How I Got My China Driver's License | A Personal Account

How I Got a China Driver’s License in Xinjiang

August 20 | 59 Comments

Are you looking to get a Chinese driver’s license? The truth is that China is one of those places where a “definitive guide” is impossible – your experience is always going to be slightly different than mine. That said, perhaps hearing about how I obtained a Chinese driver’s license will help you understand what to expect and what to do. So…I hope it helps!

How to get a Chinese Driver's License in China

By this point, you probably already know that China does not accept any foreign driver’s license or even the International Driver’s Permit – basically anything other than the Chinese driver’s license.

If you’re looking to drive any sort of vehicle in China – even a motorcycle, you’re going to need a Chinese driver’s license.

What I’d like to do is walk you through the not-so-simple process that I was required to do to obtain my driver’s license in China. I’ve heard that the process is much easier in expat-friendly places such as Beijing or Shanghai, but I can’t be certain.

Let’s first discuss why I even wanted a Chinese driver’s license in the first place before we go step-by-step through the application process.

Why Get a China Driver’s License?

Until recently, I had sworn off the idea of getting a Chinese driver’s license. I mean, who in their right mind would want to drive in China?

Test your skills on this 10-question example driver’s test…

Back in 2009 I had tested for and received my Chinese motorcycle license, but that was a different situation. I was living in the small town of Karamay at the time, a city whose definition of a “traffic jam” was two cars pulled over on the side of the road.

Here in the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi, however, things are quite different. I read somewhere that Urumqi (乌鲁木齐) has about 700,000 private cars, a number that is growing at an alarming rate each year.

So why get a driver’s license? Truth is I have no desire to drive here within the Urumqi city limits. I’m perfectly content taking a taxi or bus wherever I need to go. My desire is to have the option to rent a car (or buy a 2nd-hand car) for the purpose of travel around Xinjiang.

How awesome to not be bound by a tour group or the time constraints of a private driver?

Step 1: Finding the Chinese DMV

All it took was one and a half hours on a bus to the Urumqi Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to remind me why I wanted to get a China driver’s license in the first place.

The Urumqi DMV, known as the 车管所 (chē guǎn suǒ) in Chinese, was inconveniently built as far south outside Urumqi as possible. You’ll probably find the same to be true in almost any Chinese city.

The only indication that my bus was nearing its destination was the sight of numerous white cars whose markings boldly pronounced “driver-in-training”.

My butt hurt from the hard bus seat and my feet were frozen by a lack of heating. Like I said, a car was looking like an excellent option right about now.

Slowly a complex of buildings emerged from behind some trees and the bus dropped me off. I was on my own to figure out where to go from here.

The Urumqi DMV 车管所 in Xinjiang

The process of obtaining a Chinese driver’s license took me a week to complete (3 trips total) at a cost of around 600RMB (US$100), something I’ll detail more below. If it weren’t for one short sentence in the Chinese rulebook, though, it would have taken several months and thousands of RMB.

Chinese law states that a foreigner who has a current (i.e. not expired) foreign driver’s license may apply for a Chinese driver’s license after passing only the written test. No driving test required.

A test sounds simple, right? Not quite.

Urumqi DMV waiting area

The waiting room of the Urumqi DMV

Step 2: Chinese Driver’s License Paperwork

I walked into the main hall on the north side of the complex and took a number. While sitting down I looked around and witnessed poster after poster full of accident photos, adorned with illustrations of dripping blood. The TV in the corner was playing security camera footage of hundreds of accidents on a loop.

Chinese DMV Accident Poster     Chinese DMV Traffic Accident Poster #2

I felt like Jim Carey’s character on the Truman show when he went to the travel agency.

The Travel Agency on the Truman Show

After they had given me enough time to stare in horror at all the death and destruction around me, wondering whether this was all even worth the risk…my number was called.

I thought during my first long trip out to the DMV that flashing my motorcycle license would perhaps speed up the process and allow me to avoid all the paperwork that I had done before, but that wasn’t the case.

