The Mutianyu section of the Great Wall of China is approximately 40 miles north of Beijing. 

After a failed first attempt at making it out of the second busiest airport in the world, I was on a mission to see the Great Wall of China on my next layover. Here’s what I learned along the way.

During a recent trip, my sister and I had a layover in Beijing and wanted to see the city. We thought we wouldn’t need a visa, but airport security turned us away at immigration and we quickly found out we were wrong. Not knowing what we were doing, we ran in circles for three hours and wasted our first layover. Our return flight to the United States included another 14-hour layover at Beijing Capital International Airport, but this time we were determined to make it out.

The night before our departure, we outlined each security step we’d need to pass so, when the time came, we would be ahead of the hoards of tourists trying to secure their own visas. It worked, and we made it through security, to the Great Wall, and back to the airport in about nine hours. 

In 2018, more than 100 million passengers, both international and domestic, passed through BCIA. If you find yourself there on your next layover, here’s a step-by-step guide to getting a temporary tourist visa once you’ve arrived in Beijing and what exactly you should do with it.

Hit the security checkpoints

A temporary tourist visa allows travelers from 53 countries, including the United States, to travel around Beijing and other areas of China for up to 144 hours, or six days. One stipulation is that your port of departure must be the same as where you enter, meaning you cannot fly into BCIA and leave from a different airport. (The temporary tourist visa application differs from a longer-term visa application, which you can obtain ahead of time via a Chinese consulate.) 

Once you’re off the plane, head straight for the Foreigner Fingerprint Self-Collection Area. Scan your passport, provide your fingerprints, and retrieve your ticket.

Head to the E11 counter, where you’ll find the temporary entry permit application. Fill out a standard arrival and departure card, providing your name, address, flight numbers, passport number, and reason for visiting. Give it to the desk agent, along with your passport, and be prepared to answer any questions the agent might have about your temporary stay in China.

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After the agent has collected your arrival card and granted you the visa, which will be stuck to one of your passport pages, tuck your departure card away for safekeeping and head to the China Immigration Inspection Line for Foreigners. Scan your passport and the boarding pass for your upcoming flight. Collect your baggage, go through customs, and exit the terminal. There is luggage storage available in all terminals, and the rate depends on the size of your luggage and the length of time you leave it. Keep your receipt, as you’ll need it to collect your luggage before your next flight. 

The Forbidden City, also called the Palace Museum, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987.
Once back at BCIA, you’ll need to provide your passport and tourist visa, departure card, and boarding pass before passing through security.

Hit the road
If you have 10 or more hours
The Great Wall of China
Before arriving in Beijing, book a private car or organized tour to take you to the Wall; public transportation from the city center can take a long time. Allow 90 minutes each way to get to and from the Wall and approximately three to four hours on the Wall itself. The section you’ll likely visit, given its proximity to BCIA, is Mutianyu. Located 40 miles north of Beijing, the 3.4-mile-long segment is one of the Wall’s most well-preserved areas. It was first built in the mid-6th century and later restored during the Ming Dynasty. The funicular ride up to the Wall–and toboggan down–feature stunning views of the surrounding mountains and villages. Pro tip: Autumn is a spectacular time to visit, when the leaves have begun to change.


If you have 7 to 8 hours

Forbidden City
Located in the heart of Beijing, the Forbidden City dates back to the early-15th century, when the 178-acre complex was commissioned by the then-emperor as an imperial palace of the Ming Dynasty. The area was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987. Now also referred to as the Palace Museum, it is home to art exhibitions, gardens, and exquisite architecture.

The Summer Palace is the largest royal park in Beijing at more than 700 acres.
Summer Palace
At more than 700 acres, the Summer Palace is the capital city’s largest royal park and consists of verdant gardens and ancient structures. The 12th-century palace sprawls across the northeast shore of Kunming Lake, offering picturesque views of historic landmarks, such as the Long Corridor, the Buddhist Fragrance Pavilion, and the Marble Boat.

If you have 6 hours or less
Temple of Heaven
Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1998, the Temple of Heaven is an ancient building later restored as a park. Now it covers an area of more than 3 million square feet and includes a number of temples, including the Circular Mound Altar, where emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties would offer sacrifices on the winter solstice each year, and the Altar of Prayer for Good Harvests–a circular, three-tiered palace where emperors would, well, pray for a good harvest.

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