No matter what you may have heard, it is perfectly legal for foreigners to drive anywhere in China, except for certain restricted areas, Tibet being a prime example.
The international driving license is not accepted in mainland China, so you will have to go through some formalities and have a Chinese license issued to you from the Vehicle Administration Bureau.
Fortunately, it isn’t necessary to swap or relinquish your overseas license during the application process, but you will need to produce the original along with a certified translation.
I’m going to work on the basis that you already possess a license from your home country, as I don’t have much experience of the Chinese road test, and being able to give it a miss will definitely save you considerable time and hassle.
The vast majority of Chinese learners shell out for package courses at local driving schools (驾校 Jia xiao) that train and facilitate you from complete beginner through to obtaining your license. There are many of these centres scattered around all major cities, and the set fee includes all training and examination costs. The extent of the competition means most promise to train you until you finally pass the test at no extra cost.
In the past, there was a lot of bribery, gifts and favours involved in the road test, so there are still many on the road from that time with less than ideal driving skills. My understanding is that the authorities have clamped down on this now, but you must still learn to expect the unexpected at all times.
When you are ready to apply for a Chinese driving license, and based on the assumption you already have a driving license from a country other than China, you will need the following;
- A valid foreign driving license with a certified Chinese translation.
- A valid passport with a certified Chinese translation.
- A pass certificate for the computerised road theory examination (At least 90/100)
- A medical certificate proving you are medically fit to drive
- Proof of address (Police registration certificate)
- A completed application form.
- Receipts for all administrative fees.
I have held a British driving license since 1997, and this was accepted by the Vehicle Administration Bureau without the need for a notary or legalisation. Wherever you are in China, you can perform a Baidu Map search for a professional translation company 翻译公司(Fan yi gong si), and they usually charge somewhere between 100 and 200 Yuan per document.
The medical certificate is no major ordeal. Every administration office should have a small medical centre where you pay a fee, read some numbers out of a book to make sure you’re not colour blind, then read of a wall mounted board with four characters that point left, right, up or down, and each line towards the bottom gets increasingly smaller.
Don’t make the mistake I first did of interpreting the characters as the letters E, M, W and the number 3. In fact, you just need to tell or gesticulate to the physician the direction in which each character points.
The rest of the examination basically involves measuring your weight and height, then denying you have any physical or mental issues that bar you from driving. Once all the boxes have been ticked ‘no,’ they will print out a pass certificate and fill in the relevant sections of your application form if it’s the first time for you.
As for payments, it’s advisable to take plenty of cash with you, though the fees they charge are not very high. Alternatively, you can often use the official Wechat portal 公众号 for the local traffic police 交警队, where you can enter a fee code the 流水单号 and pay online. You will need to have a bank card or pocket money on Wechat, and the ability to read and understand Chinese to make this option feasible.
The driving theory examination
This stage of obtaining a driving license more than deserves its own section, as it’s by far the most troublesome part.
The test requires that you score at least 90 correct answers out of 100, and these questions are taken randomly from a bank of 1500. In order to save yourself time, hassle and money, I strongly suggest you practice online long beforehand until you score 90 or over on a regular basis.
The test is formally available in a huge variety of languages, but you will find teaching materials for any language other than Chinese few and far between.
When you arrive for the test, a worker will most likely ask which driving school you attend, for this you should state that you are there independently, and the expression you need is 自培(zi pei), or ‘self trained.’
I took the theory test first time in Chinese without any preparation whatsoever. The vast majority of the questions are based on common sense, such as would smoking while driving have a positive, negative, negligeable or no effect? You see an elderly woman on a zebra crossing. Do you run her down, sound the horn, yell at her to get out the way, or wait patiently? Those kinds of questions.
There are, though, a few fact based questions you will need to memorise to push you over the finishing line. I scored in the mid 70s on that first test I never prepared for, but after a few weeks of playing with the Yidiantong website, I scored and passed with 92 the second time round.
An officer from the test centre will tell your score there and then, and print out a pass certificate if you reached 90 or over. Anything below that, and you’ll be out of the door empty handed, and you’ll have to apply for the same test on another date.
The driving schools normally handle all the test reservation formalities for you, and take all their candidates into the test centre on mass at a pre-arranged time. As an independent test taker though, you turn up at the agreed time, but may very well end up playing second fiddle to the scores of driving school learners, as they tend to have good relations with the test centre, and the number of computers are limited. The best way around this is to be on good terms with the staff, so that they will keep an eye out for any spare stations you could occupy.
You can reserve a time and place either in person at the test centre, or online at the link below. You will need to understand Chinese or have somebody who does help you out.
The two links below will direct you to some online mock driving theory tests.
The license itself
The license is a small black booklet with two clear pockets on the inside where a laminted card with your personal details is inserted on the left, and a card informing you of when to renew is on the right.
Where Chinese people have their citizen ID number you will have you passport number. It’s not necessary to inform the traffic police if you change passports.
Unless you land yourself in trouble, or you are taking the bag for any point deductions, you probably won’t be using the card much. The only people I’ve ever shown it to are curious traffic police officers at toll stations and passengers.
Each year, you have an allowance of 12 points from which your traffic discretions will be deducted. As long as you haven’t amassed 12 points by the end of the year starting from when your license was issued, all deducted points will be cancelled and you will have a clean slate.
Generally speaking, it should be difficult to clock up 12 points if you follow the traffic rules and don’t get busted for drink driving. In particular, you should be careful not to change lanes across continuous white lane markings, and make sure you only make turnings in the correct lane. I once changed my mind, and made a left turn in the right hand lane, and got docked three points.
Another thing you must bear in mind are the fluid speed limits on motorways. Different stretches of the same motorway can vary between 120, 100 and 80 kilometres per hour, and there are cameras lying in wait in case you didn’t notice the speed limit was reduced for a downhill section.
Drivers can also encounter interval speed checks, where the average speed between two points a few kilometres apart is calculated. Some people are under the impression that you can slow down for the cameras, then speed in between, but this is not the case.
At last, you have all the documentation ready. You fill in the driver’s license application form in Chinese, and pay the required fee. It may take a few working days to process, or they might just issue the license there and then. It mainly depends on where in China you live, but Chongqing is generally more laid back.
As a foreign driver, your license will be first valid for six years. In the three months before it expires, you need to go to a Vehicle Management Centre 车管所 (Che guan suo) and apply for a renewal.
I renewed mine in the summer of 2018, and the only documentation other than the old license was my passport, a registration certificate from the police confirming where I live, and an up-to-date photograph. The size of photograph you need is much smaller than a passport photo, and it’s best just to visit any local printshop or photo studio and tell them you need driving license photos 驾照照片(Jia zhao zhao pian), and they’ll know what is requried. Apart from that, I paid a ten Yuan fee, and they kind officers printed out a new card for my license booklet straight away.
Your second driving license will be valid for ten years, and a third will be valid permanently.