After a decade of riding dirty in Beijing, I decided to end the last vestige of my outlaw lifestyle and finally get a China driving license.

It’s not a particuarly difficult or long process, but it’s not simple, and it can’t be done on a lunch break or even during a single day. 

But why would anyone want a China driver's license in the first place? Aside from car ownership – which is a separate, complicated matter and highly limited in Beijing – it does afford the holder the opportunity to rent cars in China, which given the country’s thousands of kilometers of new highways, also means opportunities for exploration in places not easily reached by bus or train, like distant parts of the Great Wall or skiing in Chongli. Chinese driver's licenses are also widely accepted by international rental car companies outside the country. If nothing else, however, it may come in handy in an emergency should driving be required, or to relieve a tired driver during a long car trip. 

What is described below is the process for licensed drivers in one of the many countries from which China recognizes licenses. If you hold a Belgian or United Arab Emirates driver's license, you’re in luck: no driving or written test is required, and you may apply for a direct license swap to drive standard passenger cars. 

As for the rest of us, you will be required to take the written theory test consisting of 100 questions, most of which are multiple-choice or true or false (“correct” or “wrong,” as they are designated on the English test). 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.) At least 90 correct answers are required to pass. Each applicant has 45 minutes to complete the test. 

If a person fails the test, but has enough of the 45 minutes remaining to take it again, they may do so. If the person does not pass successfully within 45 minutes, they will be required to wait 30 days before taking it again.

Required documents

Applicants must have a valid passport with a valid visa or residence permit, with at least three months remaining on both. An original household registration is also required (or proof of hotel stay for non-residents), as is the person’s valid, original foreign driver’s license. 

Each applicant will be required to provide a translation of her or his license, but it need not be an official translation. A form will be provided at the office that handles driver's license applications and testing, but it must be filled out in Chinese, so bring along a Chinese writer if you can’t complete the form yourself.

Those applying for a license must also have a health examination. This is a different examination than is required for long-term visas. One place to do it is across from the west (back) gate of Chaoyang Hospital. It doesn’t take long and isn’t difficult — the nurse takes blood pressure and administers an eye exam. It costs RMB 10, is valid for three months, and will likely be completed in less than an hour. Bring your passport and two photos at the time of application.

Armed with a passport, visa, household registration, driver's license, completed health check, at least one photocopy of each, and six passport-sized photos, you may now trek down to the Beijing Motor Vehicle Administration (18 South Fourth Ring Road East, Chaoyang District 北京 朝阳区 南四环东路18号 十八里店南桥. Tel:  8762 5150). Unfortunately, it’s not close to any subway station, and even driving there is a hassle. Like it or not, however, at least two trips to this bureaucratic outpost are required to get the license.

Upon arrival, go to the Foreign Affairs section, for which there is no obvious sign. However, look for restroom signs to the left of the main entrance, and keep going once you reach them. Staff are cordial and speak some English. At the time of registration for your exam, there is a fee of RMB 50. Bring cash; there is no ATM at the office and they don’t accept Alipay or WeChat.

All of your documents will then be examined. Even if they are all in order, taking the exam same-day is not permitted, and likely, it will be at least one week after you register. Exams are administered on Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 9.30am or 2pm.

Preparing for the exam

Getting 90 out of 100 questions correct doesn't leave a lot of room for error, especially when failure means a delay in receiving your license, and yet another trip to an inconveniently-located municipal government office. 

Luckily, the free website offers English study guides and sample tests. No registration is required, and both the form of the test and content were very similar to the actual examination. 

As a general rule, (at least in the English version of the test), the correct answers are all the most conservative choices for driver behavior or speed limits. For questions relating to signs, if it asks what a “prohibitive” sign does, the answer will contain the word “prohibit.” Look closely at any pictures that are displayed — what they are showing is not always abundantly clear. The answer to questions relating to points penalties assessed for traffic violations is almost always 12, the maximum penalty and the one that sends you to driving school in order to renew your license. Other than that, the questions are generally straightforward. The English test contains a bit of Chinglish but should be intelligible nonetheless. For example: there are one or two questions relating to penalties for drivers who have caused accidents that lead to the death of another driver. One may be asked if the penalty is a jail term of three years or more. While technically correct, this answer is actually wrong: the correct answer is seven years or more, indicating that the minimum is seven, and that the number is not simply greater than three. Got it?

Test day

On the day of your exam, return to the Beijing Motor Vehicle Administration. Bring your passport, the exam ticket you were given when you scheduled your test, and two ID photos. Try to arrive 15 minutes before the test, because it's considerate. Once you've completed the test, you'll get your score almost immediately. If you pass, go to the front of the room, sign a paper that states that you accept the results and that they are yours, and then take the form you are given and go back downstairs to the waiting room to pay an additional RMB 10 fee. 

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 that a designated representative may complete), or after completing the exam and related paperwork, find the desk that handles EMS courier shipments in the office’s main hall. From here, you can pay RMB 20 to have your license sent to you after three business days, which, for an intra-city delivery is somewhat ridiculous, but probably still cheaper than hauling it back down to the South Fourth Ring Road. For the latter, you’ll need your delivery address in Chinese. If you can’t write it yourself, the staff is nice enough to help you fill out the form. Your license is valid for six years, a date that is not tied to the validity of any other document, including your passport, visa, or home country driver's license.

Test Locations

The full list of addresses for Motor Vehicle Administration offices in Beijing (Tel: 12122) is as follows: 


Beijing Changping District Machikou Town Machikou Village next to the north detection field (北京市昌平区马池口镇马池口村北方检测场旁)


18 Nansihuan Dong Lu (北京市朝阳区南四环东路18号)

1 Bolaoying North Street (北京市朝阳区孛罗营北街1号)


28 Luhua Road, Huangcun Town (北京市大兴区黄村镇芦花路临28号)


Xingyuan Road, Jingfeng Vehicle Control (北京市丰台区兴源路京丰车管所)


Haidian Driving School, No. 69 Beianhe Township (北京市海淀区北安河乡69号海淀驾校院内)

Houshayu Anfu Street, Shunyi District, Beijing (Northeast corner of the intersection of Anfu Street and Huosi Road, 700m to the west of Houshayu Station, Subway Line 15) (北京市顺义区后沙峪安富街 地铁15号线后沙峪站西侧700米安富街与火寺路路口东北角)

READ: A Beijing Rental Guide: The Basics

Additional research by Kevin Wu

Images: Andy Art (via UNSPLASH)


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