For many travellers, motorcycles serve as an ideal way to explore the world, offering many of the same benefits as a car, while being smaller, easier to park and potentially more fun to ride. However, China presents some significant problems when it comes to legally entering the country with a motorcycle and riding your bike in certain cities.
In fact, China has some of the most stringent rules and laws related to foreign-registered motorbikes you are likely to encounter anywhere in the world. For this reason, you cannot simply turn up at the border with your motorcycle and expect to gain entry, and it can be beneficial to work with a professional China motorcycle tour company.
Here, we take a more in-depth look at the practicalities, requirements and possible routes for a China motorbike tour.
If you are interested in participating in a China motorcycle tour, and you intend to ride a fuel-powered motorcycle, you will almost certainly need to acquire a Chinese licence. Unfortunately, unlike many other countries, China does not allow you to simply convert an international licence and legally ride your bike. Instead, you will need to go through the process of acquiring a temporary Chinese licence, which must last the duration of your trip.
Assuming you hold a valid licence from your own country, it is likely you will be able to bypass the practical test. However, you might need to complete a theory test with a score of at least 90 percent and you may also be required to complete some basic medical tests, including an eye test, in order to be approved.
Crucially, this process must be completed before entering the country on your motorcycle. Fortunately, the process has become easier in recent years and major cities like Beijing and Shanghai will now allow you to complete the theory test in English. With that being said, some smaller towns and cities only offer the test in Chinese.
In many cases, it is worth contacting a professional tour company with experience arranging motorbike tours. Such a company may be able to help with some of the logistics, as well as the paperwork involved in acquiring your licence. Arranging a tour as part of a group can also be a good way to split certain costs, although it may restrict your freedom.
From a legal standpoint, many electric bikes and electric scooters are treated like bicycles in China, meaning you may not require a license to ride one. This does represent a potential loophole in some instances, but it is also important to note that several cities in China now completely ban e-bikes, so your tour could be severely restricted.
Finally, you will also need to check the individual rules for each province you plan to enter as part of your China motorbike tour. Some provinces may require you to obtain additional permits or complete further paperwork.
One of the most important decisions you will need to make is related to the motorcycle you will use for your tour. If you plan to use your own bike, you will need to arrange to have temporary Chinese number plates fitted, and you will need to supply up-to-date MOT papers, an official translation, and photographs of your bike from all angles.
Upon entry to the country, your vehicle’s value will also be estimated by Chinese officials and you will be required to leave a deposit. This deposit will then be refunded when you leave China at the end of your tour.
As previously stated, some electric bikes and less powerful bikes may be exempt from some of these requirements. A general rule of thumb is that vehicles that weigh 20 kg (44 lbS) or more and/or have a top speed of more than 30 km/h will require a Chinese motorcycle licence. Smaller and slower bikes will usually be treated as bicycles.
One potential alternative is to either buy a bike once you are in China, or hire a bike. However, both of these options also present significant hurdles in terms of paperwork and some bike hire companies may refuse you regardless.
In addition, you and everyone else participating in your China motorbike tour will need a valid passport and visa, as well as insurance that specifically covers China. The paperwork involved can take as long as three months, so yaou will need to start long before you begin your tour and you may need to fly in and out of the country in advance.
It is vital to plan out your motorcycle tour in advance, including both your entry point and your exit point. China is accessible from a number of neighbouring countries, but some of the most common border crossing points include the city of Erenhot, which is close to the border of Mongolia, Karakoram Highway / China National Highway 314, which links Pakistan to China, and Mengla County, in the Yunnan Province, which is accessible via Laos.
Tibet also represents an interesting option for either entering or exiting China, but it has additional strict rules about foreign vehicles, and you will need to get hold of a Tibet travel permit.
Generally, it makes sense to enter the country from one location and leave via another. So, for example, a motorcycle tour could start in Mengla County in the south of China, pass through several cities and/or provinces and then leave via Erenhot in the north. The alternative is to leave via the same border crossing as you enter, which might reduce some of the paperwork, but also likely means you will see less of the country on your tour.
China is a large country and crossing from one side to the other, while giving yourself time to take in the surroundings and actually do things, is going to take several weeks. Be clear on your route ahead of time, be clear on the permits and other documentation you need, and have a clear tour plan to present to officials.
While many of the surrounding countries drive on the left side of the road, traffic in mainland China drives on the right, so you will need to keep this in mind, especially when crossing the border. Although motorbikes are a common sight in China, there are a number of restrictions that you will need to be mindful of too.
For the most part, motorcycles are not permitted on freeways, although there may be some exceptions to this. Several of the major cities, including Beijing and Shanghai, also impose restrictions on downtown areas, or on motorcycles that are not registered within the city. There may, therefore, be certain instances where you need to park your motorbike in a permitted area away from the city centre and then travel in via public transport or on foot.
Traffic in China can be erratic and unpredictable, especially for those who are not used to it, and this poses a particular hazard for bikers. It is important to pay attention at all times, to keep to the speed limits and to be prepared for the fact that traffic may behave in ways that will seem out of the ordinary to you.