A Foreigner’s Guide to Buying Vehicles in China

A Foreigner’s Guide to Buying Vehicles in China
Jun 08, 2017 By Danielle Martin , eChinacities.com

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). Life just got so much more difficult standing on the side of the road trying to flag a cab. You see them sailing by 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, joining 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 riders who are blatantly flouting them. 

Foreigners in China are allowed to buy and ride e-bikes, and having a licence isn’t necessary. As one Chinese friend recently told 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.” That explains the downright dangerous driving I see each day, then!

Registering a newly-purchased bike is a bit of a grey area. When you buy your bike, the store may offer to help you in taking the documents to the police station and registering the licence plate of your bike. Most people don’t bother though 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 it (they don’t come with tracking devices) even if it is registered, so most people don't bother.

One rule that is moderately enforced is that pillion passengers are in fact illegal, anyone caught carrying one can incur an on-the-spot RMB 20 fine. Due to this ridiculously low penalty, most people are happy to offend repeatedly. 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? His 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. Only the police station requires your address if you decide to register the bike. Apparently, this has become a means for the more unscrupulous sellers to find out where you live, go to your house and steal the bike back. Be careful and keep your wits about you.

2) Cars   

Where previously foreigners who couldn't read Chinese basically couldn't drive cars in China, now it is possible. The bravest amongst us who  actually want 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. Also, Hong Kong, Macau and 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 practical driving test. You simply need to take the Chinese Theory Test which now comes in a variety of different languages. It consists of 100 multiple choice questions, 90 of which must be answered correctly to achieve the pass mark of 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. In some instances a foreigner may be required to take a practical driving test as well as the theory test, even if they already have a licence from their home country.

3) Motorcycles

The rules governing motorbikes are not the same as e-bikes since they are gas powered and far faster. They are therefore licenced in the same way as cars. For a motorcycle to be legal it must be registered with a license plate, you must have insurance and you must have a Chinese motorcycle licence.

The exact rules and regulations will depend on which city you live in. 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 elsewhere. You'll also be hit with a RMB 150 fine, which will go up significantly if you don't have the necessary documentation.

4) Bicycles  

Owning a bicycle is by far the cheapest, easiest and safest option on this list. You can buy these new from shops or secondhand using the classified section of your local English language magazine. However, if you don’t want to purchase one, most cities have public bicycle schemes whereby you can hire a bike using a smartphone app and jettison it when you're  finished. 

Happy traveling!


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


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How about an update on buying and getting a licence/insurance for the electric cars?

Dec 03, 2020 14:01 Report Abuse



I ride a bicycle very very carefully.

Dec 11, 2017 20:05 Report Abuse



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 Report Abuse



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 Report Abuse



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 Report Abuse



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 Report Abuse



Go retro, get a bike.

Oct 13, 2015 16:00 Report Abuse



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 Report Abuse



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 Report Abuse



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 Report Abuse



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 Report Abuse



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 Report Abuse



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 Report Abuse



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 Report Abuse



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 Report Abuse



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 Report Abuse



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

Jun 25, 2014 20:35 Report Abuse