Driving in China
This article is a travel topic
Most visitors find they have enough trouble surviving Chinese traffic without actually taking the wheel. It is generally best to just rent a car with a driver or employ a driver if you buy a car. Because of Chinese wages, the cost of the driver is quite low.
You can drive in China as long as you have a valid driver's license. A fast-tracked way is to obtain a Temporary Driver’s License (Hong Kong-, Macau- or Taiwan-issued licenses are not considered Chinese licenses.) As of September 2019, the PRC published new rules. Foreign visitors can now apply for a temporary driver's license much easier, the new rule allows foreign visitors obtain the temporary driver's license at the same day, without taking the medical test and traffic exam. The requirement documents are: a) Passport; b) A valid overseas driver's license; c) The translation copy of your overseas driver's license (if you are a holder of Temporary Chinese Driving Permit)
One possible method for a foreigner to get a Mainland license is to take the following action: in Hong Kong, convert your foreign license into a Hong Kong license for about US$120. Then, go to Mainland (Shenzhen is probably the easiest place) and convert your HK license into a Mainland license. Though this may have worked in the past, foreigners are no longer allowed to convert a HK license into a Mainland license unless you have a HK identity card, which requires seven years of residency in HK or birth there. This is NO LONGER TRUE. Anyone, including Hong Kong born people MUST take the written exam if converting the HK driver's license to a mainland one.
On January 1, 2013 a new motor vehicle driver training teaching and examination syllabus came into force in China. The new pool of exam questions has been extensively updated and 90% of the questions are new. The new question bank is not going to be published by the Traffic Management Bureau as it is their intention that students must learn the traffic regulations and understand the intention of the rules rather than memorize answers to questions.
It is quite possible to pass the test all by yourself.Paperwork includes photos, medical exam and translation of home country driver's license. Except for the medical exam, the paperwork (registration for the test, testing, fetching license (Beijing mails licenses)) is all done in the driving test centre, eg. in Xili for Shenzhen area. It is quite time expensive though, because you have to go there at least twice assuming you have all your necessary paperwork. Intermediate companies can help you simplify the process (Sante in Beijing or one of the many small driving schools in Shenzhen) for a fee.
The test can be done everywhere in at least English and although the English questions are not officially available for study anymore, English translations can be found online or via Apps. For example www.chinesedriverslicensetest.com. You should use an app or webpage to practice, the current batch of questions appear to have been machine translated. There are a number of non-intuitive aspects to offical legal chinese driving that are on the test but not observable in practice as well as questions about punishments for leaving a scene.
In most places, private tutoring is allowed given common sense and reasonable care: that means in practice that at least one person in the car must have a valid license but not necessarily the driver.
At least in some cities electric scooters are legally treated as bicycles. You may to register the e-bike (e.g. Beijing as of 2018) and you may need a bicycle license (or not) which is cheaper and easier than a motorcycle license. You do not need a driver's license to ride it. Some cities completely ban the use of electric bicycles. There may be restrictions in where you can ride it, eg: not in the main traffic lanes.
Provisional driver's license at Beijing Capital Airport
A provisional driver's license can be obtained easily at Terminal 3 of Beijing Capital Airport. A description of the procedure from 2012 including pictures and forms can be found online.
As of February 2017 the procedure at Beijing Capital Airport required the following documents (see image on the right):
With all these documents completed, the officer at the traffic police office on the first floor of Terminal 3, just east of door 7 (office hours as of Sept 2019 are Monday to Sunday 08:30 to 11:00 and 12:30 to 16:30) will issue the provisional driver's license. Cost: another 10 CNY. The entire procedure takes about an hour. The driver's license is then accepted by car rental companies.
Please note: you have to go to another office (Beijing Capital International Airport Public Security Bureau, Erwei Rd, just southeast of the airport, open 8:30-11:30am and possibly also in the afternoon, closed Saturdays) if you are nationals of Turkey, Pakistan and Iran! updated July 2017
Self Drive tours
There are self-drive tours of various areas, often with service that includes getting a China Drivers License for the foreign driver and renting a car for the trip included:
In mainland China, traffic drives on the right-hand side of the road. Various neighbors — Hong Kong, Macau, India, Nepal and Pakistan — drive on the left.
