Experiencing the 72-Hour Visa-Free Stay in Shanghai

“Look on every exit as being an entrance somewhere else.”
Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

I had planned to take a weekend in Hong Kong–the flight was cheap and I didn’t want to wait until my visa-free stay in Taiwan expires just before Chinese New Year when the ticket prices will skyrocket. Instead, I got an email and Skype call about a prospective job in Shanghai. I was excited and checked on flights to mainland China to schedule an in-person interview and editing test. It was easiest to just go immediately.

Hong Kong from the airplane
Just passing through Hong Kong this time around

I thought about the 72-hour visa-free stay that China now allows in a few cities, including Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou. I only knew it existed, but I didn’t read all the details close enough.

As I got on the phone with Cathay Pacific to see about cancelling my flight to Hong Kong, I thought I should see about just changing my flight to include Hong Kong on the way back from Shanghai. I mentioned the 72-hour visa over the phone while talking with customer service. Everything seemed fine.

Then I got to Taoyuan International Airport.

“This ticket is no good for the transit visa,” the Cathay Pacific agent told me.

I was confused. I asked multiple questions.

“You need a third destination after Shanghai.”

“But I have a third destination. I’m going to Hong Kong before returning to Taipei,” I said.

“That doesn’t count.”

Technically, Hong Kong and Taiwan count as third destinations even though they are still China according to the mainland Chinese government (and despite having different passports, stamps, and visa requirements). The problem wasn’t that my third destination was Hong Kong; the problem was that Cathay Pacific always stops in Hong Kong on the way to anywhere else. This made Hong Kong my point of departure.Hong Kong from the airplane

But what if I just got a direct flight back to Taipei? Well, I couldn’t do that either, and certainly not with Cathay. The problem with that plan is that Taipei is my point of departure. Yes, my point of departure was Taipei…and Hong Kong. Are you confused yet?

So, unable to coax any sort of refund out of Cathay for this massive early-morning headache (before I had even had my coffee), I booked another ticket from Shanghai to Seoul to Taipei on Korean Air. “That works,” the agent said, “but how will you get the ticket as proof?” “How about you print it for me? I can put it on a flash drive.” No, they couldn’t do that. But they would get Korean Air to fax the ticket to them, which took so long that it left me 15 minutes to check in for my flight and run through immigration and security.

Shanghai People's Park in 2006
Welcome back to Shanghai (the air was only this clear 9 years ago when the photo was taken)

I had arrived at the airport in Taipei early–I figured I could relax and enjoy some coffee on the way to my flight. I ended up needing every minute of it to deal with the Cathay agent who was entirely unhelpful. I also didn’t get coffee in Hong Kong because that hour layover meant running from one end of the airport to the other (and going through security again) to be the last person to board my Dragon Air flight (one of the worst flights I’ve ever had).

As I departed Shanghai (I have to admit the immigration officers in Shanghai are so much more polite than the ones I remember in Shenzhen years ago), I asked the immigration supervisor on duty about the 72-hour transit visa. He confirmed the third destination regulation. However, he wasn’t sure about my original flight plan–it was too confusing. And if I had re-booked a direct flight back to Taipei, they probably would have accepted it.

To add to my frustration, my hotel in Shanghai insisted I take a taxi to the airport at 4:30am for my 8:00am flight. They said it was too far to go at 5:00 or 5:30. I arrived at the airport at 5:00–Pudong International Airport doesn’t even open for check-in until 6:00.

It turned out to be a much more expensive trip than originally planned. The original ticket to Hong Kong was $157. That turned into about $300 when I added Shanghai (still not bad). It was another $375 for the trip to Seoul. I’ll call it an experience–I need to be less hasty when booking tickets before ensuring I know all the details involved in the trip.

Have you ever made a costly travel mistake? How did you handle it?

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