Before we begin, rules covering vehicle licences for foreigners in China seem to vary from one province to another, and even where the rules are the same, the traffic police’s interpretation of these rules might not be the same in each town.
It’s important to bear in mind that foreign driving licences, regardless of country, are not recognised in China (this includes International Driving Permits). If you want wheels in the People’s Republic, you need to get yourself a Chinese driving licence.
Before attempting to get my licence, I’d tried to research the process online and found that most information was unclear or related to people’s experiences many years ago, and most often concerned getting a licence in a large city where foreigners are not an uncommon sight, and traffic departments are more accustomed to processing such requests.
This then, is a guide to getting a Chinese motorcycle licence in a more remote region (I was actually the first foreigner ever to obtain a driving licence in our city, Ya’An, Sichuan), and is built on my experience of going through this process in 2016.
Also worth mentioning that a licence is required only for petrol engined motorcycles. The electric bikes and scooters that are so prevalent in Chinese cities do not require a licence of any type, even for foreigners, though they do have limited range, speed, and are not permitted to carry passengers.
The things you need for a Chinese motorcycle licence:
- 2 X 35mm x 45mm photographs.
- Visa or residency permit with a minimum of 90 days remaining. This is stated in the regulations, though by the time I actually passed my exam, I had only 60 days remaining on my current visa and the traffic police did not make an issue of it.
- Valid driving licence from your own country. It is possible to get a Chinese licence even if you don’t have one from your own country, but this is more complex. I will explain later.
- Proof of residence. This is not the same as the residency permit in your passport, this document can be obtained from from your local police station or foreign affairs office, provided they have a record of you living in the town. Or if you’re working or studying in China, ask your employer/school to get this for you. ** Get two while you’re there! – you will need another of these when you come to register a vehicle, and a photocopy of the first is not accepted, I learned this the hard way.
- Chinese translation of your driving licence. Tricky one. This must be a full translation from a recognised institution and must bear an official stamp. In my case I approached a local lawyers office, who sent it away to the appropriate authority. It took 5 days and cost 350RMB. I’ve heard that in big cities this can sometimes be done in-house by the traffic police and for a significantly lower cost, but that was not available here.
- Photocopies of all of the above.
With this ream of paperwork in hand, you need to go to the local traffic police office. Don’t count on there being an English speaker available, especially in smaller towns. It’s best if you can find a Chinese speaker to accompany you to help with explanations and filling out forms (of which there will be many). You will also need to choose a Chinese name, as licences and forms can only be completed using Chinese characters.
Next comes the medical exam, usually conducted by an official at the police station itself. This costs 45RMB and in my case, consisted of an eyesight and colour blindness test, and a blood pressure check. Though I have heard of more comprehensive medical tests being carried out in other parts of the country, including an ECG test and blood samples being taken.
Now the big one, the driving test. The good news is, if you already have a driving licence from your own country, you do not need to do the practical test, only the theory one. If you don’t already have a licence from home, you have four tests to look forward to, two practical and two theory ones.
The bad news (at least in my case) is that the theory test might be in Chinese. There is supposed to be an option to do the test in English, and I’m sure in larger cities that is true (but apparently only for the Car licence), but out here it was not available and I had to do it in Chinese. I was however allowed to bring a translator with me. If you’re lucky you might find someone who knows some of the answers too!
The theory test consists of 50 multiple choice questions from a pool of 800 (you can find the full list of questions here –Test Question Motorcycle Licence ). You will have 40 minutes to complete the exam and must get 45 questions right (90%) to pass. The cost of the theory test is 95RMB, and for this you get two attempts. If you fail both you will need to pay again, although there is no limit to the number of times you can take the test, and there is usually no waiting list so if you choose to, you could easily take the exam 10 times in a single day (and pay 5 times).
The questions are not difficult and generally just require a little common sense. I scored 96% on my first try in spite of some amusing misunderstandings with my translator. Though they do throw the odd curveball in the form of questions about exactly which government department oversees certain aspects of traffic law, or about what the fines and penalties are for a variety of motoring offences. It’s worth having a quick flick through the questions in advance but I wouldn’t bother dedicating days of study to it.
Q. A traffic policeman flashes his headlights and gestures to the side of the road. Do you
A) Speed up.
B) Carefully slow to a stop.
C) Deploy sunglasses, cigar, and false moustache, before wheelieing in to the horizon singing ‘bat out of hell’
Not a direct quote, but not far off either.
Once you have your ‘pass’ certificate in hand, head back to the traffic police office with all of your other documents and your new licence will be issued on the spot. This licence is effective immediately and lasts for six years.
Other things to know to get a Chinese motorcycle licence.
Check the local regulations for motorcycles in your area, many places in China do not allow registering of motorcycles exceeding 250cc, and in some cities such as Chengdu, petrol powered motorcycles are not permitted within the city centre at all (technically, not within the second ring road). Motorcycles are also not allowed on the expressways in China, these are the very large roads that have toll booths at the entrance and exits.
Additionally, when buying your bike, be very careful about checking paperwork if it’s second-hand. Registering a vehicle in China is almost as complex as getting your licence (and could perhaps be the subject of a whole second article) and if just one of the necessary documents is missing or invalid, expect to receive a flat “No” when you try to register it. This is the reason why you’ll see all manner of wonderful bikes for sale in China at prices that seem too good to be true – they are. Some essential piece of paper is likely missing and so the bike cannot be registered. The seller knows this, that’s why he’s selling it so cheap, but he’s unlikely to volunteer the information to you!
Spending a little more to buy a new bike is actually quite a sensible choice. Even brand new bikes in China are not so expensive, and it’ll save a lot of headache with paperwork. Especially as the (mandatory) insurance is usually included in the sale price.
Cars and licence.
I’ve discussed the motorcycle licence here, because that’s what I wanted, but if you prefer four wheels to two you’ll be happy to hear that the rules are exactly the same – present your driving licence and your documents, take a medical examination, and pass the theory test.
Can tourists get a licence?
As I mentioned, to get a Chinese driving licence requires that you have at least 90 days on your visa and a proof of residency document. This won’t be of use to most tourists, as a typical tourist visa is valid for only 30 days. Legend has it that it is possible (in large cities, not out here in the backwaters!) to get a temporary Chinese driving licence if you already have one from your own country. These temporary driving licences are issued for no more than the length of your visa, up to a maximum of 90 days and cannot be extended. You do not need to take a test, although you do need to attend lessons to study Chinese road safety regulations, and will be limited to small capacity cars and bikes.
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