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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  1. Well, apparently Chinese cars are on Omniwheels, and have all sorts of transversal and longitudinal speeds (next up: reduce pitch rate!). Thankfully, mine just has the one: “travel speed”. Interesting stuff though, thanks for sharing…

    1. The term “longitudinal speed” is misleading. Having those marks on the road simply warns you to be careful of a narrow lane.

  2. “Reduce Transverse Speed” thing…

    I’ve encountered these before in a few countries. Here in Indonesia we have them and they make them THICK so that if you don’t slow down, when you roll over them all the bolts in your car fall off, and your teeth become loose too.

    “Reduce Longitudinal Speed” thing…

    I think they’re trying to convey the same idea as the transverse thing here, but they don’t want to do it in a way that loosens your teeth. The stripes look canted like that from the top down, but may look square to the driver due to parallax (but I’m not sure on that part though).

    1. I prefer industrial waste recapture program :) It’s a byproduct of hacker camp shenzhen, and we’re planning to launch it at hacker camp 6. Bunnie is a major investor, and Xobs said earlier this week it is the premier example of using the Chinese manufacturing ecosystem. So really, you could say it’s an education double head dildo full of qc failed toy cars.

  3. “Reduce speed across lines ” and “reduce speed among lines”. Seams a bit pedantic as speeding in a direction not aligned with the road is almost always wrong.

  4. The weird thing in the Chinese driving test is you need to know the actual penalties for offences, like the number of years you could serve in prison for killing someone when you break the traffic laws.

  5. How long does the whole process takes (translation + exam) ? I mean, is it possible to do it on a visit so that later, on the same or subsequent visit I could rent a car.

    1. I bet you could do it in a week, but you only need to be in china for a day of that. Send the scans in for approval before you come. If you’re in a hotel you’ll also need to get a copy of your visa registration with the police.

  6. I couldn’t understand the transversal/longitudinal either. Drove me crazy for long time.

    It seems that it’s a bad translation.

    Transversal/Longitudinal refers to the markings, not the speed. Should be Transversal/Longitudinal reduce speed markings.

    I found another one equally confusing about horizontal/vertical speed, which finally was horizontal/vertical signs.

  7. What are ‘jess lanes’?
    This doesn’t look like British English I know….

    When men with red flags used to walk in front of cars in England, lamps perhaps had covers you had to open to let the smoke out (

    Interestingly the sign format looks more American to me. Our signs are on white backgrounds with thick red borders.

    When I lived in foreign counties, this is why I always paid the courtesy of trying to learn the language and customs. Though Chinese is a whole other level. I understand there are thousands of symbols. I can recognize about 10 and 5 spoken words. Though I only visited once for a vary short time. My main recollection is shock at the amount of construction beside the road out of Shanghai to Suzhou.

    When discussion turned to driving in China, we were informed insurance claims / or compensation were settled at the site of the incident. Hence the advice not to drive. Is this still the case?

    1. The law requires you to settle or at least leave the scene ASAP if no deaths involved. My take is, and it could be wrong…I only studied the links in this post, that if you involve police without death then you will both be fined.

  8. I don’t know if this has been answered before, my quick scan says “no”.

    What do the glyphs in the ‘Name’ spot mean? I hope it is not variation on the “Harmony” t-shirt phrase :)


    1. Nice :) because I didn’t know to register my Chinese name when I registered my residency permit they used a transliteration of Ian (is that the right word for character to sound?). It means EN basically, but my actual Chinese name is Lin Dian. Lin is a coMon Chinese last name that I can actually write, and dian is also easy to write, sounds like Ian, and means electricity and is related to what I do (people poke me and pretend to be electrocuted). Also, it is not a real Chinese name so they look as confused as I do when people introduce themselves as onion, crayon, and Superman…

      1. Want to add that my dog’s name is linlin (pronounced ling ling) and uses the same character. They never forget us at the animal hospital :)

    2. For the long term is really pays for a westerner to take the choosing of a Chinese name seriously. It eventually get into various official things, and you want it to be consistent, and not lame sounding or meaning. Remember that every Chinese name as a literal meaning – not just some ancient origin in Latin or Hebrew. Its easy to come up with a name that sounds good, but means something weird. translates 伊恩 as Ian, but 伊 and 恩 have their own means. 伊 is actually used more often in transliterations, like Iraq and Iran, than for its original meaning. 恩 means something like kindness or grace. If your Chinese name is Lin Dian, I assume that is 林電/林电. 林 = a small wood, or thicket, and is also a common surname. 電 = spark, or electric.

      Ideally you want to find someone to help who people consider good at this. Someone who is fluent in English, Mandarin and Cantonese. You really want both the Cantonese and Mandarin readings to sound OK.

  9. Who did you use to get everything translated for you? I have 1800RMB right now for a license, I need this badly. All the expats here were telling me to bribe someone, glad i didn’t do that!

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