Now that we have the Beijing Auto Show and Beijing cars out of the way, it’s time for me to share with you one of the most eye-opening experiences I have had the, um, privilege to have in China: renting a car. Yep, something that mundane in most parts of the world takes a totally different dimension here, becoming a task you have to be prepared to fight for, metaphorically that is. Yet the short of it is: it is possible and there are absolutely no restrictions as to where you can drive to, opening a whole new way of travelling the country for me. As far as I know, as of 2018 there is only one province where you’re not allowed to drive a car by yourself as a foreigner: Tibet. But all the rest is absolutely open and free to go. There’s quite a few hoops to go through before you get there, so in this post I will explain exactly what to do if you, too, want to explore China with complete freedom by car. A little forewarning to begin with: No company, mentioned or not in this article, remunerated me for this trip. All recommendations are mine.
Don’t listen to what they say
The first thing you need to do is ignore what your travel guides tell you. I’ll take my example as an avid Lonely Planet reader, here is what the latest, June 2017 edition of the China Lonely Planet says: “Hiring a car has always been complicated or impossible for foreign visitors and in mainland China is currently limited to Beijing and Shanghai.” That is totally incorrect. You can rent a car in any city that has a car rental office, provided you are resilient and patient. Also, the information they provide about Hertz (up to 150km per day and 20.000 yuan deposit) and Avis (5.000 yuan deposit) is totally misleading. International companies have very limited car options and locations in China and are criminally more expensive. The company I used, eHi, was none of the above two and had unlimited km as well as only 2.000 yuan deposit. So there you have it, best to ignore guides altogether, at least until they get updated with the feedback I sent them, which won’t be for another couple of years.
Getting your Chinese license
Firstly your local driver license is not recognised in China, even if you have gone to the trouble of getting it translated into an international driver license. That is of no use here. You will need to get a temporary Chinese driver licence, and the one I got was valid for just one month, instead of the 3 mentioned in the Lonely Planet. Note you are not eligible for a temporary Chinese driver license if you are a foreign resident in China. You need to be on a tourist visa staying no more than 3 months in the country to be eligible, and I am unsure whether other visiting visas are also eligible. The first trick to be aware of is that – at the time of writing – the only place you can get this temporary license in the whole of China is at the Beijing Capital International Airport Terminal 3. Note you don’t need to have flown in through that airport, you can simply rock up there as all offices you need to visit are within public areas.
Although there is a relatively straight-forward process to follow once you are at the airport, it can be time-consuming, so make sure you allow plenty (3-4 hours), especially if you are flying on and waiting for a connection: probably not a good idea to have the additional pressure of potentially missing your flight if not all goes to plan, plus you might not be able to get out into the public area without complicated visa manoeuvres. I’d advise to fly to your next Chinese destination the next day or two. The entire process happens at the Terminal 3 of the Beijing Capital Airport, no other terminal and no other airport in China will deliver the temporary Chinese driver license to you. It is a good idea to withdraw plenty of cash in small cuts before embarking on this adventure. Here are the steps to follow:
Step 1: Go to the Business Centre on 4F (fourth floor, but 3rd floor in Western logic so I’ll just replicate the way everything is signed at the airport). Here you need to ask to get your photo ID taken for your Chinese license. The ID format required is very specific so chances are the photos you might already have brought with you won’t fit: mine were too large, triggering no less than 3 visits to the various steps on this process. You also need a photocopy of your current driver license, your passport photo page, your current Chinese visa and your latest China entry stamp (that you just got minutes before if you just flew into Beijing Airport). The latter is the reason why it’s better to get all photocopies done at once the Business Centre as you won’t have that stamp yet if you’re preparing all documents from home before flying to China, and this way you are sure that everything is done right. Cost: 10 yuan (US$1.60 or 1.30€)
Step 2: You then need to head to the Emergency Medical Station on 2F to get a medical certificate. To get it you will need to part with one of your photo IDs and go through an eyesight test. Cost: 20 yuan (US$3.20 or 2.60€)
Step 3: With all these documents you next have to go to the Traffic Police on 1F, so they can create your temporary license. Note the Traffic Police is open from 9am to 7pm Monday to Saturday but closes every day between 11am and 12:30pm. Only about 10 minutes worth of paperwork later, you should receive your temporary Chinese driver license! It includes your name phonetically translated in Chinese characters, which is always fun to discover. The legalities of renting a car in China imply you need to carry the actual translation of your foreign driver license with you at all times. I only discovered that with dread while on the road as I never got this document. I did not get controlled by the police during my drive, but you might want to insist with the Traffic Police that they give you this one page document along with your Chinese license. Cost: 20 yuan (US$3.20 or 2.60€)
Make sure your mobile phone is ready for China
You are now all set to rent a car in China. You thought it would be the end of your troubles? They are only beginning. Firstly I cannot stress enough the necessity of having a Chinese SIM card and therefore a Chinese phone number to go through this entire process. China Unicom SIM cards are available at Terminal 3 on 2F just to the right of the arrivals gate. Depending on whether you are planning to stay in Beijing (80 yuan) or travel throughout China (200 yuan) the price will be different. I got the latter with 5GB worth of data and only used 1.5GB in 10 days while constantly being on the internet. So one SIM card can potentially last you for a handful of different short trips to China. I may (read must) have paid a premium due to the airport location, but frankly it’s worth it because it saves you having to search for shops selling SIM cards in Chinese cities and, well, good luck with that.
