There are two ways to get a driver’s license if you’re a foreigner living in China.  One involves a back alley and the understanding that you will pretend to be a 53 year old, overweight Chinese woman should you ever get pulled over.  The other involves three easy to follow steps, each involving 14 to 26 complicated to follow steps, each involving up to 7 and a half impossible to follow steps which will ultimately leave you curled up on the floor of the Chinese Department of Motor Vehicles, sucking your thumb, wishing you had opted for the back alley alternative.

Being the upstanding, law abiding foreigner of noble character that I am, and frankly less than confident in my 53 year old Chinese woman impersonation . . . I chose the latter.

This is my story.  Buckle up.

It begins by addressing the simple question obvious to anyone who has ever encountered China traffic. 

“Are you insane?” 

Fair enough.  Admittedly traffic in China is only slightly less chaotic than what one might envision for such events as the Running of the Bulls, or Armageddon, or parenting.  However, being the cheery optimist that I am I have chosen the higher road (pun intended).  Instead of focusing on what (from an outsiders perspective) appear to be radically overcrowded streets cram-packed with newly licensed drivers who feel socially obligated to speak on their cell phone while driving and have virtually zero regard for personal space, blind spots or lanes, I choose the adventure perspective.  It’s like a video game.  You can cut through traffic like you own the road and lots of people honk but no one shoots you with real bullets (there may be another post coming about the confusing lack of road rage in China).

Someone in your way?  Honk your horn and pass.  No lane for that?  Oncoming traffic has a lane, honk your horn and use that one.  Lane full?   Take the sidewalk (and honk your horn).  Sidewalk blocked?  Honk and drive through the lobby of the bank.  Door locked?  Just honk your horn.  Then talk on your cell phone.

The standard miscalculation that Westerners make when they observe Chinese traffic is to think that there are no rules.  That is simply not true.  On the contrary, there are heaps of rules and the system stays in motion because everyone disobeys all of them at the exact same level.  Sorry — that’s not entirely true.  Taxi drivers are 83% more dismissive of all existing rules than common drivers but it STILL works because all of the common drivers are aware of the gap and adjust accordingly.  Consequently, if a taxi driver were to, for example, slow down for a pedestrian in a crosswalk, it would disrupt the flow and instantaneously trigger a chain of cataclysmic reactions that would ultimately require red cross involvement all because no one could have ever seen that coming.

However, being the seasoned expat and culturally astute outsider that I am, I was ready to give it a go.  Insane or not, for me it was about one thing.


I love driving.  It’s my go to stress relief in America.  If driving was a drug I would so be an addict which would be ironically challenging because it’s illegal to use drugs and drive at the same time (in China too).  I’m not sure how I would get around that but the point is I love driving.  When we were back home for one year I drove so much that I could have driven from America to China and back . . . 5 times (I know, I know . . . except for the water — don’t be difficult).  Even though I had no plans to purchase a car in China I made up my mind that it was worth it to get my license on the off chance that someone else would let me drive theirs.  Even once.

So I suppose that firms up any reasonable doubt surrounding the question of my sanity.  It was no longer a question of “am I insane?”  Now the question remaining was, “am I insane enough?”  They don’t tell you that when you Google it but just in case you’re considering driving in China, you should know.  Wanting a Chinese driver’s license is one thing but getting it will take you to a whole new level of crazy.

But that’s another post . . .

Up next:
Step 2:  Hoop Jumping Made Easy
Step 3:  The Driving Test

Step 4 – Part 1:  How to Get Your License Back When You Lose it

Step 4- Part 2: Taking the Test . . . Again

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