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A Foreigner’s Guide to Buying Vehicles in China

Jun 08, 2017 By Danielle Martin , Comments (17)     Add your comment Newsletter

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So you’ve finally had it with negotiating the daily, painfully slow, cramped bus journey. Or maybe you prefer taxis when it comes to public transport but now even these are fraught with difficulty given the introduction of the new taxi-hailing apps such as Kuaidi Dache (快的打车) and Didi Dache (嘀嘀打车), meaning life just got so much more difficult standing on the side of the road trying to flag a cab and having them sailing past you with their lights on green, heading elsewhere to pick up a pre-agreed fare.
Whatever your reason, you’ve decided to take the plunge and buy a vehicle to help you get around quicker and join the throngs of Chinese in the daily rat race, but where to start? What do you buy and how do you buy it? Are you even allowed to buy a vehicle as a foreigner in China? Let’s take a look and find out …

A Foreigner’s Guide to Buying Vehicles in China
Source: Andrew Eland

1) E-Bikes
These are by far the most convenient way of travelling around the populated cities of China at a relatively quick pace. The rules on e-bikes (the ‘e’ stands for ‘electric’) are very lax and rarely enforced, however the traffic police do attempt to enforce them from time to time, by maintaining a presence at busy junctions during rush hour traffic and stopping those riders who are blatantly flouting them. Foreigners in China are allowed to buy and ride e-bikes, and having a licence isn’t necessary to do so. As one Chinese friend recently advised me, “You can legally ride an e-bike at 18 years old and there is no test to pass or licence to obtain. Just take your money to the shop and buy a bike.” Explains the downright dangerous driving skills I see each day then!

Registering a newly-purchased bike is a different matter. This is a grey area and again, not enforced. When you buy your bike the store may offer to help you in taking the documents to the police station and registering the licence plates of your bike. Most people don’t bother as it’s not something the police are concerned about. Given the obscenely high number of e-bikes on the road, if your bike is stolen it is impossible to trace or recover (they don’t come with tracking devices) so registering the bike is one less paper-generating procedure for people to bother undertaking.

One such rule that is moderately enforced is that pillion passengers are in fact illegal to carry and being caught doing so incurs an on-the-spot 20 RMB fine. Due to the ridiculously cheap fine attached to this flagrant rule flouting, most people are happy to offend repeatedly given that it’s more important to them to take their friends or family members on the back of their bike and risk the occasional 20 RMB cost. The only people legally allowed to ride as a passenger on an e-bike are children under the age of 12. A friend of mine once encountered a policeman enforcing this rule and asked him why then does an e-bike have two seats? The reply: “Just because it has two seats doesn’t mean you can use them!”

Another tip: It has been brought to my attention a couple of times by Chinese friends that when buying an e-bike, the seller may ask for your address for proof of purchase reasons. You are not obligated to hand this over – if you want to register your bike, the only place that needs your address details is the police station for the registration procedure. Apparently, this has become a means for the more unscrupulous sellers to find out where you live, go to your house one night, steal the bike back and then re-sell it to another unsuspecting buyer. Be careful and keep your wits about you.

2) Cars   
Where previously foreigners were not allowed to drive in China unless they had a Chinese licence (difficult if you can’t read the language), now it is possible and the bravest amongst us who would actually like to undertake this scary endeavour can obtain a Chinese driving licence, if they feel so inclined.

Firstly, it’s important to point out that you can’t drive with an International Driver's Permit (IDP) in mainland China. China has not signed the convention which created IDPs. You need a Chinese licence to drive in China, your own (if you have one) is not considered sufficient. Also, Hong Kong, Macau or Taiwan issued licenses are not considered Chinese licenses.

If you DO have a driving licence from your own country you don’t need to take the Chinese driving test, you simply need to take the Chinese Theory Test which comes in a variety of different languages.  It has 100 multiple choice questions, 90 of which must be answered correctly as the pass mark is 90%. If you fail the first time, you can sit it again a second time for free. If you fail it the second time, you must re-register and pay to take the test again.

Please note, these are the rules as defined by the PRC but they may vary from place to place slightly and in some instances a foreigner MAY be required to take a driving test as well as the theory test.

3) Motorcycles
These are not like e-bikes since they are gas powered and far faster, therefore are licenced in the same way as cars. For a motorcycle to be legal it must be legally registered with a license plate, you must have insurance and you must have a Chinese motorcycle licence.

Depending on which city you live in depends on the rules and regulations on owning one legally within the city limits.  For example, in Hangzhou, gas powered motorcycles are illegal and will be impounded by the police if you are caught riding one; even if you have all of the necessary documentation and it is correctly registered.  These also come with a 150 RMB fine attached to them as well if found to be flouting this law. Although if you are caught with one of these bikes and DON’T have the necessary documentation, the fine is far steeper. 

4) Bicycles  
Owning a bicycle is by far the cheapest option on this list. However, if you don’t want to purchase one, most cities have a Public Bicycle Scheme in place where you can hire the bicycles from strategically placed Bicycle Parks and return them when you have finished. It is available for anybody to use for a small fee and they are rented by the hour. At the end of the hour you can return it to another Bicycle Park elsewhere in the city or keep it for longer, paying more money depending on the length of time that you ride it.

For example, in Hangzhou, the Public Bicycle Scheme is extremely effective making it a very convenient way for people to travel. The benefit is that it is also free to use for the first hour. So, if you have a short journey to make this is very beneficial. If you are clever about using the system though (as the Chinese have perfected) it is possible to hire the bike for free for the first hour, return it after 55 minutes and hire another one for another hour, and so on and so forth, thereby maintaining free usage of the bicycle all day if need be. 