It is also essential to download the WeChat app, the equivalent of Facebook in China (remember Facebook and Google as well as all their affiliates are banned in China), but also much more. People will routinely ask you to add them on WeChat so they can communicate more easily with you. You can do so by scanning the QR code on their phone, you don’t need their number – yes the future is here in China. There is a handy “Translate” function on the chat that automatically and accurately (an impressive feat) translates all Mandarin characters into English and vice-versa so you can end up having quite a sophisticated conversation with someone that is not in front of you (an important detail) while still knowing absolutely no Mandarin. I also recommend downloading the Bing Translator app: you can speak into your phone in English and it speaks the translation in Mandarin. Very handy, I used it for almost all my interactions during this trip. Of course this implies you have a constant internet connection, hence the SIM card.
What car rental company to use
In the Beijing Capital International Airport Terminal 3, the rental car companies desks are on 1F almost next door to the Traffic Police. Now this is where the true adventure starts. Car rentals are still a very rare occurrence in China, even for Chinese citizens. To give you an indication, not a single person rented a car during the couple of hours I spent laboriously communicating with the staff. Two companies stood out: Zuche.com and 1hai.cn. Don’t be deterred by the fact that all brochures are in Mandarin and there’s absolutely nothing available in English. Both companies have hotlines with okay English-speaking assistants. My first choice was Zuche.com, also called Car Inc., as it is “powered by Hertz”. This turned out to be of no help at all. Here, all foreign applicants are required to go through a pre-approval process which consists of you sending pictures of all your documents (Chinese driver license, passport, Chinese visa) through WeChat for them to assess. This takes a few hours at least so you definitely cannot rent a car on the spot. My application was refused because neither my Chinese driver license nor my tourist Visa lasted long enough! Best to avoid these guys for now.
1hai.cn – confusingly spelled “eHi” on most signage – is backed by Enterprise, was happy with my Chinese license and did not require any pre-approval, which means that technically you could rent a car with them on the spot if you are so inclined. Progress! I also learned there was unlimited km on all rental cars and I could drive anywhere in Mainland China without any restrictions. They failed to mention Tibet is a no go for foreigners, or perhaps I could have forced my way in, but I decided not to push my luck this time. Where it becomes very interesting indeed is that eHi has a whopping 4.000 stores located in 300 different cities across the whole country. The sky is the limit as to where exactly you decide to rent your car from and to. If you still want the car in Beijing, keep in mind prices are at least twice as high as what they are in smaller cities.
To organise your rental, the simplest way is to call eHI’s English speaking hotline (400 888 6608) even if you are standing at the counter because staff won’t speak English. You can then use the staff to confirm all details of the rental on their screen and organise. On the phone, say it’s for self-drive and someone speaking okay English will call you back within 15-20 minutes – this is one of the instances where having a Chinese mobile number helps greatly. Then you can actually choose ANY city you want to rent the car from that is listed on their website and drop it anywhere you want to. I suggest always asking for the Airport store of each city as it makes it much easier to locate. Make sure you confirm the province in which the city you want is located as many Chinese cities sound alike.
The eHi website, with the cheapest two rental options out of Beijing Airport: VW Lavida and Peugeot 301.
Just pause for a second to realise that as a foreigner you can actually rent a car from any of 300 cities in China, a country that only a couple of decades ago was strictly reserved to government-guided tourism the way North Korea operates right now. That, and you can drive everywhere you want except from Tibet. I find this amazing and I had no idea you could actually do that. For me, it makes travelling in China vastly more interesting.
I rented a VW Lavida, one of the cheapest options available, from and to Yinchuan in Ningxia province and I was able to pay for it at one of eHi’s Beijing stores. Theoretically there are a lot of car models available but in practice only a few can be rented. It is almost impossible to rent a Chinese-branded car, which is what I originally wanted. Peugeot is very well represented with the 301, 408, 2008 and 3008 all available to rent. It cost only 941 yuan (US$149 or 124€) for 6 days, and even then that was with a significant surcharge because my rental was across public holidays. In normal times it’s around 80 yuan per day (US$13 or 11€) for the cheapest car, so very affordable indeed. Prices in Beijing started at 240 yuan/day for the period I wanted, 140/day in normal times. One last trick before you are off with your rental: although the staff will ask you to enter your credit card code, do NOT. Instead, directly press the green button on the bottom right corner of their machine and watch their face lighten up with amazement as the receipt prints out. This is valid for the rental rate as well as the security deposit, which you will be requested to pay at the pickup location and was only 2.000 yuan in Yinchuan.
