How Not To Get Deported From China

Filed Under: China Southern

An interesting story is circulating about two ladies from New Zealand who were deported from China after a “journey from hell.” I have trouble keeping up with immigration policies, and I travel nonstop. I don’t envy less frequent travelers who have to stay on top of this stuff.


So what happened? Via the NZ Herald:

The friends had travelled to Istanbul to catch flights home to Auckland via Beijing where they planned to spend a 72-hour transit sightseeing in the city. But during the August 11 flight to China’s capital, the pair were surprised to hear an in-flight announcement that they would be making a “one-hour stopover” at Urumqi – a city of four million people in the autonomous region of Xinjiang, 3700km from Beijing.

When they got off the China Southern Airlines plane, their travel papers were scrutinised by immigration officers. They say they were told Urumqi issued only 24-hour visa exemptions – not 72-hour exemptions as Beijing does.

Ah, now this is actually very tricky, and something I had to think about for a few seconds before it made sense to me. China Southern operates a flight between Istanbul and Beijing which stops in Urumqi, China.


When you book the flight from Istanbul to Beijing on China Southern’s website, it does make mention of the flight having “one stop,” though that’s all it says.


However, if you click on the flight number you’ll see it indicates that the flight stops in Urumqi. It’s only natural to not think twice about that.


The article notes that travel documents and boarding passes made no mention 0f the stopover. And this is where the issue comes into play. China offers a 72-hour transit without visa. As the name suggests, this allows you to transit select airports for 72 hours without needing a visa. The ladies figured they’d stop in Beijing for a couple of days, to break up their journey between Istanbul and Auckland.

The catch is that only select airports are eligible for the 72-hour transit without visa, and Urumqi isn’t among them:

Beijing Capital International Airport, Shanghai Pudong Airport, Hongqiao Airport, Guangzhou Baiyun Airport, Chengdu Shuangliu Airport and Chongqing Jiangbei International Airport,Shenyang Taoxian Internatioanl Airport, Dalian International Airport, and Xian Xianyang International Airport.

Since Urumqi was their first port of entry into China, they had to clear immigration there. However, that airport only allows a 24-hour transit without visa, rather than a 72-hour transit without visa. Even though they were connecting to Beijing, the transit without visa is based on the airport at which you enter the country.

As you might expect, what followed does indeed sound pretty hellish:

The friends then said they were escorted, with their luggage, to an immigration van, which drove them to a high-security “detention centre”, with armed guards and barbed wire, just outside the airport.

They were put in separate rooms.

“It was very scary … not a nice place at all. We were made to feel like prisoners,” Ms de Jong said.

Two hours later, they were ferried back to the airport and told the 10-hour flight back to Istanbul would cost them 300 ($530).

During their 11-hour ordeal, they were given no food or water.

When they asked for water, airport staff refused their request.

Once back in Istanbul, Ms de Jong and Ms Watson shelled out a further $4344.65 to get new flights to New Zealand.

Wow, wow, wow, that sounds terrible.

Bottom line

Ultimately having the right travel documents is the responsibility of the passenger. That being said:

  • It sounds to me like the passengers should have been denied boarding in Istanbul initially, as they weren’t eligible for a 72-hour transit without visa in Urumqi
  • That being said, this is a really nuanced situation, and a mistake almost anyone could make; when you’re booking a “direct” flight to Beijing and that’s all your boarding pass shows, it’s only natural to think that’s where you’ll be clearing immigration
  • Surely this mistake happens with some frequency, no?
  • China’s 72-hour transit without visa policy is sort of ridiculous, given that it varies by airport; that’s the equivalent of Los Angeles and New York having different immigration policies

But seriously, what an all around crappy situation. On one hand I tend to think immigration problems are the fault of the passenger, but this is something even an expert traveler could have screwed up. China Southern could certainly do a better job communicating immigration policies for flights like these, especially given how airport dependent China’s transit without visa policy is.

Who do you think is at fault in this situation — the travelers or the airline?

(Tip of the hat to Geoffrey)

  1. Don’t feel ridiculous about China’s 72-hour policy on specific airports. Think how many hours US gives to Chinese passengers to transit via US continent. They even have to get visa beforehand. Above all, the immigration should give a warning and take a note on the record, though.

