How to Rent a Car in China | A Traveler's Guide to Independent Travel

How to Rent a Car in China | Traveler’s Guide

October 22 | 18 Comments

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.

How to rent a car in China | an expat tutorial

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.

A beautiful sunset at Turpan's Emin Minaret 吐鲁番苏公塔

First Things First: 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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 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. 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 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.

The car rental shop near my home in Urumqi, Xinjiang

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?

Me: Yes.

Shop Owner: Do you have a current Chinese driver’s license?

Me: Yes.

Shop Owner: Do you have a valid visa?

Me: Yes.

Shop Owner: Do you live here in Urumqi?

Me: Yes.

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.

Me and my son in our rented Toyota Camry

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.

Lessons on Driving in China

While this is only based on a a single weekend getaway, there are quite a few important lessons I learned about driving in China that many people might not know.

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.

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. Ever.

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.

Traffic Cameras in Urumqi, Xinjiang are everywhere

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.

Forget the 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 toilet nearby that you’ll certainly need when you’re finished. Even gas station convenience stores have a pithy selection of goods.

A restaurant on the side of a Xinjiang, China highway

If you weren’t Sure, 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!

Further Reading | Driving in China

About Josh Summers

Josh is a writer, musician and entrepreneur who currently resides in Urumqi, capital of China's western province of Xinjiang. He has been traveling and writing about this region since 2006 and has no plans to stop in the near future.

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Leave a Comment

  1. I hope you enjoyed the trip to turban,and hope u escaped from those hidden cameras…. how many miles turban from Urumqi??? and what is the speed limits on highways….

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    Josh Summers on April 1st, 2014 at 8:00 pm

    Ha! Thanks Afan. It was a good trip and I’ll share some pictures in a later post. It’s about 195km from Urumqi to Turpan and the speed ranged from 80km/hr to 120km/hr. We’ll see if I got any speeding tickets. I’m hoping not!

    [Reply]

    Arfan on April 2nd, 2014 at 4:59 am

    i hope u don’t get any speeding ticket..we are up for more pic..

    Josh Summers on April 8th, 2014 at 4:40 am

    I hope not either! We’ll see…

  2. Great post! That’s hilarious all the confused questions that car renter asked you….and crazy how much you had to spend on the deposit! My gosh!! I can imagine you took a while to inspect that!
    The potholes and cameras and parking. Sounds like an adventurous trip! Glad to hear at least the car side of it. And I guess your wife is still speaking to you, so that means you didn’t totally freak her out with this driving adventure! ;-) well done. Can’t wait to hear (and see) more Turpin!

    [Reply]

    Josh Summers on April 8th, 2014 at 4:41 am

    Thanks, Megan :) My wife is still speaking to me, which in my book is always a good thing. Ha!

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  3. Fantastic post, Josh. I am so jealous. It is rekindling my dream of one day driving from Beijing to Kashgar.

    [Reply]

    Peter G on April 4th, 2014 at 4:28 pm

    Drive from Beijing to Kasgar ? I went by train from Beijing to Urumqi, stopping off at Jiayugaun to see the fort there. Walked around Urumqi for a couple of days, caught the flu, and took the train back to Shanghai…. Maybe I would like to do it gain some time…

    [Reply]

    Josh Summers on April 8th, 2014 at 4:45 am

    I think for a drive that long I might prefer the train as well, Peter. Ha! Sorry you caught the flu while you were here – that sure does dampen a trip quickly.

    Let me know if you ever make it back out here.

    Josh Summers on April 8th, 2014 at 4:43 am

    Thank you, Joann! A Beijing to Kashgar trip would be quite long but if you had enough time I’m sure it would be awesome.

    Definitely let me know if you ever make it out this way.

    [Reply]

    Joann on April 21st, 2014 at 9:30 pm

    I’d like to give myself a month or two to make the trip out and back.

  4. A hilarious report (together with the story of getting the driver’s license). Speed checking cameras on the Kashgar – Hotan road mystified me – the desert is so flat that you could see them miles away.
    Driving in FarEast China is hardly any different, BTW. China is a long long way from having foreigners come and rent a car for their vacation or business. Not sure the authorities are open to this perspective, but this is another matter.

    [Reply]

    Josh Summers on April 8th, 2014 at 4:46 am

    I agree, Laurent. I think China prefers to have foreign businessmen and travelers just hire a driver. It’s easier for them and frankly for us as well. Not always the cheapest and most convenient, though.

    [Reply]

  5. Josh,
    I enjoyed your report of driving a car in Xinjiang.I am very glad to find you and your family are enjoying a life in China.I still work
    both in Hong Kong and Tokyo.Please give my best regards to Tiffany and Jaden. Yoshi

    [Reply]

    Josh Summers on April 8th, 2014 at 4:47 am

    Thank you, Yoshi! So great to hear from you and know that you read this! We are definitely enjoying life here in China and hope to someday make our way to Japan for the first time. We’ll let you know when we do.

    I hope your daughter and grandchild are happy and healthy!

    [Reply]

  6. Hi Josh, further to my email (through your contact form) I was wondering if you can give me the details of your rental guy. We may have one booked, but want to see if we can maybe get a better deal.

    Looking for an SUV or at least four wheel drive.
    cheers

    [Reply]

    Josh Summers on September 28th, 2014 at 5:06 am

    The ones I use are probably going to be cheap, but there’s a mileage limit – 300km per rental day. Based on what I’ve heard about your trip, you’re going to need a lot more than that.

    [Reply]

  7. Dear Josh. I have been reading all your thread about living in xinjiang. It is so interesting. It inspired me to visit Xinjiang this July. I will fly from my hometown direct to urumqi. From urumqi we plan to rent car with drivers to drive from urumqi to kashgar with a stop and overnite all all attraction along the way. We have friend from kashgar who can guide us and be a translater but he doesnt know any agent that can rent a car with driver. There are 6 of us including my friend from kashgar. Can you reccommend any agent that can rent a car with drivers?.we plan to go for 1 week

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