First-hand account of getting a Chinese driver’s license

If you want to drive in China, you need a Chinese driver’s license. Period. While many countries in the world will allow tourists to drive with an international driver’s license, the People’s Republic of China is not one of them. If you are in the country for less than 3 months and would like to get behind the wheel, you will need a temporary Chinese driver’s license. If you stay longer than that and want to drive, you need to get a long-term driver’s license (valid for 6 years, and then, if renewed, valid for 10 more).

Let me give you a first-hand account of how I got my license, in early July 2021. This happened in Shenyang (Northeast China), but the process should not be vastly different in other parts of the country.

What do you need?

Here are the documents you will need to apply for a driver’s license in China:

-copies of your passport (main page, visa page, last entry stamp page), usually 3-4, might be more

-your passport

-copies of your residence card, usually 3-4, might be more

-at least 5 one-inch photos of you in front of a white background; no smiling, no glasses; it might be easiest to get them done directly at the local department of motor vehicles (DMV), as that way, you know they’ll be exactly what you need

-your home country driver’s license (valid and non-expired!)

-a notarized translation of your home country’s driver’s license

What happens at the DMV when you go to apply?

I was lucky that my partner’s company had arranged for someone to accompany me when I applied for my driver’s license. That way, all I had to do was shuffle behind her and do what was asked of me. What that was? Well, listen to my tale:

First, they took my picture – assembly line style. One person checked my passport and application information, a second one motioned for me to sit down, look at the camera, get back up, and move away. A third person collected payment (it cost 20 RMB), and then handed over the pay slip and my 6 pictures. I feel I look like a deer in the headlights in them. But, oh well, I’ll probably look similar if I ever get pulled over by the police, so it all makes sense.

Next stop on our journey was a second picture they took. Why? Your guess is as good as mine. I assume it has to do with the battery of tests that were next on the agenda.

First, they took my finger print. Of my right index finger. In case you want to make sure yours is extra clean once you are in the same situation…

The next bit were all the “tests”. Where, supposedly, they check whether you are physically capable of driving a motor vehicle. According to the signs on the walls (in English as well as Chinese), I would have to go through:

A listening test

A height test

An eyesight test

A limb and trunk test (their words, not mine)

And a color discrimination test (again, NOT my translation)

I don’t know whether I was just not paying close enough attention, but I feel that some of those tests somehow passed me by.

They asked me how tall I was, which must have been a combination of the listening and the height test. The color discrimination test consisted of them pointing at a sheet with various colored dots and me naming the ones they pointed out. The eyesight test meant I looked through a microscope-like thing and told them which way the E opened, with a helpful sign explaining before which ways were called left, right, up, and down. And I had to open and close my hands to fists and make a squat. Maybe that was the limb and trunk test? I can only guess…

To finish up this part of the driver’s license saga, they took a third picture of me, this time with my hands splayed out in front of my body.

After all those “physical checks” (if you can even call them that), we trudged across the compound of the DMV and went to a building with a typical Chinese large-scale admin setup. Lucky me, I got to be blissfully unenvolved in the next step of the application process. The girl from the relocation agency in charge of guiding me through was the one conducting the mysterious registration work I was not privy to. I was so nervous for my written test that I did not pay too much attention, I have to admit. But I did see it involved her going to several different counters, filling out a number of forms, and providing a number of my passport copies as well as a passport picture or two.

After that was done – it felt like I was waiting for half an hour, but in reality it might only have been fifteen minutes – we changed buildings once more. Now came the part I had been dreading above all else: the written test. 100 questions out of a pool of over 1500, with at least 91 correct answers to pass.

The test-taking part of the driver’s license process was – interesting. Because of COVID, test takers were asked to stand in line before walking through a disinfectant spraying archway, and putting our personal belongings away in a locker. Then, a walk through a metal detector thingy to make sure we had no cell phones or similar little “helpers” left in our pockets. We then got to wear lovely – not  really! – bright yellow bibs with 理论考试 emblazoned on the back, marking us as test takers. We had to sit in rows to wait (with free spaces between us for COVID prevention reasons) and were called up to the testing area in groups of 20 or so.

Upstairs, we had to register and were allocated a seat number. My registration was paper-based, because the machine couldn’t read my passport. The Chinese just had to place their ID card on a little port to be informed of their allocated seat number.

I was directed to my assigned seat by an “orderly” (not sure how else to describe the guard-type person who took me there). During the test, there were a number of big no-nos:

-no talking or sounds of any kind

-no looking away from the screen (even just down)

-no touching the face

I was so terrified they would think I cheated and would make me take the test over that I followed the rules to the letter. Of course, seeing as I was not allowed to touch my face, my nose was itchy like never before in my entire life the whole time, but, oh well – I survived.

There were cameras recording us during the entire test, so that the powers that be could check whether anyone cheated.

The questions I got – the 100 out of the over 1500 I had prepared for – were not too hard. I was lucky in that I didn’t get a single policeman gesture question

and only two or three of the ones asking for time delays in when one can reapply after an accident/drunk driving incident, etc. Those types of questions I had found hardest to remember while studying…

Walking out, I got a paper with my results (99 out of 100 – WOOHOO!) and went back to the administration building. There, I needed to sign, and after a short wait, they handed me my brand new driver’s license. Finally!

Tips and tricks

Here are some recommendations for you if you want to try getting a Chinese driver’s license of your own:

-study for the written exam; some apps to do so are: Driving in China, Laowai Drive, China Driving Theory (all iPhone, check online for Android versions)

-go with a Chinese friend unless your written and spoken Chinese is excellent

-get someone Chinese-speaking to make an appointment ahead of time for the written test so you don’t have to return to the DMV a second time for that part

I hope this account and these tips have been helpful – please let me know if you would like more content like this in the future!

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