I recently returned from a month in the UK, having left China in mid-October, returning in mid-November 2021.
A lot of people have asked me questions about how easy the trip is to arrange, and the costs, so I thought I would write up the details of my trip, which might help people who are considering flying to the UK in the coming months. (Disclaimer: none of the below is official advice and is just my personal experience).
Please note that I am fully vaccinated with Sinopharm (vaccinated in April 2021) and have a current work visa/residence permit (valid until the end of February 2022). These were the two key criteria which enabled me to be able to “easily” return to China. The process is different for those that are vaccinated with non-Chinese vaccines (anything other than Sinopharm or Sinovac) or for those without a current/valid work visa/residence permit, and therefore some of the advice or procedures noted below would not apply.
If you are considering making this trip, get vaccinated with one of the Chinese vaccines. You probably also want to ensure that you have a few months validity remaining on your work visa/residence permit so that it doesn’t expire in the event that you have to extend your trip to the UK should you test positive for COVID at any point during your time there (more on that below).
As soon as I was fully vaccinated with Sinopharm in April 2021, I started to look at flights. Currently there are no direct flights from the UK to China, which means transiting via another country/airport is the only option. There are lots of options for flying from China to the UK, including all the usual airlines that were popular before COVID such as KLM (via Amsterdam), Air France (via Paris), Lufthansa (via Frankfurt), SAS (via Copenhagen), Austrian Airlines (via Vienna), Finnair (via Helsinki), Cathay (via Hong Kong), Emirates (via Dubai), Etihad (via Abu Dhabi).
There are far fewer options for the return flight to China owing to some countries/regions not allowing passengers to transit to mainland China (such as Hong Kong) or the transit airport not being able to accommodate the COVID testing requirements needed for passengers flying to China (more on that below).
Current (and common) options for the return flight that I am aware of include Paris, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Helsinki, Frankfurt, and Vienna. I know some people have returned to China from the UK via Toronto, but I am not familiar with the logistics of this route.
It’s possible to book 2 x one-way tickets for the journey and some people have done this because of the increased number of options for the flight from China to the UK, and these flights (such as with Cathay via Hong Kong) are relatively low cost. My advice though would be to book a return flight (China-UK-China) with the same airline as the one-way flight tickets from the UK to China are very expensive these days. Most people are paying more than Rmb25k as a minimum. Make sure to book your return flight to China as one
A word of warning when booking flights. There is only one flight a week from all international airports to China. However, the airlines will advertise and sell you tickets for flights that are not actually flying. For example, the Copenhagen-Shanghai (with SAS) flight operates every Tuesday, and the Helsinki-Shanghai flight (with Finnair) operates every Thursday (Juneyao also fly this route, departing Helsinki every Saturday), but those airlines will still allow you to book a flight for another day and then inform you that the flight has been cancelled closer to the time. BA and Virgin I believe are also still allowing people to book flights to China, but as far as I know there is currently no timeline for when direct flights will resume. The list of international flights to China (which is updated monthly) are regularly shared in the various expat WeChat groups.
One final important note – occasionally airlines will have their flights suspended for a period of a few weeks if there are too many positive cases found when testing after arrival in China. This shouldn’t really be a consideration when booking your flight, but it’s certainly something you need to be aware of.
I ended up booking with SAS, to London Heathrow via Copenhagen, and returning from Manchester via Copenhagen. My flight was ~Rmb18k, booked around two months in advance.
If you are considering booking (or have already booked) a flight on a particular route there are WeChat groups for each route, which are a fantastic resource of information and tips.
Before leaving China
The UK government requires all non-vaccinated people arriving in the UK to get a PCR test within 48 hours of your flight. At the time of writing (November 20, 2021), if you are vaccinated in China with the Chinese vaccine, you are considered non-vaccinated by the UK government. From November 22 Chinese vaccines will be recognized but not a China-issued vaccine certificate (www.gov.uk/guidance/countries-with-approved-covid-19-vaccination-programmes-and-proof-of-vaccination). Hopefully this will change soon and people from China can avoid the additional testing requirements and UK self-isolation rules that are currently in place.
I did my PCR test at Jiahui Hospital (Rmb220) – there are cheaper options available, but you will need to make sure that the testing facility can issue a bi-lingual (needs to be in English) test report (www.gov.uk/guidance/coronavirus-covid-19-testing-for-people-travelling-to-england).