  2. I think the airline absolutely bears responsibility to make pax aware of this and what it means. And I agree that they should not have been allowed to board at IST. But ultimately I most agree that China’s policy is totally idiotic. Treating these poor women like criminals is ridiculous.

    Of course other countries have some strange immigration policies as well…like Thailand allowing you 30 days visa exemption if you enter the country at an airport but only 15 days if you arrive at a land border.

  3. I recently came back from an trip to Japan and China and I can relate to the stress of visa details for China. I was planning on staying with a friend in Beijing for some time and ended up going thru a visa service for my tourist visa to China, Houston isnt far from me but I couldn’t really afford to take the days off to get it sorted and I didn’t want to muck it up the first time. I did loads of research to get my paperwork right in order to send off to the company. I really really sympathize with these girls but at the same time… shit I triple or quadruple checked every little detail to make sure I got it right. I know I would have made note of my point of entry. I was even worried that I’d be denied a visa because I was coming from Japan into Beijing and leaving back to Texas but of course their main worry is that you have a flight out. This was my first solo trip abroad (semi-independent 20-something) and first time in asia so I didnt leave any stone unturned. The trip went on without a hitch and I was pretty proud of myself for figuring it all out on my own (I know you guys do stuff like this all the time but this was my first real experience). Like most things both sides have to shoulder some of the blame, the girls should have done more research, we all know China doesnt fuck around — this is common knowledge, banking on the 72 hr transit visa is big enough of a deal I would have done all the research to make sure I had exactly as much as I could in order. Also the airline could have put a note at least about the visa situation or that the other city would be considered your port of entry, I’m pretty sure on American’s site it had a notice saying I needed one for China but not for Japan.

  4. Well, you are right CZ should have denied boarding at Istanbul, but I am sure if they would have use a travel agent this would not had happened. This is the reason why travel agents are still around. Computers and the inte

  5. Indeed horrible but not surprised Urumqi isn’t on the list of airports with 72 hour visa-free transit. The Chinese authorities are very worried about extremism in Xinjiang (and their own policies have arguably made things worse) so they’ll want to scrutinize anyone coming into Urumqi more closely than say in Shanghai.

  6. Cont. …
    Computers and the Internet do not tell you these sort of things, as they do not talk to you, you have to read and now days humans read less and less.
    A good lesson learnt.

  7. And this is why I don’t like dealing with travel through China. God forbid something goes wrong they are not very caringo for stranded ,confused or mis guided travellers. China southern should have been fully accountable for making passengers aware of this stop and that immigration had to be cleared here.

  8. I think this is mostly on the airline. I agree the passenger is responsible for having proper docs. But, having not done so, the two shouldn’t have been allowed to board the plane. I had the opposite happen to me many years ago, coincidentally with respect to Istanbul. I was flying there a few weeks after they first instituted the option to get a visa on arrival. The airline’s system hadn’t yet been updated to reflect this and I was denied boarding for that evening flight. (This was before the internet so the only way to check was contacting the Turkish consulate which the airline did the next day.) Once the airline realized they were in error, they made it up to me.

  9. Lucky, I think you are making a too much deal out of this. The ladies might not know this well, but you should, as an expert in this field, that when it comes to immigration/custom, you should trust no one but yourself.
    If you think the Chinese 72 waiver which depends on cities is ridiculous, check out the China Transit Program of Canada, which depends on the origin cities, destinations, arrival time, and airlines, in addition to the transit city in Canada (even terminals). I know it is a transit not an admission to Canada, but you see the complexity here.

    I recently took CX888 from HKG to JFK, booked using Avios. Throughout the whole booking( and boarding process, it makes no mention of the stop in Vancouver, neither on the boarding pass or anywhere. It was only announced on the air. So even a passenger is denied boarding preflight due to not meeting transit requirements to Canada, it is still very horrible. It is a particular issue on this flight because CX operates several other non-stop flights to NY, so many people would have just assumed this one is the same.

