Before you try to use China’s 72-hour visa-free transit, make sure you qualify

China's 72-hour visa-free rule can be tricky

Rosalie Dajay thought she’d take advantage of China’s 72-hour visa-free rule for her vacation in Beijing. But when JetBlue denied her boarding for the first leg of her itinerary, she ultimately lost over $6,000, including a flight to China on Emirates Airlines.

China’s 72-hour visa rule allows tourists from 51 countries, including the U.S., to visit China for a three-day period without obtaining a visa. However, China strictly enforces restrictions on travelers availing themselves of the 72-hour rule. Had Dajay made sure that her intended trip fell within the restrictions, she would have been allowed to board her flight and enjoy her visit to Beijing. As an Emirates agent responded to Dajay’s request for compensation:

Of course, it is always the passenger’s responsibility to ensure that he/she has obtained all relevant exit and entry visas and other necessary travel documents for the journey. Any document inspection carried out by any airline or ground handling agent at the airport of departure is merely to establish that the passenger is in possession of travel documents for the flight.

No visa — no boarding — “no-show”

Dajay and her husband booked a complex international itinerary for four persons, beginning in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., through Canadian online travel agency Flightnetwork for $4,959. They planned to fly JetBlue to Kennedy Airport in New York, where they would connect to an Emirates Airlines flight to Beijing via Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Then they would return home from Beijing to Fort Lauderdale via Hong Kong on Hong Kong Airlines, and Manila, Philippines, on AirAsia Philippines.

While checking in for their outgoing flight in Fort Lauderdale, a JetBlue agent asked the Dajays to present visas to China. When the Dajays stated that they intended to avail themselves of China’s 72-hour visa rule, JetBlue’s agents told them that they would be able to stay in Beijing for only 24 hours. The agents called Emirates, whose agents also indicated that the Dajays could stay for only 24 hours. Meanwhile, the Dajays’ flight to JFK departed without them on board.

JetBlue booked another flight for the Dajays to New York. But when the Dajays landed at JFK, Emirates’ agent told them that their reservation had been canceled because they were “no-shows” on the original JetBlue flight. Emirates also refused to rebook the Dajays on a replacement flight to Dubai, telling them that they would have to call their travel agent. And when the Dajays called Flightnetwork, its employee told them that they would each be charged a $350 flight change penalty, in addition to the airfare difference, for a replacement flight departing later that day or the next day.

The Dajays decided that they would fly to Hong Kong instead of Beijing. But their problems weren’t over. When they called Hong Kong Airlines to confirm their returning flight, they learned that the entire itinerary had been canceled. The Dajays purchased replacement return air tickets, using a third travel agent, to avoid yet another $700 penalty charge. The new tickets cost $6,403.

Bad news

Dajay then asked our forum for assistance in recovering the costs of their canceled flights, Beijing hotel rooms and tours.

Our forum members didn’t have good news for Dajay when she provided them with the original itinerary. And when Dajay wrote to executive contacts for Emirates using our contact information to request compensation for her losses, Emirates rejected her request.

Who qualifies as a “transit passenger”?

China’s 72-hour visa-free rule allows “transit passengers” from 51 qualifying countries to visit the cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu, Chongqing, Shenyang, Dalian, Xi’an, Guilin, Kunming, Hangzhou, Wuhan, Xiamen, Harbin, Tianjin, Nanjing, Qingdao, and Changsha visa-free. But they must have pre-booked airline tickets to third countries or regions, with valid visas for any subsequent destination, departing from specified airports in China within 72 hours of their arrivals. (For purposes of this provision, Hong Kong is considered a “third country.”)

Unfortunately, although the Dajays’ intended visit fell within the 72-hour window, and they intended to depart to a location considered a “third country” under the rule, they didn’t qualify as “transit passengers.”

A “transit passenger,” for purposes of China’s 72-hour visa rule, must be planning to fly into one of the cities mentioned above and depart within 72 hours on one itinerary. Air travelers are not considered “transit passengers” if they are arriving and departing on different itineraries or on airlines without interline agreements, as was the case with the Dajays.

“It’s on you to know what you need to fly”

Most travel companies, including both Emirates and Flightnetwork, provide in their terms and conditions that they accept no responsibility for any losses incurred by customers lacking appropriate documentation, including visas and passports. So the Dajays had little, if any, chance of recovering the lost costs of their trip by filing claims with their travel companies.

Dajay mentioned in the forum that her travel agent had not given her or her husband any of this information when they booked their original itinerary. But as the forum members noted, the Dajays bore responsibility for making sure that they had all the necessary documentation, including visas, for the entirety of their trip. The Dajays should also have checked that their visit to China qualified for China’s 72-hour visa rule. A forum moderator pointed out that “[when] you act as your own travel agent it’s on you to know what you need to fly.”

“I learned that not everybody knows about the 72-hour visa-free policy and obviously the interline agreement,” says Dajay.

She then asked our advocates for help, but our advocate Dwayne Coward told her that we wouldn’t be able to successfully advocate her case with Emirates because her ticketed reservation on that airline didn’t show her onward journey to Hong Kong.

Before you head to the airport

Dajay’s case includes several takeaways. Make sure you do the following before leaving for the airport:

  • book all flights on the same itinerary
  • make sure that you check out and comply with all documentation rules for international travel
  • use a reputable brick-and-mortar travel agency and not an online travel site to book complex trips.

Otherwise, neither our forum nor our advocates can help you.

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