Frustratingly, China doesn't accept the use of international driving licenses on its roads, meaning if you're a foreigner and you want to drive here, you'll need to get yourself a Chinese driving license. The process for foreigners to do this can seem a little confusing, but with a bit of preparation and an acceptance of Chinese bureaucracy, it doesn't need to be too painful.
And while some of your friends or family may look at you a little oddly when you say you want to drive on the roads in China, having a driving license can be a fantastic way to get out and explore the country – especially given the generally cheap prices for car rental here.
Follow our step-by-step guide below, and you could be out on the open road in a matter of weeks...
Thankfully, foreigners who already possess a driving license from another country don't have to sit a practical exam in one of the mock-up test centres in the city's far-flung suburbs. Instead, you'll need to get your foreign license translated. This bit isn't too difficult, but feels like a bit of a rip-off.
Getting your license translated seems fair, except that this has to be done by an official notary office and they'll charge you 50RMB for a few seconds' work. Alas, there's no way around this, so you just have to grin and bear it.
Take your license (including the paper part for EU licenses) to one of the official notary offices around town (the most convenient downtown location is at Room 1607, 1277 Beijing Xi Lu, near Xikang Lu), hand over your money and they'll know what to do.
Before you set out for the Shanghai Vehicle Management Bureau (SVMB), you should ensure that you have all your paperwork sorted. You'll need:
- Your passport, plus a photocopy of the photo page and of your current visa (which must be valid for at least 90 days)
- Your temporary registration form from your local police station
- Photocopies of both sides of your foreign license along with the original, plus the chopped translation (see above)
You'll also need a document stating that you are healthy enough to drive on the road in China. You can get one of these from whichever hospital you usually attend, but there's also a health check centre at the SVMB itself (address below), which is primed for carrying out the necessary checks. As you're going to be visiting anyway, you might as well do the health check on site.
For 60RMB, you'll be given a form listing a series of different health tests, which you can then undergo on the spot. It's a similar process to the regular foreigner health checks you may have been through to get your visa – you shuffle from room to room where different assistants test your reflexes, blood pressure, vision, etc and tick off the appropriate box on your form. Once you've got the full set, you shout 'bingo!' (not really) and progress to the main counter where they give you the final document.
If you're not already there for your health check, it's time to head to the SVMB itself. The main office is stuck out in Gubei and not particularly near any metro stations (the closest is Shanghai Zoo, but it's still a bit of a trek from there). Given that you can't drive there (yet), you're probably best off getting a taxi over. The address is 1330 Hami Lu, near Jinbang Lu.
Outside, you'll likely find people milling around offering to 'help' with your application. This could be anything from them guiding you around the various rooms and buildings collecting your paperwork, to offering to sit the exam for you (allegedly). You won't need them though.
Instead, head into the complex and look for the photography room. Here, you'll need to pay 40RMB to have your official photograph taken (you can't use your own photos).
Once you've gotten your photo and your health form, head in to the main building (building 1) and get an appointment number from the small desk just inside the door, before heading upstairs to the counter for foreigners. Here, they'll check your materials and send you off for any missing documents. If everything is in order, they'll book you in for a theory exam; usually, the soonest that you can do this is one week from the date of you submitting your documents, but it depends on demand. We recommend going for a slot at least one week from your application because you'll need a bit of time to...
It's easy to think that you'll be able to pass the theory test for a Chinese driving license based on your prior driving experience abroad and just general road safety logic. But if you think that, you may well be in for a nasty shock. The interwebs are full of people detailing their failure to pass the required 90 percent on the exams – check out this account of utter bewilderment from NPR
Rather than rely on your own instincts and experience, you'll need to memorise the answers to the exam questions. There are 1,500 of these from which the 100 you sit will be chosen, though many of them overlap or deal with similar issues. They cover everything from traffic police hand signals and length of jail terms for various offences, to road sign meanings and speed limits.
Again, the best way to ensure success is to simply memorise the answers, especially as the language used can be confusing.The theory test is available in English, Russian, Japanese, Spanish and French, but the questions can often be worded in a way that makes them difficult to understand.
We downloaded the Driving in China app (1.99USD) and spent our metro journey to and from work and lunch-breaks going over and over the questions. The latest version of the app was released in August 2015, so you may find some of the questions are worded slightly differently to the actual exam, but for the most part it's accurate. The ability to do mock exams on the app also makes it well worth a download.
We really can't emphasise enough how important it is to memorise the answers rather than trust common sense or what you assume to be logical.
You return to the SVMB to sit your test (55RMB), done at one of a bank of computers in a cramped room upstairs from the administrative windows in building 1. Be sure to bring all your paperwork with you for this. You have 45 minutes to complete the exam and once you submit your answers, the computer will tell you immediately whether you've passed or not.
If you're successful, you'll be able to head downstairs to get your driving license printed right away. Basically, a guy stands there laminating card licenses and calling relieved examinees up one by one to collect them. You can usually have your new Chinese driving license in your hand within 15 minutes of completing the exam.
If you fail the theory test, you'll need to arrange to sit it again. The test fee drops to 40RMB for resits.
And that's it! Once you've got your license (usually valid for six years), check out one of the numerous cheap car rental services in Shanghai and plan your next road trip with some of our favourite nearby destinations below.