All non-vaccinated people are required to book a day 2 and day 8 PCR test before arriving in the UK (www.gov.uk/guidance/travel-to-england-from-another-country-during-coronavirus-covid-19). When you purchase these tests, you will be given a unique code which is needed for the passenger locator form (PLF) (www.gov.uk/provide-journey-contact-details-before-travel-uk) which you need to complete and show to the flight check-in desk when departing China. I printed the completed PLF and my negative PCR test report to show at the check-in desk. This was the only time anyone checked both documents.
All non-vaccinated people arriving in the UK are also required to self-isolate for a period of 10 days. You will need to enter the address where you are planning to self-isolate on the PLF. I landed in London and was planning to self-isolate at my mother’s house in Yorkshire, so I made the decision to stay at my brother’s house near London for the first night, and I believe this is within the rules (www.gov.uk/guidance/how-to-quarantine-when-you-arrive-in-england). I entered both addresses on the PLF. It’s possible to shorten the self-isolation period from 10 days to 5 days by also doing a “test-to-release” test on day 5.
You still need to have the day 8 test even if you have done the day 5 test-to-release test.
The day you arrive in the UK is day 0, and you need to have your first test (“day 2 test”) on day 1 or day 2 in the UK. I had mine in Leeds www.whitehallclinic.com/day2and8 the day after I arrived in the UK.
I ended up paying Ј200 for my day 2 and day 8 tests and regretted booking at such an expensive test facility.
My reasoning at the time for booking a more expensive test facility was because I had heard many stories of people not getting their results for several days after the test. The test facility I booked guaranteed same day results. My advice for anyone looking at UK arrival tests and planning to do the day 5 test-to-release is to use a less expensive home testing service/delivery service for the day 2 and day 8 tests (for example, Randox has
a click and collect option for Ј70 https://covid.randox.com/day-2-and-day-8-bundle/)and pay more for a day 5 test to release in person/in clinic test which guarantees the same day/next morning results.
There is no point in doing the test to release if you have to wait 2-3 days for the results. There are quite a few day 5 test to release options with same day results for ~Ј100. That way the total cost for the three tests would be Ј170 (day 2, day 5, day 8). The day 5 test to release is not a legal requirement so for anyone that does not mind self-isolating for the full 10 days then the total cost would be Ј70 (day 2, day 8).
Before you depart China, you need to complete the Customs Pocket Declaration (search Customs Pocket Declaration in WeChat) and show the QR code before passing passport control.
These are all the documents I printed before departing China:
1. Vaccination Certificate
2. 2 Days Prior to Flight Negative COVID Test
3. Passenger Locator Form (includes details of day 2 and day 8 tests)
Arriving in the UK
When landing at London Heathrow it was business as usual. No one checked my PLF. I was out of the airport in around 20 minutes. I could have gone straight to the pub (I didn’t).
In terms of whether anyone checks that you are self-isolating, I have heard multiple stories of people getting an in-person visit. No one visited me. I had calls on day 1 and day 2 which I missed. I had a call on day 3 which I answered, and the connection was very bad. The person calling asked if I had recently been “on holiday”. I replied to say that I had recently arrived in the UK and asked if they could speak up since I couldn’t hear what they were saying (the voice was very muffled). They replied to say they would call me back but never did. No one called again after that. I received two text messages reminding me to self-isolate and to get tested on day 2 and day 8. So much for the UK’s Ј37 billion “world beating” track and trace system – that is definitely taxpayer’s money well spent.
Your time in the UK
My biggest concern during my time in the UK was catching COVID. So long as you don’t catch COVID or test positive at any time, then there is a very clear, tried and tested route to go back to the UK and return to China. If you catch COVID or test positive at any time, that means additional testing requirements and an extended stay in the UK because you need to have three months (or 90 days) of negative tests before you can get approval to fly to China. You can find more information on what the additional testing requirements are
for those having previously tested positive here:
I was therefore really careful during my time in the UK. My primary reason for going to the UK was to see family so early on I made the decision that if I got to meet up with friends then that was a bonus. I stayed away from crowded places and always wore a mask when indoors. I tried to stay off public transport where possible. I did take the train a couple of times – no one wears a mask, not even the staff. I did go to the pub but sat outside if it was busy and only sat indoors if it was quiet. I also asked family members who were coming to stay to do a lateral flow test (free on the NHS) the day before. I felt bad asking them to do so, but they were very understanding.
