Short answer — you don’t. Not on your own, anyway. But let me back up and tell you how I managed it.
If you’re going to be in Nepal for a relatively significant amount of time, buying a scooter is the most economical path you can take. When I first arrived, I took taxis to the school every morning. But in Nepal, you’re always paying the quiray price for taxis (Quiray is basically the Nepal equivalent of Gringo). When a Nepali person pays 300 NRS (2.59 USD), you’re paying 500 minimum (4.31 USD). You can try to bargain and I’ve managed to keep it at an average of 400 NRS, but that still adds up. And it’s exhausting to haggle with the same guy at 6:00 AM every day.
With a little help, I figured out the parts of the bus system I needed to. The Lalitpur Yatayat, which runs from Patan Dhoka (about a mile from Patan Durbar Square) to Naxal (where my school is) charges a flat rate of 15 NRS (0.13 USD). It waits at Patan Dhoka until it’s more or less full, then leaves around 6:30 AM. It’s slow, hot, sometimes crowded, but it’s cheap and consistent. I’ve been taking the bus every day for the past month. The issue is that you’re at the mercy of their schedule. I’ve been catching the 6:30 AM bus for my 7:00 AM class and I arrive with like a minute to spare every time. It’s not fun.
Tootle is hit-or-miss. It’s generally less than 200 NRS (1.72 USD), but sometimes drivers get lost or just don’t accept your ride. Usually, the Lalitpur Yatayat is the least common bus to pass by my stop in Naxal, but I’ve watched several go by while waiting for a Tootle. The good thing about Tootle is that they will drop you exactly where you want, and it’s fun. The issue is that it only runs 8:00 AM to 8:00 PM. Some Tootle drivers are willing to give you their number and pick you up earlier than that, though. It can be a sweet deal. I didn’t feel like dealing with that, though.
So if you’re going to be here awhile, why not take transport into your own hands?
Where do I even look for a scooter?
I started on a website called Hamro Bazaar. Hamro is Nepal’s answer to Craigslist and eBay. You can buy other things on it (even houses), but it’s primarily a resource for finding scooters, motorcycles, and bicycles. Hamro is good for researching and comparing prices, as well as for getting a sense of where a lot of stuff is being sold. Sometimes dealerships place their stock on the site as well. Hamro is a great resource for finding scooters, but I personally didn’t have any luck with it. I texted and emailed several sellers with my price but no one ever got back to me. A Nepali friend called some people and they promised to bring it over the next day for us to look at it but they never did.
Your second online option is KTM KTM, which is a Google group. A lot of foreigners post here when they’re coming or going from Kathmandu and are looking to buy or sell stuff. I really didn’t poke around here too much, but most people I talked to suggested I look here, so it must be a good resource.
Of course, you can always go directly to dealers. There’s a lot near Naxal and Lazimpat in Kathmandu. I ended up buying mine from a dealer in Naya Bazaar. But here, you definitely need someone who speaks Nepali. You just won’t be able to be totally sure that they’re not trying to stick you with some clunker that’ll break down on your way home (and it’s a very real possibility many dealers will try to sell their clunkers to quirays like myself). Still, go door-to-door and keep scoping them out. Most sell mostly motorcycles, but they all have at least a few scooters.
How much should I pay for a scooter?
Price varies, but it averages around 50,000 NRS (431.10 USD) at used dealers. You can find them for a lot cheaper in places like Hamro, but once the price is below 40,000 you should be suspicious. They’re either beat to hell, have a ridiculous amount of kilometers on them, are really old, or just straight up don’t work.
Here’s a little pro tip when looking on Hamro — each scooter ad has a thing called “Lot Number.” This is the age of the scooter. The lower the lot number, the older the scooter. The other thing that is shown in Hamro ads is the mileage (kilometerage?). It’s common that people manually reduce the counter before reselling it so they can get a higher price out of it. So if you see an ad for a scooter that’s Lot 20 but only has 15,000 km on it, then you can bet the seller is lying. It’s not exact as it varies a lot, but trust your gut. Once I was let in on that secret, I realized half the scooters I had first inquired about had their mileage tampered with. Ideally, you wanna find a scooter with a lot number at least in the 40’s.
