Month: October 2018

Chinese Bureaucracy

Traveling to China is a dream for many travelers. One of the largest countries in the world, the largest country by number of citizens, and vast differences between hyper-modern cities and frozen-in-time villages. Getting into China is easy IF you adhere to the quite complex visa application rules. At least complex compared to any other country I’ve visited so far. You have to supply entry and exit tickets, exact itinerary, and contact details of hotels within the country to be able to apply for a visa. Plus some hefty visa fees. Luckily there is a way around the visa application if you’re willing to live with a few drawbacks.


The solution is visa free transit. China offers for certain regions up to 144 hours of visa free transit time. You can enter the country and move freely, the only restriction is that you have to leave the country within 144 hours and you are not allowed to leave the designated provinces. At the time of the writing, October 2018, there are 3 regions in China eligible for transit: Beijing (+surroundings), Shanghai (+surroundings), and Liaoning, with Guanghzou to be available soon. And no, you cannot travel from Shanghai to Beijing, you have to stay withing the transit zone that you’ve entered. The second restriction is that the country you came from needs to be different than the country you’re flying to. I flew in from Japan and returned to Germany, so no issue there. If this works as well if you book a flight, say, from Germany via Paris to Shanghai and from Shanghai via Amsterdam back (yes, the famous KLM-AirFrance-Combination with guaranteed luggage loss) needs to be tested. Not by me, thou.

To get my first glimpse of China I decided to have a 4 day layover with Janina and Björn on our way back from Japan. We had a very uncomfortable flight with Spring Airlines from Tokyo Haneda (HND) to Shanghai Pudong (PVG), leaving Japan at 1.30 am and arriving in Shanghai around 4 am. Luckily, or maybe not, we were the only plane arriving at this ungodly hour, and as we had lots of time to waste before we could check in we took all the time to walk from the plane to the immigration. There were only 3 counters open, all marked “Chinese nationals”, but the security guard sent us there anyways. All the Chinese passengers already passed immigration and only 1-2 other passengers were behind us. As I reached the counter and handed over my passport I was immediately asked for an immigration card. As I didn’t get one on the plane I had do decline and was sent back to fill out the yellow immigration card. After filling out the usual name, date of birth, passport number, etc, I returned to the counter. I handed over the card and added that I want to enter on the 144 hour transit regulation. Then I got handed a blue immigration card and was sent back yet again to fill out the blue immigration card. The content was virtually the same, except for additional information on departure country and target country. Björn and Janina had the same process. We returned yet again to the counters. Now with all but “hotel phone number” filled out we were confident that they can process our immigration forms. But even the hotel phone number needs to be provided. Luckily the app had the number available, so we could add the missing information. Obviously the Chinese nationals counter staff was completely lost in processing the 144 hours special case. They called their supervisor who came down and had to assist in entering the data. But this wasn’t enough, so the supervisor collected our passports and then she disappeared in the back and we were told to wait. So we waited. And waited. And waited. Around 10-15 minutes later the supervisor came back and handed each of the immigration officers one passport. Then we were allowed to step forward, have our fingerprints and pictures taken before we could finally enter China.


The take away message here it: coming to China with the 144 hour transit is pretty easy. Just be aware that you should line up behind the “special” immigration counter (a third counter besides Chinese and alien), ask for and fill out the blue immigration form, and make sure to fill out everything, even phone number of hostel. Then don’t hurry and expect to wait for a while, but it will all work out in the end.

Final remark: Currently, information on transit visa can be found here:

Travel credit cards

Update 17 October 2018: After one year of using 3 different credit cards I updated the article below with some insights. The final verdict stays, but some interesting facts were added. I marked them in italics.

A quite regular discussion topic among my friends is the choice of credit card for traveling. Without credit card traveling is by now virtually impossible, or at least vastly inconvenient. Reserving hotels, booking flights, renting cars, ordering tickets, or even withdrawing cash. All works a lot smoother with the right credit card. But what makes a good credit card? The problem here is the complex set of criteria:

  1. No fees or interest
  2. Commonly accepted
  3. Good support in case of problems
  4. Transparency on balance and transactions

First a short introduction what these criteria mean.

No fees or interest

When using credit cards there are different kind of fees:

Foreign currency fee – mostly 1-2% of the price are charged on top for the currency conversion, e.g. if I pay 120$ with my credit card, the exchange rate is 1.20, then I’m charged 100 EUR. On top of that the bank charges 2% for the conversion, so the total is 102 EUR. Not much, but over time this adds up to quite some money.

