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A Traveller's Guide to Chinese Law

Written by Candice SongUpdated Aug. 24, 2023
Chinese Registration and Travel Documents

From when you first apply for your visa, it is clear that the law in China is complicated. You may find yourself jumping through unexpected hoops, being told of restrictions to your travels, being cautioned about registering your address within 24 hours of arrival in the country, and many another strip of red tape that needs tearing off before you can get your journey underway. The first-time visitor arrives expecting to find a well-regimented society with everyone behaving punctiliously to stay on the right side of the authorities with so many laws in place. It can come as quite a shock, then, to land at the airport and see the chaos that often exists. What's going on, and how are you supposed to behave here to stay on the right side of Chinese law?

"A Nation of Laws, Not a Nation of the Rule of Law"

Chinese taxi

"A nation of laws, not a nation of the rule of law" is how China is often described. This is nowhere more evident than on the roads. You may find yourself in a taxi which overtakes a traffic police vehicle by driving past it on the hard shoulder of a highway. Overloaded vehicles, sometimes so overloaded as to appear comical in their instability, are a common sight. When trying to cross a busy street at a well-marked crossroads, ignored by the drivers, dodging silent-but-deadly electric bikes going the wrong way or even driving on the sidewalk, you may think China has no road regulations whatsoever.

See "How to Cross the Road in China ... Safely".

The reality is that Chinese laws of the road are much the same as anywhere else. The laws exist, but they're rarely enforced. It sometimes seems that the traffic police exist to clear up after accidents rather than trying to prevent them, as an ostentatious traffic police outpost on a busy and dangerous corner seems to have no effect whatsoever on the erratic driving of those who pass it by.

You're unlikely to see a police officer on patrol. When you do see one, he'll very likely be active, clearing vendors from the pavement for example; but return the next day and you'll find the vendors back again as if nothing had happened.

How To Behave

The Chinese people seem to have an instinct for what to do and what not to do, which laws to break and which to obey, but what about you? You have entered the country faithfully promising to obey all Chinese laws, but you're reasonably sure you don't know what most of them are, those you know often seem impossible to obey, and the locals don't seem bothered about the law anyway. What should you do to get it right?

Well first, don't panic. You're unlikely to get into trouble in China if you behave decently and use your common sense. Let your own sense of personal and moral responsibility be your guide. Provided you don't upset anyone, you're very unlikely to get into trouble. However, be on your best behavior at all times. If you do upset someone, it's almost certain you're breaking some law or another, even if it has nothing to do with the upset you've caused. That's one of the secrets of the Chinese law from the point of view of social control. If you become an object of irritation for the authorities, they'll almost certainly find something to charge you with. It's best, therefore, to stay out of trouble.

However, life is never so simple, and there are some areas of Chinese law in which you should be particularly wary.

Staying Out of Trouble

Some of the laws are best obeyed as best you can, and we're here to guide you through some of the major pitfalls. Some of these you may find difficult at times. Others may be common sense, but in China you need to be particularly wary.

To make things still more complicated, laws are variably enforced from city to city, town to town, even village to village. You are at the whim of local officials who may not be punctilious about everything, but are likely to be punctilious about something unexpected. Do not assume that because everything was fine in one town, it will be fine in the next.

Carry your Passport at All Times

Chinese Registration and Travel Documents

This may not always be easy. You're about to go white-water rafting and don't want to risk losing it, perhaps. If so, it may be best to carry a photocopy of your visa, and of your passport's identification page. If these get ruined it's not a big problem. Make sure your passport is securely kept in the hotel safe for ready access should identification be demanded of you. You may go for years in China and never be asked for identification; you may be unlucky and be asked for identification on your first day here. It is better to be safe than sorry. Failure to produce your passport when demanded or to provide reasonably ready access to it with good reason for not having it on your person can lead to time-consuming administration at a local police station.

Register your Place of Residence within 24 Hours

This can be one of China's most frustrating laws for foreigners. If you stay overnight anywhere, you are supposed to go through the time-consuming procedure of registering your presence. The registration will serve you until you leave again, but you will be required to repeat the procedure if some detail or another changes - for example, your address, or a visa-renewal. If you're travelling around and staying at hotels, the procedure is taken care of by the hotel itself when you register with them. However, stay with a friend and things become more complicated. You will require proof of your host's own residence, his or her identity card, your passport, perhaps a photograph, perhaps further documentation beyond even these.

To make things still more interesting, it's rare that the one place you can register, (there usually is only one place in any town you may visit), is anywhere obvious or readily accessible. It is likely to be lost up some back street miles from the center, and finding it is unlikely to be easy.

