Everything U.S. travelers need to know about planning a trip to China


The world’s most populous country is finally beginning to reopen its borders — but foreign tourists won’t be allowed in just yet.

Nearly three years after shutting down to outsiders, China has begun ending its “zero covid” policy. As of Jan. 8, the country has dropped its severe mandatory quarantine on arrival, and it only requires travelers to show a negative PCR test taken within 48 hours before departure.

But this phase of reopening is not intended to resuscitate its foreign tourism market, but rather to allow Chinese nationals (and foreign nationals with valid residence permits and visas) the freedom to go abroad again — and just in time for Lunar New Year, the country’s busiest travel period. Like before the pandemic, foreigners will need an official permit or a visa from the Chinese embassy to enter the country, and those will only be given for people with a compelling reason to visit such as business, school or seeing relatives.

Americans are still excited about the news.

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

Angela Hughes, owner of Trips & Ships Luxury Travel, has seen similar interest. “Once it opens up, it’s going to be sizzling hot,” she said.

According to an Expedia spokesperson, searches for travel from the United States to China have nearly doubled compared to the week before the announcement.

Tourist visas and 10-year visas are not expected to be granted anytime soon “because they’re still trying to reopen,” Rose said. “And it’s going to take a little while — just like it did in the U.S.”

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

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When can you start planning a trip to China?

Travelers interested in visiting China for business, school or seeing relatives may apply for entry visas and start planning trips now.

Everyone else will need to have some patience, although some hopeful tourism experts are already getting trips on the schedule despite having no clear date for the return of China’s tourist visas. The small-group tour company Intrepid Travel has put trips on sale starting as early as April.

The company’s partners on the ground in China are actively preparing for the return of tourism, says Natalie Kidd, Intrepid’s Asia division managing director, and they anticipate more announcements on tourist visas to come after Lunar New Year festivities begin near the end of January.

Hughes has already locked in a group tour for a couple later this year. “They’re just going for it with the expectation that it’s going to be open,” she said. Having watched other countries around the world deal with erratic entry requirements, Hughes was skeptical to lock in anything earlier than fall, “but they’re optimistic,” she said.

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

While Hughes is looking to Japan as a blueprint for what China’s return to tourism might look like, Catherine Heald, CEO of the luxury travel company Remote Lands, is bracing for a longer wait with more complications.

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

What to know about coronavirus protocols in China

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

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

For now, the main pandemic restriction in place is for travelers. Anyone visiting must provide a negative PCR result from a test taken within 48 hours of departure to China. Kidd says masks are still recommended in China, but not mandated in public areas (except for places like hospitals and clinics) and no quarantines or isolation are required if someone does get covid-19.

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What are the risks of visiting as soon as possible?

As of Jan. 9, the U.S. State Department has a Level 3: Reconsider Travel advisory for China (along with Hong Kong and Macao) due to the surge of covid cases, covid-related restrictions and “arbitrary enforcement of local laws,” its website reads. Travelers considering a trip to China should refer to the State Department’s entire travel information page for updates on travel advisories and country information.

Medical experts from World Travel Protection, a travel risk-management company, note China is experiencing its biggest covid surge to date. But it’s challenging to accurately assess coronavirus risks in China, says Joel Lockwood, one of the company’s regional chief medical officers, since the country’s mass-testing programs have ended and the World Health Organization claims China has underrepresented its covid mortality statistics.

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

Additionally, given that the country has a relatively low level of vaccine-associated immunity compared to other places, Lockwood says China and its health care system may struggle with a massive surge of cases in the coming weeks.

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

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

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What travel will be like once you get there

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

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

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

Hughes predicts China, like Japan, might only allow tourist groups at first, and that such options are limited. She says the cruise market for China could rebound faster than the traditional “land market” because it could offer a smoother experience for travelers.

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

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