Renting a Car in China

By Jonny Willson

Part two of a two part series (Retaining a drivers license and renting a car).

Having successfully retained our driving license we could now hit the road – except for the fact that we don’t have a car. It isn’t just that we don’t want to buy a car (though we don’t), it is also that it is tricky to buy a car here in Beijing. There are only so many license plates, and to get a license plate you need to enter a lottery to try get the right to buy one. Joel – the manager of 1on1 Mandarin has been waiting for a plate for 5 years already. In the mean time he has bought a motorcycle – see our previous post. Since we don’t own a car, renting one is a good solution.

From a google search we discovered that Avis ( partners with Didi – the Uber equivalent in China, and Hertz partners with Shenzhou zuche (神州租车 ),(incidentally, shenzhou is another name for China, literally meaning God’s country). And we had seen cars on the street with 58租车written on the side, so there seemed to be plenty of choices, and some really attractive rates. However, when it came down to it, some companies would only rent a car if you had a local shenfenzheng身份证 i.e. Chinese ID, which as foreigners we don’t have. Other companies could deliver the car to you, but not outside the 5th ring road where we live. So that left us with Shenzhou. Their website and app were both easy to use and easy to book a car. It seemed like the minimum length of time you could hire a car for was 48 hours, but the prices were starting at around 150rmb a day, so not bad value. (Compared to the cost of hiring a car and driver which might be 400-600rmb per day depending on how far you want to go.)

So we picked a VW since we were familiar with that brand from the UK, picked the pick-up location which was 5 minutes away from our place, and booked in for three days hire starting in two days’ time. Payment was taken by WeChat, but the deposit couldn’t be done by WeChat – so made a note to take 3000 kuai in cash for deposit when I picked up the car. Easy… or so I thought.

First niggle came the following day, I received a phone call from Shenzhou (in Chinese) saying that I needed to send them a scan of my passport, my local accommodation registration, and my visa. Not a problem, I was at home, I had a scanner, and I could understand what they wanted. Would have been trickier if I hadn’t been at home, or if my Chinese wasn’t up to scratch.

Second niggle came when I went to pick up the car. The guys were very efficient – they brought up my booking on their tablet, got a guy to bring the car over, talked me through the policy, the waiver, the key bits of the terms and conditions (all in Chinese), and walked me round the car to note where there were already minor scrapes or dents. The final stage was to do the deposit. Unfortunately, they couldn’t take cash for the deposit, or use WeChat. “Did I have a credit card?” they asked. “Yes, but not on me”. Not a problem, I went home to get my Amex and Visa credit cards, and came back to pay the deposit. “Ahh…” they said. “A foreign credit card might not work”. Sure enough neither card worked. Did I have a GuoNei 国内 credit card. No. What about a friend or colleague who could come over and swipe their credit card for you? The only person I knew who was free during the day was our ayi, and she was unlikely to have such a credit card. Then they came up with an idea, what was my credit score on Alipay? I had no idea that I had such a score so they borrowed my phone, clicked through the right screen on the app, and saw that my score was above the cut off. Great. No. Apparently that function is only available for Chinese residents.

At this point, unsurprisingly, I was wondering whether we were going to be unable to hire a car, at least for those days, but I texted a couple of friends who lived nearby to see if they could help out. One friend didn’t reply because she thought my phone had been stolen and thought that someone was trying to scam her. However, our neighbour also replied saying that she would be happy to help. Brilliant, we could go along together after my 2 year old got up from his nap, and before she needed to go along to the kindergarten to pick up her son. We had a solution.

Snag 3 came when she asked about receiving the deposit back. Now they mention that the person swiping the credit card for the deposit also needs to be present when the car is returned to receive the initial part of the deposit back. (The deposit is 3000rmb, but even after returning the car they withhold 1000rmb for another 3 weeks until they know that you didn’t accrue any speeding fines etc whilst using the car). (Incidentally, it wasn’t an issue for the car I eventually rented, but Beijing has a system of restricting driving according to day of the week. For example, if you plate ends in a 1 or a 6, then you can’t drive on Mondays; 2 or a 7 and you can’t drive on Tuesdays. Interestingly they seemed to say that if you had hired a car that wasn’t supposed to be driven on one of the days you hired it, then you could go ahead and use it and they would cover any penalties that you incurred. These restricted driving days also rotate every quarter, so local drivers really have to pay attention to this.)

However, my neighbour was chuchai’ing (出差) (going on a business trip) the next day, and wouldn’t be back for a week. Maybe she could use her husband’s credit card. Nope, something wrong with that too. Maybe her husband can try again when he finishes work. Nope, he suddenly had to 加班(jiaban – work overtime), so couldn’t be home before the place shut at 7pm. So wearily I went back over to the car place to tell them to cancel the rental – fortunately at no cost – and returned on my bike with no car for our mini holiday, and very downcast and weary.

Meanwhile the lady who thought someone was scamming us alerted our pastor at church, who contacted my wife to warn us that my phone had been stolen (which it hadn’t) and someone was trying to scam others using it (which they weren’t since it was just us asking for help). With the situation quickly clarified, they said that they had a credit card, that there was a Shenzhou hire place just round the corner from their flat, and they would be happy to help.

With a bit of hope in my heart, I re-booked a car to be hired from this alternative location to be picked up the following morning on the first day of our mini holiday. If this didn’t work we would have to cancel our accommodation and rethink our holiday plans. Angela, our pastor’s wife, met me at the car hire place, and I went through the whole process again, T&C’s, damage waver, checking the car. Angela came to swipe her card and… she needed to present her shenfenzheng, which she didn’t have with her, having left it at home. So, we walked slowly back to her flat, slowly because she was with her 5 year old daughter, and collected the shenfenzheng, and walked back again. This time, finally on the 6th attempt at providing a deposit, we were successful. I was given the keys and I was able to drive away very relieved and mighty nervous because I was driving in China, on the ‘wrong side’ of the road (Brits drive on the right), and driving an automatic (which I am unfamiliar with).

After initial nerves we got used to driving in Beijing pretty quickly. We had to learn that baidu maps underestimates the time taken if you get snarled up in traffic. We had to adapt our driving to the local style of changing lane by pushing your nose in and trusting the people behind to not hit your side. And we were able to get out to the countryside, play in streams and enjoy the freedom of the occasionally open road. Interestingly, various bits of our theory learning (see previous post) now bore fruit as we saw signs that we wouldn’t have otherwise understood, and drove on roads where the speed limit wasn’t explicit.

So, the lesson of our tale is… 1) get a local credit card if you want to hire a car. This is a priority task for us now before we try hiring a car later this summer. 2) Have local friends who can help. 3) Get good Chinese so you can have local friends, and can speak on the phone (we’re biased but 1on1mandarin is a great option for improving your Chinese). 4) Have plenty of patience when trying to do stuff in China for the first time.

Good luck when you try it yourself. Enjoy the journey.

(Renting a Car in China/ Learn Chinese Blog/ 1on1Mandarin)