    And regarding the oversight by the airlines preflight (or possibly Turkish border control if they have one), I would never count on them, especially when flying on a foreign airlines (of the origin). Those at check-in counters are mostly just part of FAs who may or may not be flying the route everyday. They shouldn’t be expected to know about every passengers’ requirements. So mistakes from them do happen from time to time. BTW, do you know it is legal requirement for the airlines to perform this duty?

    I was only naming a few. To my knowledge, there are many other instances of these issues. The only thing out of norm here is the harsh treatment at the detention center. However, Urumqi is a pretty hostile city in China that most people would avoid visiting. I don’t want to get into backgrounds here too much. It is not like Gaza, but many security measures here you don’t see that anywhere else in China.

  10. I can’t believe there are actually so many people who think China Southern should bear most of the responsibility here. As a frequent international traveler/flyer myself, every time I purchased an air ticket online there is always a notice somewhere on the website: “It is the traveler’s responsibility to check and comply with all country’s immigration and customs regulations” blah blah blah. And I believe most people just check the notice like all the “terms and conditions” that we agree too.

    As for the fact that URC and PEK have different immigration policies — Urumqi is still a very hostile and unstable region in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, with active Islamic extremist activities every day. It is very understandable that a more stringent policy should be in place. It’s not like comparing the immigration policy between LA and New York, because Urumqi is more like a Mexican border city with high rate of drug activity. If you want to argue that this is unnecessarily complex, Canadian’s air transit procedure dictates specific origin city, destination city, airline, arrival time, and believe or not, even the specific terminal that the aircraft docks at. Not to mention USA doesn’t even allow most travelers transit without a visa.

  11. They Should of been denied boarding at Instanbul. Airlines always check for visas just before boarding, at least based on my experience.

    Anyways, I have a 10 year multi entry visa for China, so I do not have to worry about this. And if China wants to be a world class country for tourism, its time to open more doors for VOAs.

  12. Am I missing something here? Surely this “stopover” would be considered an “in transit” stop (i.e. Never leave the airport, don’t clear customs/immigration, etc.)? Unless the two ladies wanted to see the local sites, wouldn’t their “arrival” port have been Beijing? But indeed – it could all be in the Chinese nuances!

  13. Hard for me as a US citizen to scrutinize visa rules but at least it is consistent no matter where you land. The current Chinese rules are just silly at this point and this demonstrates it.

  14. Good thing they were denied what very well would have been tap water – that would have made the deportation back to IST that much shittier.

  15. Airline should have checked before they boarded to make sure they had right papers. I’m sure this has happened before and will happen again and I think the airline just likes to try to catch people so they can maybe charge them for the return ticket. That being said when visiting a place like China these women really should have done better research. It is not an easy country to navigate and the government is very unforgiving. A simple internet search would have yielded the answer. For non-citizens dealing with US immigration is no picnic either and I have had some foreign friends who have been stranded because of the US government in what was even more absurd situations so its hard to say China is unreasonable (although removing them to a detention center was unnecessary it could have been handled at the airport).

  16. You can’t fault the Chinese authorities for treating them like criminals. As far as they’re concerned, they had two people who were in the country illegally. Until their story is verified, they must be treated as criminals.

  17. Unless this is the first time this has happened, it was the airline’s responsibility to check and inform passengers. Of course, depending on airlines that don’t take good care of passengers — such as CZ — is the passengers’ fault. Better to stick with reliable airlines if you aren’t an expert.

    There are a few countries that are well known for screwing up your trip and even your life on a bureaucratic whim at border posts and internal controls. Those countries are dangerous to visit without careful research and documentation and their borders are never entirely safe to cross. Wise travellers prefer to avoid those countries when they can and take precautions and double check when they have to go.

    The principal dangerous countries are the USA and Red China. Other countries similar to the USA are North Korea, Iran, Belarus, and Russia. Anyplace with an active war zone might pose some USA-like problems so be almost as careful with Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Libya, Yemen, and the like as you are crossing USA borders.

  18. Hey, if you are a Chinese citizen and you are visiting America without a visa, or if you have a visa but denied entry, guess what?