The official driving code in the People's Republic of China is the Road Traffic Safety Law of the People's Republic of China (中华人民共和国道路交通安全法). It applies to all vehicles in China except military vehicles.
A vehicle with a government or military, (including police and fire departments) plates are white but occasionally blue, may not follow any rules. It may run a red light or simply go in the wrong direction or weave in and out of traffic. (This is not too different from how every other car drives.)
There is a supplementary regulation to the Road Traffic Safety Law (中华人民共和国道路交通安全法实施条例)which specifies how specific regulations in the main law are supposed to be carried out.
Increasingly, Chinese Police tend to accept the IDP (also called IDL or IDD) or translations to the format of an IDP. They focus very much on their on-the-spot judgment of the driver's being sufficiently skilled and experienced to drive safely with respect to his own and others safety. (But be careful if you want to use a IDL as it is not officially accepted in China, and driving without a Chinese license can get you up to 14 days' imprisonment. In Shenzhen, for example it is currently illegal to do so and you will be very likely checked as foreigner. Especially when you pass the SEZ checkpoints.)
In case of an accident, if it is minor as a scrape, most people just drive on. If you stop and agree about whatever, you can then continue. It is common that the failing driver pay about 100 yuan or so to the other driver, and that is then the end of the matter. If you disagree, you must not move the cars until the police arrive, which can take time. This also results in many of the massive traffic jams you will encounter on Chinese roads. They usually check registration and licenses and photograph the incident. In case of personal injury, you should stop and offer assistance. It is highly unlikely that a person not involved in the accident from the general public will offer any assistance outside of perhaps helping you phone the police. Police response time can be poor or very slow. Chinese are very hesitant to offer assistance because of a supposed fear of being sued and the supposed fact that person who phones for an ambulance must pay the bill. At least this is the conventional wisdom.
Beware of large imported luxury cars, or anyone who dare drive without a license plate. Sometimes they belong to gangsters or young, immature relatives of senior party or other officials, who consider themselves to be above the law which, unfortunately, is very often the case.
If you suspect that the police have taken bribes from the other party, which often happens, make them aware that you know about the Ministry of Supervision (which ruthlessly deals with corruption) or the Tourist Complaint Board. It can have a profound effect on procedures. Police in China are usually very helpful and understanding towards visitors but biases have been reported against foreigners regarding blame in traffic accidents.
Speed limits are as follows, unless otherwise stated by signs:
Tolerance is generally around 10 km/h (6 mph). Some expressways may have tolerance set all the way up to 20 km/h (12 mph); however, anything around 15 km/h (9 mph) to 20 km/h (12 mph) over the stated speed limit is relatively high risk.
Speed traps are conveniently identified with the characters "雷达测速区" (radar speed check zone) or "超速摄像" (speeding detection camera).
Penalties for exceeding the speed limits are as follows:
Speeding is common to normal in cities and in the countryside adding to the already dangerous driving environment. Some enforcement can be found on the expressway systems.
The physical condition of roads and road maintenance varies greatly from municipality to municipality with the Western provinces being poorer than the east-coast and the Guangzhou region. As the building and maintenance of roads are mostly funded by local government, you may notice a sharp change when crossing provincial borders. Places with decent economy have superb infrastructure.
When possible, drive near the middle-right of the road as drain covers may be missing. The side of the road could be a mixture of pedestrian, bicycles and tricycles, animals, drain well without covers, and sometimes farmers use part of the road to dry the grains.
Turning off of main roads may require technical off-road driving skills and equipment, and at some places it is illegal.
In major city roads traffic is often congested, even on the myriad of city ring roads (except those on the outer fringes of the city). Beijing comes in at the worst (comparatively), despite five ring roads and nine arterial expressways. Shanghai ranks relatively better, with elevated expressways and tunnels.
