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Posted by on May 3, 2013

That Time We Almost Didn’t Get into China


Phnom Penh International Airport is teeming with families seeing their relatives off at 10 p.m. We have been reunited with Rot, our tuk tuk driver, and are saying our own goodbyes. It’s surprisingly hard to say goodbye to him, especially after he pulls out a picture of him and his wife to give us so that we don’t forget him. We give him a few gifts and sadly wave as he starts the motor and drives away one last time.

Saying good-bye to Rot. I promise he's sad to see us go!

Saying good-bye to Rot. I promise he’s sad to see us go. He’s not one for smiling in pictures.

The sadness gets alleviated by a Dairy Queen ice cream cone and we head to the China Eastern Airlines check-in counter. We’re headed to Shanghai, China for three days en route to Japan. China now allows visitors into Shanghai for up to 72 hours without a visa if they are traveling through. Since a visa to China costs $130 we see this as a great way to see another country and not have to pay to get in. We also don’t have to pay for another ticket since our plane was already stopping in Shanghai.

As we hand over our passports, the airline agent looks for our Chinese visa (which we don’t have) and then asks for our itinerary. Confusion ensues behind the desk as three people figure out that we will be in Shanghai for 76 hours, not the mandated 72. It’s an issue even though their own ticket agent had booked the ticket knowing we could only be there for 72 hours.

Shanghai Surprise No. 1 – will we even make it there?

We’re told we may not be able to board the flight or that immigration may just send us back to Phnom Penh when we arrive because we don’t have a visa for the additional 4 hours. One of the agents calls the airline desk in Shanghai. He’s speaking Chinese so we have no idea what is being said.

After much discussion, he says OK – we can get on the plane, but check in with the airline agent when we arrive so they can help us with immigration. Our tickets and passports get handed back to us with parting words of “good luck.”

I’m still panicked and frantically Googling “72 hour no visa in China” on my phone to see if anyone can tell me if the 72 hours is from scheduled flight times or when you actually go through immigration. There is no clear information anywhere so I try to calm down and just let it happen. I sleep the three hours on our midnight flight and we land in Shanghai.

The agents at the transfer desk were of little help, but usher us to immigration saying it will be fine since we can always just get a 24 hour permit and then book a different flight to Japan. Do they not realize we’re in China? Aren’t the immigration agents supposed to be tough on visitors here?

Dave and I go to different agents who study our passports and our itinerary. They’re smiling and making small talk with us and each other as they start to stamp our passports. They don’t seem alarmed that we’ll be here for 76 hours. They take our passports and bring us to the head immigration officer who towers over us. The officer there is just as friendly as he reviews our passports and starts to stamp away again. And then we’re told we need to wait. They have to call the airline and verify our flights. We sit and wait.

Ten minutes later, we’re called to the desk with eight other people who seem to be in a similar situation. We’re last to get our passports back and the officer says that we’re clear to enter, but that we have to leave the country by May 2. Yes, yes, we understand. We gratefully shake our heads and say “xia xia” to thank him.

And with that, we’re in China!

Phew! We made it!

Phew! We made it!

There is little information on the Chinese immigration page about the 72 hour visa free permit when flying into Shanghai or Beijing. What I did learn is that the 72 hours is counted by your scheduled arrival and departure dates and times, not when you’d get your permit at immigration in China. The stamp the immigration officials put in your passport only lists the day you need to leave, not the time. Like us, you may find you can extend your trip by a few hours, but chancing that doesn’t seem worth the risk that you don’t have a friendly immigration agent that day.

If you’re ever traveling in Phnom Penh and need a tuk tuk driver, give Rot a call. He knows the city really well and is a great, safe driver. You can reach him at 092 994 048.







  1. Glad to read this post after the fact. Sounds like an adventure that you would rather not have. Here’s to better days and much fun. Love, Mona

  2. I also am glad this was posted after the fact! Have fun and be safe!

    Love you,

    • I will not say that I’m surprised to see you both to comment on this post! Honestly, it was fine. Nerve-wracking at first, but the worst case was that we’d need to change our flight to Tokyo to a day earlier.

  3. Just put Rot number in my phone 😉

    • He’d love you!