    You will be handcuffed and transported to immigration detention center, pay a large fine, pay for your return ticket and be deported to your country of birth(wherever that is).

    I wonder if anyone ever crossed El Paso-Juarez. It’s terrible.

    Plus, you need to pay for your

  19. I am always amused at how so many people blame the traveller for screw-ups by the Country or Airline.

    The PAX did check their visa requirements and in their defence they thought, as anyone would, that they were completely legal. It was the responsibility of the airline to inform potential passengers that this flight entered China at Urumqi. They must have known from previous experience that this would be a problem for some passengers not fully informed of the unusual status of entry to China on this particular flight.

    They also should never have been allowed to board.

    The nonsense about how entering the US is a problem is just that – totally irrelevant to the particular issue of stupidity of the Chinese immigration officials in China/Urumqi.

  20. I don’t get why travellers choose to fly these 3rd rate flag carriers of non-liberal countries. It’s a false economy. Airlines are only as good when they are able to rescue situations when things go belly up. Few airlines do this well. If you take the chance of flying a cheaper airline and hoping that things will go as planned then that is a risk you have chosen to wear.

  21. Why couldn’t they have just stayed in the airport during the 1 hour stopover and then just left the airport in Beijing??

  22. They should’ve been denied boarding at IST, but it’s the traveler’s responsibility to make sure they have all the proper documents. These women could have (and should have) found out the proper information beforehand. The fact that they didn’t (for whatever reason) is no one’s fault but their own.

    And for anyone complaining about China’s immigration/visa policies (or those of any other country), last time I checked, China is a sovereign nation. As such, they have the right to decide who they will allow into their country, and the procedures for doing so.

  23. Lucky,

    Having lived in the US for the past 20 years, I’ve been the recipient of a multitude of first world amenities. Whenever I get out of the country, I’m reminded of how different things are elsewhere in the world. However, regardless of where I am, one thing remains constant – I’m expected to follow the law/norms/custom of the country I’m in. To complain about this is not only childish, but also gives reasons for people in foreign countries to view us as arrogant and ignorant. We expect people visiting the U.S. to follow our laws, so why should be exempt when we visit other countries?

    While what happened to the New Zealanders was “horrific” in their eyes, I’m sure that’s the norm if a local commits the same “crime”. So why are we so quick to blame the country/airline/whoever for what happens to ourselves because of our lack of preparation/research/ignorance (I mean this in the nicest way possible)? I know it’s most likely an honest mistake, but rules exists for a reason, even if we disagree with it. If I’m caught speeding or ran a stop sign and got a ticket while visiting somewhere I’ve never been before, I’m expected to pay a fine. If the officer is nice and gives me a break, then I’m lucky. If not, I really shouldn’t be surprised, nor is it the officer’s fault for enforcing the law.

    Happy travels, everyone!


  24. I have only had a transit in China having flown NRT/PEK on NH connecting PEK/BKK on TG so didn’t need to get a visa however if I intended to stay a couple of nights I would still get a visa ahead of time even if I was staying less than 72 hours. Just not worth the potential grief should your flight ex China be delayed or cancelled resulting in a longer stay than planned.

  25. And that is why, unless you are an experienced frequent flyer, you are safer buying from a travel agent AND in any case having insurance! Chinese immigration acted legally, no complaints there! The airline acted stupidly, but hey, that is what they do!

  26. As a Kiwi who just happens to be holidaying in Istanbul right now, this story is of special interest to me. My heart really goes out to the two ladies.

    I agree the airline has some culpability here. A couple of commenters have said the onus is more on the passengers, but where on the website did it say that the travellers will have to clear immigration in Urumqi?

    As for the person who looks down on people catching third-rate carriers, a lot of Kiwis use China Southern. There just aren’t that many airlines that fly from NZ across the world. People in other countries don’t realise how spoiled for choice they are.

  27. “Since their Beijing flight wasn’t leaving the country for another two days, officials refused to let them travel on. When the distressed pair tried to bring forward their connecting flight, they said “rude and unhelpful” staff at the China Southern Airlines ticket office allegedly claimed it would cost them US$5000 ($7900).

