Getting a Chinese Drivers License

Like how many other countries insist on their own idiosyncratic way of life, there are some things in China that simply must be done in a Chinese way. Driving is one of those.

Traffic in China mirrors the experience at the DMV: befuddling and slow-moving, but ultimately you arrive where you need to.
Traffic in China mirror the experience at the DMV: befuddling and slow-moving, but ultimately you arrive where you need to.

To drive legally in China, you need a Chinese drivers license; foreigners aren’t permitted to drive on their home country license, even with an International Driving Permit1 (which is actually just a translation of the home country license). Getting the license is famously difficult, chiefly because

everyone must take a written test; 90 percent is considered passing. The test consists of 100 questions drawn from a pool of nearly 1,000. The test is particularly tough for foreigners, owing to the volume of memorization and sometimes sketchy translations. 2

I got my driver’s license with motorcycle endorsement (C1E) in Guangzhou last week, and it was indeed a trial. (Some have reported on forums that Guangzhou is no longer issuing motorcycle licenses,3 but they didn’t give me hard time about that particular aspect of the process.) Passing the test wasn’t the hard part; after regular studying with the Chinese Driving Test website I was successful on my first test attempt. Dealing with the bureaucracy, on the other hand, ultimately required six trips to the main DMV office (岑村车管总所). Much of this is due to the lack of published information about the process, so learn from my experience so that yours is smoother.

Here’s what you’ll need:

  1. Notarized translation of your passport
  2. Notarized translation of your home country driver’s license (if you’re going for a C1E, make sure the translation specifically indicates your motorcycle endorsement). All your translations will be around 160RMB.
  3. Registration Form of Temporary Residence for Visitors (境外人员住宿登记信息/jing4 wai4 ren2 yuan2 zhu4 su2 deng1 ji4 xin2 xi1) – available from your local police office. Make sure it has your picture on it.
  4. Documents 1-3 should have your last name and first/middle names specifically indicated. They should also have your Chinese name. This can be pretty much anything you choose, but make sure it has seven or fewer characters, and it needs to be exactly the same on all three documents.
  5. If your notarized translations include a page that indicates someone requested the translation for you (like your HR person), it helps to bring a letter signed by you explaining that you requested someone to handle the translations for you, along with a photocopy of their Chinese ID
  6. Photocopy of your Chinese residence permit from your passport
  7. Eight 1-inch photos, which I was able to get at the photo booths in the DMV office for 30 yuan. It comes with a receipt certifying the photos were taken in China, and you will also need this receipt.
  8. A health certificate, which I was ultimately able to get from the office inside the DMV office. It’s really just a vision & colorblindness test and costs 20RMB.
  9. A Chinese bank card to pay the 80RMB fee to take the written test. I’m not sure if a foreign card would work, but I do know they didn’t want to accept cash.
  10. A translator is helpful in case there are issues with your paperwork. I had many.

Ideally, the process works like this. You show up at the DMV early; in Guangzhou it opens at 9am. You get your health certificate after having your vision tested. Certificate in hand, you pull a ticket from the touchscreen machine in the lobby. After a 15-20 minute wait, your number is called and your paperwork verified by the officer on duty. He sends it to another booth where you pay 80RMB and receive a receipt to take the written test. You climb four flights of stairs, take and pass the test, come back down and submit your receipt at the counter (you don’t need to get another ticket and wait). Since it’s before 11am, they tell you to come back at 4pm to pick up your driver’s license. At 4pm, they call out the names of the licensees, and after turning in your receipt you go home with permission to drive.

In reality, for me it didn’t work quite that smoothly.

This is the scene that greeted me in the morning at the Guangzhou DMV.

The DMV is located fairly far north in Guangzhou at 广州市天河区岑村华观路1732号 and is a 20-minute cab ride away from the nearing metro station, Huangcun on line 4. After an hour and a half on public transportation, I caught a cab (using Didi will save you about 30% over a metered cab fare) I arrived with my translator right at 9am. I proceeded to the health inspection office, where I waited for ten, then twenty, then thirty minutes. I eventually saw the reason: a computer technician was setting up a new printer and from the way he was intently studying the instruction manual I could tell it wasn’t going well. The computer in question, like all the others at the office, was running Windows XP. This should have foreshadowed the troubles to come.

After forty minutes, the gentleman from the health check office directed us elsewhere. “Don’t worry,” he reassured us, “there’s another office just a ten minute walk down the road.” I set a brisk pace down the sidewalk and as promised we arrived shortly at another facility that looked like it was an emissions inspection station with a health office attached. We waited another 15 minutes for my turn to process my paperwork. When it was handed to the employee handling data entry, he was stumped. For one thing, my name transliterated into Chinese was too long for his form. “Cut out his middle name,” instructed my translator. Then there was another problem: my translated document used bullet points to separate my first, middle, and last names. The secretary insisted on typing it exactly as it was listed on the form – but he didn’t know how to type bullet points. My translator helpful suggested he search Baidu for the method. Twenty minutes after the secretary started, he finally printed my form and handed it to me to check.

“Wait, there’s a problem,” I said. “You’ve put here a C1 license class, but I need a C1E for motorcycles.” At this point they threw up their hands and directed us to a different office. Luckily it was just around the corner and it took them only five minutes to complete a job we’d waiting a total of over an hour for.

