How to get a foreign car into China

Six months ago we started investigating the possibilities of getting ourselves a car in China. The car – a rather essential part of the planned journey – was to be bought in China and eventually imported in Holland once we arrived there.
 That was six months ago. Let me explain what happened in the meantime:

So, buying a car in China (for a foreigner as myself) is only possible in the city or town where you have your residence permit – which in our case is Shanghai. Shanghai is one of the cities in China where cars are sold separately from a license plate. This has to do with the fact that the local government is trying to control the amount of ‘new’ cars that hit the road. They will auction a limited number of license plates every month and the Shanghai-citizens can bid against each other to get one. The prices for a Shanghai license plate these days are in the range of RMB 90.000 (that’s around EURO 10.000 – and then we still have to pay for a car).

After considering for maybe a minute, we figured that we had to look for other (cheaper) options…

As in China everything is possible (but nothing is easy) we started looking for ways to buy a license plate in another city. The prices in cities just outside of Shanghai are around RMB 200 (that’s around EURO 30). At the same time we looked for second-hand cars in and around Shanghai. But as written above, only in the city of residence it is allowed to buy a car. A Chinese way would be to buy the car on someone else’s name (someone living in a city outside of Shanghai) and then just use the car yourself in Shanghai.

Note – the only difference between driving in Shanghai with a Shanghai-license or a non-Shanghai-license is that for non-Shanghai-licenses it is not allowed to use the highways in and around the city during peak traffic hours. In the end we decided that we didn’t want to make the journey with a car not registered to our name. At the same time we found out that it is not allowed for a foreigner to drive a Chinese car out of the country. So that was the end of option number 2.

That left us with one more option: importing a Dutch car into China, which is not allowed. Only diplomats can do it. But after some research we found out that there might be a way to temporarily import the car into China (with a maximum of three months). Some of the rally’s from Europe to China use this method, but directly after starting exploring this way we received emails from different parties telling us that it was not possible for foreign individuals living in China. The key in China is to not give up too soon though.

Some time ago I made a new friend in Shanghai – a lady who works at the Ministry of Transportation in Shanghai. At first she told me that my idea of the ‘temporary license plate’ application would not work. Being face-to-face with someone can help though as I brought it up again last time I saw her. This time things looked muh more optimistic. She made a phone call to a friend at the Shanghai Vehicle Office who I could visit to ask my questions about the possibilities. A few days later I (together with my Chinese friend Eric) went to see her friend at the Shanghai Vehicle Office who turned out to be the head of the Office. We were surrounded by nervous Chinese clerks at the front desk when we arrived, not sure if this foreigner really had an appointment with the big boss…. But after a phone call to him upstairs, he confirmed it was ok and that Eric and I could go up to see him in his office.

The office was a typical Chinese one wit a seating area with full ashtrays, leather chairs and a lot of plants and certificates of good work. A large chair behind his desk and two chairs in front of his desk where Eric and I could take a seat. Tea was served and he started asking me what I wanted. I explained….

As soon as I asked the first question he brought in an employee. This friendly girl initially didn’t seem that helpful as her first comment was that ‘temporary license plates’ are only issued when there is a commercial purpose for having the car in China. Nope, that wasn’t the case for me. But, I asked, why is it not possible to temporarily import a car on a personal title? The director looked at me and ordered his subordinate to do some research in the archives to see if anyone before ever temporarily imported a car into China on a personal title. The girl left and Eric, the director and myself exchanged some courtesies. He seemed very interested in the plan to drive from Shanghai to Amsterdam – ‘foreigners always have crazy travel plans’, he said.

After 20 minutes the girl returned with a pack of papers telling the chief that she couldn’t find a single case in which it happened before… BUT, that nowhere in the regulations it said that is WASN’T allowed. ‘So, then it is allowed’, my new-made friend said. He prepared a list of documents needed for the applications and went through the procedure with us. Signed, sealed, delivered…. and I was doing my hapiness-dance once I was outside of his office again.

