When you have lived in China for a little while, you start realizing that riding an electric scooter is the best way to get around your city. Having a scooter (also known as “e-bike” or “moped”) allows you to reach those “remote” locations in between two subway stations, while zig-zagging your way through the traffic jams that are commonplace in cities like Beijing and Shanghai. Personally, I call it freedom on wheels.
For many newcomers to China though, the idea of riding a scooter may seem a bit daunting, never mind knowing how and where to get a scooter in the first place. Here I will address all of the common fears and obstacles you encounter when you consider getting a scooter, one by one:
It Looks Dangerous AF
“Dangerous” is relative, to be honest. Yes, if you come from Canada or Australia, the traffic in China can seem totally wild at first. But to be honest, the traffic flow in China is actually pretty tame compared to many countries in South America or Africa, and maybe even some Mediterranean cities like Napoli!
When you start driving a bicycle/scooter/car at the beginning, of course you will be tense and you need to be extremely cautious. But after a few times you will have a good feel for the road and other drivers’ behaviour, and you will be fine. The general theme when driving in China is to not be hesitant — make it obvious what you are about to do and do it. Also, use your scooter horn to let people know you are about to go past them.
Once you are used to driving in China’s traffic, having a scooter is very rewarding. It makes life flexible and saves A TON of time — it is a much more efficient way of getting around short-to-medium distances than walking/subway or taxi/traffic.
What about Legality/Documentation?
For electric scooters in China, you do not need a license or insurance to ride them. For any motorized bikes, including small 125 cc gas bikes, you are required to have a motorcycle driver’s license.
However, since 2017 in Beijing and Shanghai, you are required to register your electric scooter in order to have it on the road. This means that you must take your purchase documents (receipt/fapiao) and your passport to apply for the license plate that you hang on the back of your scooter. If you are caught riding a scooter without a plate, your scooter will be confiscated. If you buy a second hand scooter from someone else, ask for the registration card, because there is a chance that their license plate might not be real. With a properly registered scooter, you should always have in your possession: 1) blue license plate for the scooter 2) a paper registration card 3) your fapiao for the scooter purchase.
License plates are not yet enforced in most other cities in China, even in the surrounding suburbs of Shanghai for example. Therefore, if you live in a second- or third-tier city in China then things are much more wild west and you have a lot more freedom when it comes to getting a scooter. Some cities, such as Shenzhen, have more or less banned electric scooters altogether for the sake of “better city appearance”, so my condolences if you live in Shenzhen.
If you buy a brand new scooter from a legitimate dealer — for example if you buy the NIU brand from their authorized dealers, the dealership can help you apply for the license plate for a small charge. This is highly recommended because it saves you the annoyance of having to wait in a queue and dealing with Chinese bureaucracy.
It is rumoured that mandatory insurance requirements for electric scooters are coming in the near future, for cities like Shanghai and Beijing. This might be because of all the accidents that happened involving the reckless food delivery guys, and the lack of insurance/protection offered by their employers.
Carrying a Passenger
In Shanghai, it is technically illegal to carry an adult passenger on your scooter (children are allowed). However, if you are caught by the traffic police with an adult passenger on your back, you will simply be fined 30 CNY and then let go freely. No problem. Again, in other cities it’s much more wild west and you can basically carry women/chickens/etc. and do whatever you want.
Typical Scooter Specs
Typically electric scooters that are allowed on the road in Beijing and Shanghai can go up to about 40-60 km/h in top speed. Again, the technical rule is they are not even supposed to go over 20 km/h — but as usual in China nobody follows the rule to the T. Again, best to leave the scooter registration to a dealer, as they have standard ways (e.g. having a setting on the scooter to only go at low gear) to pass these qualification “tests”. There is also a list of eligible scooter models (in Chinese) somewhere on the internet for Shanghai and Beijing. You can look for it but it has thousands of different local brands and models on it, so rather pointless.
Most of the older/bigger Chinese brand scooters do not have removable batteries, meaning that you need a place in your residential compound/building where you can plug your bike in for charging. This is not always possible so to be more flexible I would recommend a bike with a removable battery. All of the NIU models have removable lithium ion batteries that you can take out and bring home to charge, although these bikes do cost quite a bit more than the standard random brand bikes.
Where to Buy
New – Go directly to dealers (franchise brands like NIU or general dealers with mixed selections). A new scooter should range from 2,000-6,000 CNY depending on model and brand.
Used – In the first tier cities like Beijing and Shanghai, there are many options. You can: 1) find some dealers (even foreigners running such businesses on WeChat) who sell second-hand scooters with registration and everything; 2) use classified sites (e.g. SmartShanghai) or second-hand marketplaces (e.g. 咸鱼), but half of the time the bike will not have proper registration etc.
In conclusion, having an electric scooter is a great way to make your city commute much more efficient. It may seem daunting at first but it actually isn’t that complicated to buy one and get riding. Have a walk in Shanghai’s Jing’An district and you will see tons of expats scooting around on their freedom wheels.
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