The downside of this system is that it is linked to the Public Transit System which means in order to hire a bicycle you must have a public transport swipe card (bus card) pre-loaded with money to access the bicycle machine and release the lock mechanism. This may vary from city to city and it is best to check with your local transport office for up-to-date information about these schemes.  

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Keywords: foreigners in China Chinese driving licence buying vehicles in China

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17 Comments ( Add your comment )


Very poor advice given here, especially for people who are new to China. Chinese roads are not bicycle friendly. The roads here are extremely dangerous and the drivers are completely reckless. You are taking your life in your hands everyday if you decide to ride on the roads here.

Jun 19, 2014 09:23

just stay inside your house, don't leave because it is sooooo dangerous out there! get a life man!

Jun 25, 2014 20:35

When I bought an ebike in Wuxi the seller licensed the bike for me. If you get caught without a license you lose the bike, period. Yes it's unlikely they will stop you but why risk it for 100-200 rmb? In Shanghai they 'collect' the unlicensed bikes around Spring Festival and sell them. Heck it's just easier, wherever you are, to get the proper license for whatever you're doing. And be careful. Traffic is different here.

Jun 19, 2014 17:53

i never knew how that bike system worked. That is a good thing to know. How do you find out where they are in Shanghai, is there a map or do you just have to know?

Jun 19, 2014 20:21

This article had nothing about buying a car. Only about getting a driver's license. Thanks for wasting my time.

Jun 23, 2014 19:21

I have a motorbike that I bought in HK and rode it back to mainland. I have never had any problems. I have HK license and mainland license. I even ride in Shenzhen and guangzhou. The police dont really care to be honest. Motorbike is the best way.

Jun 23, 2014 21:13

So how difficult would it be to buy a Vespa in HK and ride it back to the mainland since i haven't seen any Vespas for sale on the mainland? I only have an international license but i ride two other motorbikes in China all the time without any trouble.

Jun 26, 2014 10:21

I recently read a nice quotation on buying/selling things and it seems to fit perfectly to buying a bike: "The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten." :-) unfortunately, I forgot who said it. Serena from YCC Yudefang Mandarin School

Jun 25, 2014 12:29

You don't need a motorcycle license in most cities in china except big cities or capitals, the rest won't care,actually not even in capitals. However you can buy the license, just like "many a lot almost all" Chinese do. Bicycles are not a problem to ride in China, ride them on the road for people to walk, not on the one for cars, trucks, tanks... or ride them not far the road's edge. Cars are taken more serious, still you can rent them pretty easily, but if caught you better be rich or pretend it, and the police will just go with 1000 yuan more in their pockets. E-bikes, seriously? who the hell care for the polution and contamination in China, e-bikes are cheaper than motorcycles, more expensive than bikes, but they are lazy and not that faster than a normal bike, take a bike! they workout your muscles!. Besides. the article is pretty good in his own, just one more foreigner trying to make everyone how much he or she knows about China.

Jun 26, 2014 21:31

Everyone in Shenzhen is mad about getting a car. They now add 300,000 cars to the roads here each year. There are 1.75 million parking spaces in the city, yet there are nearly 3 million cars registered in Shenzhen. Roads with barely any cars 5 years ago are now packed wall to wall, mostly with drivers having less than a year or two experience driving. Yikes! I've been riding a bicycle in Shenzhen for 2 years (unless there's a downpour in progress). It's dangerous, for sure, but it really wakes me up. I've only almost crashed a couple of times, so I consider that a win. Get a bike. You don't need to pay for parking, fuel, expensive repairs, and you get exercise, don't pollute and feel better. Buses, taxis, subways, trains and planes go everywhere you want to go. I've been in China nearly 6 years. Even though I drove in the U.S. since I was 16 years old, I've never needed nor felt the need for a car while here. The transportation infrastructure is impressive. Don't fall into the 'I have to have a car' trap. Most people here buy cars for status, and to see what they've been missing. Now they're simply missing more RMB while idling on a pollution-filled road with thousands of other unsuspecting motorists.

Jun 27, 2014 13:03

Go retro, get a bike.

Oct 13, 2015 16:00

I would love to have a car or motorcycle in China and have the freedom to go wherever I want conveniently. The Youtuber Serpentza has some awesome videos of him riding a motorcycle around China.

Jan 18, 2016 08:37

Getting a car = adding to traffic congestion + air pollution and etc

Aug 11, 2016 15:45

just remember(although the Chinese do)you cant ride an e bike on the road while listening to AC/DC and giving the middle finger because some guy in a car tried to run you off the road while looking at his mobile phone.

Jun 08, 2017 08:57

Walking in the sidewalks is dangerous enough here. Do we really need to put our lives at more risk being on the roads with this psychopaths? Pass on the car until the people here can actually drive.

Jun 08, 2017 13:20

my experience in beijing changchun and songyuan is to be careful while crossing the road don't ever walk in the green light even if the road is empty because taxis drive fastly and they can show up in the middle of no where

Jun 09, 2017 00:07

Some cities no longer allow e-bikes, even though you will see them in the city. I really do not understand this law in some cities considering the pollution cars produce compared to e-bikes. As for motorcycles, I have heard (not verified) that a person needs to have an automobile driver's license for two years prior to obtaining a motorcycle license. Also, getting a license plate is very difficult due to very limited numbers of plates available. Basically, you have to wait for a plate to be freed up before getting one. The government limits the number of plates issued and made.

Jun 11, 2017 06:43

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