Fittingly for a country of its enormity, there are a variety of options when it comes to transport in China. Expats in the People’s Republic have access to buses, trains, subways, ferries and taxis in many cities, and there are also several options for long-distance travel, including high-speed trains, buses and domestic flights.
Walking and cycling are also popular in much of China, as they are cheap and healthy ways of covering short distances. Some cities have public-bicycle hiring programmes as part of their public transport infrastructure.
Driving in China, on the other hand, is a challenge for most expats and is often characterised by chaos and congestion. It may be a good idea for foreigners to get to know their surroundings through public transport before getting behind the wheel.
Public transport in China
Standards vary from city to city, but the wider network of public transport in China is fairly comprehensive. Its train and long-distance bus services make it possible to travel large distances with relative ease.
The national railway network in China is extensive and covers the entire country. China also has railway links with neighbouring countries, and the famous Trans-Siberian Railway reaches Beijing. Expansions and improvements are constantly being made to the country’s rail infrastructure, especially with regards to its high-speed trains. Most of China’s infrastructure is owned and administrated by the state-owned China Railway.
The different types of trains in China operate on different routes and at varying speeds. High-speed trains operate between the major cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen. Expats who have the option to travel by high-speed train should do so as it makes for a more comfortable experience than other trains.
Various travel classes are available on different train services. Long-distance trains generally offer sleeper compartments, allowing passengers to get some rest while travelling. Soft sleepers are most comfortable, followed by hard sleepers, and then there are soft seats and hard seats, the cheapest option.
Tickets can be bought in advance at stations and, because they aren't transferrable, passengers will need to provide proof of ID when travelling by train in China. There are often local railway ticket agencies allowing passengers to purchase tickets in advance but at a higher cost.
Most railway staff don't speak English, so it may be best for expats to enlist the help of a local acquaintance when buying tickets. Expats should also take note that tickets sell out rapidly during national holidays and festivals such as the Chinese New Year. At these times, it's often worth getting tickets through an agent to avoid long station queues.
China's largest cities are home to some of the best – and busiest – metro systems. Each city tends to have a unique rechargeable public transit card that is usable across various modes of transport, including the subway. Metro systems are generally clean and efficient, with short waiting times. Expats concerned about the language barrier when getting around will be relieved that metro stations have maps, signs and announcements in Standard Chinese as well as English.
Taking the metro in China can be a chaotic experience, especially during rush hour. It's best to plan the route out in advance by looking at the colour-coded maps and remembering the name of the destination to avoid getting lost or confused in a crowded station.
Travelling by bus in China is another inexpensive way to get around, although service standards vary widely between relative luxury and incredible discomfort. Large cities operate efficient Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) systems with priority bus lanes, as well as trolleybuses and bus services provided by multiple companies.
Air-conditioned buses with comfortable seating and onboard entertainment frequently travel from the major cities but could cost more than an equivalent train ride. Rural buses, on the other hand, are likely to be a challenging experience. Personnel rarely speak English, signs are usually in Chinese, buses are poorly maintained and delays are common.
Buying bus tickets in China isn't easy for new arrivals to get the hang of. While the large transport terminals in major cities have dedicated ticket counters, expats may find that at smaller stations destinations are simply shouted out while passengers are directed to the relevant bus, and pay while boarding.
Taxis in China
Taxis are readily available in all major cities and are reasonably priced. Rates increase for travelling at night and finding a taxi during peak hours or bad weather can be difficult.
Taxi drivers in China are usually reluctant to accept tips, as it may be seen as a form of corruption, but some drivers will take advantage of foreigners by travelling longer routes. However, even in these instances, the fare difference is minimal. It's always best to use metered taxis – unofficial taxis commonly approach foreigners at airports and tourist attractions and usually overcharge.
Expats should note that even drivers in cities such as Beijing and Shanghai rarely speak English, so it's best to have the destination written down in Chinese. Alternatively, ride-hailing applications such as DiDi are a convenient way of getting a taxi and arriving at the correct destination.
Driving in China
Chinese roads are frantic and defensive driving is a necessity. Lanes aren't always adhered to, hooters are constantly used and it sometimes seems like there's no concept of the right of way. Congestion can also be severe and parking is often impossible to find. On the other hand, there are some English road signs in major tourist destinations.
International Driving Permits aren't recognised in the People's Republic, so expats who want to drive in China will need to get a local licence. Even expats who pass the theoretical and practical test for this might want to reconsider taking to the wheel. The safest way of getting around on four wheels is perhaps to rent a car with a driver who understands local driving etiquette.
Cycling in China
Cycling is a cheap and convenient way of getting around Chinese cities. Thousands of bicycles take to the roads during rush hour and many cities have dedicated cycle paths. Several cities offer bike-sharing programmes and e-bicycles or e-bikes that are easy to rent by scanning a bar code or number plate on the bicycle and paying a fee. Not all cities allow these services in all areas, so be sure about this before renting a bike.
However, given the erratic nature of Chinese traffic, cyclists have to ride defensively, so it may be best for inexperienced cyclists to give it some time before attempting to take to the road.
Bicycle theft is common throughout China. Locks are a deterrent more than anything else and it's best to park in designated areas where a guard can look after the bike for a small fee.
Boat travel in China
China is said to have more navigable waterways than any other country in the world, including rivers, streams, lakes and canals. While waterways are largely used by ships carrying cargo for major shipping and removals logistics, passenger transport by boat is a great way to travel in China. Cities, such as Shanghai and Guangzhou, offer ferry services which conveniently and affordably connects different areas of the city.
Boat cruises also make for a popular sightseeing activity for new arrivals and tourists.
Air travel in China
Given the country’s size, travellers in a hurry often prefer to take a domestic flight to get to their destination. But because flight delays are common, it may be better for passengers travelling shorter distances to use ground-based transport. Expats who want to fly to China and between cities must regularly check flight updates and details.
Several airlines, including Air China, China Southern Airlines, China Eastern Airlines, Shenzhen Airlines and Shanghai Airlines, operate between the major cities and tourist destinations.
Services from mainland Chinese cities to Hong Kong or Macau are considered international flights and are more expensive than other destinations. It's usually cheaper to fly to or from a nearby city such as Shenzhen and cross the border by land.
Prices for flights within mainland China are set at domestic rates, but discounts are often available on the busiest routes. Buying online via a Chinese website or travel agency is generally cheaper than on international channels.
Perhaps unexpectedly, this also means that tickets bought in advance aren't cheaper. Instead, there's usually a lower fare for remaining seats closer to the date of departure. Planes are usually full during peak periods, so it's still best to book well ahead of time in these instances.
"Public transport is also very affordable, safe and convenient. I love being able to walk around anywhere (day or night), without having to worry about my safety...The high-speed trains have changed my experience of long-distance travel forever." Check out this interview with expat Melissa for more on modes of transport in China.
Are you an expat living in China?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to China. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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