China is one of the largest and most historically significant countries in the world and a popular place for travellers to want to visit and explore fully. For this reason, rather than flying in and out of the major cities in the country, many travellers prefer the idea of a road trip to China, travelling from areas like Europe or southeast Asia.
Additionally, even if you do fly into the country, you may still be interested in the idea of a road trip in China, allowing you to explore parts of the country that might otherwise be difficult to reach via public transport.
Unfortunately, China does place some real obstacles in the road for travellers looking to get around via car or motorcycle, and this is especially true if you are planning to bring your own vehicle in. Nevertheless, there are potential solutions and this article provides information about what will be required for your China road trip.
Table of Contents
If you are planning a road trip within China, the easiest option involves renting a car for your travel within the country, rather than entering the country in your own vehicle. Of course, it is important to note that there will still be some potential complications that you will need to work through before you can actually hire a car in the country.
After all, China has some of the strictest laws around in terms of preventing foreigners from driving. Unlike in many other parts of the world, you cannot simply drive a car or motorcycle using an international driving licence. Depending on the length of your stay, you will either need to obtain a temporary Chinese licence, or a full Chinese licence.
If you have a tourist visitor’s visa and are planning a reasonably short-stay, you may be able to get by on a temporary licence. To complete the application, you will need to provide your driving licence, an official translation, up to five passport-style photographs, a valid passport, your visitor’s visa, insurance and proof of a hotel booking.
Visitors staying in the country for longer may instead need to apply for a full Chinese licence, which is a complicated process. You will need to complete a theory test and achieve a score of 90 percent or more and there will be further paperwork to complete. The test itself can usually be completed in English, but some smaller cities or towns may only offer the test in Chinese. Medical checks, including an eye test, may also be needed.
There will also be significant paperwork involved with renting a car and some car rental companies in China are reluctant to deal with foreign travellers. The alternative of bringing your own car into the country is possible and the process is described in more detail in the next section, but it can be extremely challenging and costly.
You will need to plan your China road trip in advance, including all of the individual provinces you will enter. You will also need to check the laws within those provinces and obtain a travel permit, when required. Travellers should also note the strict rules in Tibet, where you must be accompanied by a registered tour guide.
A road trip from Europe to China can be a challenge due to the vast distance involved, as well as some of the paperwork and planning. However, it can be done, with the easiest route being to travel from your starting point into Russia, then in a south-easterly direction through Kazakhstan, arriving into China through the province of Xinjiang. This route minimises the number of countries you pass through, making it logistically simpler.
Some travellers do prefer alternate routes, such as travelling further east through Russia and then travelling south, through Mongolia and into China via the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.
Your route in may also depend on the amount of time you have and whether you want to see neighbouring countries, such as Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan. Some travellers like to experience as much of the Silk Road as possible, but you should note that countries like Pakistan can provide a number of additional difficulties in terms of paperwork.
Accurate time estimates can be difficult to provide, as it will depend on where you begin your journey. As a basic guide, driving from the United Kingdom to China, passing through Russia and Kazakhstan, can take over 100 hours of total driving time, meaning you are realistically going to need several weeks to make the journey.
Again, you will need either a temporary or Chinese driving licence, completing all of the necessary paperwork previously described. Generally, a road trip from Europe to China will involve bringing your own vehicle into the country and this introduces a whole additional level of paperwork and some practical issues.
For one thing, you will need to obtain temporary Chinese number plates and these will need to be fitted to your car or motorcycle. You will need to provide photographs of your vehicle from four angles, as well as an up-to-date MOT certificate and an official translation of it. Your car may also need to complete further testing upon arrival.
Moreover, to have any chance of a vehicle being approved for entry, you will need a detailed itinerary, outlining precisely where in China you intend to travel, where you will be staying and when you will be leaving.
A popular alternative to travelling from Europe is to travel into China via southeast Asia. Generally, a road trip from SE Asia to China is relatively simple, at least in terms of the distance involved, but you will need to decide on a route in advance and the point at which you enter China is a major consideration.
Some of the main options here include travelling into China via Myanmar, Laos or Vietnam and entering China through the Yunnan province. An alternative to this involves travelling around the west of China, entering the country through Nepal. This brings you into China through Tibet, where a tour guide will have to accompany you.
Again, you are going to need to complete a significant amount of paperwork and apply for either a temporary or full Chinese licence, depending on how long you intend to stay in China. This could require a theory test, and you may need to fly into China to sit the test prior to beginning your road trip, or at least prior to reaching the border.
While most major cities now offer the test in various different languages, including English, some of the smaller towns and cities may only offer it in Chinese. If you are planning to bring your own vehicle into the country, you will need to complete additional paperwork, provide an MOT certificate and fit temporary Chinese number plates.
In comparison to travelling through Europe, there may be more logistical hurdles to clear when travelling through southeast Asia by car or motorcycle. This is because most European countries are signed up to the Schengen Agreement, reducing passport checks between countries, whereas checks may be more frequent in SE Asia.
Regardless of whether you are planning a road trip in China or a road trip to China, you will need to be aware of certain things when driving in the country. You must be at least 18 to drive in China, regardless of whether you have a licence in another country, and there are upper age limits too, which differ depending on the vehicle type.
In mainland China, vehicles drive on the right side of the road, which is in contrast to many of the neighbouring countries. Chinese road traffic can behave in unusual or erratic ways, especially if you are not familiar with it, so you will need to keep your wits about you at all times and pay careful attention to the roads.
Regardless of your route into the country, one of the best ways to save money is to contact a professional tour company operating in China. Not only will these companies be able to assist you with the process of obtaining licences and travel permits, group tours can also help to reduce costs. Generally, professional tours are more likely to be approved than independent travel plans, because some of the smaller details may be overlooked or misunderstood.
Finally, when it comes to speed limits, you can typically drive at up to 120 km/h (75 mph) on expressways, while speed limits can be as low as 30 km/h (19 mph) on single-lane city roads. Expressways will usually have traffic signs in Mandarin and English, while smaller roads may only have Mandarin signs.