24 Hours in Beijing (+Great China Wall) Without a Visa. Here’s How.
9th September 2018
With the area of ca. 17 thousand square km, and the population of over 21 million, Beijing is one of the biggest cities in the world.
You can easily spend here a week on sightseeing (in which case, here’s a good itinerary). But what if you only have a day to spare, as we did on our way back home from Singapore to Poland?
Let me help ✋
How to Get the Most of Your Beijing Layover?
A disclaimer first. My plan works best for travelers who have a layover of about 18-22 hours in Beijing, arriving in the morning.
If you are staying in China overnight, consider booking a package day tour with one of the multiple tour agents in the city. Take a look at Viator’s day excursions, for example.
The Great Wall of China + Tiananmen Square in One Day
Our plan included the following attractions:
- Transport to Mutianyu Great Wall from the airport and hike up the wall section.
- Return to central Beijing and a leisurely stroll around a 500-year old shopping area.
- Visiting Tiananmen Square.
If you leave the airport quick enough, head off to the Wall, and get back to central Beijing around 2 pm, you’ll still have time to check into the Forbidden City.
(That was what we had originally intended, but because of several bumps along the way, our plans changed unexpectedly.)
Obtaining 72-Hour Visa-Free Transit in China
Here’s the good news. Citizens from 53 countries qualify for a free 72-hour tourist visa that is granted at the airports of 18 major Chinese cities. For several cities, including Beijing, the visa can be extended up to 144 hours.
There’s a catch – this is a transfer visa so you have to present the ticket for another leg of your journey to obtain it. All information about participating countries and cities can be found on the Travel China Guide website.
72-hour China visa – how to apply?
You apply for the visa at the airport, in a specially-designated area for 72-hour transit visas.
Before you do it, you will have to pass through several passport & security checks.
- First, you will need to scan your passport and leave your fingerprints in the fingerprint self-collection booth:
2. When that’s sorted, head to the line for 24-hour international transfer where you will go through another check:
3. And then continue to International Transfers until you reach the counter “24/144 International Transfer (Apply for Leaving Airport)“.
4. Before you talk to the customs officer, fill in the blue Arrival Card:
When you get the visa, you’re free to go!
Getting from Beijing Airport to the Center
The best way to get to the central Beijing, which is the starting point for this trip, is to take the ultra-fast Airport Express train.
The train leaves from Terminals 2 & 3, and you will want to reach the Dongzhimen station, and then continue your journey from there.
How to reach the Airport Express from your terminal?
Depending on the terminal where your plane arrives, to leave the airport, you may have to get to the main building on a special train (it’s the same terminal, but a different building).
Follow the signs to ‘The Automated People Mover‘. Don’t rush and fight for a seat as the train leaves every 3 minutes.
Beijing Airport Essentials: Luggage, Money Exchange, Shower
- Luggage: There are luggage storage services at the airport, cryptically labeled as Left luggage. Paid but safe, and available 24/7 for pick-up (for collection there are limited hours). Look here for more details: http://en.bcia.com.cn/server/service/baggageconsign.shtml. We spent about 30 yuan ($4.5) to store two small bags for over 20 hours.
- Language: Hardly anyone spoke English at the airport, including the Tourist Information staff. Installing Google Translate (it should work in China now) or another translator might be a good idea.
- Money: The money exchange points at the airport charge high commission for the amount that you need for a day. Better to use a cash machine and withdraw money there.
- Shower: I didn’t find any information about free shower facilities, so we used the paid shower in the hourly lounge in Terminal. For 50 yuan per person, or about $7 pp, we got towels, slippers, toiletries, and unlimited access to a hot shower. A blessing after 48 hours of non-stop travel and a whole day spent in Beijing.
Getting to Mutianyu Great Wall from the airport
There are dozens of blogs elaborating on how best get to the Wall from the airport. The one that I truly recommend is this post, in which I found the most relevant and detailed information.
There’s also a much more convenient (and little known-of) way, a direct bus from central Beijing. The bus is running directly from Tiananmen East to the Wall Ticket Office: http://www.beijingmubus.com/
You won’t probably be able to make it for the outbound bus to the Wall (which leaves at 8 am from central Beijing), but I highly recommend taking it on your way back. It’s a time and hassle saver!
One disadvantage is that it has set times, and with the inbound bus departing at 2.30 from the Wall, you’ll reach Beijing around 5 pm, which leaves you no time to visit Forbidden City (which closes at 5 pm, too).
Regardless of the means of transport you choose, note that you’ll have to allow 2-3 hours ONE WAY to get to the Wall from the airport.
Mutianyu Wall – which ticket?
When you arrive at the Wall, you can get dizzy with all the ticket options. There are several combos and upgrades available.
I recommend taking the shuttle that will take you from the Ticket Office to the main entrance. It costs next to nothing and saves you some time and lots of energy.
We also took the chairlift, which was a pleasant experience as you could admire the view on the way to the top, and the toboggan to make it down. I had never tried it before, and enjoyed immensely!
The Great Wall of China – Cash Only!!!
One essential tip for the Great Wall of China: TAKE CASH & CASH ONLY!!!
I had wrongly assumed that since the Great Wall of China is one of the most frequented tourist attractions in the world, credit card payment would be accepted.
I was wrong. You can only pay by cash.
There are two ATMs. However, they are of little help. One is for Chinese customers only, and it doesn’t accept any foreign cards. The other one was supposed to be working for all types of cards.
Not only it didn’t, but it swallowed our card, generated an error message, and charged us for nothing. Fortunately, we were able to recover the card after a few minutes but remained in the ticket office without any cash for the Wall.
Our only solution was to grab a taxi, head for the nearest city (half-an-hour ride) to find an ATM that would work for us, and then come back to enjoy the Wall. Which, by the way, we did:
Beijing – Quianmen Street + Tiananmen
After the strenuous but exhilarating hike up and down the wall, we came back to Beijing on the direct bus. It was a blessing for us as we could sleep off 2 hours after a long, stressful day.
We arrived in Beijing, Quianmen, about 5 pm. From there, we just wandered off and got lost in the maze of old shops and stalls at the famous Quianment Street, nibbling on Chinese snacks.
Then we followed straight up towards Tiananmen, which took us about 30-40 minutes, because:
a) the place is IMMENSE
b) we had to pass through several security checks on the way, including passport check and finger scan. There’s no compromising on security here!
The stroll around the square (without visiting any of the museums, which were anyway closed at that time) alone took us more than an hour!
After an entire day of touring in scorching sun (it was 40 degrees over there!), we were drooling for food. That was another time this day when we had to alter the initial plan and wing it.
I badly wanted to check out the famous Wangfujing Night Food Market, but… we were running out of time. And frankly speaking, we were also bone-tired. Instead of exploring the street food, we opted for a food court in a nearby mall. Still, the meal was flawless (below a veggie option).
Beijing – will I return there?
Beijing’s appeal is far from obvious. The city is humongous, girdled in a cloud of thick smog, and a bit hostile, with the lack of English-speaking resources and long traveling times.
Yet, even after 24 excruciating hours that I spent there, I am positive that I’d like to come back here again whenever I have a chance to visit China for the third time. Places don’t need to be beautiful as long as they are intriguing.