The congestion is far more complex than that in Western countries. There are crowds of pedestrians to contend with. Bicycles swarm everywhere even in the dark. In recent years, the electric scooter/bike has become quite popular. Economic prosperity has made it affordable for many Chinese to own cars and the number of cars on the road has increased dramatically. In many areas, there are also lots of motorcycles. Three wheeled carts powered by motorcycle engines are also common. In the smaller cities, anything from tractors to bullock carts may turn up!
China National Highways
Some National and Provincial Highways are toll roads, despite not expressways. Also note some National Highways are rebuilt to expressway standards, and tolled. Their only difference from National Expressways are red GXXX (e.g. G102 in Beijing) signs instead of green GX/GXX/GXXXX for National Expressways.
G-level (national-Red Sign) China National Highways are those linking medium-sized cities, usually a pleasure to drive on. The speed limit is 80 km/h (50 mph), but cars sometimes zip at speeds over 100 km/h (62 mph), thanks to the relative absence of speed detection cameras compared to National Expressways. However, many of them are decades old, and due to heavy travel by overweight trucks, have poorer condition, and local government may have ongoing reconstruction of them.
S-level (provincial-Yellow Sign) highways connects counties, and may be less smooth to drive on. Unlike national highways, sometimes there is no central reservation or road separation, and you may be limited to one lane per direction. However, due to city expansion/some metropolitan area forming, some S-level roads are new, wide roads better than National Highways.
X-level (county-White Sign, although rarely displayed) highways are those linking townships. Not necessarily the worst to drive on, but they are challenging. More challenging are township-level highways. Some of these roads may be in areas officially cordoned off to the visiting foreigner.
National Expressways are China's equivalent of Interstate, a massive network similar to National Highways. Unlike US, few National Highways are absorbed by it (e.g. G312 between Hefei and Nanjing), so there are two full-fledged networks, with Expressways much better but have tighter restriction on vehicles. Almost ALL Expressways are tolled (there are also Provincial Expressways, not much different, and a new National expressway may be formed out of several provincial expressways just by changing planning and signs)
National Expressways are marked by G and 1, 2 or 4 digits, Provincial with S instead.
Expressways and express routes in China are a godsend, with traffic signs in both English and Chinese, emergency facilities, service areas, sufficient filling stations, plenty of exits, high speed limits, and the relative lack of traffic jams. However, when one does occur expect to wait several hours or in rare cases even days for the traffic to clear as damaged cars or trucks or usually not taken off the roadway after the accident resulting in kilometer upon kilometer of jammed roadways. Furthermore, this will result in drivers jockeying for position and jamming the emergency shoulder adding further waiting time to the traffic jam and potentially more accidents. Traffic jams once exceeded 100km on G6 (reconstruction and closure occurred on parallel G110 National Highway, affecting travel between Beijing, Zhangjiakou and Inner Mongolia, with no other option other than G6 at that time), making worldwide news.
Although in English, both express routes and expressways are referred to as "expressways", their Chinese counterparts are named differently. "Express routes" are written 快速公路 (literally fast-speed road), whereas expressways are written as 高速公路 (lit. high-speed road). The idea is that express routes operate within a metropolitan area, but expressways do the national work, liaising from one centre to another. However, the difference is now not clear, with expressways sometimes have a speed limit of 110 or 100 instead of standard 120. City-road like express routes are also being called expressways, such as Tongzhou-Yanjiao Expressway in Beijing, and Airport Expressway in many cities.
Expressway can function as a city road in very large cities, the most notorious is Badaling Expressway (now part of G6), connecting central Beijing, Changping and Yanqing. It's one of the most crowded roads in Beijing, and by no means "express" during rush hours.
