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Driving and Public Transport for Expats in China

Author: Jim Newham
Submitted: August 2013


China has recently overtaken the USA as the country where the most road vehicles are bought. Hence the number of motorists in China is increasing rapidly. Road-building has kept pace with this, so there are plenty of nearly-deserted new highways to drive along. Some of these new expressways are, however, tolled.

Unfortunately, the ability to drive has not improved at a rate concomitant with the increase in cars. China has the highest number of road accident fatalities in the world and probably one of the highest rates too. Official police figures are questionable and some sources suggest there has been under-reporting. Many of those killed on the roads are pedestrians, who have a habit of heedlessly wandering across busy city roads as if they were crossing a lonely mountain path. Few expats choose to drive in Chinese cities as a result of these poor driving conditions. To get around, it may be better to take taxis or buy yourself a bicycle.

International Driving Permits are not normally considered valid in China. To drive legitimately, you will need to apply for a Chinese driving licence, either temporary or permanent, depending on the length of your stay. To obtain a licence, you will need copies of your passport, visa, health certificate and a translation of your driving licence into Chinese. You will also need to have driving lessons on Chinese roads and take a driving test that contains both theory and practical components. Though the theory test is in Mandarin, you will be allowed a translator if you can’t read it.

Driving in Mainland China is on the right-hand side of the road, as it is in many countries. However, driving in the Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macau is on the left, a relic of their colonial heritage. The legal blood-alcohol content in China is 0.02%; if you exceed four times this amount, you can expect severe penalties.


Travelling by train is significantly safer than going by car. It is also cheap, punctual and generally comfortable.  For long-distance travel, trains are the most popular form of transport. New high-speed rail links have made train travel nearly as fast as going by plane; for example, the HST from Beijing to Shanghai takes under 5 hours.

If you are taking a long-distance train, it’s better to avoid ‘hard class’, in which most people have to stand for the whole journey. You will need to take passports or other official documentation for all those travelling in order to buy tickets for long-distance train journeys. You will also need them to board the train. There are English-speaking assistants in major railway stations who will be able to help you buy tickets and deal with your enquiries.

You may want to buy train tickets via an agency. Below are websites of some reputable ticket agencies:

www.chinatripadvisor.com     www.chinatraintickets.net     www.china-train-ticket.com

The underground railway system has recently undergone rapid expansion in China. Now all the major cities have metro networks, including the world’s longest, in Beijing, and the world’s second longest, in Shanghai.

Buses and Coaches

City buses are cheap: the usual fare is only RMB 2. It is possible to buy a smartcard which reduces this price still further. Buses are extremely popular, and in large cities, they can get phenomenally crowded. Note that bus signs are in Chinese only. If you can’t speak or read Chinese, you will need to plan ahead and find out the route number of the bus you want. Buses in large cities are not immune to the general poor driving standards, and accidents are quite common.


China is vast; its most far-flung western city, the old Silk Road entrepôt of Kashgar, is actually closer to Europe than Beijing. So if you are travelling long-distance, flying is the quickest option. It has also recently become a much more viable one. In the last decade, China has transformed its air safety record from dismal to very good. Flight delays are still problematic though. The airline industry is expanding rapidly and competition is increasing. This means that increasing numbers of flights are available at lower prices.



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