Are you one of those people who wants to rent a car in China? There’s definitely something special about having the freedom to drive around wherever you want! Since I’ve rented a few different cars in China, I thought it might be helpful to share about my experience and give you tips on how to rent a car in China.
The sun was beginning to set over the ancient Silk Road city of Turpan and I had parked the car on the side of a hill near the famous Emin Minaret (苏公塔). The tourist area was closed for the day and other than a few vendors attempting to close up shop, the entire area was a ghost town.
No tourist buses.
No blazing hot sun beating down on me.
No need to pay an entrance fee.
Just the pure joy of independent travel in my favorite province in China. After going through the trouble of obtaining my Chinese driver’s license, I was finally being rewarded with some of the most beautiful scenery I’d ever witnessed.
So how do you rent a car in China? Can you use an international driver’s license in China? Is it even possible for a foreigner to pay for and use a rental?
I’m excited to answer all of these questions in this traveler’s guide to renting a car in China. Enjoy!
Important! A Chinese Driver’s License
It’s important to note one thing before we get started:
Driving in China requires a Chinese driver’s license.
I’ve had many people ask me about using their International Driver’s Permit. Unfortunately, that permit isn’t useful here in China. If you want to drive a car, you need a China-issued driver’s license.
There are two ways to go about this:
- Take the test and get the license: This is the route I took, since I live here. You can read about my experience getting a China driver’s license – it wasn’t simple. That’s why this method isn’t good for most travelers. The whole process takes days to complete and you have to pass a pretty difficult China driver’s exam.
- Get a provisional license: For travelers, this is the best option. These licenses require you to present proof of a driver’s license from your home country and you don’t even have to take an exam. The process only takes a couple hours and the driving permit lasts for 90 days. The only catch is that you’ll have to go through a travel agency to get this temporary permit or you can apply through an independent agency.
Either way you go, you need to have a Chinese driver’s license before you can proceed to the next step:
Finding a car to rent.
Finding a Car to Rent in China
If you’re in a major Chinese city, chances are you’ll find some name brand rental companies like Hertz or Enterprise.
For the rest of the country, however, you’ll likely be renting from either a travel agency or a small, family-owned car rental shop.
During my travels around China, I’ve “rented” a car and driver multiple times, usually through a tour agency or negotiating with a random taxi driver on the street. It’s more convenient than joining a tour group even though it’s a bit more expensive.
This journey was a bit different however, since my goal was to rent and drive my own car.
Almost every day here in China I walk by a small car rental shop, one of many I’ve seen in the city.
Cars range from small BYD cars (a cheap Chinese car with quality equivalent to a Chevy Geo) to an Audi A6. Last week I surprised the owner of the shop by walking in and asking about a car.
Like me, it was obvious this was a “first” for him. In typical Chinese fashion, he attempted to find any small detail which would disqualify me from renting the car.
Me: I’d like to find out your rental pricing for the cars you have here.
Shop Owner: (looking a bit puzzled) You want to rent a car?
Shop Owner: Do you have a current Chinese driver’s license?
Shop Owner: Do you have a valid visa?
Shop Owner: Do you live here in Urumqi?
Shop Owner: Do you realize you’re going to have to put down a large deposit to rent a car?
Me: I figured as much. So are you going to rent me a car or what?
Prices ranged from 250RMB/day for a small clown car (~US$40/day) to over 700RMB/day for a Land Rover (~US$112/day). Prices were a bit higher than what I remember paying back in the U.S., but not by much.
I settled on a Toyota Camry that was quoted to me at 400RMB/day and negotiated down to 350RMB/day (~US$56/day). That was nothing, however, compared to the 8,000 RMB security deposit* that they required (~US$1,300) – no foreign credit cards accepted.
With a deposit like that, I documented every inch of that car with my digital camera and the shop owner did the same.
We compared notes, I signed the contract and grabbed the keys to begin one of the most incredible road trips I’ve ever experienced.
**Note**: This security deposit is pretty much mandatory. Some rental companies accept foreign credit cards, but many don’t. In that case, you’ll need to pay cash and unfortunately, that cash is held for 30 days after you return the car in case you get a ticket in the mail.
Tips for Driving in China
Based on my years of driving a car in China, there are quite a few important lessons I learned that many people might not know.
Here are the most important tips for driving in China:
1. Driving in China is Easy…it’s the Parking that’s Crazy
This is no joke! Driving in the big city was certainly stressful to start but after a few kilometers it felt quite comfortable.
Finding a place to park the car, however, was a nightmare!
Once I arrived at the hotel I decided to stay in Turpan I had to make multiple U-turns and do a bit of off-roading just to get to a parking lot.
2. Who Cares about the Cops…Watch for the Cameras
You know that feeling when you’re driving and you suddenly see a cop car on the side of the road clocking car speeds? Your heart stops for a moment and you instantly look down at your speedometer, right?
In China, cop cars elicit absolutely no fear in any driver, probably because I’ve never seen a cop pull anybody over.
Cameras, on the other hand, are everywhere.
Taxi drivers know exactly where the camera blind spots are but for those of us newbies, those cameras freaked me out.
They were everywhere.
3. Potholes are Still a Huge Problem
With the exception of the newly-paved highways, most roads were missing large chunks of pavement every few meters.
Again, I never realized the extent of this problem before since taxi drivers are experts at dodging potholes.
I used to think that Chinese drivers never stayed in their own lane because they were crazy drivers. Now I know. Everybody’s just trying to avoid the shock-destroying sinkholes.
4. There are No Typical Rest Stops
One of joys of road trips in the U.S., at least according to my childhood memory, was the rest stop. Whether that was getting to eat fast food, enjoy a nice Dairy Queen Blizzard (am I right?) or a cool outlet mall, there was always something interesting to stop and see.
Not so in China.
The best you can hope for at a Chinese rest stop is a small hole-in-the-wall restaurant with a disgusting Chinese toilet nearby that you’ll certainly need when you’re finished. Even gas station convenience stores have a pithy selection of goods.
5. In Case You Aren’t Aware, Driving is Deadly
While the majority of the drive from Urumqi to Turpan was quite uneventful, there was one thing that caught me as strange: small monuments to deadly accidents.
I’m not talking about the flowers on the side of the road, I’m referring to the charred, mangled remains of a vehicle prominently displayed on a permanent, concrete pedestal for all drivers to see.
The message was clear – drive safe or become a 3-D billboard for future drivers.
Visiting Turpan in a Rented Car
My last trip to Turpan was almost 4 years ago and at the time my wife and I rented a car and driver to see the various sights around the city. It was an excellent way to see the city and one that I recommend to the majority of travelers who may not be able to rent their own car.
The truth is, I’ve come to realize that there’s only one major advantage to renting your own car for travel in China: convenience.
Seeing the ancient city of Jiaohe at sunrise or the beautiful Emin Minaret at sunset could both have easily been done in a taxi. But I loved the freedom to see a place on the side of the road and immediately stop.
That freedom encouraged creative photography.
*p.s. – I got the entire security deposit back, thankfully!
Final Thoughts on Driving in China
Hopefully this has been helpful to you as you plan your travel to China and make the decision about whether to drive your own car.
Honestly, it doesn’t make sense for most people.
It’s difficult, it’s costly and once you’re on the road…it’s dangerous.
But for those who are willing to go through the effort and headache, driving a car in China can be a very rewarding experience.
Here are a few extra resources for you:
- Have you read Peter Hessler’s Country Driving? You should. (also available for Kindle)
- From my days driving a motorcycle: How China Taught me to Drive Better