Australia is a popular destination with European and North American backpackers, there's loads to see and do there, plus it's a long way away adding to that adventure feeling, however their customs are strangely familiar and they speak English, which is always a bonus. Australia is the nearest thing to a home from home in the southern hemisphere.

This is a quick guide for backpackers wanting to buy a car in Australia. You need to be travelling for at least 2 months to make the purchase worthwhile and include time for buying and selling your vehicle at the beginning and end of your trip.

Australia is a big country. When I say big, I mean big. It has roughly the same landmass as the United States, yet contains only 16 million people, mostly on the coasts. The best way to get about, no questions asked, is by car. Not only are cars and fuel cheap, road is the only way you'll get to see the real Australia.

By plane

You can choose to fly around the country. Most airlines that fly to Oz, throw in a number of internal flights too. However you'll fly from city to city and miss out all the wonderful in between stuff, and you won't get a feel of the truly awesome size of the place. Plus once you've landed, you're stuck where you are, relying on flaky public transport and organised trips that stick only to the tourist paths.

By bus

You can easily bus it around Oz. There are a number of companies that offer "hop on hop off" tickets, including the very popular Oz Experience bus service. However, again you're limited by where the bus wants to take you. Sure you can get off at more places than by flying, but once you're there you could find yourself stuck for days until the next bus arrives. Plus you have to sit for hours on a hot bus with loads of other sweaty tourists, waiting for the next toilet stop.

The answer, buy a car

Buying a car is easy in Australia, although it may be a little daunting at first. Once you know the rules, the ways, and the how's, you'll wonder why you ever thought of getting around any other way.

Finding a car

Your first challenge is to find a car. You have a number of choices when it comes to sourcing your perfect set of wheels:

Buy privately
Scouring the local papers and private ads is a great way to get a deal, these cars will usually have had few loving owners and reasonable mileage. You'll be bringing it into the world of backpacker travel for the first time, the last stage of an Aussie car's life before the scrap yard. Watch out for people claiming to be private sellers but who are actually unlicensed car dealers often dealing in stolen vehicles. If in doubt, don't hand over your cash, and on the phone always ask "about the car" in case they actually have a whole load for sale.
Buy from a dealer
If you're made of cash, then go with a dealer. Many will do special buy back deals for backpackers, just remember that you're paying a premium and you shouldn't trust them anywhere near as far as you can throw them. Also the cars they sell to backpackers will be ex-backpacker cars they're recycling back into the backpacker circuit, but they will have serviced them and made sure they're running okay. Some backpacker orientated dealers have websites, so do some research before you go.
Buy from a backpacker
The best deals are to be got from a backpacker who is leaving the country, these cars are usually very high mileage and come with no guarantees, however since you'll be selling it again in a few months, it often pays to pay your money and take your chance. Most of the major cities have some kind of backpacker car market, Sydney has an excellent car market in Kings Cross, and there are markets in Cairns and Perth and probably the other major cities too. Use the web, do some research before you go, or ask around hostels when you're out there.

If I were you I'd buy from a car market, below I'll explain the pitfalls to look out for. If you choose to go the more traditional route, there's advice here

Next you'll need to decide what type of car you want. I'll quickly run through the most popular Aussie backpacker cars I can think of:

Ford Falcon Estate (Station wagon)
The Falcon is a backpacker classic. These good 6 cylinder cars will put up with any punishment you throw at them. They'll run forever and a day and need hardly any maintenance. Plus they have enough room inside for 4 adults and all their gear, great if you want to go long distances quickly. Alternatives "wagons" include the Holden Commodore, and the Mitsubishi Magna, all three are pretty much the same backpacker fodder. Expect to find 15 year old cars with 300000+ kilometres on the clock.
If you're less serious about covering distances quickly and want more room, a van is a good option. The most common being the Toyota HiAce or LiteAce and the Mitsubishi L300. Vans are great if there are two of you and you want to be able to kip in the back. Some are decked out with makeshift beds in the back, others not, but are easy to convert with an old mattress. If you can get a van with windows, all the better.
Camper Vans
If you're more serious about the camping (much cheaper than hostels) then a camper van is for you. There are many different makes including the sturdy Toyota HiAce (and the old VW kombi). Expect to pay a premium for a well equipped campervan.
If you're serious about getting into the bush and off the road then you'll no doubt know about 4x4's already. Harder to come by on the backpacker circuit than the more usual vehicles, there are still some lurking.

Tax and insurance

All cars in Australia have what is known as the "reg'o" or registration. This is the plates front and back on the vehicle, and a sticker in the windscreen that denotes how long the reg'o has remaining.

Cars can be registered in any one of Australia's states (and territories), and the rules are different depending on the state. As a rule of thumb, buy a car that is registered in the state you will sell it in, unless you will be selling it on to another backpacker. The law says that you can not live in one state and own a car registered in another, so a buyer would have to re-register the car if it was not registered in his state, a big turn off when you come to re-sell.

Reg'o stickers are your road tax, you have to have a valid sticker to drive legally on the road. They come in 6 month and 1 year flavours and cost anywhere between 200 and 1000 dollars depending on the state. If you buy a car whose reg'o will run out before you sell it you will need to purchase a new reg'o sticker (check the road authorities web site for your state for details, do not worry that you need an Australian address, we'll look at how to get around that below).