The best thing to do is to make a reasonable effort to get the job done within 24 hours, particularly if you're going to be staying in that place for any length of time. That may require some preliminary research on your part. If possible, try to locate the PSB (Public Security Bureau) office where you must register in advance. Bring a Chinese-speaking companion with you. If you can't register within 24 hours, be prepared to apologise profusely for not having done so and to demonstrate that you have indeed made an effort.

Again, please remember that this is not necessary if you are staying in a hotel. The problem only arises should you spend time in a private residency.

China Foreigner Residence PermitChina Foreigner Residence Permit

Do Not Let your Visa Expire

Penalties for this can be particularly harsh financially. You also run the risk of being held indefinitely in one of China's new naughty foreigner centers, (with cells for guests rather than five-star suites), until your deportation can be arranged. If some circumstance arises whereby you envisage your visa's expiration, go to your nearest visa office and explain the situation to them immediately. Be sure you have a good reason for having left renewal so late. You may find the officials very cooperative if you demonstrate genuine remorse. The people charged with enforcing the law can be very sympathetic, given they know better than most how onerous the laws can be.

Restricted Hotels


This is a law you will not be permitted to break should it be enforced, and is being mentioned here as a warning rather than as something not to do. Chinese laws tend not to be repealed when outdated; rather, they fall into neglect. Still on the books, however, they can be revived unexpectedly, and one such, hearkening back to earlier days, is hotel restrictions for foreigners. The chances are you will not even know this law exists in your travels given that it has been increasingly neglected in the past ten years or so, but every now and then some local official decides, for whatever reason, to revive it. This may not only happen in small towns, it may also happen in some of the larger cities. If you find yourself being turned away from hotel after hotel after hotel somewhere, be patient with the hoteliers; they would probably love to have your custom. When it becomes apparent that something is wrong, all you can reasonably do is head for the city centre and some of the larger - and more expensive - hotels. These are usually officially licensed to take foreign guests.

Restricted Military Areas

Military areas and establishments can pop up entirely unexpectedly. The signs to show you are entering one are rarely conspicuous. They may not be in English. There may even be no signs at all. You may find yourself walking in the midst of pleasant country scenery and find a military officer approaching you with a scowl. There's not much you can do if that happens save be polite and patient and trust him to get some English-language assistance (eventually), so you may explain the innocence of your mistake.

One hard-and-fast rule. If you see an establishment that is clearly military in nature, (marked out by soldiers on guard at the entrance even though there may be no sign in English to confirm why they are there), do not, under any circumstances, point your camera at it. Simply pretend you haven't noticed and walk on.

You will need a Military Permit to enter certain areas of Nagqu, Ngari, and Nyingchi in Tibet.

A Chinese Airport

Entering and Leaving China

Be very careful what you have in your baggage. Above all, be wary not to leave your baggage anywhere it may be tampered with so you become an unwitting courier and do not assist anyone with their baggage through customs. Areas of particular concern include:

  • Recreational drugs: It may be that your own country is tolerant of these. China has zero tolerance, and there are particularly stiff penalties for drug importation, up to and including execution.
  • Wildlife and wildlife products: Again, be wary about souvenirs. If you are found to be in possession of the product of a protected species of Chinese wildlife, (let alone one of the actual critters nestled in a suitcase), penalties again may be particularly harsh.
  • Antiquities: Given the number of fakes around for tourists, it's unlikely the ancient relic you picked up for RMB100 is real. That may be fortunate. China is strict in its enforcement of laws prohibiting the exportation of antiques. If it's old, it stays.
  • Unfavorable reading matter: Any material deemed less than favorable towards China or the Chinese government is liable to be confiscated. It will probably be no more than a nuisance, though that's bad enough; reading matter in China isn't always readily available. However, but the official who confiscates it may view you as an unfavorable influence to be letting into the country and decide to turn you back.

And Finally...

Friendly ChineseFriendly Chinese

When in Rome, do NOT do as the Romans do... not when Rome is China. Be on your best behavior. The boisterous drunk you see on the street is a local who knows his way around and may even have a relative in the local police force. You do not, and as a foreigner you stand out like a sore thumb. If you get into a public row with one of the locals, it's unlikely that the police will be on your side should they arrive. The lascivious Chinese is a nuisance. The lascivious foreigner is an unwanted guest, and you can be asked to leave. It's best not to take chances.

If this all seems a little alarming, don't be too concerned. The vast majority of foreign visitors to China have a very pleasurable stay and no difficulty whatsoever with the authorities. Be careful, and you should have a carefree trip.

Further Reading

Tips on visa applications, notes on Chinese customs, and suggestions on what to do in the case of a lost passport will all help you gain further insights on the law in China and what to do in the case of an emergency. For further information on what can sometimes seem to be chaos surrounding Chinese law enforcement, check out our article on China in its development.

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