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The Canton Fair is the longest-running and the largest trade show in Mainland China. Think of it as the ‘offline version’ of Alibaba.com, and you’re getting close. In this guide, you will learn everything importers must know about the Canton Fair:
Why should I visit the Canton Fair?
Canton Fair Products and Phases
Canton Fair Dates 2020
Traveling to the Canton Fair
How to get an invitation letter
As a bonus, I also explain how to prepare and attend the Canton Fair, and manage follow-ups.
Why you must prepare a product specification before your visit
The questions you must ask each supplier at the trade show
How to follow-up with the suppliers after the trade show
Why should I visit the Canton Fair?
The Canton Fair is the original Chinese trade show. Held twice per year in Guangzhou, it used to be the only place to find Chinese factories. While the Canton Fair is perhaps not as important as it was before Alibaba.com and Globalsources.com came to the scene, it’s still the largest trade show in the world.
Many of the suppliers attending the Canton Fair are also listed on Alibaba.com and Globalsources.com. That said, attending the Canton Fair is not just about finding suppliers – but talking face to face with their sales staff and taking a closer look at their product samples.
Regardless of what industry you’re in, the Canton Fair is almost always worth a yearly visit.
Canton Fair Products and Phases
The Canton Fair is held twice per year and is divided into three different phases. Each phase lasts for 4 to 5 days and covers set industries. Below follows an overview of the Canton Fair 2020 phases, and the respective products of each phase:
Vehicles and Parts
Hardware & Tools
Watches & Accessories
Toys & Children’s Products
Textiles & Apparel
Canton Fair Dates 2020
As mentioned, the Canton Fair is held twice per year, during the spring and autumn. These are the dates to remember in 2020:
April – May 2020
Phase 1: April 15-19, 2020
Phase 2: April 23-27, 2020
Phase 3: May 1-5, 2020
October – November 2020
Phase 1: October 15-19, 2020
Phase 2: October 23-27, 2020
Phase 3: October 31 – November 4, 2020
Traveling to the Canton Fair
Until a few years ago, most Canton Fair visitors first arrived in Hong Kong and got on a bus to Guangzhou. These days, Guangzhou is a major airport hub, with plenty of direct flights from North America, Europe, and Asia.
You have a few options If you still decide to take the Hong Kong route:
Bus from HK International Airport to Guangzhou
Bus from HK island to Guangzhou
High-speed train from HK West Kowloon Station to Guangzhou South Station
Once at the venue, you can collect your buyer badge which is a simple procedure. You’re required to submit information such as the following:
Pre-registration number (if any)
Foreigners are required to keep their passport with them at all time, according to Chinese regulations. While this is rarely enforced I strongly advise you to keep it on you at all time, especially as it may be required for registration.
According to the current visa regulations in Mainland China, Canton Fair visitors shall apply for an M-Visa. Such a visa can be obtained as follows:
Option A: Application without invitation letter (not available in all countries, and requires more documents)
Option B: Application with invitation letter issued by a manufacturer or service provider in Mainland China (not including Hong Kong S.A.R).
Option C: Application with an invitation letter issued by the Canton Fair
How to get a Canton Fair invitation letter
While there are various ways to obtain a China visa for Canton fair visitors, an Invitation letter is possibly the most straightforward method.
What is an Invitation Letter?
An Invitation letter can be issued by various parties, both organizations and individuals, to help an applicant secure a visa.
As most nationalities must obtain a visa to enter Mainland China, the Canton Fair provides visitors with invitation letters – in order to successfully apply and obtain a business visa, prior to arrival in China.
The Invitation letter, once issued, can be handed directly to the local Chinese embassy, together with the visa application form.
Notice that the visa is not issued upon arrival, but must be obtained before you board the flight.
Why do I need an Invitation Letter to attend the Canton Fair in Guangzhou?
As mentioned, most nationalities must obtain a visa prior to arriving in China. As such, business visitors shall obtain a so-called business visa (M-Visa).
Generally, an M-visa requires an invitation letter, which can be issued by a Chinese company (private or state-owned) or organization.
A Canton Fair invitation letter is not required to visit the fair. In fact, many buyers obtain invitation letters from their existing suppliers – as they intend to visit them before or after the trade show.
That said, as a new buyer, you may not have an existing supplier network to lean back on, which is why the Canton fair offers this service to its visitors.
How much does it cost?
The Invitation letter itself is issued free of charge. That said, the consulate or embassy in your country charges a visa processing fee.
a. Buyer Badge Application
The first step of the application is to go to the official website (link), register yourself online.
Once you have your account set up, you must register for a Buyer Badge.
Buyer badge registration is required to apply for the invitation letter, and also gives you free access to the Canton Fair, while non-pre-registered visitors must pay 200 RMB ($45) per day.
b. Invitation Letter Application
Once you have applied for the Buyer Badge, you can make your online application for the Invitation letter.
The Invitation letter may be issued digitally, or as a paper copy sent to your address.
Notice that the requirements are subject to change.
c. Visa application
Once you have the Invitation letter, you can apply for a business visa, to access China.
The application normally takes 3 to 4 working days.
Note: Additional documentation may be required, depending on the nationality of the applicant and the country of application.
