I’m an American expat who has lived in China for 7 years. I didn’t go home for three years because of COVID – until now. I started my journey back to China on Jan. 12, 2023, and here is an overview of my process, the flight path I took, and documents I needed as of the new policy changes from Jan. 8, 2023 onwards.
This is my personal experience with my specific airlines, flight route, passport, and visa. These requirements and polices can change and vary greatly in their implementation, so call your airline, check with the Chinese embassy, and research the best options for you if you’re looking at flights to China. Tourism is still not open in China, so you need to have a working visa, or other approved visa to enter.
- Flying from China to the US
- What Documents You Need To Return To China
- My Route & Timeline Flying Back To China via Europe
- January 12, 2023: Getting a COVID Test
- January 12, 2023: First Flight (COVID Test not checked)
- January 13, 2023: Second Flight (COVID Test and Health Declaration QR Code Checked)
- January 13, 2023: Third Flight (Health Declaration Checked)
- January 14, 2023: Arriving in Beijing (Health Declaration Checked)
Flying from China to the US
My last trip home to the United States was in December 2019 – right before COVID, and subsequently before domestic travel restrictions, before Health Kit apps (健康宝 Jiankang Bao) were a thing, before frequent COVID testing and 48 hour rules for entering public venues in Beijing were implemented. And, of course, before quarantine policies were put in place that required two weeks of staying inside a hotel upon arrival to China, not to mention expensive and infrequent flight options.
So it was with much anticipation and excitement that I finally was able to go home in December 2022 for the holidays, thanks to many things aligning: work approving my time off, domestic travel policies easing up, and flights becoming more available both in and out of China.
When I was booking my trip home, quarantine was still in effect for returning to China: 5 days in a hotel, plus 3 days of home monitoring. I was more than willing to do this quarantine time – it wasn’t ideal, but still better than a full 14 days that other friends had to do previously. And if it meant I could finally go home, it was do-able. Rumors were starting to swirl around about quarantine ending, so I’d hoped once I was home to hear some news about changes to this policy as well.
So on December 22 I flew from Beijjng to Xiamen to the US with Xiamen Airlines. No COVID test was required for entering the airports or for my flights, because of the new travel policies changes. No one even looked at my Health Kit (Jiankang Bao) to make sure it was green (okay to enter places and travel) and not the dreaded red.
It was very strange to have such an easy experience. With so much uncertainty and policies changing swiftly here, many of my friends and I had felt waves of anxiousness when trying to plan things in the future. You never knew if an area you had recently been to, or were hoping to go to, would pop up as high risk, effectively changing your plans – or worse – putting you in lockdown or travel limbo.
So in the airport waiting to leave I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. I kept thinking when I went to board the plane someone might jump out and yell “GOTCHA! You think you’re leaving? You didn’t take a test and you have a red health code!”
But everything went without a hitch. The only thing I noticed was the Beijing and Xiamen international terminals and airlines were operating very minimally, with no restaurants open in the terminals, and a bag of snacks offered on the flight to the US instead of hot food.
But that was no matter – I ate my Chinese bread and yogurt gratefully as I was whooshed off to America.
Here’s the video I made about traveling back to the states – my most viewed video on Instagram (86.6k) and WeChat (175k) to date!
End of Quarantine Announced
While I was home, official news was released after Christmas that from January 8, 2023, China would officially end quarantine for inbound travelers, a major change to China’s COVID policies. Now, this didn’t mean measures were totally gone, but it definitely was a good thing.
I had originally planned to fly back to China from the US, but due to flight changes and a cancellation, and considering my route options, I changed plans and flew to England first to spend a short time with my partner and his family, then planned to go back to China from there.
What Documents You Need To Return To China
Since quarantine measures are gone, the big questions now is: what do you officially need to do to return to China? Here is an overview of my process, the flight path I took, and documents I needed as of January 8, 2023 and how I followed them on January 12, 2023.
1. A valid visa for China
China is still closed for tourist visas. You need to have a working visa or other approved visa (family/business/other) for going to China right now.
Make sure your visa will be valid for when you plan to return – my work visa was just renewed before I left, so I knew I would be safe.
According to the Chinese Embassy: At the current stage, multi-year multiple-entry visas issued before March 26, 2020 are still suspended of use. If such visa holders need to go to China at this stage, they can apply for a new visa according to the requirements of this notice. Visa applications for tourism and medical treatment in China are temporarily not accepted.
If you plan to transit through other countries before arriving in China, make sure to check your passport and visa requirements for those countries.
Also important: Check your passport expiration date. If it expires in 6 months, you may not be able to travel into China.
Check with your embassy and the Chinese embassy for more details regarding visas, as I am not an expert on official visas and changing policies.
2. A 48 hour COVID test
You need to have a 48 hour COVID test to enter China. You should plan your testing location and layovers carefully to make sure your 48 hour test will be valid when boarding your flights to China.
I tested in the UK (and share those details below) but you should check with your home country (or where you plan to fly from) on more details about where to get tested.
3. Confirm Details With Your Airline
Airlines also may have different requirements for:
- COVID test proof (printed or digital copy)
- Different rules for which flight they will check your test. It could be your last flight to China or one of your first flights, depending on if your flights are connected or separately booked.
- For example, I had three flights to China. They didn’t check my test on my first flight, but they checked on my second flight since it was connected to my last flight to Beijing.
Since implementation has been inconsistent between airlines, airports, cities, and countries, it’s best to call your airline for accurate information for your trip.
There is some confusion as well over whether the 48 hours is from arrival or from departure, so it’s best to confirm with your airline when they will check your COVID test. It’s important to carefully check the 48 hour test compared to your flight transit time.
