Driving a car in Shanghai has become a lot less absolutely terrifying in recent years, compared to, let's say, 10 years ago when traffic rules were kinda more just suggestions than actual regulations. For most people, owning a car is more something for long-term expats with money to spare. Renting a car, however, is a fun and affordable way to get out of the city for a weekend trip, and something relatively easy to do.
The first rule to know is this: Foreigners aren't allowed to drive in China using their home country driver's license. Nor can you drive with an International Driver's Permit (IDP).
So. Here's the full guide on how to get a Chinese driver's license.
You're coming at this three ways depending on your own situation. Skip to the section that applies to you and read on.
You can get a...
- Temporary Driver's License (临时驾照). You already have a driver's license from your home country and you just want to drive rental cars.
- Permanent Driver's License (长期驾照). You already have a driver's license from your own home country and you want to be able to drive any car, including your own.
- You've never had a driver's license before and are starting from scratch to get a Permanent Driver's License.
How to Get a Temporary Driver's License If You've Already Got a Full License From Your Own Country
That's the easiest of the 3 options. You don't have to take any exams; it's just a bit of paperwork. The downside side is that you are limited to rental cars and your permit will expire when your visa does.
We covered the whole process already right here.
How to Get a Permanent Driver's License If You've Already Got One From Your Home Country
If you currently have a valid driver's license from your home country, getting a proper Permanent Driver's License is a simple and straightforward process that should only take a few days — and you don't even need to be able to speak any Chinese to get it.
Step 1: Get Your Documents Translated
You need to get your current home country's driver's license translated by an official authority.
Take your driver's license and your passport to one of the locations below:
- Shanghai SISU Translation Service Co.
- Shanghai Interpreters' Association
- The embassy or consulate where the driver's license was issued
Your visa needs to be valid for at least another 90 days. The price of verification depends on your country and starts at 50rmb. It should take two to three days. Don't open the envelope that you get back from the organizations above.
Step 2: Study for the License Written (Theory) Exam
Don't sleep on the written test. This is the most difficult part. The infamous Chinese driver's license test. You need to study for this thing.
Administered by the transportation bureau, you will need to answer 100 random questions out of a pool of 1,500 that you are required to study beforehand. You need to get 90 of them right. All the questions are multiple-choice and true/false questions. 90% of the questions are common sense and you'd already know the answer even if you've never been behind the wheel.
Like this one.
The other 10% you'll really have to learn.
"What's the maximum speed limit on a mountain road covered in snow?"
30 kilometers per hour.
"How many penalty points will you receive for driving through a red light?"
In addition to the China-specific content, another challenge is the awkward wording. Some of the questions, you are only really able to answer correctly if you have learned them and memorized them before just because of how they are worded.
For one of them, they show you a picture of a car driving away from a traffic accident.
"Is this a "Law-Breaking Act" or a "Criminal Act"?
Uhh. I just know you're not supposed to do that... is that right?
A Few Apps to Consider to Help You Study
There are plenty of apps on the app store that lets you study the questions in preparation for the exam. Some are okay. Some are crap. We tested "Drive in China" and "Laowai Drive". Both apps claim to be free, but once you download and get into them, they charge around 10 USD to continue.
Of the two, Laowai Drive had up-to-date questions. Drive in China was completely out-of-date and the main reason why this writer failed the exam the first time.
Also note-worthy, all apps use a combination of Google Translate and user-submitted translations which don't match the translations used on the actual exam.
More on that further down in the "How to Not Fail the Damn Exam" section.
Step 3: Register Your Application and Take the Test
There are six locations you can go to:
- No. 1 Branch of Vehicle Administrative Office in Pudong
- No. 2 Branch of Vehicle Administrative Office
- No. 3 Branch of Vehicle Administrative Office
- No. 4 Branch of Vehicle Administrative Office
- Traffic Police International Airport Branch of Shanghai Public Security Bureau
- Pudong Traffic Police Department
You can just show up, there's no need for a prior appointment.
Bring the following documents:
- Your unopened enveloped with the certified translation of your home country driver's license
- Your original home country driver's license and a photocopy of it (front and back)
- Your passport and a photocopy of it
- Your residence permit and a photocopy
We forgot the copies and they were kind enough to do it for us but it's just safer to come with your own.