Do not believe the name of a Expressway. The destination in the name may be unreachable, since construction on different portions may not be synchronous. HanCai(HanYang-Caidian S15 Hubei) Expressway connects HanYang with western cities in Hubei, but once did not have a exit on Caidian in the middle, resulting confused drivers having to detour. G4(Beijing-Hong Kong) would not lead you directly to Hong Kong but terminates at Shenzhen city centre, near a checkpoint. JingTai Expressway (G3)...the "Tai" indeed refers to Taiwan, with a imaginary tunnel under Taiwan Strait (it connects Beijing to Fuzhou anyway, and was once simply called JingFu Expressway, but even by this account, Jian'Ou-Fuzhou portion is still incomplete. However, the network is dense and it's straightforward to use G25 and G70 to cover it)
In 2016, China had over 140,000 road traffic accidents.. In 2013, the World Health Organisation  estimated China had 18.8 deaths per 100,000 population. This number is approximately twice that of the USA (10.6) and four times that of Europe (5).
To a newcomer, Chinese traffic appears to have no rules or, if there are rules, it appears they are neither followed nor enforced. In reality, of course, there are rules; they do generally manage to avoid hitting each other. However, Chinese rules are very different from what most travelers are used to.
Do not assume that Chinese drivers will follow any rule you know. this article). Therefore there is absolutely no point getting angry if someone cuts you off or drives against the red light or on the wrong side of the road. You simply yield and carry on as if nothing had happened.
Every car/driver has a "body language" which predicts what they will do next. It is essential to learn this "body language" and drive by it. If you are driving down a four lane road, and the lane in front of the taxi to the right of you and slightly ahead of you is blocked, the lane ahead is free, you should immediately assume the taxi will move left into your lane without any warning. This sort of thinking ahead, or defensive driving, can help you avoid many problems but of course you cannot predict everything that may happen.
Another way to look at it is that there are only two rules you must obey, both equally important. Don't hit anything, and don't get hit by anything.
Despite all the above, many foreigners do drive in China and, after adapting, some feel reasonably comfortable and confident about it.
The Mindset of a Chinese driver
Another point to understand driving in China is that there are lots of people and that affects how they interact with each other. For example, w Foreign drivers must try to adapt to this (or, perhaps more sensibly, give up and take taxis or hire a driver). You do not have to learn to drive like a Chinese, but at least you should not be surprised when they do. In the absence of road signage, the rules of the road specify that the vehicle ahead has right of way (see Right of Way section in buying tickets, instead of lining up in an orderly queue, they crowd around and push their way in. In Canada, if this happened, a fight would start. In China, they just go about their business. On the road you see similar behavior; everybody jostling to get ahead. However, you seldom see behaviors such as road rage. (This is not completely true. It depends on which province. In Liaoning you will often encounter fist fights during disturbances. This will happen not only between men but also women. And you do not have to be part of the "accident" to participate. Anyone in the generally incensed crowd can participate.)
In the UK, you can often get away with certain things, such as parking on pavements, and waiting in no-parking areas, as enforcement of traffic rules for some laws is lax and for expediency, drivers bend the rules in some places. If you choose to break the rules, you use your own judgement when doing so. The same thing applies when driving in China. Since a number of traffic violations are not strictly enforced.
With all the chaos on the road, Chinese drivers tend to be more liberal with the horn. Driving is a noisy affair. They use their horn to bring awareness to other drivers and to remind other drivers they are there. Large vehicles such as trucks and buses have loud air horns and will blare them when overtaking vehicles. In western countries, a horn is used when immediate danger is sensed. It is considered rude to honk the horn, but Chinese drivers do it constantly to communicate with others. The Chinese written driving test even recommends using the horn or flashing lights in addition to indicator lights when overtaking.
Right of way
The concept of right-of-way is quite different in China than in many other countries. "First is Right," or less succinctly, any vehicle with a slight position lead or access to a gap before another vehicle has de-facto right of way to enter that gap. This essentially allows for any driver the habit of cutting right out into the traffic flow forcing the opposing vehicle to either stop or crash. This rule applies to lane changes too that can come at anytime from any angle. Be alert to brake at any moment! If you do not force your way in, you will not ever be allowed to enter the flow of traffic at busy sections.
