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Everything you need to know about traveling to China

China is finally reopening to foreign tourists after ending its ‘zero covid’ policies

(iStock/Washington Post Illustration)

Three years after shutting down to outsiders, China is finally beginning to issue visas to foreign tourists.

As of March 15, the country will begin issuing all categories of visas, including those for tourism. China will allow visa-free entry to areas such as the island of Hainan and for cruise ships visiting Shanghai. Multiyear, multiple-entry visas issued before March 28, 2020, will be accepted by Chinese visa authorities as long as they’re still valid.

The country dropped its severe mandatory quarantine on arrival on Jan. 8, and now only requires travelers to show negative results from a coronavirus test (PCR or rapid, depending on their country of origin) taken within 48 hours of departure.

It’s an exciting move for many American travelers.

“As soon as China relaxed its covid restrictions and started allowing their own citizens to travel, we had a huge influx of people wanting to start planning their trip,” John Rose, chief risk and security officer of the travel agency Altour, said in January.

Angela Hughes, owner of Trips & Ships Luxury Travel, has seen similar interest from clients, and is anticipating the country to become a “sizzling hot” destination once the doors fully open.

If you’re considering planning a trip to China, here’s what you need to know before you go.

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When can you start planning a trip to China?

Travelers interested in visiting China may apply for entry visas and start planning trips now.

Tourism experts started getting trips on the schedule even before the return of China’s tourist visas. The small-group tour company Intrepid Travel plans to host its first trip in mainland China since January 2020 by June. The company’s partners on the ground in China are actively preparing for the return of tourism, says Natalie Kidd, Intrepid’s Asia division managing director.

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Going as soon as China allows won’t be for everybody. Hughes says first-time visitors, families or more risk-averse travelers may want to wait until 2024, when the situation becomes more stable. More adventurous travelers are another story. “I’m definitely going to go right when it opens,” Hughes said in January.

Although China is open for tourism, Catherine Heald, CEO of the luxury travel company Remote Lands, is bracing for more complications.

Citing concerns like limited international commercial flights into China and remaining pandemic restrictions, “we think it will be a slower process than what we witnessed in Japan, Thailand and other parts of Asia,” she said in an email.

What to know about coronavirus protocols in China

With the end of its “zero covid” strategy, China has dropped significant measures like its frequent coronavirus testing and digital health codes for locals, or presenting negative covid tests or health certificates to travel within the country. China is also easing restrictions on the number of flights allowed in.

However, the U.S. Embassy in China warns the country’s policies are subject to change at any time.

For now, the main pandemic restriction in place is for travelers. According to a March 14 news conference from China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin, China has begun accepting negative results from rapid tests (depending on your country of origin — at this time, Americans should default to PCR testing). Tests must be taken within 48 hours of departure to China. Kidd says masks are still recommended in China, but not mandated in public areas (except for places like hospitals and clinics) and no quarantines or isolation are required if someone does get covid-19.

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What are the risks of visiting as soon as possible?

As of March, the U.S. State Department has a Level 3: Reconsider Travel advisory for China (along with Hong Kong and Macao) due to the “arbitrary enforcement of local laws,” its website reads. Travelers considering a trip to China should refer to the State Department’s entire travel information page for updates on travel advisories and country information.

Neil Slabbert, World Travel Protection’s chief medical officer for the Asia-Pacific region, says travelers need to be aware of the potential of lockdowns by local authorities that can make accessing health care difficult. There were also reports last spring of parents and children being separated if one or the other tested positive for covid. Travelers should prepare accordingly, and have emergency plans in place (like where they’ll get food, water and medicine) in case of lockdowns or infection.

Rose says those considering a trip should keep an eye on the information we have available at the time of booking, throughout your planning and just before you travel. Don’t forget what reopening looked like for other regions in 2021 and 2022. Countries implemented and removed restrictions “very, very quickly” in reaction to covid cases, and China may be no different.

Hughes says such risks make travel insurance a nonnegotiable for anyone going to China. “Every single person traveling internationally right now needs to have a complete policy above and beyond their credit card’s,” she said, recommending the companies she uses, Allianz and AIG.

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What travel will be like once you get there

Like every place in the infancy of its pandemic reopening, China won’t be back to “normal” for the first returning travelers.

Kidd says China is still the same amazing destination with iconic sites and fantastic food, but tourism won’t immediately be the well-oiled machine it once was. Intrepid’s vendors have noted that, as in the rest of the world, many people left China’s tourism industry, and there will be lot of new people entering the field as businesses staff up again.

“We’re having the dialogue that we had two years ago when Europe opened up now with China,” Hughes said.

No matter the method, Kidd says there’s one big perk of returning early: being able to see the country’s highlights with fewer visitors.