China is one of the largest countries in the world by area and the single most heavily populated country on the planet. It is also a place of huge global importance, attracting historical, cultural and political interest. These factors, combined with its diverse towns, cities, landscapes, natural features and attractions, mean it is of particular interest to people planning to cross China in their own vehicle, whether it is a car, motorcycle, truck or motor-home.
Unfortunately, doing so can be complicated. Indeed, when it comes bringing foreign vehicles into the country, China has some of the strictest laws around. The country is not a signatory of the Vienna Convention on Road Traffic, and its laws are intentionally designed to prevent short-term tourists from bringing foreign-registered vehicles in.
With that being said, there are some practical solutions, which can make crossing China a possibility. In this article, we examine the requirements, the steps you need to take and some potential routes for your journey.
First, it is important to understand that a China crossing with your own vehicle will require significant preparation, paperwork, time, effort and money. Crucially, you will require a temporary Chinese driver’s license, along with permits for each of the Chinese provinces your journey will take you through, so you will need to plan a route in advance.
The easiest method is to find a Chinese tour company that arranges self-drive tours through the country. Costs can also be minimised by going through a company that arranges group tours, meaning costs can be split across the group. However, this is restrictive, because you will be accompanied by a tour guide and potentially other travellers.
Regardless of your approach, obtaining a Chinese driver’s license is not straightforward either. Assuming you have a valid foreign license, you will be able to bypass the practical element of the test, but you will still be required to complete a theory test, achieving a score of 90 percent or more in the process.
In recent times, it has become much easier to apply for this test and to complete it. For instance, driving test centres in most major cities in China, including the capital of Beijing, now offer the test in English and in various other languages. However, some of the smaller cities and settlements only offer the test in Chinese.
Irrespective of where your license has been obtained, an official translation of it will need to be provided. These can be obtained from an official translation bureau, but you may still need to complete other paperwork too.
Rules for motorcycles are similar, with visitors needing to obtain a Chinese license and the necessary permits.
In total, it can take as long as three months to sort out all of the paperwork and complete the test. It may also require you to fly into a major city in China and then fly out again before you actually begin your journey. Again, this is something that can potentially be simplified by going through a specialist tour company.
Aside from obtaining the relevant Chinese driving license for your vehicle, as well as permits for the provinces you will be entering, there are some further requirements to consider when planning to cross China with your own vehicle.
Depending on the vehicle you intend to drive, it is likely you will require temporary Chinese number plates to be fitted. This can be done at a traffic police office, but you will need to provide a detailed travel plan, both an original MOT certificate and a translated copy, all of your vehicle papers, and four photos of the car from all sides. Even with an up-to-date MOT certificate, your vehicle may also need to pass a test in China too.
As an individual, you will require a valid passport and travel visa, along with comprehensive travel insurance that covers China. To complete all of the paperwork, you may need as many as five passport-style photographs.
Assuming you are planning on driving right the way across the country, you will need to decide your entry point and exit point. There are a number of different border crossings into China, with the main ones being as follows:
The Xinjiang region is located in the north-west of China and is a common entry or exit point for people who wish to cross China in their own car, motorcycle or other vehicle. It is accessible from a number of bordering countries, including Pakistan (Khunjerab Pass), Kyrgyzstan (Erkeshtam Crossing) and Kazakhstan (Urzhar District).
Located in the south-west of China, the Yunnan region is another common entry or exit point for a China crossing. It is accessible from Laos (via Mohan), Myanmar (via Ruili) and Vietnam (via Lào Cai and Hekou Yao).
Inner Mongolia is an autonomous region in northern China, which shares a border with the country of Mongolia. A common entry point is the Chinese city of Erenhot, in the north west of Inner Mongolia, which is right on the border with Mongolia. The nearest major settlement in Mongolia itself is Zamyn-Üüd.
Using the common entry points, crossing China in your own vehicle becomes much easier to plan. For example, one possible route would be to enter the country in the north, through Inner Mongolia, travel to Beijing, and then journey in a south-westerly direction, exiting through Yunnan. This would likely take you through provinces like Hebei, Shanxi and Sichuan, although you could adapt this route to see specific places of interest too.
Similarly, you might enter the country via Yunnan in the south, travel north-east up to Beijing, then travel to the west and eventually leave through Xinjiang. This would likely take you to several additional provinces along the way, like Gansu and Qinghai, as well as Xinjiang itself.
There is also the possibility of travelling through Tibet, either upon entry or when exiting China. However, Tibet has a whole separate layer of paperwork and requirements for driving your own car through it, including acquiring a Tibet Travel Permit. It is generally best to plan such a journey through a professional tour company, and you should be warned that they will almost certainly charge extra if Tibet is included in your travel plans.
Finally, it is important to be aware of some of the other rules regarding vehicle usage in China too. All vehicles, with the exception of military vehicles, are subject to the Road Traffic Safety Law of the People’s Republic of China. Unlike in many of its neighbouring countries, vehicles travel on the right side of the road in mainland China. In Hong Kong, on the other hand, vehicles drive on the left, so keep this in mind if you intend to visit there.
China has age limitations for driving cars (or similar vehicles) and motorcycles. For the former, the age range is between 18 and 69, while for the latter, the age range is between 18 and 59. This means that a 70 year old cannot legally drive any vehicle in China and a 60 year old cannot legally ride a motorcycle.
The speed limit in the country depends on the type of road you are on. For example, on single lane city roads, the speed limit will generally be 30 km/h (19 mph) unless otherwise stated, whereas larger, multi-lane city roads may have a limit of 70 km/h (43 mph). The highest speed limit is 120 km/h (75 mph), which is reserved for expressways.
Finally, it should be noted that motorcycles are restricted in terms of where they can be used. As an example, they are banned from many freeways, and there are significant restrictions on where they can be ridden in some of the major cities, including both Beijing and Shanghai, so you will need to take care to avoid these areas.
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