Are you interested to drive in China? Curious how to get a Chinese driver’s license? Driving in China is a thrill, but you can’t get behind the wheel unless you have an official China driver’s license. I’ve applied for a Chinese driver’s license twice (motorcycle license & car license) and below I share how you can get one too.
Before I go into how to get a Chinese driver’s license, let me explain one very important policy in China: you must have a Chinese drivers license in order to drive any vehicle in China. Period.
Many countries around the world and even throughout Asia accept a license from your home country or even an international driver’s permit (IDP). Unfortunately, China is not one of those countries.
If you plan to drive a car or motorcycle in China, you’ll need to be between 18-60 years old and will need one of the following two types of China driver’s licenses. I will go into more detail about each of these licenses further down.
- Full Driver’s License (time consuming): This driver’s license is for foreigners visiting China for over three months or plan on staying in China long term as it is good for 6 years. Unfortunately, it takes a few trips (if you’re lucky) to get a full-license as well as passing a 100 question written test.
- Provisional Driver’s License (easier): This driver’s license is temporary and available for foreigners visiting China for up to 3 months. The biggest perk to the provisional driver’s license is you don’t need to take a written test.
First things first, though. Is it even worth it to get a China driver’s license?
Is a China Driver’s License Worth It?
Coming from the perspective of an expat who has enjoyed the freedom of driving my own car and motorcycle around gorgeous parts of China, my first instinct is to say Yes! Getting a Chinese driving license is absolutely worth it!
But I realize it’s not that simple. Every person’s situation, perspective and risk tolerance is unique. And this plays a big role in deciding whether a Chinese license is worth it.
For example, are you willing to overcome the obstacle of:
- Actually Getting the License: It takes time and money. Personally, it took me two weeks of back and forth to get my license.
- Renting/Buying a Car: Buying a car was a huge headache for me and while renting a car in China isn’t nearly as bad, it’s not the simple process you know from back home.
- Navigating Chinese Roads: You can’t rely on the English instructions of Google Maps in China since it’s blocked. It took me at least a year to understand Chinese roads without getting utterly confused.
- Finding Parking: The biggest challenge to driving, especially in the bigger cities, is finding parking. It’s frustrating and not cheap!
- Accepting the Liability: If you get in an accident, as a foreigner the blame will likely fall on you. Are you willing to accept this liability?
As you can see, I’m doing everything in my power to convince you that a Chinese driver’s license isn’t as awesome as it might sound. Ultimately, it’s your choice.
If you’re still determined to get your own license, I recommend that you buy some good travel insurance for China and then read on for instructions on how to apply.
**NOTE** Everything in this article also assumes you have a current (not-expired) driver’s license in your home country. If your driver’s license is expired, I’d probably pass on getting a Chinese driver’s license as it will take several months, thousands of RMB, and a much more complicated process.
What Paperwork Do You Need for a Driver’s License in China?
Did you ever go to the department of motor vehicles (DMV) in your home country to learn after waiting-in-line for an unspeakable amount of time that you were missing necessary information to get your driver’s license?
It sucks right? In China, the DMV not only has long waiting times too, but it’s typically always in the outskirts of town.
So to avoid traveling a long distance to only be disappointed that you forgot something, make sure you have the following materials to get a Chinese driver’s license (you’ll need everything below for both the full or provisional driver’s license):
- 3-4 Copies of Your Passport and Visa: In addition to these clear photocopies, you’ll also need to bring your actual passport with you, so don’t forget it!
- 3-4 Copies of Your Residence Card/Certificate of Temporary Registration: The Residence Card or Certificate of Temporary Registration details where you live and is provided by your local police station. If you are applying for the provisional driver’s license, you can request a certificate of temporary registration from your hotel after checking-in.
- 5 One-Inch Identification Photos with a White Background: Some regions may require more or less, so it couldn’t hurt to bring a good number of spare photos. You can always get more photos directly at the DMV, but they will charge you more than elsewhere. Remember that you also cannot smile in these photos!
- Notarized Translation of Home Driver’s License: You’ll find translation companies near most of the major government buildings, and you’ll need to make sure that they are a licensed translator with a chop. Expect to pay at least 250-300 RMB for the translation. Notarization happens at the local 公证处 (Gōngzhèng chù) in your city. I’ve gone into more detail about how to get a document notarized in China.
You’ll also be required to complete a physical exam at the DMV to prove you’re physically fit and healthy to drive. At first I thought that the comprehensive exam you take after arriving in China to get your residence permit will do, but that is not the case. It must be the physical exam they administer at the DMV.
How to Get a Temporary China Driving License
You’ll see that I’m referring to this as a temporary China driving license, but the official name of this document is the China Provisional Driving Permit or 临时机动车驾驶许可/Línshí Jīdòngchē Jiàshǐ Xǔkě.
Remember that the provisional driver’s license in China is only available to travelers visiting China on a visa that allows up for 3 months (90 days) of stay per entry. In other words, if you’re traveling to China on a tourist visa, this is the Chinese driver’s license for you.
For folks staying in China for over 90 days, skip down to how to apply for a full driver’s license.