Sadly, they informed me that being in possession of two licenses is illegal, therefore before I could even consider testing for a C1 license (small car) I first had to forfeit my motorcycle license.

What a drag! And to think, if I had just kept my mouth shut about the motorcycle license, chances are their system wouldn’t have known and I would have both today. I kick myself every time I think about that.

Once my motorcycle license was destroyed (sad day), I was then told all the documents that I would need to bring back during my next trip. These included:

  • A certified translation of my US driver’s license – 75 RMB
  • A notary signature on this translation – 200 RMB
  • Copies of all relevant documents (passport, visa, registration card) – 3 RMB
  • At least 4 white-background photos – 15 RMB

The translation only took a couple days and the notary (a Chinese notary, not a foreign notary) was quick and painless. You’ll be looking for the 公证处 (Gōngzhèng chù) in your city.

Oh, but that’s not all. Once all these documents have been approved, I still needed to complete a physical exam before I could take the test.

Never mind the comprehensive exam I had to complete in order to obtain my Chinese resident’s permit (which included a sonogram, X-ray, and EKG). I had to pay the DMV to do their in-house exam located in the basement of the building that took another hour to complete. Cost: 50 RMB.

Step 3: Taking the Test

On my 2nd trip down to the DMV, I had all my paperwork, had completed my physical exam and was ready to take the test.

I paid the fee of 100 RMB and was ushered upstairs to the testing station.

The testing area for the China driver's license

Rooms full of these individual testing stations occupied the entire upper floor, each with their own computer, a simple input device and a camera that was constantly pointed at the test-taker, taking periodic photos to make sure there was no cheating.

Everybody has the option to take the test in one of 8 different languages, including English, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Translations are often confusing and some questions seem ridiculous.

Individual testing station for the Chinese Driver's Test

Passing the 100-question test requires a grade of 90 or higher. I failed with a 78 on my first try and an 86 on my second. You can only take the test two times a day, so I sadly endured the entire 1½ hour bus ride back home!

–>Try your luck with a sample China driver’s test<–

Third time is a charm, though! I passed with a 98 the next day and triumphantly brought my completion papers back downstairs. I was under the mistaken impression that I was actually done.

Instead they sent me across the complex to one more building where it was mandatory that I sit through 30 minutes of the most sad, gory accident videos I had ever seen.

The Wusu Incident” one of the clips proclaimed. “21 dead”. Scenes of sobbing relatives and severed limbs were almost enough to make me want to give up driving in China altogether.

Sitting through a Chinese accident movie

I was almost at the finish line, though, so I was determined to get this done. A half-hour later I grabbed my signed sheet saying I had been duly warned of the dangers of driving in China and that was it.

Step 4: Pick up the License

I did it! I had my Chinese driver’s license and I was legal to get behind the wheel.

My China driver's license

Note: Please don’t be jealous of how photogenic I am. It’s a gift.

While I have used this license to rent a car in China, I’ve since purchased a used vehicle that I use to cart my family around. I’m never more grateful for the car and this Chinese driver’s license than during the winter, when taxis are hard to find and freezing cold temperatures make for terrible waiting.

Conclusion | Chinese Driver’s License

I’ve been driving around for a couple years now and thankfully have never been in an auto accident. I did get a speeding ticket once, but that’s a crazy story for another time.

I carry this Chinese driver’s license as a badge of honor everywhere I go, flashing it like a police badge to anyone who might be remotely impressed.

For those who are considering taking the Chinese driver’s exam, whether here in Xinjiang or anywhere in China, there are some excellent free study resources on the internet. My favorites to use included this one in Mandarin and this one in English. There are also quite a few apps you can find by searching either “Chinese Driving Test” or “驾照一点通”.

Have you received your Chinese driver’s license? How was your experience different from (or the same as) mine?

About Josh Summers

Josh is a writer, musician and entrepreneur who currently resides in Urumqi, capital of China's western province of Xinjiang. He has been traveling and writing about this region since 2006 and has no plans to stop in the near future.

