This is the second in a series of articles that provides beginners the information they need to get started traveling by motorcycle in China.
The previous article offered some thoughts on these questions: Why travel by motorcycle in China? What might be difficult about traveling by motorcycle in China? And, it gave a comprehensive guide on how you should study and prepare for the Chinese driver’s license test.
In this article, I’ll first share some of my personal experiences and then dive into the topic of how to get through the bureaucracy of the Chinese Department of Vehicle Administration (I will be referring to this administration as the DMV) and actually secure your license.
If you don’t want to read through the stories of my own experiences, and get straight to the practical information, use the table of contents and skip to the section called “Not every Chinese DMV is exactly the same.”
Buying my first motorcycle in Danba, Sichuan, China
I got my first motorcycle in China in 2006. I had never before in my life rode, or even tried to ride a motorcycle. It was a 175cc Zhongshen. It was what is now commonly called a “farmer motorcycle,” a very basic small street bike – the kind of moto that farmers/peasants /poor people drive – that I had upgraded with some knobby tires.
Although these regulations are now very much relaxed, at that time bikes with larger than a 250cc motor where illegal in China, and because I was buying in the small and not-to-affluent city of Danba, they mostly had smaller cheaper 150cc models. At 175cc, mine was the biggest in town. The dealer confirmed my place in the history books by saying “You are the first foreigner that’s ever bought a motorcycle in Danba.”
Once the transaction was complete we hopped on and the dealer drove us first to a gas station for a fill-up, and then continued on to a section of road a little bit outside of town that had very low traffic. we both hopped off, he quickly hitched a ride back into town, and I was left alone with my new shining jewel.
I came near killing myself in my first few attempts to ride, but after about three hours of daring and diligence, I could finally work the gears well enough to mostly ride without stalling, and made my way back into town to my hotel.
I had no idea how this endeavor would work out. I had no Chinese driver’s license, the bike had no license plate, and I had no idea how to get either one. I wasn’t altogether sure if it wasn’t flat-out illegal for a foreigner to drive a motorcycle and if the first cop that saw me wasn’t going to stop me and confiscate it.
After three days of riding the back roads around Danba honing my skills, I felt ready for my first trek. So, on the morning of day four, I packed up my stuff, strapped it all to the luggage racks and was ready to take off.
I needed to drop by the shop where I bought the moto for a few adjustments. I was parked in front of the shop adjusting a bungee cord. On the main road into town that ran in front of the shop there was some construction, and so, on the other side of the road, a traffic cop managing traffic. He was eyeing me and it made me nervous. While I was adjusting the bungee cord there was a lull in the traffic and he took that opportunity to cross the road and approach me. My stomach sank.
Without saying anything, He reached out his hand and began helping me adjust the bungee cord. In China, they manage to carry more on their 150cc motorcycles at one time than the average Texan carts in his pick-up truck in a month; he knew what he was doing and saw I did not. It was at this moment that realized everything was going to work out just fine.
I remember spending a few nights in a hotel in Manigangexiang (Ma-ni-gan-ge-xiang), a remote outpost in the Tibetan region of northwest Sichuan. The hotel had one of the biggest and nicest restaurants for hundreds of miles around and served as a rest stop where a lot of long-distance buses stopped for a meal or for the night.
On the morning of my departure from Manigangexiang, my moto was packed up while I sat on it letting the engine warm up. Next to me was a passenger van full of tourists, also with its engine running and about to take off. A back-packer leaned out the window and said to me “It says in the Lonely Planet guide that foreigners are not allowed to drive in China.” I said back to him “Lucky for me I don’t have one of those books!”
The guy in the above paragraph, and the Lonely Planet guide, where wrong. As it is now, so it was then, perfectly legal for a foreigner to drive a motor vehicle in China, providing the driver had a license and the vehicle was properly registered. In these respects at that time I was illegal, but the cops in those remote areas mostly preferred turning a blind eye when came to a foreigner.
Is it difficult to get your Chinese driver’s license?
Getting your driver’s license in China is actually not that hard. In fact, it’s easier for a foreigner who has a valid license from their home country to get a license in China than it is for a Chinese person to get their first license.
Chinese people must first enroll in an official driving school that takes two or three months to complete, pass the theoretical test, and then pass a grueling driving test where they must successfully negotiate a difficult obstacle course of safety cones.
If a foreigner has a valid license from their home country, the authorities accept it as evidence of practical driving experience, and so wave the school and the practical test.
