China has four large international airports: and these will most likely be you first and last contact with China on your visit. That is unless you are entering or leaving China via a nearby Asian nation like Japan, Korea, or Thailand.
Beijing has by far the biggest airport in China: Beijing Capital International Airport. Beijing is also China's top tourist city with several world class sights, like the Great Wall of China and the Forbidden City. So by passenger numbers, choice of flights, and interest value Beijing has to be your No. 1 gateway to China.
Beijing' s 72-hour visa-free stay policy began on 1 January, 2013. Imagine this: you could see the main sights of the capital of China without even having to get a visa! See our recommended Beijing 72-hour visa-free tours. You could also choose from our one-day, two-day, and three-day Beijing tours for ideas to take advantage of this policy.
Best-selling Beijing Tour: 4-day Beijing Essence Tour
Hong Kong has one of the most relaxed visa policies in the world with large visa-free stays for most nationalities. Hong Kong International Airport is China's second largest airport, with 90+ airlines flying to over 150 destinations around the world, and 40+ domestic routes.
You could begin your tour of China with some time in Hong Kong to “acclimatize”. Hong Kong is a good city to enter China as it is a “half-way house” between West and East, with many English speakers and familiar standards of service, design, and quality to the West. Hong Kong's Western and Cantonese food is also usually the most familiar and palatable of China's cuisines.
A good city to visit in the winter, Hong Kong maintains mild or warm weather, while areas north of it are generally dreary or bitterly cold.
Recommended tour: Guilin and Yangshuo Discovery from Hong Kong
While Shanghai Pudong International Airport is not the third largest in China, it is not far off, and China's largest city is unique in that it has another large airport in the city (Hongqiao), serving mostly domestic flights. Shanghai is a very popular gateway city for China. The Maglev transports Pudong arrivers to central Shanghai at 430 kph and the subway connects with Hongqiao Airport.
Top Shanghai tour: 8-day Shanghai and Her Amazing Neighbors Tour
Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport is China's third largest. Guangzhou is the largest city in China's largest conurbation, a popular business destination famed for its factories, but it's not short of tourist attractions and scenic places either. Cantonese food, popularized in the West, is Guangzhou's mainstay.
Most Popular Guangzhou Tour: 4-Day Essence of Guangzhou and Shenzhen Tour
By passenger numbers Taipei Taoyuan International Airport is only the eighth most popular way into China, but unlike other big-city airports Taipei serves more long haul flights to Western countries. Taipei's differences from mainland China and international economic history add interest value, and make Taipei a good place to transition into or out of China. See our Taiwan tours.
If you change flights in East Asia, places to enter and leave China increase several-fold. However, we can only recommend a few of these as top tourist cities.
Recently a second tier of international China airports are emerging as China gateway city options. Previously only dealing with East and Southeast Asian airports, new direct routes have been opened up to Western countries.
The following six are the largest in this group, serving over 20 million passengers in 2013, ranked according to international coverage and tourism appeal.
Chengdu Shuangliu International Airport has flights to San Francisco, London, Melbourne, Frankfurt, and Amsterdam. Chengdu is “the gateway to Western China” with the most connecting flights to Tibet, and no bigger city westwards in China. Land in Chengdu for the giant pandas, giant Buddha, and giant mountains and colorful valleys of Sichuan.
Land in prosperous Hangzhou for ancient culture, Buddhist culture, tea culture, and serenic West Lake. Shanghai and the legendary Yellow Mountains are nearby. Hangzhou Xiaoshan International Airport has flights to Amsterdam, Paris, and Moscow, besides the larger East and SE Asian airports.
Chongqing Jiangbei International Airport is an award-winning airport that is just expanding its operations beyond East and SE Asia with flights to the Maldives, Qatar and Finland. Land in Chongqing for a Yangtze cruise through the awe-inspiring Three Gorges. You may also fly to Chongqing for business, as it dominates West and Central China for industry and size.
Xi’an is China’s second or third most popular tourist city, an ancient capital displaying relics from China’s golden Qin, Han, and Tang eras. Xi’an Xianyang International Airport has flights to KL, Seoul, Bangkok, Singapore, and seasonal flights to Helsinki!
Kunming is the gateway to Southwest China’s minorities and mountain scenery. You may want to enter China via Kunming if that is what you have come to see. Kunming Changshui International Airport has no flights beyond China’s neighboring countries.
Shenzhen, like Guangzhou, is more a business than tourism destination, but being adjacent to Hong Kong it has more Western influence, making it an easier transition into China's culture. Shenzhen Bao’an International Airport has no passenger flights further than SE and East Asia.