Some people told they were worried because by the time they landed in China their test would be expired past 48 hours. BUT it was still okay because their test was valid when it was checked before their last flight to China. When you land, your COVID test won’t be checked – just the China Customs form (details below).
4. Fill Out The China Customs Health Declaration Form
You will need fill out the China Customs Health Declaration Form to enter China.
When you fill in this form, you will declare your PCR test result is negative – but you don’t actually upload your results anywhere.
After you fill out this form, it will generate an Entry Health Declaration QR code. I recommend filling this form out right before you check in for your flight; you don’t need to fill out in advance.
Make sure you screenshot this QR code, because you will need to show it before boarding your flights, and when you arrive in China.
Here’s a link for China Customs website: China Customs Form
Or see the photo shared below with a link you can scan through WeChat.
More Helpful advice: I’m in several Wechat groups where people have shared testing sites, tips for traveling, and personal experiences returning to China from different countries. This was super helpful to me for planning my route back and finding a test site, so I recommend joining some. One group for China / US round trip travelers had an amazing admin Chikae who compiled a Google doc of helpful resources. (Note: This doc is not for media or official usage. This is just to help provide resources and information for others traveling to and from China, mostly for those in the US).
Check out the official Chinese embassy information for the most up-to-date policies, as policies might have even changed since my return visit. You should also check your visa and transit requirements depending on your passport.
My Route & Timeline Flying Back To China via Europe
My flight route back to China was Manchester – Helsinki – Brussels – Beijing (a weird flight route from England to China, I know).
I booked my tickets using Trip.com and the Trip app because it accepts Chinese payments (WeChat and Alipay) and I like their system and rewards.
Here’s a travel vlog of my trip, with full written details continued below it.
January 12, 2023: Getting a COVID Test
I got an Express COVID test at Randox Manchester Trafford at 11:30am the day of my first flight, and received my results at 12:45pm. The Randox Express test cost £80 and comes back in 1-3 hours. Inside the Trafford Center there was a post office / Newsport shop where I printed my COVID test, just in case the airline wanted to see a printed copy of my test.
COVID tests abroad can be quite costly as well. Most are between $80-100 USD. It is a weird contrast to how they were free here in China but also, that’s a whole other topic.
January 12, 2023: First Flight (COVID Test not checked)
After getting my test results back (negative, of course), I checked into my first flight from Manchester to Helsinki with Finnair at 3pm. Because this leg wasn’t connected to my flight to China, I wasn’t asked for my COVID test or health declaration form here.
I had a layover in Helsinki, staying a few hours in the Glo Hotel Restpods inside the airport overnight. The Helsinki airport was suberb for a layover – great wifi, and lots of shops and coffee open during the late and early morning hours I was there.
January 13, 2023: Second Flight (COVID Test and Health Declaration QR Code Checked)
At 4:30AM the next morning I checked in for my flight from Helsinki to Brussels with Finnair. This flight was connected to my Brussels – Beijing flight, so when checking in they asked for all my documents for China:
- My Chinese visa
- Negative COVID test
- The Entry Health Declaration QR code here
For the Health Declaration Form: the Finnair attendant was really nice and told me to take a photo of this screen to have the customs form on hand to fill out.
But, as I previously shared above, you can scan the photo with the link through WeChat. . After filling out the form and generating my QR code (in which you must declare that you’ve had a negative COVID test in the last 48 hours), I showed this to the Finnair flight attendant along with my COVID test, then she checked my luggage through to Beijing and I was on my way.
January 13, 2023: Third Flight (Health Declaration Checked)
When I arrived in Brussels I didn’t need to exit through security, I just transferred through passport control to my new terminal for my flight to Beijing with Hainan Airlines. When checking in at my gate I had to show the Health Declaration QR code again to get my boarding pass. They did not ask to check my printed or digital COVID test results.
But remember: how and when your test and Health Declaration QR code are checked will be implemented differently across airlines. People in WeChat groups have reported many different ways this process has been carried out,
Once we boarded the Hainan Airlines flight, they asked everyone to put a mask on. Everyone also had a snack bag placed on their seat. If you want hot food, it’s recommended to eat before your flight to China or grab some food to-go (others going to/from China have mentioned this in WeChat groups as well).
This is what I had on my Hainan Airlines flight: bread, a carton of milk, an apple and banana, chive crackers, a tin of cold porridge, chocolate, beef jerky, and other Chinese snacks. (One of my expat friends loves Chinese snacks and said this was a great bag! To be fair, it was quite a lot of snacks).
But later to my surprise they did bring by some rice and hot pork & vegetables. They brought this meal again for breakfast right before landing. So be prepared for anything – you could get a snack bag or hot food or both!
January 14, 2023: Arriving in Beijing (Health Declaration Checked)
At 4:30am, after 10 hours of flying, I landed in Beijjng. They checked my Health QR code again at two different points, then I filled out an arrivals card, went through immigration with usual questions about why I’m in China, then I went through customs. No temperature check, no quarantine. No fuss at all.
Around 5:15am I walked out and got a taxi home. Just like that.
It still feels so surreal after 3 years of travel restrictions and mandatory quarantine rules. If I had arrived more than a week ago before January 8, it would’ve been a very different experience with quarantine still going on.
Again, this is my personal experience with my specific airlines, flight route, passport, and visa. These requirements and polices can vary greatly, so call your airline and research for yourself the best options for you if you’re looking at flights to China.
I know myself and many other people are excited for easier travel in/out of China now. Many people are booking their first trips out of China over Chinese New Year, going to Thailand, Bali, or to their home countries. There is a feeling of optimism many haven’t felt in a long time.
So let’s be hopeful for a more open 2023! Jiayou, and Happy Year of the Rabbit!