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Leave a Comment

  1. I’m a fervent admirer of your blog and all that you undertake in Xinjiang. I visited the area some 4 years ago and had I then been following your descriptors it would have enhanced my trip.
    Plaudits!.

    [Reply]

    Josh on March 1st, 2014 at 1:34 am

    Thank you, Richard! So glad to hear that you’ve enjoyed my writing and all that goes on out here in Xinjiang. If you ever make your way back out here again, let me know!

    [Reply]

  2. That’s much simpler than I would have imagined. When I got a motorcycle license in Shihezi last year they said my American license was useless. Your experience indicates otherwise. Looking forward to seeing where this takes you, though very unfortunate that you had to surrender your bike license, another bizarre bureaucratic quirk

    [Reply]

    Josh Summers on March 21st, 2014 at 1:16 am

    Yea, based on my experience it was quite a different process between getting a motorcycle license and a car license. I think part of that also has to do with the fact that the smaller the city (like Karamay or Shihezi) the less likely they are to have dealt with foreigners before. Or at least not often. Here in Urumqi it seemed to be a normal occurrence.

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    Robert Warneford-Thomson on March 21st, 2014 at 3:25 pm

    Exactly. I’m just explaining to the current guys there how to do it, and honestly the most difficult part is convincing the local officials that it’s legal to obtain a license as a foreigner since they see so few in sleepy old Shiheezy.

  3. what an experience you had…..

    [Reply]

    Josh Summers on March 27th, 2014 at 8:41 pm

    It really was neat. An even better experience will be when I finally get to rent a car and travel around ;)

    [Reply]

    Arfan on March 29th, 2014 at 6:07 am

    Wish u good luck, and hope, we will be getting more interesting parts captured and stories….

    Josh Summers on March 30th, 2014 at 8:36 am

    Thanks, Arfan! I just completed my first journey from Urumqi to Turpan in a rented car and I look forward to sharing the story on here. Stay tuned!

  4. Hey Josh,

    thanks for sharing, great story, well told.

    Two years ago, I went through a very similar procedure in Beijing – with some fantastic quirks along the way, notoriously ambiguous information and a number of trips to both the Beijing and the Chengdu DMV (always located on the furthest outskirts it seems…) Despite the Kafkaesque nature of the process I did actually rather enjoy it.

    However, I did ultimately NOT succeed in obtaining the full license for one reason you did not mention: to apply for the full license your Chinese Visa needs to have a duration of more than 90 days! Otherwise it is only possible to apply for a temporary license which is valid only for the duration of your visa and is restrained to rental cars only – overall a much worse deal. So, TO MY IT IS NOT POSSIBLE TO GET A FULL CHINESE LICENSE ON A TOURIST VISA. Has this changed? Do you happen to know anything about this?

    Thanks a lot and best regards,
    /M.

    [Reply]

  5. Do you have any idea what the process would be like with an expired US license? Actual on-the-road driving lessons? Thanks for the great article, by the way. We live on Hainan and would love to have the freedom to explore the island by ourselves.

    [Reply]

    Josh Summers on September 6th, 2015 at 11:35 pm

    Honestly, I don’t think they would notice that the license is expired ;) It’s worth acting ignorant and just trying to get the Chinese license using your expired one. The spirit of the law is just making sure you know how to drive in your home country, which you do.

    If that doesn’t work, you’ll have to do on-the-road driving lessons. I highly recommend against that, though. I think you’d be better off getting a new license in your home country next time you’re back.

