Disclaimer: This information is based on our experience gathered during our first trip through China from early September to end of November 2015 (90 days) entering from and exiting to Laos. Things tend to change and may also be handled differently in different provinces or at different border posts. Check with your agency for the latest updates on guidelines and regulations. Changes for the following year are typically announced in October - as far as we have heard the changes for 2016 are very minor and will not impact anything we list here.
Self-Driving in China
Visa: Your tour agency will provide you with an invitation letter that is approved by the tourism ministry. This invitation letter (adding your itinerary might help), your application form and a passport picture should be enough to get you your visa - in theory. Depending on where you apply for your visa there are some limitations. For example the embassies and consulates in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia only issue tourist visas for 30 days - independent of your invitation letter (for me - after a few visits - Chiang Mai issued a double entry visa, 30 days each). For some countries (e.g Turkey) they don’t issue visa at all. So depending on your planned length of stay you must choose different options which are extending the visa in China or getting the visa in your home country where longer tourist visa (e.g. 90 days) can be issued. In our case it also required our agency to sending the original invitation letter off to our home countries as they would not issue visa from a PDF copy only. So in the end Berna had a 90 day tourist visa issued in Istanbul and I went for the double entry from Chiang Mai - allowing me to experience the visa extension process in China.
Visa Extension: China allows you to extend your visa once you are in the country. There are general rules to it but it seems that it is easier in some towns than in others. Despite the fact that you may read that a second extension is possible PSB (public security bureau, the police arm responsible for it) assured us that it is not. Also, the duration of the extension granted may vary and depends on the “individual assessment” of your situation by PSB. The maximum is 30 days but can be significantly less. You can apply for the extension one week before your visa expires at any local PSB office (basically in any bigger town). Expect the extension to be issued anywhere from within 24 hours to one week, depending on where you apply. I applied in Lijiang and it took 36 hours. For the extension you need to take a passport picture at a local shop that sends the electronic version of it directly to the PSB (you will also have to sign a form confirming that this is you), fill in the application form (with one additional passport picture) and bring your Registration Voucher (either issued by your hotel or a local police office if you stay in your van). PSB will issue a new visa (with new number!) showing until when you are permitted to stay in China. The cost for the extension is 160RMB.
Permissions: For self driving in China you need a few things. First there is the permission from the central government to do it. This permission also lists all provinces you are allowed to drive in, so be careful when you do your planning! You also need a temporary driving license, number plates and insurance (see below). Depending on where you want to go in China you might need additional permits. This applies for example to Tibet. And if you want to visit certain areas in Tibet you might need again additional permits (e.g. to visit Everest base camp). So again, planning is of essence if you don’t want to miss out on certain things. The permissions for Tibet are only issued shortly before your planned date of entry into Tibet, so be ready for a plan B in case they are not granted!
Temporary Driving License and Number Plates: Both are issued near the port of entry (for Laos it is done in Mengla). All the prep work should be done by your agency so that you can get all that within a day. For the number plates you have to run through a short technical test at a testing center that essentially checks the breaks and lights of your car. You also need an insurance but again, your agency should have organised that. We have heard of medical exams that people had to run through in order to get the temporary driving license and waiting periods of up to 4 days. We have also heard that the ports of entry into Tibet and Xinjiang are more strict than Mohan.
Entering China: Entering China is like entering any other country with your own car. The only difference is that you will have your local guide helping you through the process which makes you for most of it the waiting by-stander who doesn’t understand a word. Make sure that your agency provided you with the name and phone number of your guide as the border police will not process you without him, he will have all required documents and with your visa at hand it will not take long and you will drive in China. Your agency should also have arranged a customs agent that handles the deposit (China does not accept ATA CDP, so you will already have paid a deposit of $10’000.- for your car or $1’000.- for a motorbike via your agency) and customs work. As described above the next stop will be the testing center to get your temporary driving license and number plates - then you are truly allowed to drive in China.
Driving in China: China is not India! You will directly realise that when looking at the road conditions. With very few exceptions the road quality is on par with Europe or even better with new high-speed roads being opened almost on a weekly basis. The toll collected on high-speed roads varies depending on the road type with mountainous high-ways with lots of tunnels and bridges at about 1RMB/km and “simple” highways at 0.3RMB/km (for our truck with about 10tons).
Motorbikes are not allowed on high-speed roads so if you plan to travel as a group think twice if you want to include motorbikes in it as it will make you take secondary roads all the time. This might be scenic but distances can be quite significant and depending on your itinerary this might be a challenge and make for less relaxed driving.
We only encountered police and military checkpoints along the border to Laos and Vietnam and in Tibet and occasionally at province borders. They were always friendly and professional and mostly only checked our paperwork. Tibet has a system of traffic police checkpoints that issue speed limits similar to “section control” in some European countries. You will receive a paper slip with a time assigned before which you shouldn’t arrive at the next checkpoint. The distance between checkpoints varies from a few tens of kilometres to several hundreds and typically limits your average speed to 40 to 60km/h - you can take your time and have lunch in between or just enjoy the view as it is very expensive to disrespect these limits…
Be aware that it is close to impossible to enter any bigger city with your camper as height-limits are enforced using huge metal constructions. The limits are typically set to 2.50m and sometimes even to 2.10m.
Fuel is easy to get and the net of petrol stations is very dense. Diesel comes in different qualities called e.g. 0 (for 0°C), -20 (for -20°C) etc. In Tibet you need your passport to get fuel. Petrol stations don’t take western credit cards so be prepared to pay cash (0°C diesel at time of writing about 5.50RMB/L).
Internet: Be aware that once you enter China you are behind the “great Chinese firewall”. Many things you might take for granted elsewhere don’t work without VPN. This applies for Google applications such as GMAIL, Google Maps, etc. but also for Facebook, Dropbox and many other web-pages and services. Setup your VPN before you enter China as it will be close to impossible to do so from within or find other alternatives. If you want to use on-line navigation without VPN we can recommend Baidu Maps (similar to Google Maps) for the latest info on the road network.
WiFi access can be found almost anywhere (though sometimes slow) and virtually the whole country is covered with 3G or even 4G data networks if you want to get your own local SIM-card (check that your phone is compatible with Chinese 3G and 4G as only the latest phones adhere to the standard used in China).
If you intend to chat with locals get a WeChat account - it's like a combination of WhatsApp and FaceBook with a lot of cool features. "Everyone" in China is on WeChat!
Overlanding: In general we found it very easy to find places to stay for our Rouletout. In mainland China you can actually “camp” anywhere, just make sure your guide has also a place to stay not too far away. Our camp sites ranged from parkings near city parks to wild foresty areas. We found local people always helpful and curious and it typically didn’t take long until the first visit in our mobile home. In few cities in Tibet police requires you to check in into a hotel and we typically found an arrangement and were able to stay in our truck on the hotel parking.
Water is easy to get as most Chinese trucks have water-cooled breaks and re-fill stations are plenty (make sure you have an adapter for 1 inch hoses).
Gas is available anywhere. Best is to get a Chinese bottle and adapter and use that as we heard that only Chinese bottles are re-filled at the filling stations (we tried to get our Thai bottle filled without success).
Money: As mentioned above, with the exception of some international hotels don’t expect your credit cards to be accepted anywhere. ATM’s in most rural areas don’t accept western cards (credit cards or Maestro). In most cases even in cities only Bank of China and ICBC ATM’s allow you to use western cards to get cash. So if you enter from Laos it might take until Kunming to get cash.