Travelers to China encounter changing coronavirus quarantine policies

Foreign travelers wearing masks walk past a departures information board at Beijing International Airport in Beijing, China, as the country is hit by an outbreak of the new coronavirus, February 1, 2020.

Jason Lee | Reuters

BEIJING — Many foreigners trying to get back to jobs in China face a slew of fresh quarantine policies designed to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.

Whether it’s two weeks of isolation at a designated hotel, straight off the airplane, or 14 days at home, local Chinese authorities differ on how to handle the rapidly developing situation. Although some travelers are quick to note how courteous the staff are, abrupt policy changes can still lead to confusion in practice and added costs for foreign businesses.

“Day by day it’s changing, and there’s (a lack of) coordinating,” Carlo D’Andrea, Shanghai-based vice president of the EU Chamber of Commerce in China, said in an interview last week. 

“This is bad for business,” he said, noting executives of member companies are concerned about sending staff back to China. 

China’s Ministry of Commerce did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Last week, Vice Commerce Minister Wang Shouwen held separate calls with the Beijing-based American Chamber of Commerce in China and the EU Chamber of Commerce in which he emphasized support for foreign business and investment in China.

COVID-19, as the disease is officially called, is now a global pandemic that’s killed more than 4,500 people outside China. Within the country, the virus has killed more than 3,200 people since emerging in late December in the city of Wuhan, but its spread has slowed drastically.

Instead, Chinese authorities are now concerned about travelers returning from overseas. For example, China’s National Health Commission said all 39 new confirmed cases reported on Thursday were “imported” cases.

Thousands arrive daily in Beijing

Making things more difficult, many people are still arriving in China every day despite an overall drop in air travel.

As of midday on Wednesday, security had handled more than 30,600 passenger trips on 150 inbound international flights at Beijing Capital International Airport over the last 150 hours — or just over 6 days — the municipal public security bureau said.

“Recently, inbound travelers from overseas to Beijing Capital Airport have significantly increased, the situation of the new coronavirus epidemic in some overseas countries or regions is severe, and risk of imported (virus cases) at the Capital Airport has clearly increased,” the municipal public security bureau said Wednesday, according to a CNBC translation of a Chinese-language statement. 

In an effort to manage the flow, China’s aviation authority and four other government bodies announced that beginning Friday, some flights from Moscow, Paris, Tokyo and Toronto would land at nearby cities and passengers could then take a bus to Beijing. 

Since March 10, authorities said all inbound flights to the recently opened Beijing Daxing International Airport have been transferred to the Capital Airport, where a special zone has been set up for receiving passengers from countries and regions with serious coronavirus outbreaks. On March 12, the municipal government designated the New China International Exhibition Center, about 15 minutes from the airport, as a checkpoint for processing returned travelers and distributing them to different parts of the city.

As of Sunday, the basic rule is that travelers returning to Beijing from overseas must pay for their own 14-day quarantine in a designated hotel.

For Sam Martin, 28, and his girlfriend, he said the policy is going to cost them each about $1,200, meals included. 

Martin, who hails from the U.K., said he flew back from London with his girlfriend on Tuesday and found out upon arrival that they would need to spend the quarantine in separate hotel rooms. Since the 500 yuan-a-night ($70.60) hotel they’d originally booked was full due to a misunderstanding, Martin said they are now staying in a 600 yuan-a-night hotel. He said he is in discussions with his residential community about their initial promise to reimburse 150 yuan a night.  

Different policies by city

In other places, travelers may not need to foot the bill, but face stressful situations. One individual, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic, was separated from family members for at least a day due to different policies for Chinese nationals and foreigners.

The traveler returned to Guangzhou city from Malaysia on Monday and told CNBC the rules were difficult to decipher.

The Chinese national’s spouse and children had foreign passports and were told to get off the airplane first and take a bus to the airport terminal. The traveler in question got off the plane later, rode a bus to the terminal, and took a test for the coronavirus there — a swab of the nose and throat — before rejoining the rest of the family at the luggage collection area. 

In that part of the airport, there were two lines: one for foreigners and one for Chinese passport holders. The family split up again, and the Chinese national was sent to another part of the airport on a bus.

“That’s when I heard we might be sent to quarantine, but nobody could give us a clear answer,” the traveler said. Hours later, the traveler arrived at a hotel and was told to stay there. The next day, Tuesday afternoon, test results showed the traveler did not have the coronavirus, and the traveler was allowed to leave.

People returning to other Chinese cities may not need to be quarantined at a hotel, where conditions can vary.

The Beijing, Shanghai and Guangdong governments have each issued new details on quarantine procedures in the last several days. 

“Despite (new policy) announcements, implementation of quarantine measures remains (un)transparent and uncoordinated and results in uncertainty for returning executives and business travel of other specialized personnel that may be needed for projects in China,” D’Andrea added in a statement this week. “As more EU countries are added to the high-risk country list, more of our members are affected.”