    “We weren’t sure if that was each or total,” Ms de Jong said. “And they didn’t show us any proof how they got to that figure. They would just laugh and say, ‘No English’.””

    The article says this; sounds like either way, the airline had a role in this and failed to try and help them in a meaningful manner.

  28. Why did they have to be deported? Surely, they could’ve been given 24 hour transit and they could continue journey to NZ with a lesser expense of changing their onward ticket from PEK to leave somewhat earlier than originally planned.

    If Urumqi is only 1 hour stop, is that sufficient to de-board the whole plane, process immigration and re-board?

  29. This would never have happened under a Trump administration. He’s gonna have great people looking into these kinda things.

  30. I think you’ve misunderstood the Chinese visas. Even if URC was on the 72 hour list, they couldn’t have entered there and stayed in Beijing. The 72 hour visa holder MUST stay in the city they enter at with both confirmed DIRECT international flights in and out of the same city. 24 hour visas allow unlimited transfers within china for trips like the one the ladies were taking (eg IST-URC-PEK-AKL). I think CZ only flies to AKL from CAN as well, so they’d need a further domestic flight down there making a complete pigs ear of their plans stay in Beijing using the 72 hour visa.

  31. @James Ukich – “Why did they have to be deported?”

    Because they didn’t follow the appropriate immigration procedures?

  32. Clearly the problem is that China (like the US) doesn’t have any allowance for transit and requires full entry for all initial stops in the country. Of course they could have also been much more sensible and offered them a 24h visa and rebooked onto an earlier flight rather than have to go back.

  33. If I’m Ben, I would keep my mouth shut on commenting the 72-hour transit without visa policy. Further, why is such policy ridiculous? They have to place extra people to work on these, and it would be a huge burden if you place a team in every point of entry (that’s why they put in only in Beijing and Shanghai and a handful for major cities). Is that so hard to understand? Now who’s being ridiculous?

    Does New York or LA or any US cities allow any similar policies?

    I would say 100% fault of the travelers on their own. They would have known of the situation had they been more careful to notice the information of their flight.

    The mindset of modern people nowadays: blame everything else but not themselves.

  34. folks correct me if i am wrong
    i dont think CZ even offer non-stop flight from PEK-AKL.
    the routing may be IST-URC-PEK-CAN-AKL on CZ meaning two legs of domestic flights are on this itinerary

  35. The kiwi ladies would never have made it. CZ doesn’t fly PEK-AKL and they would have to transit through CAN. The 72-hour transit rule of China clearly states that you HAVE TO FLY CONFIRMED DIRECT INTERNATIONAL FLIGHTS IN AND OUT OF THE TRANSIT CITY. Even if IST-PEK were a direct flight, they would still be detained at PEK due to lack of visas. Their itinerary involves a domestic flight!

  36. Ironic because CZ is operated by the government thus making it a government entity. Furthermore, if they are to make claim it should be the website they purchased the tickets from because travel websites are obligated to provide layover info. I would sue the travel site, CZ in Turkey and Chinese immigration.

  37. Hallo folks, i was denied just before last Chinese New Year 2016 by Qatar Airways in Paris to board its flight Paris-Doha-Shanghai because their French On Ground Crew was not aware about the 72h visa waiver policy first of all,i had to proof my claim by guiding them through the appropriate websites starting from Pudong Airport and CTS however it didn’t help at all as i was just told by tha that without visa i am not allowed to board that flight, although i was well qualified as i was ready to leave Shanghai via Hong Kong (different exit destination) to Bali less then 72H after my planned arrived in Shanghai. At the end it cost me 3 days to reach Shanghai, while passing via HK, applying for a tourist visa and purchasing 3 new tickets, Paris-Doha-HK, HK SH by train, and SH HK Bali return, detailed complaint letter with proven evidences to QA Doha HQ didnt help neither to get any compensation from the airline, although Its Chinese Crew at SH QA Office admitted that i was right, however only the HQ in Doha can handle such cases and never admitted its mishandling nor provided a proper compensation until today and 11 months passed by already, any helpful and wise suggestion from your side would be highly appreciated, thank you very much indeed

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