    [Reply]

  6. Great article ! Just as an addon… I passed my exam (first try) with a score of 96. I used the IOS App “Drive in China” and the website http://www.beebright.biz which have the FULL question set of 2015 with 1300 questions. According to the website more than 8000 passed exams with this material – so you see you article may have inspired thousands to try . Good luck to everyone – for the exam and the time after

    [Reply]

    Josh Summers on November 11th, 2015 at 3:09 am

    Awesome! Thanks for sharing and enjoy your driving ;)

    [Reply]

  7. Hey Josh,
    Good job! thanks for sharing your wonderful experience..
    i was almost gonna regret the same way you did by surrendering your motorcycle licence,because i was planning to get chinese licence by waving the licence that already own. Everyone were encouraging me to show my licence to the police and they are going to give me chinese licence for 100RMB,which i didnt believe easily because it sounded unhealthy :) .

    And i really hope that i dont have to be watching all horrible seens that you mentioned above.
    I really enjoyed reading your article. YOU SAVED MY LICENCE!!
    THANK YOU

    [Reply]

    Josh Summers on March 1st, 2016 at 6:20 pm

    Glad you found it useful, Abdul! Thanks for the comment ;)

    [Reply]

  8. As of April 1st 2016 you need to pick your Chinese name at the police station when getting your resident registration form. You no longer pick a Chinese name at the DMV. The test will soon be changing as well to three parts covering signs, road rules, regulations and punishments. It has not changed yet but it should be changing very soon.

    [Reply]

    Josh Summers on April 15th, 2016 at 8:56 am

    Thanks for sharing, Robert! I’ll try to keep an eye on what’s happening and update this article accordingly.

    [Reply]

    Marco on July 14th, 2016 at 3:50 am

    Hi,
    i just got my chinese Driver license after the first try. I would say that the current test is a bit different from what you can find online. For 90% of the questions you Need to use only the logic reasoning, for the remained 10% you Need to memorize the Regulation about punishments (which in this case are different from my Country -Italy).
    Another Thing is that you Need to have a working Permit VISA otherwise they will not allow to start the procedure for a full Driver license.

    [Reply]

  9. hey bro , i didn’t understand these 2 lines(A certified translation of my US driver’s license – 75 RMB
    A notary signature on this translation – 200 RMB) that how you did that …..from where u get the certified translation and notary signature?

    [Reply]

    Josh Summers on June 28th, 2016 at 10:32 pm

    Certified translations can be done in shops near any city’s public security bureau, but there are other official translation shops around town as well. The translations have to be stamped with a certified red stamp.

    Notary is at a special notary department. Each city has at least one – most taxis should know what you’re talking about when you ask about the 公证处 (gong zheng chu).

    [Reply]

  10. Josb,
    I happened to come across your article on Chinese drivers license as I am attempting the same. Great and typical Chinese hoop jumping. My name is Robert and live in Beijing 6 years. I own my own winery import company in Beijing and Wuhu.

    Look forward to maybe sharing stories of real China through foreigners eyes.

    Cheers
    Robert

    [Reply]

  11. Hey mate, im currently undertaking this process to obtain my chinese driving license, I am from Australia and from what I have been told, I need to sign my name in Chinese. Did you have to do this? If so how did you manage it

    [Reply]

    Josh Summers on February 22nd, 2017 at 3:45 pm

    Hmm…I don’t remember having to sign my name in Chinese, but I guess that’s possible. They will need a Chinese version of your name to put on your license. If worse comes to worse, you can just copy the printed version of what has been typed out as your name. Honestly, though – I don’t think you’ll be forced to sign your name in Chinese!

    [Reply]

  12. Hi i want to do the same in Chengdu, i have all the necessary documents and also have my British motorcycle driving licence. However i have Red-Green colorblindness. i have heard in the medical exam for the driving licence you need to a color blindness test? and if you don’t pass you won’t be able to take the theory exam…which is ridiculous as millions of people are color blind and virtually all other countries don’t have this ridiculous requirement. by the way it doesn’t mean i can’t distinguish red and green but if you put them in number forms in some highly detailed multi-color pattern then my brain won’t be able to distinguish them,,,however traffic lights are single block colors.. so ya did you have to do that? and anyway you could advise me of overcoming that problem? Thanks man!