The reg'o also includes the mandatory health insurance that covers you if you hurt someone with your car. It does not cover damage to yours or someone else's vehicle, if you are worried that you might have a crash, get your own car insurance on top of the reg'o. Some dealers will try to push insurance on to you, as always, shop around. If you are not going to be driving in busy cities too much and are a good driver with lots of experience, you may not think insurance is cost effective. As always, use your head.

Try to buy a vehicle with as much reg'o as possible. Most backpackers will top up their reg'o by 6 months before they come to sell the vehicle, you should budget to do the same, cars with expiring reg'o are hard to sell.

Some states are better to be registered in than others. Western Australia is excellent, their reg'o cheap in comparison to other states and you can do it all over the Internet or by phone without ever going to WA. The Northern Territory is also cheap apparently. Next best are places you are going to visit. New South Wales and Victoria being especially expensive. You can tell which state a car is registered in by its reg plate.

There is also an equivalent of the British MOT in Australia, however unlike in Britain you are only required to have a "safety" done if you are selling your car (although the exact rules differ from state to state). Usually these are carried out by dealers, but some car markets will expect owners to get one done before placing the car for sale. If you are buying from a dealer or a car market, ask to see the "safety" or "pink slip" before taking the car for a test drive. Most garages will do a basic safety test, they're not expensive and well worth it for buyer piece of mind.

Spot the banger

If you're going to buy a car, you need to know how to spot a dud. Now I don't know much about cars, but I've learnt a few things:

Talk to the owner
Ask them everything you can think of. How long have they owned it, where have they driven it, have they had any work done on it, why are they selling it, etc...
Before starting the vehicle
Look over the entire vehicle inside and out, get on the floor and look under it, just look in general for anything that looks "wrong" or "damaged". Open the bonnet and have a look over the engine, look for excess oil around the sump, check the oil and water levels, make sure everything looks as you'd expect.
While starting the vehicle
Get in and turn on the ignition, make sure the oil and electric lights come on. Get a friend to stand around the back and watch the exhaust for black, blue or white smoke. Pull out the choke if it has one and it's cold, then start the engine (making sure it's out of gear). Hopefully it'll start right up and settle down to idle.
Once the vehicle is started
Get out and check the exhaust. Ask your friend if the exhaust came out blue or black when you first started her up, if so take note. Put your hand into the exhaust (carefully, it might be hot) and check for regular even puffs of exhaust gas. If your hand gets too oily then be wary, it could be nothing or it could be a blown head gasket. If the exhaust contains water vapour then it could be coolant getting into the cylinders, again maybe a blown head gasket. Listen to the engine idle, does it purr like a cat or rattle and shake.
Take it for a test drive
Always take the car for a test drive, and drive for at least 10 minutes on a variety of roads. Check the brakes first before you get up much speed, just incase. Drive around, accelerate hard, break hard, listen for odd sounds, listen for grinds or growls. If the vehicle is a manual, check the gearbox, drive in every gear up to a good pace and then jump off of the accelerator and make sure it doesn't pop out of gear.

If you're happy, if in your gut it feels right, haggle your way to an acceptable price and buy it.

Doing the paperwork

The reg'o transfer document is easy to complete. The old owner should have their registration document, you both need to sit down together and fill it out. If they don't have the paperwork, walk away unless you're looking for a whole world of pain. At the very least, you need their signature on the document otherwise the transfer request will be rejected. It's pretty straight forward, fill it out and send it off.

You will need to give an Australian address in the state the vehicle is registered in. If you are travelling you won't have a permanent address, but no worries. The best thing to do is to give the address of a post office in that state (one in a big town is better than a rural one) placing "c/o name of post office" at the top. Australian post offices provide a free mailbox and forwarding service (ask in the post office for more information). All you have to do is call the post office and ask if they have any post for you, and if there is ask them to forward it to a post office in a town you will soon be visiting. Leave about a week for your mail to get forwarded.

Drive and be free

Enough said. Usual rules apply. Keep left, use your turn signals, be kind and considerate of others, and don't forget to re-fill your tank before heading out on the 300 mile trip between fuel stops through the outback.

Don't abuse your car, remember that you have a good sum of money tied up in it and you want to maximise the return you'll get when you sell it. Also you want to be safe, so get it serviced by a professional every 12,000km, check the tyre pressure once a week when you fill up the tank, and check the water and oil levels every 400km.

Selling your car

Your trip is coming to an end and it's time to turn your new best friend into some hard cash. The best places to sell are the places backpackers fly into, so Sydney, Adelaide, Melbourne, Darwin and Cairns are your best bets.

Selling at a backpacker market is the easiest option, otherwise printing and depositing flyers around hostels and even placing signs in your car windows. Alternatively you can try the dealers specialising in backpacker transport, but you'll usually get peanuts in return, they tend to prey on people who have to leave and have no other choice than to almost give their car away.

Stick with it, you will sell your vehicle eventually.


It might seem scary, you might not want the hassle, but if you want to cover the distances, see everything the country has to offer, you can get unlimited travel for the cost of petrol and a little vehicle maintenance. Not only total freedom but a total bargain too.

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