There has been a lot of discussion about whether to get vaccinated with one of the Western vaccines during your time in the UK. A lot of people have done this, and it’s generally considered safe to do so (disclaimer – I am not a doctor and this is not medical advice!!). I ultimately decided not to have the vaccine while in the UK. I was only going to have enough time for the first dose, with that first dose taking place only three weeks before the testing needed to return to China, and my biggest concern was that being only partially vaccinated with a Western vaccine (which use “live attenuated vaccine” tech) was going to complicate the results of the tests required by the Chinese Embassy. I did email the Chinese Embassy to ask if someone who was fully vaccinated in China (two doses) and partially vaccinated in the UK (only one dose) would be considered fully vaccinated or partially vaccinated, but I never heard back. You can find more information on the additional testing requirements for those vaccinated with a Western vaccine here:
Before leaving the UK
This is where things get interesting. Anyone planning to fly to China needs to get approval to fly by the Chinese Embassy in the country where you are flying from, by applying for a Health Declaration Code (HDC). You can get approval by uploading all necessary documents to a Chinese government website (https://hrhk.cs.mfa.gov.cn/H5/) – once everything has been reviewed and approved you will get a “green code”. You need to show this green code (plus hard copies of all the necessary documents) to the flight check-in desk when departing the UK (I showed mine at Manchester airport). More details here:
The Chinese Embassy in the UK requires anyone planning to fly to China to get tested 7 days (www.mfa.gov.cn/ce/ceuk//eng/visa/jiankangmaEn/t1903213.htm) before your flight and 2 days before your flight (strictly speaking, 72 hours I believe). You are required to do your 7 days prior test in a different facility from where you do the 2 days prior test. There is a list of approved facilities for the 2 days prior test
on the Chinese Embassy website at:
www.mfa.gov.cn/ce/ceuk//eng/visa/jiankangmaEn/P020211020114809981089.pdf. Many people have done the 7 days prior test at Boots (Ј79).
In addition to the usual PCR test (nose and throat) the 2 days prior test also includes a blood test to check for antibodies. I did my test at Whitehall Clinic in Leeds (Ј219 - www.whitehallclinic.com/fit-to-fly-tests-china). DnaNudge, Everwell (both in London) and Sirkka (in Manchester) are also very popular. Some people have paid extra (usually another Ј100 or so) for the “N protein test” (also known as IgG antibody test) which is really only applicable for those that were vaccinated with a Western vaccine (which use “live attenuated vaccine” tech). According to my understanding, the N protein test is for those that test positive for IgM antibodies, to show whether the antibodies are because of a previous infection or the vaccination.
This infographic is really useful to explain the additional testing requirement for those testing positive for
Many clinics will allow you to book and pay for the lower cost test, without the additional N protein test, and then you pay extra for the N protein if your IgM antibody test comes back positive. My IgM antibody was
negative, so I didn’t need the N protein test.
For the 7 days prior to your flight, you need to complete a Personal Health Monitoring Form (www.mfa.gov.cn/ce/ceuk//eng/visa/jiankangmaEn/P020210831091236977058.pdf) and take your temperature every day.
This is a complete list of all the documents I uploaded when applying for the Health
2. Residence Permit/Visa
3. Flight Itinerary
4. Vaccination Commitment Letter
5. Sinopharm/Sinovac Vaccination Certificate
6. Travel History Declaration Form
7. 7 Days Prior to Flight Negative COVID Test
8. 2 Days Prior to Flight Negative COVID Antibody Test
9. 2 Days Prior to Flight Negative COVID Nucleic Acid Test
10. Personal Health Monitoring Form
That’s 10 documents in total, all uploaded as .jpg images.
Please note that all these documents should be uploaded as a .jpg file. I just used screenshots from my phone. You can submit everything using your phone or your laptop, but my advice would be to use your laptop as it is easier.
Once you have uploaded and submitted everything, you will get an orange code. Within a few hours (sometimes as little as one hour, sometimes much longer), assuming everything is in order you will get the green code:
If there are any problems with your documents, you will get a red code. Usually there will be a brief explanation as to why you have the red code and you should then review everything. In most instances when people got the red code it was a case of a document being missed the first time round, so once you have reviewed everything and figured out what was missed, you can re-submit. If you have been waiting for your green code for a long time or can’t figure out why your code is red, usually there is a telephone number you can call. The WeChat groups are really useful at helping you troubleshoot the problem. I think it goes without saying that this process is stressful and getting the green code is a massive relief. Once you have the green code (issued from the Chinese Embassy – or consulate – in the UK, you can check-in as normal and fly to the transit country (Denmark in my case).
Testing in transit
Annoyingly (that’s an understatement), you need to do this all again in transit. You are required to get tested again and submit all documents, plus the negative test report from the transit airport to the same website and get a new green code from the transit country (Denmark in my case).
