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

Posted by Written by Arendse Huld Reading Time: 25 minutes

This article was originally posted on December 30, 2021, and last updated on December 16, 2022, to reflect the latest China travel restrictions.


From Zero-COVID to Living with COVID: China has shifted from its zero-tolerance approach to COVID-19 to dismantling the majority of its prevention measures in a matter of weeks. While these long-awaited changes are welcomed by many, they also pose new challenges and risks for businesses and the economy. Businesses in China must take the necessary steps now to mitigate the potential impact of labor shortages and supply chain strain that may come with a surge in cases.
Read our article here to see the latest updates to China’s COVID policy and how businesses can prepare in the coming months.

UPDATE (December 13, 2022): Hong Kong lifts all COVID-19 curbs on inbound travelers. At a press briefing on Tuesday, December 13, Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee announced two new changes to the region’s COVID-19 prevention system that will effectively nullify the “0+3” self-isolation requirement for inbound travelers. The first adjustment is the scrapping of QR codes on the “Leave Home Safe” app before entering various premises. However, the government will maintain the vaccine pass, and proof of three inoculations with a COVID-19 vaccine will still be required to enter certain premises, such as restaurants. The second adjustment is the scrapping of the “amber code”, a code issued to all arrivals in Hong Kong that restricts people from entering public premises for a period of three days. Instead, everyone who tests negative for COVID-19 will be issued with a blue code in their vaccine pass which will give them free access to public places. The government had previously removed the requirement for travelers to take a PCR test upon arrival, and from Tuesday, December 13 onward only need to take a rapid antigen test (RAT). The new adjustments to the QR and amber codes will be effective from Wednesday, December 14 onwards.

UPDATE (December 12, 2022): Hong Kong further loosens quarantine requirements. According to a notice posted on the Hong Kong government website, from Friday, December 9 onwards, the quarantine period for people infected with COVID-19 has been reduced from seven days to just five days. People that have tested positive for COVID-19 can now be released from quarantine if they test negative on a rapid antigen test (RAT) on days 4 and 5 after being placed into quarantine. Close contacts of infected people can now also be discharged on day 5 if they test negative on a RAT every day for the duration of the quarantine period. In addition, people arriving from Taiwan or overseas will now only be required to take RATs after arrival in Hong Kong, rather than a nucleic acid test. Previously, overseas arrivals were required to take nucleic acid tests on the first two days after arrival. The new requirements are effective from December 9 onward and apply retroactively to people who arrived in Hong Kong prior to this date and are still in self-isolation as of December 9. 

UPDATE (December 12, 2022): China’s travel code to go offline from December 13. Chinese media have reported that the travel code (通信行程卡), which was used to track whether people had traveled to areas with COVID-19 cases, will officially go offline from December 13 onward. All of the travel codes services, including text messages, web pages, the standalone app, and the Alipay and WeChat mini-programs, will no longer be accessible from this date. The retiring of the travel code marks the latest move to dismantle China’s COVID-19 prevention and control infrastructure.

UPDATE (December 7, 2022): China abandons the health code and centralized quarantine, along with new relaxed measures.

As of December 7, 2022, the National Health Commission held a press conference to release further optimization of COVID-19 measures. The adjusted regulations read as below:

  1. Risk areas confined to building and specific floors: Moving forward, risk areas will only be identified by the specific apartment, building, unit, or floor. Authorities are not allowed to arbitrarily classify a whole residential community, neighborhood, district, etc. in a high-risk region.
  2. Health Code and COVID-19 tests requirements: PCR tests will still be required in high-risk areas. However, other venues, establishments, or public places—aside from nursing homes, medical facilities, kindergartens, primary and secondary schools, etc.—will no longer require testing or performing health code checks. Additionally, people traveling to China Additionally, if you travel to China, will no longer be asked to check their health code upon arrival if the COVID-19 test results are negative.
  3. Infected people can now isolate at home:  Infected people, including those who are asymptomatic or have “minor” symptoms, can isolate at home or in a dedicated facility. After six-to-seven days of home isolation, if double COVID-19 test results are negative, the patient will be released from isolation. Close contacts will also be able to conduct home quarantine for five days or can choose to isolate in a dedicated facility.
  4. Put “Quickly Lockdown, Quickly Release” into practice: After five days in a row with no new reported cases, high-risk areas (now only specified to particular floors and rooms in buildings)
  5. Make sure that everyone has access to health care: All pharmacies should be open for business and should not be forced to close. Online and offline sales of over-the-counter medications shouldn’t be prohibited.
  6. Vaccinate senior citizens: To increase the immunization rate for those between the ages of 60 and 79 as well as those 80 and older, all communities should adhere to the maxim “do everything feasible.”
  7. Improve population health status: Family physicians and neighborhood clinics would be granted complete authority as the “gatekeepers of health.”
  8. Make sure society runs normally and that basic medical services are available: Personnel mobility must not be restricted, and labor, manufacturing, or business operations must not be stopped in low-risk locations.
  9. Implement security: To guarantee that individuals may leave to go to a doctor for medical treatment and emergency refuge, it is completely prohibited to block fire routes, unit doors, and community doors in a variety of ways.
  10. Improve prevention and control measures in education: Nationwide criteria for accurate prevention and control should be firmly implemented in schools. Schools that are not affected by the virus should continue their regular offline instruction, and on-campus stores, canteens, stadiums, and libraries should operate normally.

UPDATE (December 4, 2022): Major cities in China ease COVID-19 requirements to access public transport and places.

Several cities in China have declared that negative COVID-19 test results will no longer be required to ride public transport according to the optimization of control measures. Most cities also removed the negative test requirement to enter public spaces such as bars, restaurants, museums, and other establishments (apart from healthcare, educational, and certain other institutions). The list of municipalities and cities that announced changes includes: Beijing, Chongqing, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Shijiazhuang, Tianjin, Harbin, Luoyang, Zhengzhou, Dalian, Jinzhou, Shenyang, Taiyuan, Xi’an, Shanghai, and Chengdu.

UPDATE (November 29, 2022): China announces progress in COVID-19 vaccination and encourages booster shots for elderly groups.

 In a press conference held on November 29, 2022, the National Health Commission (NHC) disclosed that as of November 28, 2022,  the number of people over the age of 60 who were vaccinated and fully vaccinated reached 239.4 million and 228.165 million, accounting for 90.68 percent and 86.42 percent of the elderly population, respectively. The number of people over the age of 60 who have received booster shots reached 181.511 million. A total of 23.5663 million people over the age of 80 were fully vaccinated, accounting for 65.8 percent of the age group, a significant increase from 40 percent on November 11, 2022. The number of people over the age of 80 who have received booster shots reached 14.456 million. However, the vaccination rate for older people in China is generally below that of the US and Singapore. The NHC recommended that people without contraindications who are eligible for vaccination, especially the elderly, should be vaccinated as soon as possible, and those eligible for booster shots should be vaccinated as soon as possible.

UPDATE (NOVEMBER 11, 2022): China further shortens mandatory hotel quarantine period for international arrivals, cancels the circuit breaker mechanism for inbound flights, and requires only one negative PCR test within 48 hours before boarding. 

According to a circular released by the National Health Commission (NHC) on Friday, November 11, 2022, China will ease some of its COVID-19 rules to better balance COVID-19 prevention and control with economic and social development. Among others, the below adjustments have been introduced:

  1. For close contacts and inbound travelers, the quarantine requirement will change from “7 days centralized quarantine + 3 days home health monitoring” to “5 days centralized quarantine + 3 days home quarantine”. Upon the completion of the quarantine at the first point of entry, the quarantine at the destination will not be repeated for inbound travelers.
  2. Secondary close contacts will no longer be traced.
  3. For people passing through high-risk areas, the quarantine requirement will change from “7 days centralized quarantine” to “7 days home quarantine”.
  4. The three categories of “high-risk areas, medium-risk areas, low-risk areas” will be simplified to two categories—”high-risk areas and low-risk areas”.
  5. Areas that are not experiencing outbreaks are discouraged from mass testing.
  6. The circuit breaker mechanism for inbound flights will be abolished, and the requirement of “two negative nucleic acid tests within 48 hours before boarding” will be adjusted to “one negative nucleic acid test within 48 hours before boarding”.
  7. Important inbound business personnel, sports groups, and other groups will be exempted from quarantine by staying within a “closed-loop bubble” throughout the duration of their stay in China, which means “point-to-point” transfer to the isolation-free closed-loop management area.
  8. China will intensify efforts to address the “one-size-fits-all” problem of COVID-19 prevention measures. It is strictly prohibited to arbitrarily close schools and classes, suspend production, block traffic without approval, arbitrarily adopt “static management”, arbitrarily impose lockdowns, and so on.
  9. During a COVID-19 outbreak, China shall make every effort to ensure the smooth flow of logistics. It is prohibited to arbitrarily ask key enterprises that are engaged in the overall industrial chain or provide services or products that affect people’s livelihoods to suspend production.

