China Travel Restrictions 2021/2022: An Explainer (Updated)

Posted by Written by Arendse Huld Reading Time: 23 minutes

This article was originally posted on December 30, 2021, and last updated on September 26, 2022, to reflect the latest China travel restrictions.

UPDATE (SEPTEMBER 26, 2022): Hong Kong removes mandatory hotel quarantine for international arrivals, implements “0+3” policy. From Monday, September 26 onwards, international arrivals to Hong Kong will no longer be required to undergo three days of centralized hotel quarantine and will instead be permitted to undergo three days of self-monitoring at home. Passengers are still required to take a rapid antigen COVID-19 test prior to their departure and a PCR test after arriving in Hong Kong. They will also not be permitted to go to any restaurants or other indoor public areas and are required to undergo testing during this period. In addition, Hong Kong residents who have not been vaccinated will be permitted to return to Hong Kong, and passengers transiting through Hong Kong will no longer be required to have their temperature taken at the airport.

UPDATE (SEPTEMBER 23, 2022): China mulls reopening its border to some foreign tourists. China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism has released an exposure draft of the Measures for Border Tourism Administration for public comment until September 29, 2022. According to the exposure draft, China will encourage its border areas to create distinctive border tourism destinations, specify that border tourism groups can flexibly choose entry and exit ports, and remove preconditions, such as border travel approval and some entry and exit document requirements. Some analysts believe it’s a positive sign that China will make it easier for foreigners to enter the country, though only foreign tourists as part of tour groups would be allowed to visit specific border tourism sites. More details are yet to be released regarding issues, such as whether such tourists need to follow China’s quarantine requirements for inbound travelers.

UPDATE (SEPTEMBER 23, 2022): Trip.com says hotel bookings are surpassing pre-pandemic levels. According to Cindy Xiaofan Wang, chief financial officer at Trip.com, domestic China hotel reservations made through Trip.com have rebounded quickly, surpassing pre-COVID levels since late June. Also, same-city hotel bookings grew by 30 percent in the latest quarter as compared to 2019 levels, Trip.com added. However, the firm’s overall revenue in Q2 2022 still recorded a 32 percent decline YoY, likely due to the multiple COVID-19 outbreaks and extended shutdowns.

UPDATE (AUGUST 26, 2022): China no longer requires COVID test information for international arrivals from August 31, 2022. On Thursday, August 25, 2022, the General Administration of Customs released a new health declaration form for international arrivals, which removes the requirement for visitors to report their nucleic acid test results, their infection status, and vaccination dates. This ninth version of the health declaration form will be implemented starting from August 31, 2022, and international visitors can report their health status online by filling out a form on the related WeChat account or webpage. Some media interpret that with this update, the current entry requirement, that is, the requirement to have international passengers need to take two PCR tests for COVID-19 within 48 hours of their departure, the second of which must be within 24 hours of their departure–will be lifted. However, considering that China is still sticking to its dynamic zero-COVID strategy, we recommend that international travelers double-check with their flight companies for further information.

UPDATE (AUGUST 22, 2022): Effective from August 24, 2022, foreigners who hold a valid APEC card to conduct business in China and foreign students with a valid residence permit for study purposes can enter China without applying for a new visa, as per the announcement of the Chinese embassies in various countries. In addition, China will also resume accepting Study X1-Visa applications from foreigners applying to study in China for more than 180 days. Please consult the respective embassy website of  Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Nepal, Kazakhstan, Palestine, Bahrain, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Qatar, Italy, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Montenegro, Malta, Algeria, South Africa, Rwanda, Liberia, Zambia, Tanzania, Mexico, Canada, Cuba, Brazil for further clarification. The Chinese embassy in India has also updated the “Application Procedures and Material Requirements of China Visa”, to be implemented starting August 24, 2022.


  • China Briefing continues its coverage of updates on China travel restrictions on foreign nationals during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • In this article, we provide an overview of the latest China travel restrictions, including the latest regulations on flights to China, how to obtain a Chinese visa, China entry requirements during COVID, and current China quarantine rules.
  • For regular COVID-19 updates, you can check our COVID-19 tracker, which is updated every weekday.

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.

Flights to China

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.

