HOW TO: Chinese Driver’s License


China has huge factories, but there’s also thousands of tiny factories hidden away on back streets and in garages. During production of The Expressway we had a lot of down time waiting for molds to heat so we explored the neighborhood. On one tiny road there was a compression molding factory, several gauze factories, several cloth factories, a PCP molding factory, and a clothing factory. All very unassuming and tucked away in small garages. You’d never know they were there without getting up close.

Shenzhen is surrounded by these small factories, and they’re a treasure trove of opportunities for small scale manufacturing. On numerous occasions we tried to get our driver to cruise the side streets, alleys, and frontage roads to get a closer look, but drivers seem to find this really annoying. The only thing left to do was rent a car and drive ourselves.

While driving in China isn’t nearly as terrifying as some people would have you think, a Chinese driver’s license is required to get on the road. China doesn’t recognize any foreign licenses nor the international driver permit.

If you have a valid foreign license it’s not too difficult to get a Chinese license. The foreign license needs to be translated and certified, we hired an agent to do this for 1,800RMB ($300USD) which also included all the government fees. When the translation was accepted we scheduled an appointment online to take a computerized knowledge test (available in English).

The license is a great example of China’s major evolution towards squeaky clean government. A few years ago it cost 6,000-10,000 RMB ($1000USD-$1,600USD) to get a license, the major cost was a bribe to have someone else take the written test. There was no non-bribe option so we just didn’t do it. Now it’s not possible to bribe your way out of the test, but it’s a hell of a lot cheaper.

The test is 100 questions, pulled from a bank of 1,200. A passing grade is 90/100. The test is computerized, and a webcam records the entire thing to ensure there’s no cheating. The results are shown instantly, with an automatic do-over if you fail the first time.

Horror stories aside, the test wasn’t as bad as it was made out to be by infamous reports from NPR and the Washington Post. There are some oddities and terms that were unfamiliar. The official practice test in English covers most of it. The real thing is exactly the same, with a couple questions about fines, penalties, and traffic cop hand signals that we only knew from studying this practice exam as well. Most of the questions are dead simple and obvious. The translations are pretty good as of 2016.


There seemed to be an unhealthy obsession with fog lamps. Having never owned or driven a vehicle with fog lamps this was something new.


There are lots of British English terms we had to learn. A level crossing is where a train crosses a road at street level. Each red line means 50 meters. The correct answer is C.


A tidal lane is a narrow road where traffic in both directions share all or part of a single lane.


The white lines mean slow down. The correct answer is reduce the transverse speed, a term we found in a New Zealand government study of traffic calming measures.


This is the only question that truly baffles the mind. The correct answer is A, reduce the longitudinal speed. No idea what that means or how to operationalize it while driving. Just had to memorize this one.

Several questions in the actual test weren’t on the practice test, it wouldn’t have been possible to pass without the additional study guide linked above. For example: how long do you go to jail for killing someone in an accident (3 years), and how long for a hit and run (3-7years, can never drive again)? How many points on a Chinese license (12), and how many points are deducted for various infractions (6 for blowing a red light or light speeding, 12 for everything else)?

The test took around 10 minutes, we passed it with 90% on the first try. The license arrived by courier in 3 days. At times learning the terms on the practice exam was frustrating, but over all it was mostly painless. It was also extremely interesting to see how much the government has changed. Three years ago cheating was mandatory and agents were expensive, now it’s cheap and there’s no hint of corruption.

Very soon we’ll rent a giant SUV with all the safety features and hit the road. We’ll post reports from


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