The TL;DR summary
- Our itinerary: Manila-Beijing-Manila on Cebu Pacific Air and Beijing-Ulaanbaatar-Beijing on Air China
- We got single-entry Chinese visas for “show” purposes because apparently Cebu Pacific Air does not care about China’s visa-free transit policies and will deny boarding without visas
- Upon arrival at Beijing Capital International Airport (BCIA) Terminal 2, we presented our onward tickets to Ulaanbaatar and were issued Temporary Entry Permits valid for 24 hours
- We transferred to BCIA Terminal 3 and boarded our flight to Ulaanbaatar
- Success! Our Chinese visas remain unused
Observations and recommendations
- Yes, you can leave the airport and go into the city
- Problems can occur at the point of departure due to lack of knowledge of airline staff or, in the case of Cebu Pacific Air, its own stringent airline rules (get your act together, Cebu Pacific Air!)
- If transiting through Beijing from Manila on non-connecting flights: take Philippine Airlines (PAL) instead of Cebu Pacific Air, as PAL is actually cognizant of China’s visa-free transit policies and allows transit passengers to board without visas
To boost tourism in the country, China has instituted 72-hour and 144-hour visa-free transit policies, but these exemptions are available only to citizens of a few countries. Still, Filipinos and all other nationalities can transit through China without a visa, but only for 24 hours. According to the Exit and Entry Administration Law of the People’s Republic of China:
“Article 22. Under any of the following circumstances, foreigners may be exempt from applying for visas:
(3) Hold connected passenger tickets and are in transit to a third country or region by an international aircraft, ship or train via China, will stay for not more than 24 hours in China without leaving the port of entry, or will stay in the specific zones approved by the State Council within the prescribed time limit.
Article 23. Where foreigners under any of the following circumstances need to enter China temporarily, they shall apply to exit/entry border inspection agencies for going through the formalities for temporary entry:
(2) Persons specified in Subparagraph (3) of Article 22 of this Law need to leave ports.”
The aforementioned visa-exemption transit policies — or transit-without-visa (TWOV), as they are popularly known on the internets — come with a lot of conditions. As such, they can get a bit complicated, and there are lots of conflicting information online. Case in point: there is a huge thread (149 pages and counting) on the FlyerTalk forum solely dedicated to clarifying all the rules on this matter.
We put the rules to the test on our trip to Mongolia earlier this month, when we flew on the following non-connecting flights: Manila-Beijing-Manila on Cebu Pacific Air and Beijing-Ulaanbaatar-Beijing on Air China. Our itinerary involved transferring terminals at Beijing Capital International Airport (BCIA) and going through immigration control. We chose to transit through Beijing because: 1) we scored cheap promo tickets on Cebu Pacific Air, and 2) according to the rules, we didn’t need visas.
Or so we thought. As our departure neared, I came to learn that passengers on Cebu Pacific Air have been denied check-in or boarding because they didn’t have Chinese visas, even though they were eligible for 24-hour visa-free transit. A closer look at Cebu Pacific Air’s website reveals:
Yikes. The last thing I wanted was for our long-awaited Mongolian holiday to be ruined because we miss our flight on a budget airline that devised its own rules. We hurriedly got single-entry tourist visas for “show” purposes. Like they say, better safe than sorry.
Armed with our Chinese visas, we checked in with no problems and flew from Manila to Beijing on Cebu Pacific Air. Upon arrival at BCIA Terminal 2, we did not present our Chinese visas to passport control. Instead, we presented our confirmed onward tickets to Ulaanbaatar and requested for 24-hour visa-free entry.
The result: success! The immigration officer stamped our passports with Temporary Entry Permits valid for 24 hours, no questions asked.
With our luggage in tow, we took the free shuttle bus from Terminal 2 to Terminal 3, where we again went through passport control, and then boarded our flight to Ulaanbaatar.
On our return journey from Mongolia, it was pretty much the same experience, except the other way around. The only difference was that at the Terminal 3 arrivals hall, they had a special desk for visa-free transit passengers. We tried to approach a regular desk because there wasn’t a line there, but the immigration officer pointed us to the direction of the slow-moving special desk. One of us, my cousin, didn’t want to stand in line anymore and used her visa to go through. The immigration officer actually tried to dissuade her from wasting her visa and urged her to join the queue for visa-free transit, before reluctantly stamping her in lol.