An international driving permit allows tourists to drive freely in a foreign country. More than 150 countries accept international drivers licenses so that visitors can explore the land on their own terms and on their own time. Even though traffic is not any better in foreign countries and road rules differ from American rules, driving through another country can be an exhilarating experience.

Not all countries permit the use of international drivers licenses, however. One of those countries is China. China has strict rules on who is legally permitted to drive in the country and most tourists are not. However, while China does not accept an IDP in the mainland, tourists are permitted to drive in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau with an international driving permit.

This article will equip you with the knowledge of obtaining an international driving permit for use in approved Chinese regions as well as the procedures to follow if you want to drive in mainland China.

What is a Chinese International Driving Permit?

An international driving permit in China allows you to operate vehicle as a foreign visitor in Taiwan, Hong Kong or Macau. Travelers often ask, “What is IDP and how does it allow me to drive in foreign country?”

Ultimately, an international drivers license is a translation of your state-issued U.S. drivers license. It does not grant you driving privileges but rather transfers the driving privileges you already earned in the US to another language (if necessary).  It verifies your US driving license as valid and up to date.

As mentioned above, China is not one of the international driving permit countries, at least not in its entirety. Your IDP is only valid in:

  • Hong Kong
  • Taiwan
  • Macau

If you wish to drive in mainland China, you will have to go through the process of acquiring a provisional driving license once you arrive in China.

When is an international drivers license necessary in China?

If you are planning to visit Hong Kong, Taiwan or Macau for less than 12 months and prefer to drive yourself around, you will need to apply for an international drivers license. A full or provisional Hong Kong, Taiwan or Macau license is only necessary for travelers who decide to or must stay in those areas for longer than 12 months.

If you are traveling to mainland China and wondering “do I need to get an international driver’s license?” the answer is no. Neither an international driving permit nor a U.S. drivers license will permit you to operate a vehicle in China. You will need to apply for a provisional drivers license at the airport or nearest police station.

You may also begin the process of obtaining a full Chinese driving license if you anticipate your stay to be longer than 12 months. Travelers seeking temporary Chinese licensure must first be approved for a visa of at least 180 days. This license cannot be renewed or extended under the same visa.

Driving in the USA with a foreign license is similar to China’s policy in that the United States prefers for its drivers to have valid US licenses. However, in the U.S., foreigners may drive with an international permit for three months before facing legal penalties.

How do I get a Chinese international driving permit?

A Chinese international driving permit can be easily obtained at an AAA office location. To get the AAA international drivers license, travelers must submit the application along with two 2×2 inch passport-acceptable photos and a form of payment that is not cash.

Another method of applying for the AAA international driving permit is by mail. With this method, you must send in the international drivers license application, photocopies of both sides your drivers license, two identical 2×2 inch photos and a check or money order.  

How long do international driving permits last in China?

When travelers obtain international driving permits, they have a limited time to use them before they expire. These permits are valid for 12 months.

If a foreign traveler continues using his or her IDP in China after that 12 months, he or she will have to undergo the process of earning a driving license there. However, the processes may differ in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau as each location has different procedures.

Where can I get a Chinese international driving permit?

Currently, you can only acquire a Chinese international driving permit in person or by mail. Applicants are not permitted to submit an international drivers license online.

After submitting the appropriate documents, application and fees, however, applicants will receive their permit in the mail in no more than 10 business days after processing. These permits are not available at regular driving license office such as the DMV.

You might already be abroad in China and wondering where to get an international drivers license. In this case, you can mail your application, documents and payment to an AAA office in America. You can also expedite the process by paying extra fees.    

Tips for Avoiding International Drivers License Fraud

There are many dishonest people and businesses offering fraudulent international drivers licenses. Travelers looking for information on how to get an international driver’s license should not seek answers from ads or any private companies.

The only two authorized private companies permitted to issue an international drivers license in the USA are the American Automobile Association and the American Automobile Touring Alliance. Anyone offering an international permit outside of these companies will only supply you with false information and fake documents.

These companies also ask you to pay a fee that is higher than the real AAA international drivers license fee. If you are caught by law enforcement with a fake international driving permit, you might face serious repercussions especially if you are using it as a drivers license or ID card.

Driving Rules in China

The driving rules in mainland China differ from those of the US and Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau. In the mainland and in Taiwan, cars drive on the right-hand side but in Macau and Hong Kong cars are on the left-hand side.

Travelers with international drivers licenses must maintain constant vigilance when driving in foreign countries, especially China. Traffic in China is less organized and structured than in the U.S.: vehicles often drive through red lights without consequences, on opposite sides of the road into oncoming traffic, on sidewalks and in the middle of the road.  

Last updated on Friday, March 6 2020.