Merging: vehicles depart from intersections, side streets, alleys and parking lots, merging onto any road without yielding to traffic already underway on that road (and often apparently without a glance at oncoming traffic). If the merging driver can reach any opening in traffic, the oncoming cars are expected to yield and allow the merge.
Lane Changes: lane changes and turns are more often than not signaled, but then the "first is right" rule reigns, and yielding is expected of a trailing vehicle, even if only trailing by a small margin. Imagine where the collision dent will be: if someone enters your lane and you strike the side of their vehicle, it will be assumed that you failed to yield even though they cut you off.
Left turns: at intersections, upon a green-from-red light change, vehicles intending to turn left across straight-through traffic will usually enter the intersection to accomplish their turn before straight-through traffic can proceed. While this may be reasonable in intersections without a dedicated Left Turn Arrow, expect this to occur even if there is little or no straight-through traffic approaching the intersection. Allowing the turning vehicle(s) to complete the maneuver is the best practice. Such turns are aided by the "yellow-before-green" traffic light sequence common in China. Furthermore, observe this protocol and use a "red-to-green" light change as de-facto Left Turn Arrow. If possible use a leading turning vehicle as a shield. Be aware that vehicles behind you (using you as a shield) will often try to veer to either side of you, completing their turn without regard for your situation.
(Note that large intersections may have specific left turn lights, which eliminates this problem, but beware of intersections that have signs PROHIBIT left turns during certain hours--neglect this and you may be caught by police and fined. Chinese drivers often complain about these intersections)
As always, "first is right"; trailing traffic is expected to yield. In other words, a "new" green light is usually regarded as a "left arrow", unless a left turn light is present.
Regarding left-hand turns in general; a vehicle desiring to turn left across oncoming traffic will not consistently yield to oncoming, established traffic and await a "safe" opening. Any opening may be exploited, the required minimum size of the opening apparently depends on the left turning driver's sense of self-preservation (larger vehicles and poorer quality vehicles will take more chances). Oncoming vehicles that slow in wariness of a possible ill-advised turn, will often prompt the turning driver to commit. Oncoming drivers are advised to continue without pause, while preparing for heavy braking or lane changes to accommodate the turner.
In summary, in western countries, the general rule is cars should yield to avoid disrupting and impeding already flowing traffic. The "first is right" rule violates this general rule. In western countries a common traffic pattern in a city is stop, wait for traffic signal, race to next traffic light and repeat. They may be moving to fast to yield to other cars. In China, vehicles can be expected to yield at any time, and traffic in cities tends moves in a slow, steady manner.
Car-pedestrian interactions are complicated; ubiquitous pedestrians, bikes, and cycles, often acting oblivious or even negligent toward surrounding traffic, are generally considered to have possessed Right of Way in any collision between them and a vehicle. If a larger vehicle strikes a pedestrian or rider, the larger vehicle will generally be assumed liable. Bearing that in mind, vehicles will use their speed and security advantage, and often the horn, to maneuver through even densely occupied crossings. Aware pedestrians will generally expect a vehicle will force through a walk way, and are often confused if the vehicle halts to allow them passage. Painted cross walks (white bars painted on road ways) are hardly typically observed as "pedestrian protected" areas, but woe to a driver who strikes a pedestrian there. Never assume a driver will actually stop for you at a marked crossing. Drivers will actually push anything in front of them off the sidewalk or side of the road, it is assumed you will move out of their way.
The "first is right" rule can be applied to car-pedestrian interactions too. If you are standing on a sidewalk at a cross walk, the driver will assume they were there first and will not yield to you. If you, the pedestrian, are already crossing, a car will have no choice but to slow down or drive around you to avoid you.