CAAC-Approved Direct Flight Routes to Mainland China
Country Departure City Destination in China Airline(s) Status Update
Asia
Singapore Singapore Shanghai China Eastern, Singapore Airlines
Chongqing Singapore Airlines
Chengdu Air China
Guangzhou China Southern
Nanjing Scoot
Xiamen Xiamen Airlines
Japan Tokyo Guangzhou All Nippon Airways, China Southern, Japan Airlines
Fuzhou Xiamen Airlines
Xi’an China Eastern
Hangzhou Air China, All Nippon Airways
Dalian Japan Airlines
Shanghai Air China, China Eastern, All Nippon Airways, Spring Airlines
Harbin Spring Airlines Japan
Nanjing Spring Airlines Japan
South Korea Seoul
 

Wuhan T’way Air
Weihai Jeju Air
Dalian Korean Air
Shenyang Korean Air, China Southern
Yantai Air Seoul, China Eastern
Changchun Asiana Airlines
Harbin Jeju Air, Asiana Airlines
Guangzhou Korean Air, China Southern
Shenzhen Shenzhen Airlines
Hangzhou Air China
Xiamen Xiamen Airlines
Beijing Air China
Shanghai China Eastern, Spring Airlines
Ningbo Spring Airlines
Qingdao Qingdao Airlines
Jeju Xi’an Jin Air
Thailand Bangkok Xiamen Xiamen Airlines
Kunming Kunming Airlines, Lucky Air
Shanghai Shanghai Airlines, Spring Airlines, Juneyao Air, China Eastern
Vietnam Ho Chi Minh Guangzhou China Southern
Laos Vientiane Guangzhou China Southern
Kunming Lao Airlines
Myanmar Yangon Guangzhou Myanmar Airways International, China Southern
Kunming China Eastern
Pakistan Islamabad Wuhan China Southern
Malaysia Kuala Lumpur Shanghai Shanghai Airlines
Guangzhou China Southern, Malaysia Airlines
Xiamen Xiamen Airlines, Malaysia Airlines
Indonesia Jakarta Shenzhen China Southern
Fuzhou Xiamen Airlines
Kunming Citilink
Wuhan Lion Air
Brunei Bandar Seri Begawan Hangzhou Royal Brunei Airlines
The Philippines Manila Guangzhou China Southern
Xiamen Xiamen Airlines
Shanghai China Eastern Suspended
Tianjin Philippine Airlines
Bangladesh Dhaka Guangzhou US-Bangla Airlines, China Southern
Kunming China Eastern
Nepal Kathmandu Chongqing Himalaya Airlines
Azerbaijan Baku Beijing Azerbaijan Airlines
United Arab Emirates Abu Dhabi Shanghai Etihad Airways
Kuwait Kuwait Guangzhou
Saudi Arabia Riyadh Guangzhou Saudia
Iraq Baghdad Guangzhou Iraqi Airways
Australasia
Australia Melbourne Xiamen Xiamen Airlines
Guangzhou China Eastern
Sydney Xiamen Xiamen Airlines
Guangzhou China Southern
Hangzhou China Eastern
Shanghai China Eastern
New Zealand Auckland Guangzhou China Southern
Shanghai China Eastern, Air New Zealand
Europe
Germany Frankfurt Shanghai Lufthansa, China Eastern
Hangzhou China Eastern
Poland Warsaw Tianjin LOT Polish Airlines From Apr 18: Four flights suspended (LO93).
Beijing Air China
France Paris Shanghai China Eastern
Beijing Air China
Guangzhou China Southern
Tianjin Air France, Air China
Spain Madrid Shanghai Iberia Airlines
Hangzhou Iberia Airlines
Greece Athens Beijing Air China
Netherlands Amsterdam Shanghai China Eastern
Xiamen Xiamen Airlines
Guangzhou China Southern
Austria Vienna Shanghai Austrian Airlines
Beijing Air China
Switzerland Zurich Shanghai SWISS
Denmark Copenhagen Shanghai SAS
Finland Helsinki Shanghai Finn Air, Juneyao Air
Russia Moscow Shanghai Aeroflot
Beijing Air China
Zhengzhou Air China
Qingdao Air China
Turkey Istanbul Guangzhou Turkish Airlines
United Kingdom London Shanghai China Airlines
Africa
Egypt Cairo Beijing Sichuan Airlines
Hangzhou EgyptAir
Chengdu Sichuan Airlines
Ethiopia Addis Ababa Shanghai Ethiopian Airlines
Kenya Nairobi Guangzhou Kenya Airways
Changsha China Southern
South Africa Johannesburg Beijing Air China
Shenzhen Air China
North America
USA Los Angeles Beijing Air China: CA988 Approved by the Chinese Embassy in the U.S.
Tianjin Air China: CA988 Approved by the Chinese Embassy in the U.S.
Guangzhou China Southern: CZ328 Approved by the Chinese Embassy in the U.S.
Xiamen Xiamen Airlines: MF830 Approved by the Chinese Embassy in the U.S.
Shenzhen Air China
New York Shanghai China Eastern: MU588 Approved by the Chinese Embassy in the U.S.
Dallas Shanghai American Airlines: AA127 Approved by the Chinese Embassy in the U.S.
Detroit Shanghai Delta Airlines: DL283 Approved by the Chinese Embassy in the U.S.
San Francisco Shanghai United Airlines: UA857 Approved by the Chinese Embassy in the U.S.
  Seattle Shanghai Delta Air Lines
Canada Vancouver

