Self-driving in China as a traveler is difficult. Until very recently, the only possible way of doing it has been with a guide who either drives your car or sits in the back, while you drive your car (you can get a Temporary Driver’s License – international driver’s licenses are not recognised).
The guide of course drives up the costs. Besides the need for a guide, there is a good deal of paperwork waiting for you at the border (in Chinese), and you will need a good helper to deal with it.
If you have done it and care to share your experience, please send us a message.
To offset the cost of the tour company, self-driving travelers tend to look for company. If you can travel in a group of a few cars, the price will be a lot better. Have a look at our China travel sharing forum to find people with similar ideas.
Recommendations for reliable tour companies are welcome.
There is (was?) also another way to drive in China as a foreign traveler, without a guide. Free self-driving in effect. Still, expect to spend more money and nerves than originally planned. You can find people for and against. Those that say it is wonderful to be free, others say it isn’t really freedom at all.
Companies that were known to do it, are China Tierra de Aventura, Tibetmoto, and chinaoverland.eu. In 2017, the first 2 are no longer active and chinaoverland only does fully guided trips. Do let us know should you come across an operator that still provides this service.
Rules and advice
- Note that the age limit for drivers in China is 18-69, and 18-59 for motorcycle riders.
- Expect the process of obtaining a temporary driver’s license and ironing out all the details with the tour company to take up to 2 months.
- A deposit is charged when entering China, the amount is based on the estimated value of your vehicle. You get the money back in full when exiting China.
Buying a car in China and driving it out of China
Is possible for foreigners, with a Chinese driver’s license and a gentlemen’s agreement between you (the owner of the car) and the owner of the Chinese license plate (seeing how it is incredibly difficult for a foreigner to get a license plate). It’s a fucking hassle though (and I don’t easily swear), and you will need to put down a huge bond to ensure the car gets back to China. The only people who we know of managed to do it got stuck at the border for 26 hours and finally got out thanks to a friend in Beijing who was an old school pal of the head of the border in Uluqqat. But they did it.
There is another option: leasing a car from its owner. You will have to ship the car back to China if you do not want to forfeit the huge deposit you left.
Buying a car in China and driving it in China
Is allowed as a foreigner. Buying the car is easy. The problem is the license plate. You need to buy your license plate where you have your residence permit. Authorities restrict the number of new cars that are allowed on the road. If you live in a place where many people want to drive, you will have to compete for a license plate. In Shanghai, the price is around 10.000 euros.
There are other types of plates, like the C-plate. Those plates only cost about 20 euros, but don’t allow you to drive into the city centre of Shanghai. But then again: those plates are only issued to people with a so called suburban hukous.
Everything else you need to know about driving in China
has been explained elsewhere. I refer you to
- Wikivoyage: driving in China
- NPR: On getting a Chinese driver’s license
- China blog: good additional observations on driving in China
- The Economist: driving from Beijing to Lhasa on the G6