The general rule appears to be keep moving no matter what. Cutting people off, swerving into the oncoming lane, driving on the shoulder, or in a fenced-off bicycle lane, or the wrong way down a divided highway are all fine as long as they keep you moving in the right general direction and do not cause an immediate accident. If you were to wait for every person, scooter, or car, you could be in for a very long and frustrating wait. In some situations, it is perfectly normal to see cars and trucks and motorcycles all on the sidewalk along with pedestrians and bikes all going their own separate ways! Taxis are the worst offenders of this very dangerous habit.
Running red lights
Chinese drivers are known to go through red lights if there is no opposing traffic although in recent years this is being rapidly clamped down with increasing fines for traffic violations.
A retired teacher in Lanzhou became a bit of a hero on the Chinese Internet in 2009 with his campaign to make an intersection near his home safer. He took to hurling bricks at cars that ran the lights  and hit over 30 before the police turned up.
Many drivers of very large construction trucks prefer to drive late at night (10pm-4am) on many roads such as the Jingmilu (Beijing). These drivers are paid by how many trips they make and because of this they are notorious among Chinese and Expatriates for running red lights, seemingly without slowing down.
As the car culture grows in China, the rules have become stricter. For example, in places where there are red light cameras to capture cars running red lights, cars will stop to avoid the fines.
Two-way traffic everywhere
Bicycles and motorcycles and sometimes cars ignore one-way signs. On divided highways, seeing pedestrians, bicycles and motorcycles going the wrong way down the shoulder is entirely normal, and a few go the wrong way beside the center fence. A typical situation you may encounter is a two way road with traffic in opposite directions and center median or fence that prevents vehicles from crossing. There will be gaps in certain parts of the medians to allow left turns. If a vehicle attempting to make a left turn out of a driveway finds there is no gap in the median immediately in front of the driveway, they will usually enter road and drive the wrong way along the center median until they can find a gap and merge into the opposing lane that goes in the correct direction. Another situation where they drive the wrong way is if a vehicle wants to make a left turn off a two-way road with the center median or fence and drive into a driveway, but the driveway is not conveniently located near a gap in the median or fence. They will cross the center median in a gap before their destination driveway, drive the wrong way in the oncoming traffic lane, and exit the road when they reach their driveway. These maneuvers save the effort of traveling a distance and making a u-turn.
At traffic circles (roundabouts), drivers hate going around the island in the middle if they can avoid it; they will often just swing left instead. Lane markings are also routinely ignored; for example, taxis often go straight through an intersection via a lane marked as left turn only, because that gets them past other cars.
On newer roads there may be, for example, a roughly triangular traffic island southeast of an actual intersection to facilitate right turns. Two sides are roads; the third is a curving lane intended for drivers making a right turn from northbound to eastbound. In China, drivers turning left from westbound to southbound routinely use that lane.
Many Chinese cities have bicycle lanes fenced off on either side of the road. These lanes will carry two-way traffic regardless of the direction of the traffic flow: including bicycles and motorcycles plus the occasional car, truck and pedestrians. Cars routinely take to these lanes if traffic in the main lanes is jammed; they then honk at bicyclists to force them out of the way using their horn as a form of "sonic plow" clearing the way in front of them. The driver is operating under the assumption you will move and if you don't move in a timely fashion you are risking being struck down if walking or on a bicycle and will most likely be blamed.
Even the sidewalks often carry two-way bicycle and motorcycle traffic, plus the odd car going to or from a parking spot. Cars again operate under the assumption they own the sidewalk and its up to you to get out of their way. Again, even on the sidewalks, vehicles honk at pedestrians to get them out of their way.
Lorry drivers may not bother with switching on lights at night. You should. Switch on your headlamps--all lights on, in fact, if there is no other vehicle approaching you. Please be aware - if the local police catch you in a vehicle with lights on during daytime, or off during nighttime, you will be fined.
Few Chinese drivers seem to know about dimming their headlights for approaching cars. Except on some freeways, driving at night is unpleasant and dangerous. Avoid it if at all possible.
When driving at night, be very aware that people often walk in the middle of the road, with the back to the oncoming traffic, in dark clothes. This is one reason local drivers do not often dip the lights. In the country, there may even be people sleeping on the road.