In terms of the steps required to apply for a provisional license, Chinese laws can rapidly change and there isn’t a great deal of information online on how to get a provisional driver’s license in China.
I for one scoured many websites, including those in Chinese, in order to provide this info. That said, I would recommend you do additional research on your own in the area you plan on visiting in China to verify the steps listed below are applicable to your travel plans.
Applying for a China Provisional Driving Permit
In order to apply for a China Provisional Driving Permit, you’ll need to make sure that you have all of the documents listed in the section above and then follow these steps.
- Step 1: Visit the DMV – Once you have all the necessary paperwork detailed above, make the journey out to the DMV or 车管所/Chēguǎnsuǒ where your certificate of temporary registration is issued. For example, if your temporary registration is at a hotel in Xi’an, then you need to go to the DMV in Xi’an.
Note: Your certificate of temporary registration must be certified by the local police station nearby your place of residence. When requesting from the the certificate from the hotel, ask if they can do this for you. If not, have them point you to the local police station and provide you with a note on detailing you need the temporary registration certified.
- Step 2: Health Check – Once you arrive at the DMV, start by getting the health check over with. The examination is quick and easy to where you simply need to show you aren’t blind and healthy enough to drive.
- Step 3: Present Permit Application – Once you have the results of the health check, present all the documents and fill out an application for the provisional driver’s license.
Since the application document is written in Chinese and needs to be filled out entirely in Chinese, don’t hesitate to ask the staff to help you. A simple phrase like “请帮我填写申请表 / Qǐng bāng wǒ tiánxiě shēnqǐng biǎo.” works wonders.
- Step 4: Wait for Processing – After filling out the application, the DMV will process your provisional license within an hour or so. It’s that easy and there is no written or driver’s exam required!
In terms of how much the provisional driver’s license costs, I’d bank on spending around 300-400 RMB. The notary translation will be the bulk of that amount where the remaining will be spent on the photos, health check, and application for your driver’s license.
How to Get a Full China Driver’s License
The full driver’s license is for folks visiting China as foreign English teachers or those traveling for more than 3 months with the intention to frequently drive a car.
You should also expect to take multiple trips to the DMV before you finally get your hands on your Chinese driver’s license. Unfortunately, if you have a visa allowing you to stay in China for over three months, you are cannot apply for a provisional driver’s license.
With that said, let’s go over the steps needed to get a full driver’s license in China. I gathered all this information from a Chinese website detailing vehicle and traffic regulations all across China as well as information listed on the Shanghai government website.
Depending where you live, there may be slight differences, so it couldn’t hurt to do a little research yourself before heading to the DMV to get your driver’s license in China.
Applying For a Full Chinese Driver’s License
In order to apply for a full China Driver’s License, you’ll need to make sure that you have all of the documents listed in the section above and then follow these steps.
- Step 1: Visit the DMV – Locate and visit your local DMV or 车管所/Chēguǎnsuǒ. You must go to the DMV where your residence permit is issued. For example, if you have a residence permit issued in Beijing, you cannot go to the DMV in Shanghai.
- Step 2: Take the Physical Examination – Somewhere on the grounds of the DMV is a place to take the physical exam. Once you arrive at the DMV, pay the fee and take the exam, which will mostly test your eyesight, hearing and reflexes.
- Step 3: Fill Out the Application – After receiving the results, share them along with all your other paperwork for approval. You’ll also have to fill out the application for a full driver’s license, but since it is written and needs to be filled out entirely in Chinese, try to get the staff to fill it out for you since they already have your information handy.
- Step 4: Take the Written Test – Then it’s time to take the written test, which can be taken in eight different languages including English.
- In many cases you’ll have to make an appointment for the exam, so be ready for news that you’ll have to come back another day to take the test.
Think of that time between trips as a great opportunity to prepare for the test. You’ll be surprised to find that the written test for a Chinese driver’s license is actually really hard! It’s a whopping 100 questions that requires a 90/100 score to pass.
I ended up failing twice before finally passing on my third attempt, so I highly recommend taking some time to study for the test so you can hopefully pass on the first attempt.
After passing the written test you can now have a driver’s license in China. There is no need for a driver’s test!
Following the test, listen out for and double check on the processing time for your Chinese driver’s license. Typically you can expect around 5 business days before you can come back up to pick up your driver’s license. But sometimes you may be lucky to where they can process it for you immediately.
I personally spent around US$100 on everything from getting a notarized translation of my US driver’s license to the medical check, the fee for the written test, and the license itself.
Final Thoughts: Getting a Chinese Driver’s License
Always remember that you must have a Chinese driver’s license to drive in China. I recommend getting a provisional driver’s license in contrast to a full Chinese driver’s license as they are faster and easier to get. You also don’t have to worry about the written driver’s test too, which is a big perk.
Lastly, many foreigners may think you are crazy wanting to drive on the open roads in China. You probably are…but that’s just part of the adventure 🙂
Remember, you’ll need to get yourself some traveler’s insurance and probably some good road maps in order to stay safe on the road.
Any other questions or comments about getting a driver’s license in China? Leave them in the comments below!