Many many many papers are yet to be signed and arranged and many, many phone calls to confirm everything are awaiting. Also patience and smiles will be crucial in the months to come. To give you an idea – the car will be shipped from Rotterdam to Shanghai. Once in the Port of Shanghai, the car will stay there until it is cleared by customs (note that the car will be shipped without any diesel in the tank – for safety). After it is cleared by an agency at the port, the car will be put on a truck to go to a garage in Shanghai where it will undergo a ‘Chinese Environmental Test’ – meant to determine if the car is clean and good enough to drive on the roads in China. Then the truck will bring the car to the Shanghai Vehicle Office to apply for the temporary license plate (EURO 15) and to get a Chinese car insurance. After that we can fill up the tank again and drive away on our own.

With all the years of experience in China, I know these above steps can (and probably will) take a long time with a lot of room for unexpected obstacles.

But it will be done, I am sure!

8 Responses to How to get a foreign car into China

  1. Rico D'Amore

    Hello, I’m planning on driving to Mongolia from England and crossing the Kazak border into china before heading to Mongolia. I’m not sure if you have any ideas on who would be best to contact regarding transiting through China with our own car for 3 days….any clues?

    Thank you for your help:-)

    • Bert van Dijk

      I would strongly advice against transit through China for only 3 days. It’s hugely expensive and a nightmare regarding paperwork and permits. Especially not worth it for such a short period. It will cost in excess of 1000 euros I estimate, so I would advice you to travel from Kazakhstan to Russia and then enter Mongolia. You will be traveling through the Altai Mountain Range then, which is a great and beautiful bonus!

  2. Ernst

    Hi Bert,

    Heel erg bedankt voor jouw hulpvolle informatie. Momenteel ben ik met twee vrienden onderweg van Rotterdam naar Guangzhou – dus ongeveer het omgekeerde van jouw rit destijds. Over iets meer dan een week staan we aan de Chinese grens bij Erenhot. Al het papierwerk (incl gids) staat voor ons klaar. Onderweg zijn we mensen tegengekomen die straks met een groep door China rijden (wij rijden met een privégids). Zij vertelden ons over een borg die ze moeten betalen voor de temporary car import/export. Wij weten zeker dat we ook zo’n document hebben aangezien we de auto binnen 4 weken al weer terug verschepen vanuit Rotterdam. Onze gids heeft echter nog helemaal niks verteld over deze borg.. ik heb zelf 4 jaar in China gewoond en ik moet zeggen dat dit erg bekend klinkt! Weet jij of er in elk geval dat het om een temporary import/export gaat er ook een borg bij zit? En zo ja, hoeveel is de borg (als het bijv. om een Land Cruiser 2001 gaat)?

    Bij voorbaat dank voor jouw hulp!



  3. Jan Mooij

    Hi Bert,

    We are participating in a rally in China in a few weeks and we are now facing the challenge of obtaining temporary plates for our service truck. We need to drive it from Shanghai port to Xi’An where the start of the rally is and after the finish of the rally in Dunhuang it has to be driven back to Shanghai port for shipment back to Rotterdam.

    Would it be possible to get in touch with your contact Eric at the Shanghai Vehicle Office?

    Thank you in advance for your help!

    Jan Mooij

  4. Adrian

    How much was it in total? I plan on driving from Europe to Japan but before now I was under the impression it’s impossible to drive through China. I think I will spend 3 weeks in China before going to HK.

  5. Mike

    Very interesting article. Quick question, assuming I am planing to bring my car from Russia to Shanghai, what are the duties and taxes on the imported good? Also, what is the maximum length the vehicle can be “temporary imported”?
    Thank you!

  6. Kyrill Hirner

    Hi there
    I hope this post is still active. We (4 Germans, 2 Cars) are planning to cross from Kazakhstan or Kyrgistan, and cross China into Pakistan. But what you write does not sound too… well, the Tribal Warriors in Belutschistan between Iran and Pakistan sound more inviting than chinese bureaucracy.
    Has anything changed since? Is there an easier way to get 2 cars and 4 people through china? 5 days would be enough for us, 3 if we drive through the nights, and we’d even deal with a guide (though we’d love to travel on our own, and see a bit of the country, but that would be the minimum “requirement”). Any advise?

  7. Alex Wong

    Hola, Greetings from Malaysia. Curious to know if finally you did get to ship your car from Amsterdam to Shanghai and start your eastward journey home, where can I read your experiances

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