Bicycles very rarely have lights and many do not even have reflectors. Motorcycles often run at night without lights. Both are sometimes on the wrong side of the road. On country roads, electric bike riders turn off their lights to save battery power.
Overtaking on the right, despite being illegal, is very common in China. One reason is that slow vehicles often drive in the center lane of multi-lane roads, If you find yourself behind such a vehicle and want to pass on the right, be alert for anything from motorcycles to horse-drawn carts in the right lane.
Public buses and many private buses, rather than acting as professional drivers responsible to their human cargo, are often among the most aggressive drivers; Many in the countryside routinely ignore stoplights or fail to slow while turning, will pass stopped or slower traffic even if this requires using the oncoming traffic lanes, and will often employ their sheer size to enforce merging. Again, "first is right": if the front of a vehicle hits the side or rear of another vehicle, the front-dented vehicle is assumed at fault, no matter the circumstances that preceded the collision.
New drivers are often marked with the label 实习, but their driving quality varies. Stay away from them if you can--they are often overwhelmed by the traffic as well.
The Chinese climate is generally conducive to motorcycle riding, and you see bikes in many cities across China. However, the traffic is definitely not easy to cope with. The Chinese bureaucracy is no better. It can be quite difficult for a foreigner to get the drivers license, insurance and permits to travel around China on their personal motorcycle. Despite that, quite a few foreign residents have bikes and some tourists may want to try it. Remember for a motorcycle to be legal, it needs to be legally registered with a license plate; you must have insurance and a Chinese motorcycle license.
There are some restrictions. Motorcycles are forbidden on most freeways and some cities forbid them in the downtown core in an effort to control traffic congestion. For example, motorcycles are banned from downtown Guangzhou, Dongguan, Shenzhen, Zhuhai and Hangzhou, and there are restrictions in Beijing and Shanghai. Riding a motorcycle into these prohibited areas can lead to fines and possible confiscation of the bike. There can also be licensing complications; for example in some cities (such as Beijing,) only motorcycles registered within the metropolitan area can be legally ridden.
One of the reasons motorcycles are banned in cities like Dongguan is because of the amount of motorcyle drive-by robberies common back in the 1990's and early 2000's. In the past, it was not uncommon to see two males on a motorcycle drive-by and pull necklaces and snatch purses from female victims.
Most Chinese motorcycles are 125 cc, with 50, 90 and 150 also moderately common. There are also many scooters and three-wheel motorcycle-based cargo vehicles, most with 125 cc engines. At least in some cities you cannot register anything larger than 250 cc. A 125 cc plain-jane Suzuki sells for around ¥4000 ($600 US). A fancier bike with road racer or off-road pretensions would be a bit more, a Chinese brand somewhat less. Some Chinese companies build their own chassis but buy engine/transmission assemblies from Suzuki or Honda; these are probably the best value. Of course, at the lowest end are simply bicycles that have been fitted with engines to function like motorcycles, something probably seen only in China.
You can also find imported Japanese bikes in most cities. Look on the outskirts for motorcycle repair shops and eventually you will find one with some older model XR's or CBR's or the like. A 10 year old CBR400 should be about ¥4000 in good shape. The Honda XR250 is also fairly common but are a bit more expensive around ¥10,000 for a 5 to 8 year old bike. The laws are not very clear on these bikes, if you buy one be careful of the police they may confiscate the bike. In 2006, a few foreigners in Shanghai were detained and evicted for unlicensed riding.
Few imported motorcycles meet the homologation requirements, including some BMW and Honda. Even if they are considered "big bikes", they can be registered in some Chinese cities. Ask the selling shops for help.
Jialing and Zhongzhen started selling 600 cc motorcycles on the Chinese market, price including registration should start at about ¥35,000.