I paid 55,000 NRS for my scooter (474.20 USD), but the scooter itself was only 52,000. You have to get it registered with the government, which is an extremely arduous and bureaucratic process even for a Nepali person. It just sucks for everyone. Luckily, you can pay the dealer to stand in line and register it for you! For an extra 3,000 NRS (25.87 USD), some will be willing to take care of that process on your behalf. As assurance that he’ll actually do it, I only paid 30,000 NRS the day I bought it. I went back the next week after he registered it and gave him the remaining 25,000.
Helmets are fairly cheap. Actually, really cheap. I got one for 1,000 NRS (8.62 USD) and it’s just fine. It’s not some cheap, low-quality helmet; it’s actually pretty decent. You can get nicer ones that cover your face or have filters in them, but you’re gonna pay more. If you buy a solid white one, police sometimes salute you or wave you past because it makes you look like one of them. But whatever you do, if you’re gonna drive a scooter, buy a helmet. Safety aside, driving without helmets is illegal in Nepal, and they do enforce it. Police are at every major intersection in Kathmandu, and they will stop you. At best, you’ll get a fine. At worst, jail time and/or losing your scooter.
Do I really have to get my scooter registered?
For everyone who asks this question (because I did) — YES. It’s not always checked, but if you’re caught driving an unregistered scooter, you’re gonna have a bad time. Luckily, most won’t stop white people (or so I’ve heard). Still though, just get it registered. It’s not expensive.
But here’s the problem with registration that makes buying a scooter as a foreigner so tricky — it must be registered under a Nepali name and address. It’s all part of the larger system designed to keep all but the most motivated foreigners from gaining a foothold in Nepal. Still, it must be done. Because even if you’re confident police won’t stop you, no one will sell you a scooter without registering it anyway.
But what does it even mean to get your scooter registered? For our purposes, it means you don’t legally own your scooter. Yeah, you buy it, but it’s not in your name because it’s not allowed to be in your name. So you need a Nepali friend who is willing to take on the liability of registering a foreigner’s scooter under their name. They will own it, but you drive it. And if you get in an accident, they could get in trouble.
The additional issue with registering under someone else’s name is that you need insurance. I have my own insurance that covers things like driving scooters, but it’s a good idea to buy insurance in Nepal because you don’t actually own your scooter. Luckily it’s only like 500 NRS (4.31 USD) so it’s the smallest fraction of the overall cost. In my case, it’s less than one percent of what I paid. So even if you don’t think you need it, get it to be safe.
How do I negotiate price?
Unless you’re basically fluent in Nepali, you don’t. This is the other huge benefit to having a Nepali friend. I had two people negotiate on my behalf to multiple sellers, and I absolutely wouldn’t have been able to do it without them.
If you can get a friend to help, you can reasonably expect negotiations to lower the price up to 5,000 NRS (43.11 USD). My friends got one price from 60,000 NRS down to 55,000 NRS. The one I ended up buying was 55,000 NRS, but they got it down to 52,000 NRS. It evened out at 55,000 NRS once we added in the costs of insurance and registration. Just make sure it’s someone you know and trust so they’ll really advocate for you. Now I’m sure that many people in Nepal would be willing to truly negotiate for a stranger (people are very nice here), but it’s best not to take that gamble.
How long does this take?
It took about a week of serious searching for me to buy one. I had been intermittently browsing Hamro and KTM KTM, but once I actually hunkered down with a Nepali friend, it didn’t take too long. We spent two days going door-to-door at used dealers, doing some test drives and negotiating prices. Eventually we found one we felt was fair, and agreed to come back for it.
The actual buying of the scooter doesn’t take long — maybe 20-30 minutes. This is mostly the registration process, so it’s paperwork for your Nepali friend. I just stood behind them and paid when told.
What should I do after I buy it?
First thing — go get gas. The tank is probably close to empty. It only costs about 500 NRS (4.31 USD) to fill the tank. If you’re like me and had never driven a scooter before buying one, find a quiet street or parking lot and practice. I spent about 15 minutes driving back and forth in the parking lot of my school, then went and drove 30 minutes through Kathmandu rush hour, which is pretty unforgiving. You learn fast, though. Scooters aren’t hard to drive.
Once you feel ready, hit the streets and have fun! It’s a cool experience to join the organism that is Kathmandu traffic, especially after the quiet comparatively streets of America. But above all, be careful. Accidents are extremely common in this part of the world.