How to Get Your Driver’s License in China Step 2: Hoop Jumping Made Easy

Theoretically speaking, getting a driver’s license in China is simple.  Like falling off a log, taking candy from a baby or shooting fish in a barrel.  It’s a hypothetically stress-free, three step process:

1.  Get your paperwork in order
2.  Pass the physical
3.  Pass the written test

Piece of cake.

However, like simplicity and the metaphors we use to describe it, sometimes things go wrong.  Taking candy from a baby, for example, is not intrinsically complicated but what you are left with is a screaming baby and a scorned mother.  Falling off a log requires very little effort but fall into some poison ivy or a den of rabid wombats and it gets messy.  Shooting fish in a barrel, frankly just seems unnecessary and loaded with potential consequences that get more and more severe the easier you make it.  For instance, shooting fish in a barrel with a sling shot and marshmallows is still a bit challenging but carries a pretty low risk of injury.  Shooting fish in a barrel with a bazooka, on the other hand . . . so easy but such a bad idea.

Simplicity is relative.  It’s all about the variables.

The Paperwork
Completing the paperwork for your Chinese license is genuinely simple . . . like jumping off a cliff or kissing a piranha.  In most Chinese cities the paperwork is the same.  Copies of your passport, visa, and so on plus six head shots of yourself in mid blink with lettuce in your teeth.  I find that some of your darker greens, like a spinach or a nice arugula (slightly wilted) work best.  Then you’ll need to have both the front and back of your valid driver’s license from your home country translated into Chinese by a certified translator who may or may not speak English but possesses an official certified translator stamp and is therefore more qualified than other Chinese people who are much more qualified.  It also costs money.

Pretty cut and dried.

The Physical Exam
Literally nothing could be easier than completing the physical exam.  It’s as easy as turning your head . . . or coughing.  That’s just a joke.  Nothing like that.  In fact, I’m convinced that the sole intention of the nurses at each station is to work together to beat their collective best time which I think is about 48 seconds.  Time starts when the nurse at station one stamps your form, hands it to you and points at station two.  The rest of the exam goes something like this . . .

Station Two Nurse: (speaking quickly and snatching my paper) Press your forehead here and look into the goggle thingy.  Do you see something?
Me: Uh . . . yes.
Station Two Nurse: (stamps the form and passes it to station three) Ok.  Next.
Station Three Nurse: Put these headphones on.  Do you hear something?
Me: Uh . . . yes.
Station Three:  (Stamp.  Pass to Station Four)  Ok. Next.
Station Four: What are you about 185 centimeters tall?
Me: 187
Station Four:  (Stamp) Ok.  Next.
Station Five: How much do you weigh?
Me: Uh . . .
Station Five:  (Stamp) Ok.  Next.
Station Six: Put your arms out in front of you and squat (Stamp).  Next.
Station Seven:  (Showing me the color blind thing where the orange dots make a number in the blue dots) (Stamp) Can you see this?
Me: Yes
Station Seven: Next.
Station Eight:  Sign here.
Me:  (signing)
Station Eight: (Stamp) TIME!!
Station One:  Forty eight point six.
All Stations:  (disappointed) Awwww!

No needles.  No cups.  No rubber gloves.  Easy as pie.

The Written Exam
The written test is not easy.  Scratch that.  Anything is easy if you know the answers.  Knowing the answers to the written test is not easy.  I suppose metaphorically speaking it is easy like Quantum phyiscs or speaking Klingon.

When I took the test there were a possible 800 questions to study from.  Now there are 1500  (it’s projected that by next year there will be over one zillion).  When you take the test a computer randomly selects 100 questions of which you must answer 90% correctly.  No pressure.  The questions are broken into four major sections (all examples are actual test questions):

1.  Common Sense Questions:  These are the questions that everyone should know before they are allowed to even ride in a car.  Unfortunately, only about 10% (or 150) of the possible questions are in this category.

Example:  When driving at night, the driver’s observation ability is visibly poorer and his visibility range becomes shorter than driving in the daytime. (Translation: It’s harder to see when it’s dark than when there is light)

Right Wrong

2.  Flash Card Questions:  These are questions that are impossible to know apart from rote memorization.  70% (1050 questions)

Example: If a motorized vehicle driver violates the provisions on the parking and temporary stopping of motorized vehicles of the law and regulations on road traffic safety, the driver is subject to a fine of __________ if he is not present at the scene and his vehicle obstructs the flow of other vehicles and pedestrians

a) 10 yuan ~ 20 yuan
b) 20 yuan
c) 20 yuan ~ 200 yuan
d) More than 200 yuan

3.  Road Signs.  9%

Examples: 

4.  Lost in Translation Questions:  The English translation is much better than it has been in years past but any time you move from one language to another there are issues.  Don’t fight it, you can’t go back and argue later.  Even if it’s wrong and they say it’s right, they win.  It sounds better in Chinese.  11%.

Example:  When a motorized vehicle crosses an overflowing road or bridge, the driver should stop and look at the situation, and passes through slowly before he makes sure that it is safe to do so.

Right Wrong

So the basic formula is memorize every single word of the 1500 questions whether you think they are correct or not.  Then take a wild guess when you forget things like how many meters you should stay behind a truck hauling live chickens if it’s raining, or if it’s snowing, or sleeting, or hailing, or you’ve been drinking, or you’ve been sucked up into a tornado or . . .

Easy like Sunday morning.

In all seriousness it is extremely gracious of China to allow foreigners to drive on their roads especially when we say such horrible things about their drivers when they drive on ours.  They are certainly under no obligation to make the test easy and they have gone out of their way to make it accessible.  I, for one, am both thankful and thrilled.

And if you’re considering getting your license in China you should go for it.  It’s not easy but it is completely doable and if I can do it then you should breeze right through it.  Just be prepared to pull your hair out along the way.  In the city that I lived in it took about an hour to an hour and a half (depending on traffic) to get to the license facility.  It also took me six trips.

  • Trip one:  Turn in my paperwork and register for the test.  They told me there was a problem with the certified translation of my American driver’s license and I would need to redo it.
  • Trip two: Same as trip one
  • Trip three: Take the test — Passed.
  • Trip four: Go to pick up my driver’s license.  They told me I needed to take the driving test because my American license allowed me to drive a 15 passenger van so my Chinese license had to be the similar (21 passenger mini-bus).  Registered to take the driving test.
  • Trip five: Waited to take the driving test but found out at closing time they forgot to turn in the registration from trip four.
  • Trip six:  Driving Test.

But that’s another blog.

Here are some actual helpful links for those of you preparing to take the test.  Hope this makes it easier.  Like poking yourself in the eye with a fork.

1. Study, take a practice test and more
2. Another practice test with nearly all of the questions
3.  Basic Info about getting your license
4.  Great PDF with helpful info especially if you live in Beijing

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