Are there other ways to enter Mainland China?
Yes, as mentioned, you can obtain an invitation letter from a supplier or other organization you intend to do business with.
The only requirement is that the company is registered in Mainland China, which doesn’t include companies registered in Hong Kong S.A.R.
The Invitation letters issued by the Canton fair are optional, not mandatory. However, you are still advised to pre-register and obtain the buyer’s badge in advance.
How to get the most out of your visit
Running around between suppliers booths is unlikely to be very productive unless you set foot at the exhibition with clear objectives in mind. In this part of the Canton Fair guide, I will explain how to best prepare, attend and follow-up on the trade show.
Assume that you want to get your own custom-designed t-shirt manufactured. Clearly, you want to walk away from the Canton Fair with a list of factories, prices and perhaps even sample materials.
But, in order to receive information on pricing, MOQs, available materials and colors, and production time, you must not show up empty-handed. Instead, you need to prepare your product specification well in advance.
While it depends on the product, a specification should normally include the following:
Bill of materials
While it doesn’t have to be final, or 100% complete, it must be complete enough for the suppliers to calculate a price. If not, you’ll be wasting both your time and theirs.
You should also write a list of questions printed out on an A4 paper:
It’s crucial to have the same basis of comparison for all suppliers, meaning that they must quote prices based on the same spec sheet, and be subject to the same in-depth interviews.
2. Attending the Canton Fair
The Canton Fair is the largest trade show in the world, so you must be selective when it comes to supplier visits. Focus on your target industry, and request a quick review of your product specification and confirmation whether they can make your product.
If the answer is yes, then you can go ahead and request prices and ask questions from your pre-written list. Don’t forget to take notes, as you may meet more than 20 suppliers in one single day.
3. After the Canton Fair
By the time you sit on the plane, you should have at least a few decent supplier options. However, this is only the start of the process. The next step is to put them to test and see if they can deliver on their promises.
1. Re-establish contact with each supplier by requesting the following
2. Request a confirmation on the pricing and order terms
What is the unit price?
What is the MOQ?
What is the product sample and tooling cost?
What is the estimated product sample delivery time?
3. Order product samples
Assuming the suppliers don’t backtrack on their pricing, order terms or compliance capabilities, you should go ahead and place your sample order as soon as possible. That way you keep the supplier engaged, which tends to result in faster lead times.
How much does it cost to attend the Canton Fair?
Attending the trade show itself is free of charge, assuming you pre-register on the official website. If not, you’ll need to pay 200 RMB to register at the exhibition. There are of course other costs to take into consideration:
Visa application fees
A solo attendee flying in from Europe, Australia or North America should budget at least $1500 for the entire trip. Clearly, it’s less if you’re based nearby, for example in Hong Kong or Singapore.
Can I buy products at the Canton Fair?
The Canton Fair is not a wholesale market, but a trade show. As such, you cannot go there to buy items in bulk. Instead, it’s a place to meet suppliers and gather information on pricing, technical specifications, and order terms. The actual transaction happens after the Canton Fair is over.
Can I buy product samples at the trade show?
Some suppliers are willing to hand over a product or material samples at the fair but don’t take it for granted. While almost any supplier is willing to accept a sample order while at the fair, they’ll need time back at the factory before they can deliver.
As said, the Canton Fair is not a wholesale market and product demos brought to the exhibition are not usually meant to be handed out or sold.
Can I visit factories during or after the Canton Fair?
Most manufacturers send their English speaking sales reps to the Canton Fair. Hence, I recommend that you don’t book any supplier visits during or around the Canton Fair dates. Instead, you should go at least a few days before or after the exhibition starts.
Note that the sales reps will stay put at the Canton Fair for its entire duration, and will not be able to return to the factory to offer factory tours.
Are there non-Chinese suppliers at the Canton Fair?
The Canton Fair is not exclusively for Chinese suppliers. While most are Chinese, suppliers from Vietnam, Thailand, India and other Asian countries are present. You might even find a few from Europe or the Americas.
What are some alternatives to the Canton Fair?
While the Canton Fair is the largest and most recognized trade show, there are major trade fairs held in nearby Hong Kong, Mainland China, and other Asian countries each year.
Note that most trade shows are specialized in a certain industry, such as textiles or electronics. What makes the Canton Fair unique is the fact that it gathers suppliers from across all sorts of industries – condensed to a two-week schedule.
Where should I stay during the Canton Fair?
I recommend you to stay at a hotel close to Pazhou International Exhibition Centre, which is the Canton Fair venue.
Langham Place Guangzhou
The Westin Pazhou
Shangri-La Hotel Guangzhou
Intercontinental Guangzhou Exhibition Center
Keep in mind that hotel rates increase significantly during the Canton Fair, with some hotels charging more than twice their standard rate. That said, there are budget hotels and hostels in the proximity to the Pazhou International Exhibition Centre.
Do you have questions about the Canton Fair? Leave a comment below!
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Co-founder of Asiaimportal (HK) Limited and based in Hong Kong. He has been quoted in and contributed to Bloomberg, SCMP, Alibaba Insights, Globalsources.com, China Chief Executive, Quartz Magazine and more.
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