Chinese Drivers license and Renting a Car in China Part 1

Written by Jonny Willson

Last week we hired a car in China for the first time, and had a few days holiday in the Huairou area just north of Beijing. Hiring a car gave us the flexibility of being able to go beyond the public transport system and beyond where taxis are willing to go. We had done similar trips previously where we had arranged a driver to pick us up and take us where we wanted to go, but cost wise hiring a car for 3 days was about the same price as paying a driver for just one day. It may not seem to be a big achievement, but we have lived in Beijing since 2010, and it has taken until now to achieve this seemingly trivial success.

The key hurdle to driving in china is that an international driving license isn’t sufficient. You need to get a local driving license, and to do that you need to pass the theory test. Joel (the manager of 1on1 Mandarin) had lent us his book setting out the theory you need to know back in 2013, with our vague plan of preparing to sit the test, but in the busyness of life, we never made progress. Without the pressure of the test coming up, we didn’t make it a priority to study, but looking at the book – the rules and regulations seemed too confusing to make it easy to study. Further, whilst we knew where the place to register for the test was[1] – we weren’t exactly sure how to collate the documentation we would need to register.

To cut a long story short – passing the theory test and getting a Chinese driving license always remained on our ‘nice but not priority’ list. Until now that is.

Earlier this year, we heard from a friend that she had used a company to do the paperwork side of getting registered, and we had a few days leave coming up that we wanted to use to explore the Huairou countryside of just north of Beijing. Now we had the means, and the motivation to get on and pass the test.

The first hurdle is getting registered for the test. We did it through a company called Beijing JiaLian(北京驾联)[2] who didn’t provide perfect customer service, but did what they promised to do: which was to

1)     Get our overseas driving license translated

2)     Accompany us to a local hospital to get the required health check, (it is a simpler health check than the one you need to get a student or work visa, but done in a different location)

3)     Accompany us to the theory test center to register us for the test

4)     Accompany us to the theory test center again for the actual test

5)     Collect the driving license and post it to us when it is ready

For this service they charged us the princely sum of 980 yuan per person. For the language student who is time rich or cash poor, this might not be the best route. But for us, we didn’t want to do the legwork of researching what we were meant to do for each stage, whether that is finding out exactly what bit of your license needs translating, which hospital can do the required health check, or even what sequence you need to do things within the hospital. Often Chinese hospitals require you to register in one place, go to another to recommend treatment, a third to pay, and a forth to receive treatment. With sufficient Chinese and plenty of time, this is all possible, but we were very happy to pay for someone to do all the leg work for us.

Having paid our fee, we then arranged to meet their representative at Jinsong subway station, which is southeast Beijing on Line 10. The rep then walked us along to a hospital just round the corner along with some other clients who were needing the same health check.  The medical took less than a minute, and seemed nothing more than answering a few basic questions, and a very basic eye exam. Interestingly, for the paperwork for the medical test, you need to give your Chinese name. This name is then also the name that goes on your Chinese license.  Once everyone had finished doing the medical and associated paperwork, we were then taken by car to the driving test centre location, a 20-minute journey further out of town. The rep for China driver again did all the necessary arrangements – all we needed to do was to sign the form and select the date when we wanted to sit the test.

Having registered for the test – we now needed to do the hard work of learning the theory so that we could pass the test. The test is done in English, and it is multiple-choice, but you need to get 90 questions right out of 100, so relying on your overseas knowledge and making educated guesses for the rest is very unlikely to cut it.

The company that we used to do the paperwork for us also provided two resources to help us prepare for the test – the official theory test book, and then also a booklet containing 1000 multiple choice questions that are used in the exam – with the correct answers. Additionally we bought the app that let us do practice tests, again based on the actual questions.

My approach was to use the ‘set answers’ reading from beginning to end highlighting the questions that I didn’t understand or seemed contradictory to another answer. Then went through the book again cross-referencing with the official theory test book. What I discovered was that there was plenty of information that you just needed to learn. E.g. what are the speed limits for roads with and without centre lines, in town and out of town, on the expressway in the outer lane, in the middle lane, and the right hand lane, and under all sorts of inclement weather conditions. Similarly you need to learn how many points you get for all sorts of traffic violations, and also whether they are statutory, criminal, or traffic violations.

The blessing is that the test is in English, the challenge though is that possibly due to translation, many questions have two answers that both seem to be very similar and therefore both potentially right. Here the only solution seemed to be to rote learn those answers.

My wife’s approach was slightly different – she went for just using the app, repeatedly testing herself, and retesting herself on the answers she got wrong. This was initially very discouraging for her, as she was averaging 60% each test, and never seeming to make improvements, but once she had been through the entire cycle of 1000 questions, her scores picked up until she was confident that she pass the test.

The tests only happen in the afternoons on certain days, so we sat in the waiting room waiting for 2pm and to be taken upstairs into the exam room. I don’t think my hands have ever been so sweaty and found myself more nervous than expected. The test is done at a computer, and once you have typed in your registration number, and the lady has verified your passport and the registration name match, you can begin.

100 multiple choice questions took us around 15-20 minutes to do, though there were a few who had finished in 10 minutes. I think you are allowed up to an hour. After answering the questions you can go back and review your answers, and then press submit or confirm you’re satisfied with your answers. You immediately find out whether you have passed or failed. We both passed first time and a green box came up on the screen saying congratulations. If you fail the test first time then you are allowed to immediately re-take the test, but if you fail a second time, you need to register to take the test on another day.

Having successfully passed, you can take your registration slip to the front of the room where the ‘examiner’ checks your score and writes it on your slip. I got 93 out of a 100; my wife got 97! On returning downstairs the company representative did the admin side of handing in the slip, and filled out our address on a kuai di (快递)slip, so that once the license was ready, they could collect it and immediately post it to us. We received our licenses after just a couple of days. Success!

In our next post we will share the hurdles we faced in trying to rent a car.


[1]The name of the driving test place in Chinese is:北京市公安局公安交通管理局车辆管理所, The address is朝阳区南四环东路18号. This is a link to the location on baidu maps: http://j.map.baidu.com/OV4Ll