Assuming you are actually a licensed driver elsewhere, getting a Chinese driver’s license is easy, but will take you about a week and gobble up a couple of hours collecting paperwork and a couple of hours preparing for the exam .
(If you’ve never had a driver’s license before, that’s an entirely different story — there are more tests and possibly a requirement to enroll in a local driving course — and is beyond the scope of this article. Read here to follow through on that process Looking for).
If you work for a foreign embassy or consulate, or are a representative of an international organization, you may be exempted from the following provisions based on the principle of diplomatic reciprocity. If you hold a driver’s license issued by Belgium or the United Arab Emirates, you can also be exempted, again under a reciprocity agreement.
The rest of us must pass a written theory test consisting of 100 questions, all of which are either multiple choice or true or false.
The test is available in ten languages including English, French, German, Japanese, Russian and both Simplified and Traditional Chinese. (Unfortunately, translations may not be perfect, so be prepared for a challenge.) A minimum of 90 correct answers is required to pass. The applicant has 45 minutes to take the test, and if you fail the first time (and the clock still has time), you can immediately try a second time.
If you fail in your two attempts, you must wait 30 days before taking it again.
Here’s what you need to sign up for the text:
1. A valid passport with a valid visa or residence permit, both still valid for at least three months.
2. An original household registration (or proof of hotel occupancy for non-residents).
3. Your valid foreign driver’s license and an official Chinese translation of it, stamped with one of those fancy red chops. You will also need a copy of the translation company’s business license, again with a nice red stamp on it.
4. A Driver’s License Health Examination (驾驶员体检 jiashiyuan tijian). This is a special test required for driver’s licenses and can be done inexpensively at most (but not all) hospitals in Beijing (if you speak Chinese, call ahead and see if they offer the 驾驶员体检 jiashiyuan tijian Test. If you can’t, have a Chinese-speaking friend call you). It doesn’t take long – the nurse will take your blood pressure, do an eye exam and make sure you have all the right body parts to ride (including opposable thumbs and at least 3 fingers on each hand). It costs RMB 20, is valid for three months. Bring your passport with you at the time of application.
5. A few 1 inch white background photos, no headgear. Have them do it at one of the myriad photocopy shops around town, tell them you need a driver’s license photo (they’ll know the routine). Save yourself some time and do this step last, and while you’re there make copies of all the documents you’ve gathered above. The whole licensing process takes about 6 photos; get some spares while you’re at it (the copy shop I went to printed them out in sheets of 9 – which was a bit of an exaggeration – but at least I didn’t miss out).
Registration for the test
Armed with all of the above, you can now trek down to the Beijing Motor Vehicle Administration 北京市公安局公安交通管理局 běijīng shì gōng’ān jú gōng’ān jiāotōng guǎnlǐ jú (18 South Fourth Ring Road East, Chaoyang District 朝阳区南四环东路18号十八里店南桥, 8762 5150, jtgl.beijing.gov.cn). Unfortunately, it’s not near a subway station. (The nearest subway station is 成寿寺 Chengshousi, where you have to transfer to a bus for another six stops and then walk a good 420 m to the office.)
Please note that there are several Motor Vehicle Administration offices in Beijing, but the one listed above is the only one with a foreign affairs department, so you will have to trek there. And at least two trips to this bureaucratic outpost are required to get the license.
Upon arrival, go to the Department of Foreign Affairs (涉外业务服务大厅 Shewai Yewu Dating) for which there is no obvious sign. Go into the main hall, ignore ALL the windows you see and take a sharp left where you will eventually see a tiny sign for the bathroom. Walk past it, behind a pillar, past the toilets and you will eventually see the sign for the Department of Foreign Affairs.
The staff is friendly and speaks some English. There is a fee of 50 RMB at the time of registering for your exam. You can pay cash, with WeChat Pay or Alipay.
All of your documents will then be checked. If they are ok, you can register for the exam (but not on the same day). The exams are held on Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 9:30 am or 2:00 pm.
Preparation for the exam
Getting 90 out of 100 questions right doesn’t leave much room for error, especially when failure means a delay in registering for another test and another trip to an inconveniently located municipal office.
Luckily the free site chinesedrivingtest.com offers English study guides and sample tests. Registration is not necessary, the form and content of the exam are almost identical to the actual exam.
There are also some phone apps that use the actual test questions and track your progress. Laowai Drive Chinese Test is the original and is worth every penny of the few dollars you pay.
You probably won’t go in unprepared. While around 70% of the questions are based on common sense (things like “drivers should give way to pedestrians at crosswalks”), the remaining 30% relate to regulations that drivers from other countries would not normally be aware of, such as: For example, specific RMB fines that are certain to be imposed for traffic violations, or what parts a tractor-trailer driver must detach when unhitching the trailer (the answer for the curious is the “connections of the brake lines and wiring connectors for lighting”).
When you take the English exam, you also have to analyze some strange translations, which in some cases can make the answers all sound the same. For example: What is the difference between “a direction line for a driving line” and a “direction guidance line”? Who knows, except that the former will be judged as the right answer and the latter as wrong.
how to study
Use the app. It tracks your progress and allows you to review only the ones you’re getting wrong.
In some cases, the translations are finicky; Don’t worry, just remember the correct answer. For example, check these two very similar questions and write down the correct answers:
Each sample 100-question test takes about 10-15 minutes and shows you the correct answer to each question. I took the test about 8 times before getting my first passing grade of 90; It took me 40 tries to get a perfect 100. On test day I scored 98.
Taking the test on test day
On the day of your exam, you will return to the Beijing Motor Vehicle Administration. Bring your passport and the exam ticket you received when you scheduled the exam. Try to arrive 15 minutes before the test. When the time comes, you’ll be shown upstairs to a ramshackle testing room and assigned to a terminal, and you’re good to go.
Once you complete the test, you’ll get your score instantly in the front of the room. If you pass the exam, you will be instructed to go back down to Window 4 in the Foreign Affairs Department to pay an additional fee of 10 RMB.
Now you have a choice: return to this office after three working days to collect the license (this is the only part of the process a designated representative can complete on your behalf), or go to window 13 in the main room and claim EMS to Express Mail (RMB 20). Be sure to have your Chinese address ready. Your license will be sent to you after three business days.
Your driver’s license is valid for six years, a date that is not tied to the validity of other documents, including your passport, visa or driver’s license from your home country.
Good luck and let us know about your experiences in the comments below.
Additional research by Kevin Wu