Withdrawal fee – when withdrawing cash from an ATM the ATM owner can charge a fee (which will be shown on the ATM screen), and there is nothing you can do besides finding a different ATM brand. Some banks refund the fees upon request later, but this is based on goodwill. The second fee is charged by the credit card company and not displayed on the ATM. This is usually a percentage with a minimum amount, e.g. 2% but at least 5 EUR.

Yearly fee – the yearly (or monthly) fee some banks charge you for having the card at all. Usually comes with premium features like free luggage insurance, travel cancellation insurance, or cashback.

Credit interest – credit cards that are not evening out all debt every month usually charge interest on the remaining debt. For example if you pay 1000 EUR with your card but the bank only charges you 500 EUR per month, they will charge interest after the first month at the latest.

Commonly accepted

Different kinds of credit cards are differently accepted by stores and websites. Most widely accepted are VISA and MasterCard, American Express is ok, but still far behind. Discover exists but I only remember signs saying “we no longer accept Discover card”. So VISA is the most commonly accepted choice, MasterCard a good fallback if for some reason VISA is not accepted or not working.

Good suport in case of problems

When something happens to your credit card you’re usually not at home but somewhere with expensive roaming, bad wifi, no reception, completely different time zone, or all of the above. Having support that is easy to contact through various channels, available around the clock, resonds to non-urgent requests within 1-2 days, and focused on solving problems rather than finding them is really an advantage.

Transparency on balance and transactions

Back in the days where you got your monthly credit card bill some people sure got heart attacks when they saw how much they spent. Or found fraudulent payments. When traveling it is essential that you always know how much money you spent, on what, and where. For example by having notifications for spurious or larger transactions and an app or website to see all transactions instantly is essential.

This sounds like an impossible task and honestly, finding one card that fulfills all criteria is probably impossible. However, having only one credit card while traveling is not the best idea anyways. If one card gets stolen, lost, damaged, or somehow unusable, having a second card can save the day. I compared the cards I and my friends had to find the best combination. As I’m from Germany my recommendation here works if you are a resident in Germany.

My preferred combination of cards: comdirect VISA plus N26 MasterCard.

comdirect VISA

  • Very reliable, German direct bank, part of CashGroup / Commerzbank
  • VISA widely accepted, Debitcard included with higher acceptance within Germany
  • Support available 24/7, very friendly and helpful
  • Clean website with access to all transactions, SMS notification for unexpected transactions
  • No withdrawal fee outside of the EU with VISA, inside EU with Debitcard (EC-Karte), in Germany only CashGroup ATM

Downside: foreign currency fee for payments (e.g. in shops, hotels, …), required checking account, but works best if it’s also your primary account (Gehaltskonto), no payback of ATM provider fees

N26 Mastercard

  • No foreign currency fee on payments
  • All transactions instantly shown in app, notification as push message
  • MasterCard mostly accepted
  • Overdraft credit (Dispo) can be adjusted / activated on website in case you urgently need credit

Downside: Only 3-5 free cash withdrawals in Germany, foreign currency withdrawal fee, you need a checking account to use the credit card

Runner up: Santander 1plus VISA

  • No fees for cash withdrawal and payments in any currency
  • Payback of ATM provider fees (if receipt is scanned and mailed to them)
  • No checking account required (though you have to charge it to avoid credit interest)
  • VISA widely accepted
  • Monthly charging to checking account Only 25 EUR, the remaining debt will be kepts and generate interest

Downside: I’ve only heard bad things about the user support, I don’t really like their website, no contactless payment function, very annoying offline password reset


My preferred setup is:

All payments go through N26 MasterCard.

Cash withdrawal with comdirect VISA in non-EUR countries, an N26 MasterCard in EUR countries. Unless in countries like Thailand where all banks charge an ATM provider fee, where Santander VISA pays off.

N26 payments are exactly what I want. There is never a fee, I only pay the current MasterCard exchange rate, and I always see instantly what is charged to my account, in EUR and in transaction currency, given I have internet connection. Especially cash withdrawal with comdirect abroad is quite comfortable. Several times I had issues with ATMs in South America, because they charged fees that were not shown or returned the wrong number of bills. comdirect was always very helpful and refunded the costs.

Santander in place of N26 is no option, as I really like the transparency of N26. If you’re happy with your current checking account Santander 1plus VISA + N26 MasterCard is a viable option which saves you yet another checking account. But don’t underestimate the comfort of good customer support. comdirect really paid off for me.