Chengdu Sichuan Airlines
Xiamen Xiamen Airlines
Nanjing China Eastern
Toronto Shanghai China Eastern
Xi’an Hainan Airlines
Guangzhou China Southern
Note: The above routes are confirmed for the period between March 27, 2022, and October 29, 2022. The list may not be exhaustive and is subject to change.
Last updated: May 19, 2022

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 travel restrictions

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 the 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.

Overview of past China travel restrictions

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.

Obtaining a visa to China

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.

Permitted Visa Types During COVID-19
Permitted purpose or skill set Visa type(s) Required documents*
Visiting a critically ill immediate Chinese family member or attending/arranging the funeral of an immediate Chinese family member (including parents, spouse, children, grandparents, grandchildren).

Family members (including spouses, children, parents, grandparents, and siblings) of foreign citizens who have permanent residence in China.

Q1, Q2, S1, and S2 visas – Photocopies of the medical or death certificate of the family member- Proof of relationship (birth certificate, marriage certificate, Chinese household registration, certificates letters from the local police bureau in China, notarial certificate of kinship, etc.)

– Invitation letter from the relatives in China

– Photocopy of the inviter’s Chinese ID card

Foreign crew members of aircraft, trains, and ships, motor vehicle drivers engaged in cross-border transport activities, and the accompanying family members of crew members of the above-mentioned ships. Crew visa (C visa) Guarantee letter or an invitation letter issued by a relevant foreign transport company, or an invitation letter issued by a relevant entity in China.
Resumption of operation and production, including for necessary economic, trade, scientific and technological purposes.

Highly qualified talent with skill sets that are urgently needed in China.

Work, business, or talent visa (M, R, and Z visas) – Invitation letter from the company in China stating the specific reasons and necessity of visiting 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.

Diplomats, government officials Diplomatic visa, service, or courtesy visa
*Documents required in addition to standard application materials. Chinese visa offices in different regions may have varying requirements for documentation. Applicants are advised to consult their local visa office to confirm the specific documents required for their situation.

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:

  • Standard application procedure – the same as before the COVID-19 pandemic – for foreign nationals and their family members who travel to China for purposes of “resuming work and production”.
  • A looser definition of ‘emergency need’ for application to a humanitarian visa. The definition can be expanded to include reuniting with family in China, elderly care, and visiting relatives.
  • APEC business travel card holders can apply for a business visa (M visa) by presenting the original valid APEC business travel card and an invitation letter issued by the inviting party in mainland China.

The below visa types are currently not being issued:

  • Tourist visa (L visa)
  • Student visa (X1 and X2 visa) (except for South Korean nationals)

The following visa-free policies are also currently suspended:

  • 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
  • Guangxi 15-day visa-free policy for foreign tour groups of ASEAN countries

In early June, China waived the requirement for a PU letter (a government-issued invitation letter) for work visas (Z visas) and visas for dependent family members (Q visa).

The following types of foreign travelers will no longer be required to apply for a PU Letter, and they will be able to apply for a Chinese work visa/Z-visa to the relevant Chinese authorities abroad by presenting their Notification Letter of Foreigner’s Work Permit or proof of family relationship:

  • Foreigners who have been approved by the competent authorities to work in China and hold a valid Notification Letter of Foreigner’s Work Permit.
  • Foreign dependents whose spouse has been approved to work in China (including those who are already in the country), and their children under the age of 18 years.

