Tuesday 22 January 2019

Gone in 144 hours - China's extended visa time boost

Beijing’s Capital Airport, which is part of the new scheme for travellers
Beijing’s Capital Airport, which is part of the new scheme for travellers

Mark Evans

Readers of this column might recall a report on how to enter some major cities in China - among them Beijing and Shanghai - for business without the need for a visa.

For this to happen, certain things had to be in play. Firstly, you need to fly in to China from one country, and fly out to another.

Secondly, the visa-free stay is only valid for 72 hours, so it would best suited to a quick meeting or conference you'd need to attend at short notice.

I put it to the test with an airline group ­- Air France KLM - that's ideally placed for visa-free travel, namely because you can fly in via Paris and back out via Amsterdam on the sister airlines, fulfilling the two-country flights requirement. It went well, with an immigration experience at Beijing's Capital Airport that was as seamless as those of visa-carrying colleagues.

The better news is that the scheme is being extended, with Irish travellers, among others, now able to stay visa-free for up to 144 hours ­- ie, six days from landing to departure, which is more than enough for most business assignments.

The move follows similar schemes in Shanghai and other areas. The scheme also works if you're flying into, say, Beijing and on to a 'region', including Hong Kong, Macau or Taiwan.

The moves are part of a broader package of making travel to China easier, with the country's aviation authority relaxing restrictions late last year on the use of mobile phones (hitherto banned from being operated, even in flight mode). No word yet on the peculiar habit of screening officers confiscating phone battery banks - with confusing (and, I've found, conflicting) rules as to whether they have to be checked in or carried on board.

n Speaking of mobile devices, travellers to the States are facing more rigorous scrutiny of them this year.

Customs and Border Control (CBP) agents searched 59pc more mobile phones, tablets, and other electronic devices last year than in 2016. Worryingly, it's been reported that eight out 10 searches were of devices being carried by foreigners, so it could be an added hassle.

But the CBP said recently that it has updated its search policy, and now border agents are instructed to discard passwords needed to access digital information, and are barred from searching data stored on cloud servers.

Even with these safeguards, the search policy has fallen foul of the American Civil Liberties Union which claims that the parameters governing warrantless searches are too broad and could give border officers free rein to manually sift through your private photos, emails, documents and other information even if you're not under any suspicion.

n There's nothing like big data to leave you baffled. IAG sister airlines Aer Lingus and Iberia were both trumpeting their excellent showings in terms of punctuality. The only problem is that they're from rival report-compilers, OAG in the case of Aer Lingus, and FlightStats in the case of Iberia.

And while Iberia topped the list for the world's most punctual international network airline, with 88.97pc of its flights arriving on time, and was no 1 in the European airline category, bizarrely it didn't make OAG's top 20 in any category.

Aer Lingus, meanwhile, was No 10 in OAG's all-airline category (nearly 85pc of flights on-time) and was third in Europe, behind airBaltic and another IAG sister, Vueling Airlines.

Ryanair, which isn't listed by OAG, was placed ninth by FlightStats for Europe, while the best airlines overall in the world were named as airBaltic, Hong Kong Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines (OAG) or Iberia, Delta and Japan Airlines (FlightStats).

Confusing? Certainly. Much of it is down to how many flights are processed, how airlines are categorised (mainline, international, etc) and what's constituted as "late".

Irish airports don't feature in the latest OAG findings, and in the case of Shannon and Cork are too small for its categories.

Business-wise, if you're travelling abroad to mega-airports this year you'll be in luck at Tokyo's Haneda, Madrid or Atlanta, which won in the 30-million plus Mega category (Amsterdam is placed eighth, Heathrow 10th), while Minneapolis St Paul, Doha and Moscow Sheremetyevo are the least delayed in the major airport category.

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