The average visitor to China gets around on planes, trains and busses, but this leaves so much of the vast country unexplored. This comprehensive guide to driving in China will equip you with the know-how to drive around the country as confidently as a local.
Driving in China
Before you embark on your epic road trip, you have to become a legal driver. Unfortunately, China does not recognize international driver’s licenses, so if you want to drive in the country, you’ll have to procure a Chinese driver’s license. The good news is, if you hold a valid license in your own home country, this is a relatively straightforward process.
License holders from most countries will be required to pass the written exam, a set of 100 multiple choice questions, of which you must answer 90 correctly in order to pass. The test is available in English and the questions are not difficult, although they do tend to include the minutiae of Chinese driving laws (how many points you lose for running a red light or how long you have to renew your license after it expires).
Practice questions can be found on an app called Drive in China, or on the website Chinese Driving Test. Once you feel confident you’ve completed enough practice tests, head over to the local Department of Motor Vehicles (which in Chinese is called the Che Guan Suo) with a copy of your national license and your passport. At the DMV you will go through a “health exam,” which involves ticking off a few boxes on a sheet of paper and taking an eye test. If all goes smoothly you will have your brand new Chinese driver’s license later the same day. The total cost is under RMB100 (roughly 12 GBP/15 USD).
Renting a vehicle
With a Chinese driver’s license and a passport, you can rent a car and expect to pay about 200-400RMB (including insurance) per day for your vehicle, depending on make and model. This translates to roughly 23-46 GBP, or 30-60 USD. However, be prepared to pay a sizeable deposit, usually around RMB10,000 (1,150 GBP/1,450 USD), again depending on the type of car. A cheaper rate may include a daily limit as to how many kilometers you can drive, usually capped at around 300 km per day.
The international car rental company Europcar seems to offer the cheapest rental rates, and you can utilize their services (including English language customer service) if you’re picking up and dropping off your car at a major city such as Beijing or Shanghai. To rent a car in smaller cities you will most likely have to find a local rental agency. As with anywhere, make sure that you fully catalogue any damage or defects the car has before you drive it off the lot, as you do not want to lose that hefty deposit!
In China, citations are almost entirely automated. Cameras are installed at practically every intersection, as well as at various locations along expressways. They take high-resolution images and you can even be issued a citation for smoking a cigarette or drinking a beverage while driving. Citations are mostly RMB150 (17 GBP/22 USD), and you will have to clear your citations before you can return the rental car. Citations follow the vehicle, not the driver, and since the vehicle will be registered to the rental company the notifications of a fine will be sent to them via text message.
Clarify with your rental company ahead of time how citations will be handled. Some companies may allow you to pay a flat fee up front to cover any that may be incurred. In general, expressway speed limits are between 80-120km/h. Drivers must slow to 80km/h when going through tunnels and must not change lanes.
Traffic police in China generally only exist to direct traffic. They’re usually on foot or motorbike, and tend not to issue citations unless there is a checkpoint setup. That means that when you see a police patrol car you don’t have to be nervous, nor should you pull over if it has its lights on. Chinese police cars will turn on their lights when they are “on the job” in order to make sure other cars clear the way for them. Again, the vast majority of all citations in China are issued automatically via camera.
Get a GPS
Going on a road trip in China without access to cell service and 3/4G internet is not advisable. Having a smartphone equipped with GPS will save you a lot of hassle and headache, but be advised, Google (and all Google services) are blocked in China. Using Google Maps as you would at home is out of the question, and using a VPN to access Google Maps is generally impractical. The VPN slows the connection to a crawl, and you are unlikely to maintain the connection for the duration of your drive.
If you understand basic Chinese, Baidu Maps or Gaode Maps are highly recommended, since these apps will give you warning when you’re breaking the speed limit, and will tell you where speed citation cameras are located along your route. It is possible to cache your Google Maps if you download them ahead of time, but unfortunately no English language alternative app exists that also functions in China. However, Baidu Maps is relatively easy to follow even if you do not speak Chinese. Pay attention to the visuals, which are generally detailed enough and will include 3D representations of useful things like expressway exit ramps.