Pre-flight requirements

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.

Pre-flight COVID-19 testing

Passengers must take two COVID-19 tests within 48 hours of boarding the direct flight to mainland China. The tests must consist of two nucleic acid tests (PCR test), one taken within 48 hours and one taken within 24 hours of the flight’s departure. 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.

China has in recent months relaxed travel requirements for travelers from some countries. People traveling from countries including Denmark, Netherlands, Serbia, the UAE, and others will no longer have to do an antibody test in order to receive the health code required to board the plane to China. Passengers will still be required to conduct two PCR tests from two different designated test centers within 48 hours and one antigen within 12 hours of the flight departure.

For US travelers, China has removed the requirements for passengers to undergo 7 days of COVID-19 testing, conduct self-monitoring, and take anti-body tests prior to boarding the flight, according to a notice published on the website of the Chinese Embassy in the U.S. Crew members will also no longer be required to undergo additional quarantine and can travel to China as normal passengers. Passengers will still be required to take two COVID-19 tests from two different testing centers within 48 hours and one antigen test within 12 hours of boarding the flight, regardless of whether they have been inoculated and which vaccine they have been inoculated with. These requirements for U.S. travelers were first imposed in January 2022 to prevent the spread of the Omicron variant. Passengers will still be required to take a direct flight to China.

Note that requirements still vary from country to country and travelers are therefore still advised to consult with the local embassy or consulate when planning to travel to China. See our full article on the topic here.

Passengers that have been fully vaccinated with an inactivated vaccine (e.g. Sinopharm and Sinovac) can take a nucleic acid test for all of the required COVID-19 tests.

Passengers that have been fully vaccinated with a non-inactivated vaccine (e.g. Pfizer and Moderna), are partially vaccinated, or have not been vaccinated must take a nucleic acid test for the initial test seven days prior to the departure flight, and then take a nucleic acid test, and an S and N protein IgM antibody test within 48 hours of departure.

Applying for a green HS/HDC code

After having taken the requisite 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:

  • Negative COVID-19 test results (usually PCR and IgM)
  • Flight itinerary
  • If the applicant is fully vaccinated, a vaccine certificate and the Letter of Commitment on COVID-19 Vaccination must be completed and signed by hand by the applicant or by their legal guardian.
  • Other (check the local MOFA website for a detailed list of required documents as each departure city may have different requirements).

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.

China quarantine rules

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:

  • Older than 70
  • Younger than 14
  • Pregnant
  • With an underlying medical condition

China provincial travel restrictions

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.

Measures to reduce the impact of COVID-19 restrictions on service sector

On February 18, 2022, the country’s main economic planner, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), along with other government bodies, issued a list of supportive policies for the service sector, which, among other things, bans local governments from implementing lockdowns and travel restrictions without approval from the central government. Specifically, the policy list outlines several “must nots” for local authorities, which include:

  • Must not stop people from low-risk areas from returning to their hometowns;
  • Must not arbitrarily expand the scope of medium and high-risk areas;
  • Must not subject people from low-risk areas to measures such as centralized quarantine without authorization or arbitrarily extend the period of centralized quarantine;
  • Must not lock down cities or districts in breach of epidemic prevention regulations or unnecessarily interrupt public transport without approval;
  • Must not shut down or extend shutdowns of restaurants, supermarkets, scenic spots, movie theaters, and other service providers without a policy basis.

The policy measures will hopefully make it easier for people to travel between different regions in China, in particular those living in areas with medium and high-risk areas, and help boost domestic consumption.

China’s COVID-19 risk level system

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:

  • Low risk: areas with no confirmed cases or no new confirmed cases in the past 14 days.
  • Medium risk: areas with no more than 50 new confirmed cases, or 50 total, in the past 14 days and no cluster outbreak in the past 14 days.
  • High-risk: areas with more than 50 confirmed cases and a recorded cluster outbreak in the past 14 days.

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.

China health code

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.

China travel restrictions - Alipay health code

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 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.

Fast track channels with foreign countries

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.

China recognition of foreign vaccines

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.

Will China travel restrictions be loosened in 2022?

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.


About Us

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 china@dezshira.com.

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.