Now. Perhaps because I was a foreigner and they thought there was no point giving me documents in Mandarin, or perhaps that’s just the way it is, but there was no contract, no document outlining my rights or what happens and what is covered by the security deposit in case of accident and no car status pictorial. Call me reckless but I decided to plow ahead regardless. I did take dozens of photos of the car when I picked it up under the amused eyes of the sales assistant who pointed out the dents on the photos to make sure everything was recorded. As is the case with most locals in more remote parts of China the kid was way too starstruck by the foreigner in town to think about much else. Given rentals are not common, the cars are kept much longer: mine had its lot of dents pretty much everywhere and the odo signalled 28.456 km at day of departure, far above what any car rental in the Western world would allow.
On the road we go with our rental car in China! How easy was that? Not quite, but we did it.
I hear your next question being: “What with all the road signs? Is anything in English?” And the answer is rarely, but it doesn’t matter at all. Having a Chinese SIM card on my phone the map directions automatically updated with Baidu maps and it works exactly like Google maps. The directions are reliable, even though the default suggestion is always a much longer option to avoid tolls. Just press “Go” and let yourself be directed anywhere with extremely precise instructions. One very helpful feat is directions such as “Use the left 3 lanes, use the middle 2 lanes…”: in Chinese cities, each lane has its own purpose and you must not change lanes from around 100m before red lights. So you must choose the correct lane(s) early otherwise you cannot go where you want: remember you are being filmed all the time (more on this below). Plus lanes merge and split at the start of each block so you need to be aware of which lane the cars next to you are choosing to merge onto. Keeps you well awake, trust me.
Highway tolls! That was one of my main concerns as in Australia no booths are manned anymore and you must have a tag on your windscreen that automatically charges you when you go through any toll. If you don’t, you have to go online to pay (it’s almost impossible to do so as you always miss the tolls you didn’t even notice you passed) or pay 5 times the price months later. Fear not, China is thankfully still a little bit behind on this one. There are always manned booths and the price pops up on a screen so you can pay without speaking a word. But I only had to do this a couple of times because 5 of the 6 days I drove were public holidays when all highways are free!!
The one thing you’re best not to ignore from your travel guide is the warning about crazy driving in China. The Lonely Planet again: “Even skilled drivers will be unprepared for China’s roads: in the cities, cars lunge from all angles and chaos abounds.” Ok so this is true if only way too dramatic, and it’s nothing very careful driving can’t deal with. Frankly, I had much scarier driving experiences in Latin America (notably in the Dominican Republic!!), Italy, or even my home country France, than what I encountered in China. Note that on highways and in small towns, Chinese drivers are extremely civilised. Yes, that came as a surprise to me too, but you need to keep in mind there is at least one surveillance camera every 700 metres even on isolated highways, if not an emergency lane camera, a speed camera or a red light camera. And unlike the Western world where you only get flashed when you’re breaking the law, here every single camera takes your picture every single time no matter what. Having driven roughly 2.500 km in 6 days, I calculated that the Chinese government now has about 3.600 pictures of me at the wheel of my rental VW Lavida stored somewhere on a computer. Freaky…
Things get a lot hairier when you enter sizeable cities. Worse still: driving through big cities at night. This you need to try and avoid at all cost. Note in China most cars’ front windows are blacked out (this is illegal in most parts of the world) so you need to drive all windows open in order to see anything at night, which is distracting as you can hear way too many noises. You basically have to assume the worst at all times and cars launching onto the main road from side streets without the driver checking first. Stay at a fair distance of all vehicles around you as much as humanely possible and you should be able to avoid any collision. Having said that, pay special attention to the last few minutes of your rental drive as that’s when you’ll start thinking “That wasn’t too bad after all”, start relaxing, and pow! Drama strikes. Despite all this, I only narrowly avoided a car by mere centimetres as it was suddenly shifting lanes literally in front of the airport as I was about to pull over to return my Lavida. Having an accident in China is something you really want to avoid as foreigners are immediately declared guilty because wealthier…
But all was well in the end, and I returned the Lavida without any problems. Now this is where I tip my hat to eHi. They were probably faced with their very first foreigner renting one of their cars, especially likely in Yinchuan which is a big city but not a foreign tourist hotspot by far. The staff that welcomed me on pickup day was visibly frustrated, however I learnt throughout this trip that in general if the Chinese are frustrated when attempting to communicate with you, it’s not because they expect you to speak Mandarin but they are in fact frustrated with themselves for not having learnt more English. I’m going out on a limb here but I’m pretty sure they specifically hired English-speaking staff on the day I returned the car in order to service me better. The kid that guided me to the car return parking lot later told me it was his very first “takeover” meaning first car returned. I find it highly unlikely that they would expose a complete beginner in the company to their first foreign client, so my theory is that they hired him as well as the desk bloke that closed the rental specifically on that day for me. And I applaud this.
Stay tuned for our China Test Drives and Photo Reports throughout Inner Mongolia driving the VW Lavida…