Hiring a car in China has always been complicated or impossible for foreign visitors and in mainland China is currently limited to Běijīng and Shànghǎi, cities that both have frequently gridlocked roads. Throw in the dangers, complexity of Chinese roads for first-time users and the costs of driving in China and it makes more sense to use the subway/metro system and taxis, both of which are cheap and efficient in Běijīng and Shànghǎi. Hiring a car with a driver from your hotel is possible, but it’s generally far cheaper and more convenient to hire a taxi for the day instead.
To drive in Hong Kong and Macau, you will need an International Driving Permit. Foreigners can drive motorcycles if they are residents in China and have an official Chinese motorcycle licence. International Driving Permits are generally not accepted in China.
Běijīng Capital Airport has a Vehicle Administration Office where you can have a temporary three-month driving licence issued (an international driver’s licence is insufficient). This will involve checking your driving licence and a simple medical exam (including an eyesight test).
You will need this licence before you can hire a car from Hertz, which has branches at Capital Airport. There are also branches in both central Běijīng and Shànghǎi. Hire cars from Hertz start from ¥230 per day (up to 150km per day; ¥20,000 deposit). Avis also has a growing network around China, with car rental starting from ¥200 per day (¥5000 deposit).
Cars in China drive on the right-hand side of the road. Even skilled drivers will be unprepared for China’s roads: in the cities, cars lunge from all angles and chaos abounds.