Triumphant, we hustled back to the DMV, arriving at 10:40. We pulled a ticket and after five minutes were called to a booth to submit our paperwork. The police officer glanced over it and pushed it back over the counter to me. “You need a translation of your passport and your temporary residence registration document,” he said. I’d had a friend call the office to confirm what I needed to bring, but the office had said “proof of legal residence in China” which I took to mean my residence permit but was actually a different form, the 境外人员住宿登记信息. I steeled myself for the two hour journey home.

It took a week to get my missing paperwork and I returned for my second visit. With my health check already done, we went directly to get a ticket and after 15 minutes were again called to a booth. We had all the paperwork, but the way the officer’s brow furrowed I could tell there was a problem. It turned out to be my name. On my passport, my name appears as Last on one line and then First Middle on the next. On my driver’s license it appears on one line as First Middle Last. The notary had translated them as they appeared, and the transliteration confused the officer. “These aren’t the same name,” he insisted. “Yes, they are,” responded my translator. And so it went for forty minutes, with calls to our HR office to try to help explain and my translator explaining repeatedly which name was my first and which was my last. Finally, the officer agreed that the names Last, First Middle and First Middle Last were the same. “But it’s already 3:30,” he said, “and the last test was at 3pm. Come back another day and you can take the test.”

So it was that I returned a third time, bright eyed, bushy-tailed and supremely prepared thanks to the study materials at I submitted the paperwork, which the same officer from the last time sent over to another booth to process my payment. The woman at the counter called us over.

“These aren’t the same name,” she said.

After reiterating the same arguments we’d done the previous time, she brought down the chief to make the final call.

“These aren’t the same name,” he said.

I couldn’t understand the exact conversation, but there was enough “ZAI ZHONG GUO” and “SHI BU SHI” said with finality that I could tell my case was hopeless. And it wasn’t even necessarily him being obstinate. “Your name is too long,” he said. “We can only print seven characters on the license, but your name has eight.” Despite the surly tone of the chief, he was in the end quite helpful. “Just choose a Chinese name and tell the translator to put that on all your documents,” he advised me. “Then it definitely won’t be a problem.” He even showed me the successful application of an Arab who had also chosen a three-character Chinese name.

After getting my passport and driver’s license re-translated with a Chinese name (160RMB) and having the local police station reissue my 境外人员住宿登记信息 with the same, I went back for my fourth visit. I had to get my health check reissued with my Chinese name, another 20RMB. They put “E” for a motorcycle endorsement on the form – “the computer can’t type C1E, but just write that on your driver’s license application and it will be fine,” they said. On to the DMV where, familiar with my face and case, they processed the paperwork quickly. I paid 80RMB for my test and was directed to the fourth floor up a dimly lit staircase to a scene familiar to anyone who has been to a Prometric test center: rows of cubicles, each equipped with a desktop computer and webcam to record the test taker. I sat the test and 15 minutes later had my passing score. They gave me a fapiao (receipt) and directed me back downstairs, where I was told to return at 4pm with my fapiao to pick up my license. Success!

I had a leisurely lunch at a pub in town, did some shopping at IKEA and returned, my fifth visit to the DMV, at a quarter ’til four. Waiting expectantly at the counter with a group of other soon-to-licensees, I watched with dismay as everyone’s name was called but my own. I handed my fapiao to the lady.

“There’s a problem with your paperwork,” she said. “Your health check says an “E” endorsement but your application says “C1E.”

“Well, can I just change my application to an E? I don’t need to drive a car.”

“No, we don’t issue E licenses. Only C1E. Go over to the health check office and get them to redo your paperwork.”

Foiled by Windows XP - not once, but twice.
Foiled by Windows XP – not once, but twice.

So I scurried over to the corner to get my health check redone. It looked like their printer was working, and the gentleman there assured me that he could get the form done with C1E typed on it. He took my paperwork. I waited for three other customers, just as anxious as me, and finally the secretary picked up my materials to enter into the computer. Then I noticed her restart her computer. And restart it again. And again. Finally, the same gentleman who had helpfully directed me to another health office on my first attempt came over to me.

“The computer isn’t working today,” he apologized. “But come back tomorrow and I’ll make sure yours gets done first thing.”

So it was that I returned for my sixth visit to the DMV. I headed straight for the health office where they printed my health check form. It had a C1 endorsement on it, after which they had hand-written “E” and stamped it to make the amendment official. I went directly to the counter and handed it to the lady who gestured me to come with her upstairs. “Wait here,” she said, stopping outside a large office filled with row upon row of cubicles seating officers in identical, prim uniforms.

20 nervous minutes later, I had my license in hand.

It was certainly a drawn-out process. You’ll probably need a lot of patience – and a translator – if you want to attempt it, too. But in the end, the DMV officers were as helpful as they could be within the framework of the bureaucracy; the problem was how opaque the regulations were. Hopefully you’ll come better prepared than I was.

  1. Langfitt, Frank. “How I Flunked China’s Driving Test … Three Times.” NPR. NPR, 17 Jan. 2014. Web. 29 Dec. 2015.
  2. Langfitt, Frank. “Do You Have What It Takes To Get A Chinese Driver’s License?NPR. NPR, 17 Jan. 2014. Web. 29 Dec. 2015.
  3. Thread: New in Guangdong, Some License Questions.” Online forum. My China Moto. Motocyclops LLC, 15 Nov. 2013. Web. 29 Dec. 2015.

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