Whether it is an annual family holiday or an extended business trip, foreign travelers will rent a car as a popular way to travel around that offers both freedom and flexibility. In most countries, those who already hold an International Driver’s Permit license can rent a car with minimum fuss. In China, however, this is not the case. Below is an explanation of the process for applying for a driver’s license, why it may not be practical for foreign visitors to rent a car in China, and some recommendations on alternative means of transportation.
Can I Get a Chinese Driver’s License to Rent a Car in China?
There are 194 countries in the world that recognize the International Driver’s Permit (IDP). Unfortunately, China is not one of them. An IDP is not recognized in mainland China; China has not signed the convention which created the International Driver’s Permits. Foreign residents require to convert their driver’s license and get a Chinese license to be able to drive in China (please note that Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan issued licenses are not considered Chinese licenses). Chinese driver’s license is a basic requirement to rent a car in China and while foreigners can apply for this license, it is far from a straightforward process. To be able to apply for Chinese driver’s license, the following steps must be completed:
- Provide a notarized Chinese translation of your driver’s license from your home country.
- Complete a medical exam at an approved Chinese hospital.
- Go to the test center in person to register for the exam.
- Return to the test center to take the exam.
- If passed, go to the test center the third time to collect the license.
The process is quite time-consuming, because applicants have to go there at least three assuming they have all the necessary paperwork. The most difficult step in the entire process is actually passing the exam. A theory test consists of 100 out of over 900 multiple-choice questions with 90% as a pass mark. It is available to take in English in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai, but in smaller cities, officials may require to do it in Chinese. Some places allow you to bring a translator; others do not. It is notoriously hard to pass without spending a significant amount of time preparing for the exam. As a result, applying for a Chinese driver’s license is only really a viable option for foreigners who live in China full time and fluent in Mandarin.
Can I Use A Hong Kong Driver’s License In China?
There was a time when foreigners could apply for a Hong Kong driver’s license using their existing license, and then take their new Hong Kong driver’s license to apply for a Chinese driver’s license. Due to the comparative ease to apply, the loophole became increasingly popular with expats and regular business travelers as an alternative to applying for a Mainland China driver’s license directly. That avenue was closed, and foreigners are no longer allowed to convert a Hong Kong license into a Mainland license unless you have a Hong Kong ID. The regulations only allow Hong Kong ID cardholders to convert a Hong Kong license to a Mainland one after taking the written exam.
Is it Possible to Apply for a Temporary Driver’s License to Rent a Car in China?
While applying for a Chinese driver’s license may not be practical for business travelers, there are some sources that claim it is possible to apply for a temporary driver’s license in China. The issue is that the information available on the subject is conflicting. It is unclear where in the country the temporary driver’s license is valid and whether it will remain valid when driving to other regions.
For example, some transport departments and rental companies have contradictory requirements. The Shenzhen Department of Motor Vehicles requires a valid visa of less than 90 days to apply for a temporary driver’s license. Yet many rental companies require a foreigner to have a driver’s license valid for more than 180 days.
It’s a similar case in Shanghai, where the local Department of Motor Vehicles also offers a temporary driver’s license to foreigners. When searching for a car in Shanghai through international car rental companies, however, you cannot apply to rent a car without a regular Chinese driver’s license. With such contradicting information, it is not recommended to apply for a temporary Chinese driver’s license when on a short trip to China and look for other solutions.
If you can’t apply for Chinese driver’s license, yet are planning a trip to China soon, take advantage of the online discount and rent a car with driver in any city across China.
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What Are The Alternatives To Renting A Car?
Even if you are able to successfully apply for a Chinese driver’s license, you may wish to pause to consider if you really would like to drive a car in China. Many of the road signs are only displayed in Chinese, there are a number of road safety issues to be faced with, and there is mass congestion that often requires local knowledge to navigate successfully.
The biggest challenge facing foreigners driving in China is adapting to the local driving culture. It is not uncommon to see a vehicle on the motorway suddenly cut across three lanes to make a turn. You can even see some cars or electric bikes moving in the wrong direction to get off the exit they missed. Unfortunately, renting a car in China may not be the wisest decision, and here is the video that proves it.
So if it is not realistic to rent a car in China, what are the alternatives for business travelers visiting the Mainland for a short trip?
- Taxis – Taxis are another option, but for visitors who need to travel outside of the major cities, they can be unreliable. Most drivers refuse to use the fare meter and charge two or three times the price. In some factory areas, it can be impossible to find a taxi at all and any drivers that are found will almost certainly not speak any English. There are some helpful tips to avoid being scammed by taxi drivers, but the best way is to avoid taking a taxi in the first place.
- Taxi Apps – Taxi apps like Didi have become very popular in China, but while they are useful for locals, for visitors who do not speak Mandarin and are in China just for a short time, using a taxi app may not be realistic. Also, anybody with a car and a phone can become a Didi driver, and as such the quality of the drivers offering their services fluctuate greatly. There is no guarantee whatsoever that your driver will know where they are going.
- Buses – Although most cities in China have extensive and regular bus routes, few buses have timetables available in English, making it difficult to know when the buses arrive or where they are going.
- Subway – Another option is the subway, which can be found in most major cities in China. While the metro provides easy access to important urban facilities within the city and information signs are in Mandarin and English, the subway is not much help for business travelers looking to visit suppliers outside of the city centers. Even for those travelling inside cities, business travelers may wish to watch this video of a busy subway in Beijing before deciding if they wish to contend with such congestion.
Hiring A Private Car & Driver in China
For business travelers who have had their hopes of renting a car in China dashed, the next closest alternative would be to hire a private car, minivan or coach bus with an English speaking driver. By doing so, they will still have the same freedom and flexibility offered by renting a car to tour around factories for the day, visit suppliers outside of the city and travel across the country if needed.
At the same time, business travellers can travel safely in the knowledge that your driver will not try to cheat you and also knows where they are going. Being able to catch up on emails, make some phone calls, and getting some rest between meetings, are just some of the reasons why you should rent a car and driver for doing business in China.