Not every Chinese DMV is exactly the same.
Before we continue, I’d like to add a disclaimer. China is a big country and the various vehicle administrations operate with some degree of autonomy. Each one is likely its own idiosyncrasies. As I can’t write a blog post that covers all of them, be aware that for you, some of the details of the process might be a little different from that described below.
Which Chinese DMV should you go to?
The first thing everyone must do is determine the correct Vehicle Administration Department to go to. Each administration serves a particular area and you’ll need to go to the one that serves the area that includes the address on your official residence registration certificate.
But, the administrations that serve smaller outlying areas don’t have the testing and bureaucracy in place to service foreigners, so if that is your case then you’ll have to find the one nearest your address that does. Any city that is third-tier or larger will likely be able.
What documents will I need to get my Chinese driving license?
The documents you will need are your passport, your residence registration certificate, an official translation of your driver’s the license from your home country, an eye exam certificate, and four photos with the same size and background as those for your visa.
Where can I get an official Chinese translation of my driver’s license?
Most major universities have a professor that is certified by the government to provide official translations, you can check in the Foreign Languages Department for someone. I have a friend who got an official translation of his US driver’s license at the local city hall (政务服务中心 zhèng wù fú wù zhōng xīn), and another friend who recently got a translation of his license from a service he found on the Chinese e-commerce site called Taobao.
Where can I get the eye exam certificate for my Chinese driver’s license?
The first time I got my license they had a doctor at the DMV that gave it. When I got my license renewed they sent me to a nearby hospital. A friend of mine in another city got it a small eyeglass and optometrist office across the street from the DMV.
You should probably wait till you’re through step one of the process (described below) to worry about the eye exam; each DMV is going to have their own particular place where you get it. It’s almost certain to be close by and they will tell you where to go.
When you go to get your eye exam, don’t forget to bring one of the photos with you. In fact, bring two. In China, always bring extra photos.
The process of getting your Chinese driving license has three main steps:
- get your documents processed and approved
- get your eye exam
- take and pass the test.
Step one: get your documents processed and approved
If you get there first thing in the morning and pass your test on the first try, you might be able to get the whole thing done in one day, but you also might want to plan on making two or even three trips on different days.
The campus of the vehicle administration might be pretty big with lots of buildings, so you’ll have to figure out which building to go to. You can say “jia zhao” (驾照 jià zhào is how you say “driver’s license” in Chinese) to a guard or anyone you see walking around to get pointed in the right direction.
Once you know which building, walk in and near the door will be an information desk with a female attendant. Tell her what you want to do (驾照 jià zhào), and show her your documents. She’ll take a quick look at them, make sure they’re in order, and take you to the ticket kiosk to get a ticket that gives you a place in the queue.
There’s going to be an LED display that tells you when it’s your turn and which counter or window to go to. When your number comes up, go there with your documents.
Now, this is important. Make sure you indicate that you will be driving a motorcycle and that you want a CE2 license. If you don’t you will be given a CE1 license that allows you to drive a car, but not a motorcycle.
The police officer at the counter will scrutinize your documents, fill out an application form for you, affix photos, enter all your information in the computer, and stamp everything as approved.
When all this is finished you will be sent to the cashier’s window to pay ¥200 – ¥300. Go back to the counter with your receipt and your documents will be returned to you. This is also when they tell you where to get your eye exam, which will cost about ¥150.
Step two: get your eye exam
See the section above called “Where can I get the eye exam certificate for my Chinese driver’s license?”
Step three: take and pass the test.
Go back to the DMV, again show all your documents to the attendant at the information counter, and she’ll tell you where to go to take the test. You’ll have to go to a second counter, through one more round of document checking, and one more trip to the cashier to pay for the privilege of taking the test.
Taking the test also costs ¥200 – ¥300. Take this second receipt back to the second counter and the person there will give you a paper that gives you a place in the queue for the test.
After you finish the test you’ll be given a piece of paper that has your score. Once you’ve passed, go back the counter where you started with all your paperwork. Give all the papers to an officer there along with a photo. The officer will look at everything once again, and after what is hopefully a short wait, you will be presented with a brand new Chinese driver’s license that is valid for six years.
In the next article, I’ll explain what kind of motorcycle you should buy, and why you should by that kind of motorcycle.
If you haven’t already, be sure to check out my first article which covers how to prepare for your Chinese motorcycle test. The sample test questions are really helpful for those looking forward to driving in China.