    [Reply]

  13. Hi Josh. There should be more people like you sharing such processes in detail. Thanks for that! As I cannot find any information in the internet I wanted to ask if you maybe know someone who got a temporary license in Urumqi. I have no idea where to go and what to do exactly (some say you can do a short exam at any police station… well, any? It can’t be that easy). Maybe you have something to share about it… Anyways, great page! Helps us a lot in planning our trip.

    [Reply]

    Josh Summers on July 26th, 2017 at 1:21 am

    Unfortunately, I know of nobody who has been able to get a provisional license in Urumqi. I believe that there are some travel agencies that have been able to arrange it for travelers, but it took a good amount of preparation and a bit of expense.

    [Reply]

  14. Thanks for your notes on the process of getting a license, but I am curious about the interval of time between once you completed the paperwork, was there a waiting period after which you were called to do the exam?

    Thanks

    [Reply]

    Josh Summers on August 13th, 2017 at 11:48 pm

    Once I finished my paperwork I was able to sign up for a test that I believe I took the next day.

    [Reply]

  15. How long do you reckon it would take for a total newbie to get a driver’s license? I don’t have one yet but may get one if the situation gets dire, and have plans of moving to China. I suppose I’ll have to do a practical test too :/

    [Reply]

    Josh Summers on January 31st, 2018 at 8:51 am

    It’s easier in the bigger cities in China (Beijing, Shanghai, etc.). When you get in the rural areas it gets a bit harder (but not impossible).

    [Reply]

  16. Thank you so much! This is so helpful! I’m an american citizen married to a Chinese husband from Karamay. I have trouble getting into malls and public everyday because I don’t have an ID or drivers licence to show and most security personnel and police here can’t read my US passport. Hopefully a drivers licence would help!

    [Reply]

    Josh Summers on March 14th, 2018 at 4:19 am

    Oh wow…yea, I hope so!

    [Reply]

  17. Hi, Josh! Thanks a lot for such an article! Can I ask you one question, please? Is it necessary to have a Residence Permit or its just enough to have a registration form from a local police station? My visa (M-business) doesn’t allow me to make a Resident permit that’s why I’m wondering
    Thanks! Appreciate that!

    [Reply]

    Josh Summers on June 1st, 2018 at 9:26 am

    Hi Steven, to my recollection, I didn’t need to have a residence permit, only a valid Chinese visa (which you obviously have). It should be possible for you!

    [Reply]

  18. Thanks for the post Josh! I got mine just about the same year as yours, albeit in Xiamen. At the time, I used an “agent”, though they basically just helped me get papers together (and took an extra 3-400 RMB;I paid about 800 total if I remember correctly). Will be fascinating to see what happens in two years, when mine is slated to expire. I’ve moved back to the US, but still frequently travel to and visit China (though on a short-term visa. No idea how/whether I’ll be able to renew without the residence permit/work visa I had when I got it!

    [Reply]

    Josh Summers on September 3rd, 2018 at 12:14 pm

    Very interesting…let me know what happens!

    [Reply]

  19. Hi Josh, Im just starting the process of sorting out my Chinese license from a UK one. You mentioned that you had to hand in your motorcycle license?
    My current UK license covers just about everything and I was hoping to get similar privileges in China – motorcycle, car, minibus etc. Not trucks or buses. But just keep my license so I can drive most things if I need to.
    Do they issue such licenses to foreigners or limit to only cars or only motorcycles??
    From the copy of your license it says C1 – which suggests you can’t use motorcycles anymore??
    Im living in Shanghai but as usual very difficult to find any answers.

    [Reply]

    Josh Summers on September 27th, 2018 at 9:24 am

    Hey Chris, in my case, they wouldn’t allow me to have both a car license and a motorcycle license. Perhaps there’s a way to get around that elsewhere, but that I was my specific situation. The reason answers are difficult to find is because it probably changes based on where you are in China and who is helping you.

    [Reply]




The 2015 Xinjiang travel guide is here!