Standard gov' bureaucracy stuff from here. Pick a number at the entrance and wait for your number to be called. Register. Receive your appointment for the written test, which is usually right on the same morning.
After the registration, you'll be sent to a room to take a short health and eyesight test.
Go up to the second floor and take your exam.
Step 4: Take the Written (Theory) Exam
The exam: You have 45 minutes to answer the 100 questions and you need to get 90 questions correct to pass the exam. Ahead of the test, you'll be asked which language you want to take the test in. You can't change the language during the exam. Obviously, you can't bring your phone or any personal belongings. Taken on a computer, the interface of the test software looks different from the apps we used to study so that takes a second to get used to. You can change your answers at any time during the test. Once you are done answering 100 questions, click a button to finalize the exam, and that's it. You'll get the result right away.
89 of 100 points?
If you fail, you can take the exam one more time on the same day, so pro tip: show up early so that you have enough time for two tests. If you fail again you can register for a new appointment for the next week.
And they don't even show you which questions you got wrong... brutal.
How to Not Fail the Damn Exam
Study. Repetition. Practice. Patience.
We spoke to about 10 other foreigners that have taken the exam. One guy spent three hours studying for it. Others, two solid weeks. On average, we'd say that if you spent about 20 to 30 hours studying beforehand, you should pass it without too much headache.
No one we spoke to passed the test the first time.
One guy we talked to has failed it 17 times. Apparently, though, his company is forcing him to take the test and he really didn't want to drive in China. What a legend. Anyway, passing the test doesn't reflect too much on your level of intelligence. As mentioned above, a lot of the questions are poorly translated and borderline inscrutable — it's almost a straight-up guessing game on some of them.
That being said, one more piece of advice: Take the test in English. Even though the exam is available in a lot of different languages, and so are the exam learning apps, stick to studying and taking the exam in English. From our own experience, the other languages have even more translation mistakes and it's even harder, even if English isn't your first language. The apps say one thing and the exams say something completely different — just go with the English version.
Step 5: Receiving Your Driver's Licence
When you pass the exam, you'll get your driving license on the spot one room over. At the time of this writing (June 2021), it's still a paper license, but Shanghai has already announced that these will be updated into electronic licenses soon. It's valid for 5 years. ---
3) How to Get a Driver's License If You're Starting From Scratch
Pretty much the same way as how you would in your home country. You go to an accredited driving school (required in China), you complete the courses work, you practice driving with an instructor, and then you take a series of tests.
When you pass the written test (the same theory test from above), you take a "circuit driving exam" (a close course test). When you pass the circuit driving exam, you take an on-the-road driving exam.
When you pass that you are licensed to drive.
Whoa. Pump the brakes. There are several driving school options in Shanghai — we've got a bunch listed here — but, currently, there are no schools that provide English-language classes. The gap in the market maybe?
But yeah, you're not going to be able to find a school that provides English-language classes. So, at this point, we're assuming that if your Chinese skills are good enough to learn how to drive in the language, you don't need us to further your research. Also, when you register at a driving school, they'll be with you on this process of registering at the proper place and getting you sorted for your driving tests.
A few notes of interest if you're thinking about getting into it...
On Schools and Classes
In our research, the average price for an entire driving course is 7,000rmb. Schools help organize a teacher for one-on-one classes and a timetable for benchmarks. On average, the time to complete the course is three to six months, depending on the individual student's schedule. Courses on manual and automatic transmissions are available. Courses break down into two sections: at the school campus and on-the-road classes.
On the Driving Test
There's a slightly different registration process for people applying for new driver's licenses. Your school/instructor can walk you through it. As far as the testing goes, the written element is the same as above.
After you fail it several times and finally pass it, you're ready to move on to the driving test element, usually scheduled for the following week.
The circuit exam will drive you through the campus' designated training with an examiner. There are seven tasks to accomplish:
- Reverse parking
- Parallel parking
- Stopping then driving over a hill
- S-weave (driving through an S-shaped grid)
- Sharp-angle right turn
- Emergency stop
And after that, it's out on the road for the final element. Don't run any reds. Only drive on the sidewalk after you pass the test.
So yeah, if you're starting from scratch trying to get a license, that's basically it: Speak decent Chinese. Go to a driving school. Do what they tell you to do.