One of the measures intended to sort inbound travelers is a sticker system. In Shanghai and Guangdong, these stickers are to be placed on passports and are partially determined based on the traveler’s level of exposure to the coronavirus.

But currently this system is not used nationwide and can differ. For example, Martin said no stickers were applied to his passport upon arrival in Beijing, while an American couple arriving in Shanghai earlier this month said they received yellow stickers.

For Shanghai, a green sticker allows a traveler to proceed
as usual. Yellow allows self-quarantine at home, while those without a permanent residence in the city, or receiving a red sticker, must spend their quarantine in a government-designated hotel, the German Consulate General in Shanghai said in a statement to CNBC on March 13, citing government information.

“Special but similar rules apply to short term business travelers,” the consulate said.

The fluid nature of the virus’ spread can make it difficult to plan.

The difference really is that in China, when they decided to do something, then they have the ability to go out and really make it happen. It’s much harder to impose these measures, say, in Europe.

Andrew McGinty

Partner, Hogan Lovells

The American couple, who requested anonymity, said they were in the air on a roughly 3-hour flight from Japan to Shanghai on March 6 when China designated Japan as a country hit hard by the coronavirus.

After the airplane landed around 8 p.m., passengers were allowed to disembark in groups, and it was about 4 and 1/2 hours before the couple leave the aircraft. They walked a distance before joining a line to fill out a health questionnaire, receive their yellow stickers and go through immigration. From there, a staff worker took them through baggage claim and customs, and finally to a waiting area to board a special bus for their city district, the couple said, noting the process was “unbelievably organized.”

They will be required to self-report their temperatures daily and have signed papers saying they’d stay in their home through March 21. That’s when their journey, which began with a flight from Boston to San Francisco and then Japan, is set to end with a return to more normal life. For right now, it’s just work from home, they said.

“The difference really is that in China, when they decided to do something, then they have the ability to go out and really make it happen,” said Andrew McGinty, a Hong Kong-based partner at law firm Hogan Lovells. “It’s much harder to impose these measures, say, in Europe.”

“It’s fair to say this is an unprecedented situation,” he said. “It’s a challenge for everybody, even with a smaller population.”

Here’s how some local regulations stand as of Thursday afternoon, according to a CNBC translation of the Chinese text:


All travelers from overseas must pay for their own 14-day quarantine at designated hotels, the city announced on Sunday.

Those age 70 and older, or age 14 and younger, pregnant, with underlying medical conditions or other special situations can apply for self-isolation at home. The government said Thursday it is no longer accepting applications for home quarantine from individuals on the basis that they live alone.

Those who meet home quarantine requirements must apply with their local community before entering the country. If they haven’t done so in time, or the application hasn’t yet been approved, they will be first sent to a centralized place for medical observation.  

Those who return to Beijing after arriving in China from other ports of entry need to send their schedule and relevant arrangements to their employers and local communities. Upon arrival at their local community, such inbound travelers should follow relevant preventative measures. Those who conceal their travel history will be held legally responsible.


Any Chinese nationals who have traveled overseas in the 14 days prior to entering the province must stay at home or undergo medical observation for 14 days upon arrival, the province said Tuesday. Foreigners returning from overseas will need to follow national policies. 

As of Tuesday, the province’s four-color system is as follows:

  • Red — students of any nationality who need to leave the airport, and Chinese nationals. They will be taken by bus to Guangzhou city for medical investigation and sampling.
  • Yellow  — all passengers transferring at Baiyun airport. Airline or ground staff will direct travelers to designated areas for medical investigation and sampling, before passengers are sent to the transfer area. 
  • Orange  — foreign travelers who have visited countries and regions hit hard by the virus in the last 14 days. Airline or ground staff will direct travelers to designated areas for medical investigation and sampling.
  • Green  — foreign travelers who have not visited countries and regions hit hard by the virus in the last 14 days. Airline or ground staff will direct passengers for medical investigation. If there are no discrepancies in the travel records, passengers will then be allowed to leave the airport on their own. 


For any Chinese or foreign travelers who have transferred through or come from countries hit hard by the virus in the last 14 days, they will be escorted upon arrival in Shanghai to a district checkpoint, the municipal government said Tuesday. The policy also applies to those who have arrived in Shanghai after entering China from another city.

While the travelers are at the district checkpoint, relevant community representatives should check if the conditions of the residence are suitable for quarantine. If unsuitable, the travelers will be sent to a centralized location for quarantine and will need to pay for their own living and food expenses. 

Travelers who test positive for the virus will be sent to a medical institution. Those who test negative will need to stay at home for 14 days, and those living at the same residence will also need to be quarantined.

As of Tuesday, the 16 countries are: South Korea, Italy, Iran, Japan, France, Spain, Germany, the U.S., the U.K., Switzerland, Sweden, Belgium, Norway, the Netherlands, Denmark and Austria. 

— CNBC’s Arjun Kharpal contributed to this report.

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