Many Chinese often ride without helmets, or only the male will wear one, or with the helmet on but the chin strap usually undone. Three people or more on a motorcycle or two on a bicycle is completely normal, as is having passengers ride sidesaddle. It is moderately common to see up to five on a motorcycle. There is a fairly well-known photo of nine people on a motorcycle, but Snopes says it is partly bogus  — the original photo only had eight (two adult couples and four children) and an extra baby was photo-shopped in. Loads of a cubic meter or so are common for both bicycles and motorcycles, and much larger loads are sometimes seen.
All in all considering how dangerous driving in China can be, riding a motorbike there by choice is only for the adventurous and not for the faint hearted.
The most interesting bikes in China are Chang Jiang . Back in the 1930s, BMW designed a 750 cc flat twin side-valve sidecar rig for the German army. They were built in the Soviet Union because the treaty of Versailles forbade the Germans to build military equipment, including motorcycles, and at the time Hitler and Stalin were on good terms. At the end of the war, the Russians took the entire factory in Germany as well, moved the whole operation to the Urals and continued producing bikes to that design. The Russian brands are called Dnieper and Ural. They also gave or sold China the equipment and Chang Jiang are the result. There's also a modernized version with overhead valves and electric starter. These are not your high performance sport bike; even the new OHV model is only 32 horsepower. However, they were designed for military use and are very solidly built. They are about ¥20,000. They are invariably sold and ridden with the sidecar; it might not be possible to license them without it.
There are lots of older Chang Jiangs around and if you buy one that is old enough, it may be classed as an antique vehicle. This might mean it is exempt from your country's import restrictions; most safety and pollution laws have some sort of exemption for antiques. This is risky: some people have lost bikes at customs. You need a thorough understanding of your country's regulations before even considering it.
One vendor that does this type of export is Sidecar Solutions  in Beijing. They also rent bikes, organize tours, and help with Chinese drivers licenses. Another Beijing Chiang Jiang specialist with similar services is Gerald . Shanghai has a dealer called Wild Wolf Sidecar  and a motorcycle club  that includes many Chiang Jiang riders. It is common for a rebuilt machine from one of these vendors to cost somewhat more than a new bike straight from the factory would; people say they are worth it because of the better quality control.
A real fanatic might consider riding a Chang Jiang from China to Europe using routes in the Europe to South Asia over land and Silk Road itineraries. You could get service on the bikes in Russia from people familiar with Dnieper and Ural; some parts are even interchangeable.
There are motorcycle-based tours of various areas, often with rental of a Chang Jiang included:
Electric scooters are common and cheaper than motorcycles (¥1,500 for a base model, ¥3,500 for the top-of-the-line). While they lack the horsepower and range of a motorcycle, they are quieter, cleaner, lighter, and easier to maintain. Beware however that while in terms of emission and noise pollution they are a welcome choice for China's overcrowded and choked urban roads, but they are very very silent and often you will not hear them coming at all until its too late. This of course makes the danger of a serious collision with a pedestrian common. Scooters come with a battery (or batteries) that are usually removable as well as rechargeable from a household outlet. At least in some cities, these vehicles are licensed as a bicycle so one does not need a driver's license to ride them and may take advantage of bike lanes and sidewalks (if present) to circumvent traffic. However, like motorcycles, some cities have banned them. The alleged reason is that many motorized bikes are being used in bag snatch crimes. Others suggest it is to make room for people with cars and people movers. Do not expect the majority of electro-bike riders to ever use the headlights at night or dusk.
Scooters are a target for thieves, so always ensure that one of the wheels or, ideally, both are secured with a solid lock. Batteries as well are liable to be stolen and should be locked to the scooter with the built-in mechanism or stored indoors while not in use. Some residences allow for scooters to be brought indoors overnight, which is preferable.
The bulk of used scooter sales are increasingly conducted over the Internet. Native Chinese who are knowledgeable in such matters should be able to direct you to a good website for your particular city. Be sure to understand what to look for when purchasing a used scooter. Most importantly, a scooter's battery, like all forms of batteries, will lose its ability to hold a charge over time. It is often possible to purchase a new battery to go along with a used bike, however.