario is pretty common:
- Passenger hands taxi driver 100 RMB
- Taxi driver says it is fake (when it isn’t) and hands back a fake 100 RMB note to the passenger
- Passenger accepts fake and uses another 100RMB note to pay fare.
One taxi we got into agreed a price of 20RMB from Silk Street to our hotel, which is what we paid getting there. He immediately handed me 80RMB in change, expecting a 100RMB in return. I said no and gave him a 20 note. At this, point he said he wanted 20 euros (!) so we said no and hoped out. I can only assume that the 80 change he was prepared to hand over was fake and I foiled his plan by having change to hand. Guess we’ll never know.
Eating out in Beijing is great – for veggies and carnivores a like! All the menus are in English and there are options to suit every taste and budget. I’ll write more about where we ate in the next post though…
One last thing
People talk a lot about the pollution in Beijing. We really didn’t find it to be visibly that bad but maybe we’ve gotten used to a similar level in Korea. Checking the air quality app showed that levels weren’t great, but speaking to a couple of long-term expats in Beijing, we learnt that it was the worst it had been in a while (save for 2 weeks in Winter when you try not to go outside.) What I did find however, is that my contact-lens covered eyes struggled after a day, no matter how many eye drops I used. Wearing sunglasses, even when it wasn’t that sunny helped a LOT so either do that, or give your eyes a break and wear your glasses every now and again.