Driving in China can be both exhilarating and terrifying. This depends mostly on what type of driver you are. If you feel secure behind the wheel, are defensive, not prone to getting nervous and keep your eyes and ears open, you will probably succeed.
However, if you are a so-called “Sunday driver”, you should rather avoid hitting the road. This is primarily due to the hectic style of many motorists in China, who like to yield to no one and tend to disobey most traffic signals and rules. It is no wonder that China holds the unfortunate world record for annual road fatalities.
The number of serious traffic accidents drastically increased after the Chinese auto industry boom, when buying a car became more affordable very quickly. This led to more vehicle purchases and more drivers, resulting in the congestion in China’s large cities as we know it today.
Keep in mind that China is still a young nation concerning car ownership, as this did not become common until the early 1990s. The government then began to encourage driving in China in order to boost the sale of locally manufactured cars.
If you are planning to live in a large city, you may not even need a car for driving in China: Getting around with public transportation or a shuttle service offered by your expat compound is often convenient enough. Thus you will not only avoid the hassle of being stuck in traffic, but you will also help the environment.
If public transportation is not an option, but you still hesitate to drive yourself, there is always the possibility of hiring a driver. Perhaps your company even provides one for you. Or you could simply take a taxi. Cabs are relatively cheap in China’s big cities.
If you live in a rural area or plan on driving long distances, a car will come in handy, as public transportation is not as advanced in China’s provinces. Know that you may be sharing the road with a mule while driving in China’s rural regions. This is not uncommon and should not unnerve you.
There is a total of 3.5 million kilometers of paved roadways for driving in China. About 99,000 km are expressways. China has spent billions of dollars on an extensive expressway system across the country. If you drive down one of these expressways, you may not encounter all that many other vehicles. The tolls on China’s expressways are so high (for local standards) that not every motorist can afford them.
Aside from the expressways, there are also the so-called China National Highways. You will recognize these roads by their special nomenclature: G for guójiā (national) and a three-digit number. They are important arterial traffic connections, especially in the eastern half of the country. In addition to the national highways, you might also discover provincial and country highways. Most of these are definitely less well maintained.
As mentioned above, expressways are the most expensive, but also the most comfortable option for driving in China. They can be very pleasant to cruise along, as they have a speed limit of up to 120 km/h and they are less congested. In addition, many offer service areas, gas stations, restaurants, and even bilingual road signs for foreign visitors and residents.
On the other hand, driving in China’s cities is often stressful and can be rather dangerous. Many Chinese drivers do not heed other cars or traffic regulations. The rule of thumb is to drive both defensively and aggressively. If you let other vehicles take advantage of you, you will never get from A to B, so take a risk and hope for the best!
One of the challenges of driving in China are confusing road signs: you may find signs indicating different speed limits for one and the same road, or signs that appear to contradict your navigation system. According to other expats who have had the experience of driving in China, one does adapt to the local way of driving eventually. But if you prefer playing it safe, hire a driver or call a taxi instead…
We do our best to keep this article up to date. However, we cannot guarantee that the information provided is always current or complete.