  • 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

The Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) is responsible for approving direct international flight routes to and from China, as well as the airlines approved to operate on these routes. 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).

The CAAC recently announced an increase in the number of weekly flights for the winter and spring seasons. According to a notice published on the central government website, in the period from October 30, 2022, to March 25, 2023, foreign and domestic airlines can operate a total of 840 passenger flights a week, an increase of 105.9 percent from the same period in 2021 and 2022. In addition, a total of 6,148 weekly cargo flights can be operated, an increase of 6.7 percent from the same period the year before.

In response to the announcement, several Chinese airlines, including Air China, China Eastern, China Southern, and Xiamen Airlines have announced new international flight routes starting from the week of November 1, 2022. China Airlines’ new flight routes include Beijing to Johannesburg, Chongqing to Budapest, and Chongqing to Ho Chi Minh City, according to a report from The Global Times.

In order to implement the State Council’s requirements for an orderly increase of international passenger flights as soon as possible, several airline companies in China have announced the resumption or increase in the number of international routes. Among them:

  • China Eastern Airlines plans to increase its weekly international routes to 42 and flights to 108 flights from October 30, 2022, up from 25 routes and 54 flights in mid-October.
  • In November, China Eastern Airlines will continue to resume and increase its international routes with Manila and Ho Chi Minh.
  • China Southern Airlines announced that it would increase its weekly international flights from 71 to 86.
  • Hainan Airlines plans to increase international flights between Chongqing and Rome to two a week from November 6, 2022.
  • The official WeChat account of Air China announced that it would resume several international routes.
  • Spring Airlines said on its official WeChat account on October 13 that it would start operating multiple routes with Hong Kong and Macao and other international routes from October 14, 2022.
  • Juneyao Airlines has resumed and added some international routes in October with Seoul and Osaka.

These moves are mostly to answer the demand for business travel and don’t mean that China will resume large-scale international travel soon, according to a Caixin report. China has gradually eased COVID-19 prevention measures for international travelers over the past few months. Nevertheless, the number of daily cross-border flights is only five percent of that in 2019. 

As of November 11, 2022, China has abolished the “circuit breaker” mechanism for controlling the number of inbound flights, which would see flight routes suspended if passengers tested positive for COVID-19 after arrival in China. This is a major step toward increasing the number of flights to China and will reduce the number of flight cancelations and delays.

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.

Visa application waiver for APEC card holders and students with residence permits

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.

Possible return of tourism to China

China has begun to consider reopening its border to some foreign tourists. On September 16, 2022, China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism 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.

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

As of November 11, 2022, passengers traveling to China are only required to take one nucleic acid (PCR) COVID-19 test within 48 hours of traveling to mainland China. This is a reduction from the previous requirement of two tests prior to the flight. If the passenger has to transit in a third city or country to travel to China, the test can now also be done in either the initial place of departure or the transit city, provided the test is done within 48 hours of boarding the flight to mainland China. Previously, passengers had to take the test in both the initial departure city and the transit city.

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.

Applying for a green HS/HDC code

After having taken the requisite COVID-19 test, 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
  • Flight itinerary
  • 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 COVID-19 test.

The green HDC code can now be obtained from the consulate or embassy in the place where the test was conducted. Passengers no longer need to obtain the code in the city from which the direct flight to China departs, unless that is also the place where the test is issued.

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

China has further reduced the period of mandatory quarantine and self-isolation for international arrivals to just five days of centralized hotel quarantine plus three days of self-isolation in a hotel or at home (the “5+3” policy). 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. Travelers are generally required to 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 your stay at the quarantine hotel.

