A Foreigner’s Guide to Taxis in Beijing

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As you’ll quickly notice once in Beijing, you can’t even make it to the end of the block without several taxis passing by you. All in all, they’re an incredibly convenient resource and a quick way to get almost anywhere you want in the city. Compared to western nations they’re also a fraction of the price. The distance a western taxi would charge $25-40 for would be barely $8 in RMB. Every legitimate taxi will have a small sign in its windshield that flips to show different colored sides. The “in service” side is lit up bright red at night, and if the sign is flipped so that it is no longer visible then the taxi is in use. This should be pretty easy to realize though from the other people in the car. Besides the red side that means it is available, there is also a yellow side for when the taxi is reserved, and a white side that means the driver is on a break. Sometimes though it is much more obvious and the sign isn’t needed.

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As with anything though there are drawbacks, and also as with anything in China, you being a foreigner means you’re going to have to deal with three times as many of them. These are all the problems I have encountered or heard of:

  • The taxi drivers can be notoriously reckless and sometimes make you fear for your life. They will also talk on their cell phones to the point of not driving properly.
  • Heavy traffic is a sure fire way to get a large bill, and your driver will either be great and fight to get out of it or avoid it; or knowingly drive into it or leisurely sit in it. If a driver is going outrageously slow, it’s OK to tell them to hurry up.
  • The meter begins at 11RMB at night and rises at a faster rate, you are not being scammed.
  • If it is raining, some cab drivers will attempt to charge you an outrageous price or drive away. This has happened to me multiple times, and if you know how to handle it, it shouldn’t be a problem. Their registration number and picture is on their dashboard, if you can get a picture you can threaten to report them. Usually this will make them not act like a piece of shit.
  • Be careful when paying with 100RMB notes, it’s a common scam for them to give you counterfeit 50s, or switch out your bill with a fake and claim its counterfeit, asking you if you have another. Whenever I give them a large bill I put a rip in the corner so I know if they swapped it and can call the out on it. I’ve had one driver who looked at the tear, made a look of realization and then scowled at me. After he complimented me for being clever.
  • The cab drivers, as far as Chinese people go, will have the WORST accent you’ve heard. Don’t feel bad about you language skills if you have difficulty communicating with them, but make sure you have agreed where he’s going to take you.
  • The taxi takes you on a tour: This is 99% more likely to happen later at night than in the day, and can be done several ways, though each will result in a large bill for you. As stated above, taxi drivers will speak the harshest thickest Mandarin you’ll hear in Beijing. Though this can happen innocently, some more devious cab drivers will take you somewhere else and claim you said to go there. They will blame you and your Chinese skills, and even if you know you’re right there’s no way to prove it and you’re already in the cab with the meter running. The cab drivers will also assume you don’t know Beijing well because you are a foreigner. They will go the most illogical zig-zagged route they can get away with. You can mention it to them, but they will save face and make up some excuse. Your bill is still going to be high, and you’re going to have to get into an argument or potential conflict to change that. You’ll learn quickly that arguing with the Chinese over money is a losing battle, and I doubt you will get them to adjust the bill. If you offer a smaller amount of money after arguing, most will take it and call it even. Depending on the driver though, and if there are a lot of people who will help them in the area, he may get physical for the money. In these situations, once you start arguing you’re in it until you win or lose. Because of this, if it is night I generally just act oblivious, direct the cab close by but not my place, and book it. Give yourself a head start by pretending to struggle to access your wallet, and getting out of the cab to be able to grab your money, then take off. I’ve never had a cab driver chase me, just yell, and feel that morally this is the best way to deal with them trying to cheat you. Live by the sword die by the sword.
  • The meter rises much faster than it should: Generally this ‘trick meter’ is toggled by the cab driver and done to foreigners they think won’t know any better to get a larger than legal payment from them. Handling this has all the same considerations as when the driver takes you for a tour. There’s nothing you can really do about it to change it, so decide if you’re going to attempt to fight it, suck it up and pay it, or run away and give this guy a taste of his own medicine.
  • The taxi driver won’t use the meter: This can happen out you not paying attention, the taxi driver lying and saying it is broken, or because the taxi driver convinces you it is in your best interest to not use it. Right off the bat let me tell you: it is not in your best interest. If you can help it don’t use any taxi without the meter on, it will never cost you less and could easily be double the price. If they refuse to put on the meter, there are always more cabs. Qĭng dă biăo– Please put on the meter.
  • The taxi won’t take you or pull over for you even though the red light is on: There are some cases where it is illegal for cabs to stop. You should have some idea, if you are attempting to hail a cab on a road with no pull off area or side lane then it probably isn’t the cab being dumb. But if you are walking down a quiet street, try to grab a cab and the driver says no then it is you. There have been many times during my stay where cabs would drive right past me, and a little ways down the street pick up some Chinese people. Face it: Some of the Chinese don’t like us, and as with everything except dating, the majority of the Chinese will help or side with other Chinese people over you. If you want to push the matter, photograph their registration number and threaten to report them.
  • Black cabs: It has and will happen to every foreigner: a regular car with a red light hanging in the windshield driving past pulls over to you, and the driver begins to heckle you for a ride. The quotes he gives you are usually outrageous, and these guys are sketchy at best. I don’t advise you ever take these cabs. I’ve heard stories where they take your money upfront, drive to an area that would be incredibly hard for you to get back from and gouge you for more money or threaten to leave you where you are. It will always be better to just wait for a legitimate taxi.
  • Taxi sinkholes: Places like Sanlitun and Houhai are notorious for having large amounts of cabs that will not turn on the meter. There are no other cabs to be found besides black cabs, so you’re options aren’t better. This will almost always happen late at night, because the option of public transportation won’t be available. These are also the same guys who will use a trick meter. Threatening to report these guys doesn’t always work because they’re much bolder than most drivers, they know you don’t have other options to get home, and they have other drivers to back them up on any claims you make. I suggest walking to another area if you can to grab a cab. Usually it isn’t a long walk, and if it is you can also take one of these cabs and sprint away.

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