Part III : American citizens without Chinese visas should avoid Fuzhou & Shenzhen Airports
Find the cheapest flight home ASAP – but it goes through China
The cheapest flight back to Seattle in the next couple days was through Xiamen Air with two layovers in China (Fuzhou and Shenzhen, which we had never heard of before). It was a pretty brutal flight itinerary with a 9-hour overnight layover in Fuzhou, where we were planning to sleep in the airport, followed by another short layover in Shenzhen.
We knew we would need a visa to visit China, but searched to make sure we would be fine to fly through without one. Google informed us if we stayed less than 24 hours (check!) and didn’t leave the airport (check!), we wouldn’t need a visa. The internet was down at our hotel so we found a Starbucks nearby so we could book the flight without losing the cheap fare ($965 for the both of us).
U.S. emergency passport showed up as “German passport” on flight confirmation
When we entered my information, it asked for place of issue for my passport. My emergency passport was issued in Germany, so we entered Germany, but also that I was an American citizen. When the flight confirmation came through, it said I had a German passport, which we were worried about because it is an American passport (and it doesn’t say issued in Germany on it, it just says it is issued outside of the U.S.).
Afraid of more passport issues, we tried to contact the airline to make sure they knew I had a U.S. passport. After calling several different numbers to reach someone at the airline, we finally got through to someone on the European line, who told us she would check on our situation and get back to us later. They also told us that our flight was nonrefundable.
U.S. citizens are allowed to fly through China without a visa *Except for the two airports we have layovers in
While doing more research about the airline policies, we came across information that stated visas weren’t required for transit through most Chinese airports – but there is an exception of four airports. It was just our luck that both of our layovers in China (in Fuzhou & Shenzhen) required visas (see image below).
We struggled to get in contact with anyone at the airline again, and eventually heard from an employee who thought we might be okay without a visa anyway. But she told us it was ultimately up to customs at each airport, so we should call them directly. She gave us the number for customs in Fuzhou, but no one on the line was able to speak English well enough for us to ask our question. We asked if anyone spoke English and she told us “This is China,” (understandable) and then proceeded to tell us in broken English to find a Chinese translator, which we didn’t have access to.
We decided to go a Chinese visa office in Singapore to get more information and see if we could get a visa expedited quickly enough for our flight. We learned we wouldn’t be able to get one in time, since it was Friday and it would take two business days for an expedited visa, which would be too late for our flight on Sunday. But the woman at the visa office said she thought if our bags are checked all the way through, we might be okay (but we later found out from the airline that we would have to pick up our bags at each stop and recheck them, so we wouldn’t have been fine without a visa according to the visa office).
Next we headed over to the Chinese embassy. We showed a woman working there our flight information and she told us that normally, we would be fine. We asked for any kind of written confirmation so we could show customs and the airline, but she said she can’t give us any form of proof or written documentation, because “normally” it is fine. But from our experience, we know that telling an immigration officer (where we don’t speak the native language) that someone at an embassy told us we can go through without a visa is worthless to them (just like telling Air India that the U.S. embassy told me I would be fine to go into India if I showed my old passport – false).
We felt slightly optimistic because no one had directly told us no yet, but we were uneasy about the “should be able to’s” without any written confirmation. We didn’t want a repeat of what happened at the Bali airport (or worse).
I wrote about our situation on an online Chinese visa forum and someone answered telling me we wouldn’t be fine, and would need a visa so we should re-book our flight. We decided to go to the airport to ask the staff in person, after having little luck getting through on the phone in the afternoon, but no one was there from the airline.
We did more research back at our hotel to try and determine what would happen if “we weren’t fine.” The airline had another web page that stated we could be fined and also have to pay for another flight out-of-pocket if we were rejected by customs. This was a risk we didn’t want to take in China. We knew we had to cancel our flight.
New flight home, back around the world
We had to find a new flight, one that didn’t go through China or any nation that we might have trouble getting through my emergency passport. Our “best” and “cheapest” option was to fly from Singapore to London (~14 hours), and from London to Seattle (~10 hours) with Norwegian Air for $1,338 for the two of us. Unfortunately, this was back the way we came from and the long way around the world. But we figured we would be safe, visa and passport wise, flying through London.
Cancelling our Xiamen Air flight through China
The next day, we headed back to the Singapore Airport when Xiamen Air had a flight scheduled so we could talk to an agent to cancel our flight. The agent called management and told us we could get a small tax back if we canceled or if we were rejected by customs we could qualify for a full ticket refund. We were told by everyone else we had spoken to on the phone that our tickets were nonrefundable, so we were surprised to hear this.
We just wanted the cancellation paperwork, explaining we weren’t able to take the flight due to customs, so we could use this for our travel insurance. But we figured if we could get a refund from the airline it would save us the trouble of filing it through insurance (which we aren’t guaranteed to get refunded).
The agent told us if we had a written document from the Chinese embassy saying we weren’t allowed to pass through the airports on our flight itinerary, then we could get a refund. But we had already been to the Chinese embassy the day before and they told us they weren’t able to give us any documentation.
Here we were again in a situation where everyone wants documentation from someone else, but no one is willing to provide documentation of their own. Even the airline couldn’t give us a cancellation document. And again, everyone was telling us different and conflicting information.
Since it was Saturday, the embassy was closed and we wouldn’t get proof in time for the flight (although we knew they wouldn’t give it to us anyway), so the agent said she would make a case for us to management and they would call us later.
We left the airport and when we got a call from the airline, the woman did not speak English so we weren’t able to communicate with her. The agent we spoke to at the airport called us back to see if we had got in touch with the airline, and we told her we couldn’t speak with them because we didn’t speak Chinese. She asked us to email pictures of our passports to them. We went back and forth on the phone and email for several hours. The woman at the Singapore airport was acting as our translator between immigration at the Fuzhou airport.
Chinese customs asks us how much money we’re carrying
On one of our last calls with the airline, we were asked how much money we were traveling with. Usually on customs forms when you enter a new country there’s a limit to how much cash you can carry, so that’s what I thought it was about.
We told woman we had about 50 Singapore dollars (about $36 USD, which we ended up spending before we left anyway) and about $100 USD (which we travel with in case of emergency). I figured this would be fine and under the maximum limit. I asked why, and then she said: “oh, that wouldn’t be enough to book another flight if you needed to.”
Obviously, we didn’t want to fly to China and then have customs make us buy a new flight from there (we had already bought another flight on another airline home anyway). I explained this to her, and then she was like “that wouldn’t be enough money to book a hotel.” Which we were planning to stay in the airport overnight during our layover anyway. Plus we obviously have credit cards that we could buy those things if we really needed to. The fact that we needed more cash seemed fishy (so they could take our money and fine us without a paper trail?). She told us we needed to confirm that we would take the flight if they approved, but we were very weary and had booked a new flight that we knew we could safely take.
When she called back that evening, she finally told us that Fuzhou customs had rejected us so we wouldn’t be able to take the flight (which we already knew we wouldn’t be able to, but we needed official confirmation). She told us we would have to email the airline about the refund, which days later they rejected as well but at least were able to refund us for a tax ($177 total).
Arrival home with Norwegian Air
Our flights were long but we made it home safely without any passport issues. And we got to fly on new Boeing 787’s! We left Singapore on Sunday night around midnight and arrived in Seattle around noon on Monday (losing 15 hours).
What could I have done differently?
Not booking the flight with Xiamen Air through Fuzhou and Shenzhen would have been a great idea overall. Never again. They have lousy customer service if you are an English speaker, with the exception of one woman who we spoke to at Singapore Airport Xiamen Air desk, and a woman who worked for Xiamen through their European phone line.