This is the reason why it’s critical that you transit via a country that has the testing facilities in the airport (usually within the transit area) to meet the requirements for UK citizens flying to China. You also need to check with the airline that the transit time is enough to allow for testing and for the results to come back.
The various transit WeChat groups are also really useful for letting you know which routes and flights are viable.
I arrived in Copenhagen at 12:45pm and straight away headed to the testing area (next to gate C26). I didn’t need to book my test ahead of time though some transit airports/routes do require pre-booking. There were only a few people in the queue and paying for and having the test only took about 20-30 minutes. If there are a lot of people transiting to China from your UK flight, expect to queue for a few hours.
The cost of testing at Copenhagen airport is Ј440 – that’s not a typo. I joked with the testing facility when paying that they are printing money and he said: “We don’t need to print money, we have you guys”. The test in transit is again a PCR test (nose and throat) and blood test. The same rules about the N protein test as noted above apply here. I believe Copenhagen is one of the more costly locations to transit in because of the Ј440 test price but the transit time is also much shorter than other airports.
My flight to Shanghai was at 6:50pm and the results were handed out by the gate (C37) at around 5pm. Once you have the negative test report, you need to take a picture of that document, and upload it to the same website you used when applying for the green code in the UK. I re-submitted all the documents (actually .jpg images) that I had submitted the day before in the UK, plus:
1. UK Boarding Pass
2. UK Green Code
3. Transit Airport Negative COVID Test
That’s 13 documents in total, all uploaded as .jpg images.
Fortunately, the website saves all your information, so you just need to upload the images. It was a much shorter wait for the green code in transit – only taking about 30 minutes. Everything is well coordinated between the airline and the testing company, and the airline stall will help if you are having problems with the green code. Similarly, as in the UK, if you have been waiting for your green code for a long time or can’t figure out why your code is red, usually there is a telephone number (the local Embassy) you can call.
The WeChat groups are really useful at helping you troubleshoot the problem.
Once you have the green code you should complete the Customs Pocket Declaration (the same one you completed when leaving China) and then show the two QR codes to the staff at the gate – you are now approved to fly to China. Time to relax a bit.
Arriving back to China
I am writing this from my quarantine hotel in Shanghai, so I made it back safely and on time. When landing at Shanghai Pudong airport everything is well planned out. I can’t comment on how things are when landing in Beijing, Guangzhou, Hangzhou or Xiamen. There have been lots of reports of it taking a long time (several hours) to disembark the flight after landing. Our entire flight, which was full, had disembarked within around 45 minutes and I think this might because things are much better organized in Shanghai
Pudong airport than earlier in the pandemic.
The first thing you need to do after landing is to show the Customs Pocket Declaration QR code, which you scan at an “e-gate”. Next you need to show your passport and register for your PCR test. The staff will give you a clear plastic bag with your test inside and you head to the testing area. There have been lots of reports of the test at Shanghai Pudong airport as being like a frontal lobotomy. The test I had in transit in Copenhagen was worse and the one in Shanghai not too bad (though still not very pleasant). You then head to the passport control desks and everything is the same as before COVID, though I did notice the immigration staff asking a few more questions than they did previously.
Our bags took more than an hour to arrive and were soaking wet when they come onto the baggage carrousel having been disinfected. Once you have your bags you head out of the airport and follow the signs to the area to register for your quarantine hotel. I am a Shanghai resident which means 14 days in a hotel followed by 7 days “self-monitoring” at home. The rules are different if your final destination is outside Shanghai. The staff will ask you to scan a QR code which takes you to an online form where you submit your details and address in Shanghai.
Make sure to take a screenshot of the code that is generated after you have
completed the form. Each Shanghai district (Jing’an, Xuhui, Minhang, Putuo, Huangpu, etc) has their own desk:
Since my home is in Qingpu I followed the signs for Qingpu. There were 4 people queuing ahead of me when I arrived at the desk. Once you are called to the desk, they will take your passport. They enter your details on a laptop and wait for the local community where you live “to accept your return” (that’s a rough translation of what they said to me). Then you choose the hotel where you will spend the next 14 days. The options you will be given will be in the district where you are registered so I was given two options in Qingpu:
I went with the more expensive Mercure as they said the rooms are bigger. I ticked the option I wanted, and my registration was complete. Altogether there were eight people from my flight heading to Qingpu and we had to wait for everyone’s registration to be complete before we left the airport on the same bus. From landing to leaving Shanghai Pudong airport was around 3 hours 45 minutes.
I have heard stories of people not being given any option on the hotel. There are also lots of reports of people getting very lucky with their quarantine hotel (a suite with two rooms plus a balcony) and some who get very unlucky (small rooms with a window facing a brick wall).