Some people can apply for an exemption to centralized quarantine and get permission to quarantine at home for all or part of the five days. Those people include those who are:

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

After being released from centralized quarantine, you must undergo three days of self-isolation, which can be done either at home or in another hotel if you do not have a home to go to. During this period, you must refrain from social gatherings and take a nucleic acid test on days 1 and 3.

Some cities may have additional self-isolation and/or testing requirements for people that arrive from abroad, even if they have completed the hotel quarantine and self-isolation in another mainland city. 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.

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 high-risk area (keep reading below for more details on China’s risk tier system).

All arrivals from high-risk areas within China are now required to undergo seven days of home quarantine and health monitoring, rather than seven days of the centralized hotel quarantine. During this period,  travelers must take a nucleic acid test on days 1, 3, 5, and 7.

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 has previously imposed a three-tiered system for determining the risk level of a given jurisdiction in China, with the risk level divided into low-risk, medium-risk, and high-risk. However, On November 11, 2022, the NHC stated that the medium-risk designation would be abolished. Now, all of China is designated as “low risk” by default, and areas that have recorded a positive COVID-19 case in the last five days are classed as “high risk”. Check our COVID-19 tracker for the latest numbers of high-risk areas.

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’ to 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?

China has already loosened travel restrictions several times in 2022, but many restrictions still remain. Loosened restrictions include shortened mandatory hotel quarantine for inbound travelers from 14 days to just five, the removal of centralized hotel quarantine for domestic travelers from high-risk areas, shortened time period in which an area or district is designated as “high-risk”, and the abolishing secondary close contact tracking, among others.

These developments will make it considerably easier for people to travel to and around China and reduce the risk of lockdowns and closures for businesses and individuals.

However, the road toward the complete lifting of all restrictions and a change to “living with COVID” is still unclear. The EU Chamber of Commerce in China has stated in its European Business in China Position Paper 2022/2023 (Position Paper) that it does not anticipate a full reopening of the Chinese border until H2 2023.

Meanwhile, Chinese officials have repeatedly shot down speculation that China will abolish its “zero COVID”, or “dynamic clearing” policy, stating that the need for COVID-19 prevention measures has not gone away. In an interview with CCTV on October 13, 2022, the Head of the National Health Commission’s expert group on epidemic control Liang Wannian reiterated the need to maintain zero-COVID in China because at present, China “cannot achieve a complete balance between the resistance of our health system and viral diseases” and that lifting of restrictions “will lead to a large number of infections, severe illness, and death” which would “lead to a run on the medical system, which in turn will further aggravate people’s fears and have a greater impact on society and the economy”. When asked about a possible timeline for return to normal life, he said that “from a scientific point of view, it is difficult to clearly delineate a specific time period”.

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 and Omicron variants. As of November 14, 2022, the official death toll is only 5,226, and the total number of confirmed infections is 268,753 – far below that of other countries.

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 1.27 billion doses as of November 4, 2022), appear to be weaker against the new Omicron variant than previous strains.

Apart from genuine concern for the health and well-being of the population and the 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.

Going into 2023, what we may see instead, and what is suggested by the recent developments, is not necessarily a complete reopening, but instead further gradual steps toward relaxation, as well as a more flexible approach to allow local jurisdictions to adapt restrictions to local needs and conditions. The central government has previously admonished local governments for implementing a “one-size-fits-all” strategy for COVID-19 prevention, which has led to excessively strict or ineffective measures. The November 11 notice from the NHC explicitly calls for reining in excessive COVID-19 prevention measures, which cause significant disruption to business operations and the daily lives of individuals.

There are, of course, also some situations that could help convince authorities to further ease restrictions. One is the roll-out of a highly effective vaccine. China is developing its own mRNA vaccine, which may be approved for use soon. In addition to a domestic vaccine, the mRNA vaccine developed by Germany’s BioNTech has recently been approved for expats living in China, and the company has previously also reached an agreement with Shanghai Fosun Pharma to set up a 50-50 joint venture to produce and sell mRNA vaccines in China. Meanwhile, 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 their 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 further relaxing of travel restrictions, shortening of quarantines and lockdown periods, and potential “closed-loop” tourist areas in border regions.


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.