What to bring
Make sure you have all the essentials: a working spare tire, a jack for changing your tires, reflective barriers to place in front of an accident scene. Ask your rental company if these things come with the car, or if not, if they can be added to the package. If you’re going to be driving through remote areas, make sure you bring plenty of water and snacks, as you may not see many service stations along the way. Well-travelled routes should have plenty.
China’s inter-province national expressways do charge tolls with varying costs depending on the region, but on average expect to pay about RMB0.5 (0.6 GBP/0.7 USD) per kilometer. A toll tag can be purchased outside of major city toll booths, which can be pre-paid and allows easier passage.
If you’re unfortunate enough to get into an accident while on the road, first of all, don’t panic. Stay calm and, if it is a minor accident and no one is hurt, call the police (110) and have them come to the scene so that they can assess liability.
Usually Chinese drivers want to preserve the scene of the accident at all costs, although sometimes this may be dangerous. Use triangular reflectors to set up warning signs about 150 meters (492 ft) behind and ahead of the accident scene. If it is a very minor fender bender, ask the other party to pull to the side of the road after taking pictures of the scene, as this is definitely the safest practice.
The important thing to remember is do not agree to pay for any sort of damages and injury while on the scene. The police will assign liability to one party, and that party (or their insurance company) will be responsible for any damages, the exact amount of which will be assessed by the insurance company.
Ask your rental agency what to do in the event of a breakdown before you set off on your roadtrip. If driving your own car or a borrowed car, your insurance may come with roadside assistance so double-check before you leave. If you’re unfortunate enough to be stuck without roadside assistance, you could find yourself in a bit of a jam depending on how rural the area is. Your best bet in this instance is to try and walk to the nearest service station or flag down friendly bystanders for help. The police will send someone out to at least make sure you’re safe while you figure out what to do with your vehicle. Towing will cost several hundred RMB depending on how far you need to be towed. Basic repairs rarely cost more than RMB1000 (115 GBP/145 USD), but this will depend on the nature of your breakdown. Keep a bottle of water in your trunk in case the car overheats, and make sure you know how to change a tire yourself before you embark on your adventure.
Driving in China often gets a bad reputation, and it is true that Chinese drivers tend to have less respect for the rules of the road than drivers in Western countries.
In China, speeding is common, cars change lanes seemingly at random, and they will often try and push into the front of a line of cars stopped in traffic after cruising down the emergency lane for a whole kilometer. On the expressway your main nemeses will be speeders and bright lights. In China, the use of the horn is common and even necessary but, after dark, bright lights are substituted for horn honking.
Parking is one of the biggest headaches of driving in China. There are often more cars than there are spaces, and in the cities parking can get expensive, often as much as RMB10-15 per hour. It is inadvisable to park outside of marked parking spaces even if you see other cars doing it, because the traffic police do come along every so often and put tickets on every illegally parked car.
Parking lots are universally marked by a blue sign with a large white “P” in the middle. Keep in mind that the Chinese have a strong preference for backing into parking spaces and some parking lots may require you to back in instead of pulling in front first.
While it is possible for your vehicle to get towed in China, it is rare. Towing usually only happens if you illegally park near a school or other government office, so steer clear of those.
Things to keep in mind
Electric scooters, known in China as e-bikes, will be your worst enemy as a city driver. Unlike motorbikes, e-bikes are nearly silent, which means they can often appear out of nowhere. If you accidentally hit one, you are at fault – even if the bike was breaking the rules. Since most e-bike riders do not wear helmets, it is very easy for e-bike accidents to turn deadly – a nightmare situation for any driver, but particularly harrowing if you’re in a foreign country on holiday. Keep your eyes open at all times for e-bikes, regular bikes, and pedestrians. Remember, car culture is relatively new to China, and most people still get around the old fashioned way.
Chinese pedestrians will often dart out in front of traffic or start to cross the road before the light turns green, so it is a good idea when driving on city streets not to drive faster than 40 km/h, and to slow down when you go through intersections.
Terrified of driving in China yet? Don’t be. The overall feeling should be that driving in China requires a bit more attention than driving in your home country (unless your home country is, say, India or Vietnam), but once you get the hang of it you’ll manage just fine, and what’s more, you’ll probably have the time of your life!