I have been quite fortunate with the hotel and would recommend the Mercure for anyone returning to Qingpu versus the other cheaper option (a Holiday Inn Express). When you arrive at the hotel (through the back entrance) you will pay for the room (14 x Rmb480 in my case) and will be handed a bag with some documents and your room key card. You will be asked to scan a QR code for the WeChat group which they use for sharing all important announcements and information during your stay.
You will be then taken to your room. From the moment you land to when you get to your room, everyone is fully suited in PPE/hazmat suits. You will be tested on day 4, day 7, day 14, day 16 and day 21. Apparently, your China health code will be red for the first 14 days (mine is currently red), will turn orange on day 15, and turn green on day 22. We have been asked to check our temperature every morning and afternoon and submit the result to the WeChat group.
When I arrived in my room, I noticed there was no desk so immediately asked in the WeChat group if I could move to a room with a desk. The staff called my room right away and said there were no rooms with desks available today but told me I could move rooms the next day. They came the next day at 5pm to help me move rooms. I have noticed that there are some rooms with balconies in my hotel and the staff have said
I can move again to a room with a balcony in a few days. I wasn’t expecting this level of flexibility.
Rmb100 of the Rmb480 room cost is for three meals a day, which is “delivered” to my room three times a day at 8am, noon and 5pm, placed outside my door in a plastic tray. The food is not bad – basically standard Chinese canteen fare. I am fortunate in that the hotel I am staying in also has an additional food menu and you can pay extra for “made-to-order” meals if you don’t like the food that comes in the daily plastic trays. I haven’t tried the “made-to-order” meals yet, but there are a lot of expat favourites such as dumplings, Yangzhou fried rice, hongshao pork and fried noodles, priced at between Rmb28-48 per dish.
As far as I know, no quarantine hotels in Shanghai allow you to order meals from outside, unless you are given a special dispensation for dietary or religious reasons. Most (possibly all) quarantine hotels allow grocery deliveries and “care packages” with different hotels having different rules about what can be delivered. Generally, items such as fruit, snacks, instant noodles, UHT milk, and similar such grocery items are fine, and fresh or cooked food is not allowed. Many people have had success ordering from Epermarket.
There seems to be a blanket rule about no alcohol (though I got lucky as my hotel allows beer deliveries – result!!). Many people also bring a lot of groceries with them from the UK, and items such as electrical cookers or kettles. There are also quarantine WeChat groups, where lots of information is shared on what to
pack for your 14 days quarantine stay.
I am on day 4 of my 14 days now and things are going well so far but ask me again in a week
encourage anyone who is thinking about making this trip to do plenty of research into the costs and process, but not to feel like it’s impossible. So long as you meet the criteria to return (fully vaccinated with a Chinese vaccine and have a current work visa/residence permit) there is – as I say above – a very clear, tried, and tested route to fly to the UK and return to China. I hope you have found this write-up of my trip to the UK useful. Please feel free to reach out over WeChat if you have any questions (or send me beer). My trip home was costly and stressful at times but absolutely worth it.
Get vaccinated with the Chinese vaccine
Join the various WeChat groups – these are essential sources of information, there are groups for everything including transit groups for nearly all routes and quarantine groups for different cities, depending on your arrival city in China
Don’t catch COVID in the UK – seems obvious, just be extra careful and stay away from large crowds
Pay extra for the day 5 test to release test so you can get the results the same day
If considering getting a booster while in the UK weigh up the advantages (extra protection from COVID) and disadvantages (potential complications with getting the green code to return to China) very carefully
Make sure to have a plug adapter for your laptop so you can charge your laptop at the transit airport – they are often very expensive to buy in airports
Book lounge access at the transit airport
Check if your health insurance will reimburse you for the costs of your COVID tests – my tests cost more than Rmb10k in total, but Rmb5k of those tests have been reimbursed by my Cigna & CMB health insurance plan
Print copies of all reports, certificates, etc – and save as a .jpg on your phone, just in case
Quarantine packing list
Groceries such as pot noodles, cup a soup, snacks, tea/coffee
Some soy sauce or tabasco or similar to “jazz” your food up a bit
Cordial such as Robinsons Mini
Knife to cut fruit, Cutlery
Coffee/tea mug, plastic bowl/plates
Small washing up liquid and tea towel, floor/surface wipes, soap
Exercise equipment such as resistant bands or a yoga mat
HDMI cable to connect your laptop to the TV in your room
Download lots of movies and TV so you don’t have to rely on a potentially poor Wi-Fi connection to
stream movies and TV
November 20, 2021