Forty lessons and four tests; that’s what it takes to become legally road-capable in Beijing. The following guide is for those of you who don’t already have a license elsewhere, and have decided China is the place to learn maniacal driving and which traffic rules to flout; or in my case, plain failed epically on numerous occasions elsewhere where standards exist. If this applies to you, then read on to learn how to get your first ever driver’s license in China. Please note: these tips are based on my experience obtaining a driver’s license in Beijing, but a similar process applies in cities across China.
Photo: Kenneth Lu
Getting started: the practicalities
Here in China, for the bulk of the time you learn within the simulated environment of a driving school. In Beijing, there are countless schools, but only a few cater to foreign passport-holders. I ended up at Eastern Pioneer by recommendation, and because it is most well-known.
Sign up can be done at any of the E.P. offices around the city. Get a speedy health check for about 10 RMB at any hospital – tell them it’s for a driving license, and bring that form along with your passport and 10 passport sized photos. Why 10 you ask? Only in China, in this age of computerized convenience.
As a foreigner, your choice is between 9,800 RMB for the VIP course, or 13,000 RMB for the VVIP course in manual or automatic. A hefty price tag compared to the 5-6000 RMB paid by Chinese ID holders, but not without its advantages. After all, this is China. The more you’re willing to dish out, the better services you get. With the VIP courses, you get access to instructors of your choosing, at the time of your choosing. Easy booking a day in advance and cancellations on the day with a phone call. In comparison, with the standard courses you’re queuing with the masses for a time slot. It’s apparent the difference money can make the moment you walk into the driving school’s main hall – the throngs of people shoving past each other outside, versus the calm of the exclusive lounge for VIPs with its soft cushioned chairs, iPad points, snack bar and even an espresso machine. Oh and a very decent lunch included.
The driving school is south of Beijing in the Daxing District. The VVIP course comes with your own personal chauffer. Otherwise, if you’re slumming it with the rest, the closest subway stop is Gao Mi Dian Nan on line 4, and the school operates a shuttle bus every 10 minutes to and from the station. Alternatively, there are school buses running along some 16 routes from various pick up points across town. You’re sure to find one near you with the well-spread network, though bear in mind the times are restricted, and as the warning on the schedule makes very clear: man waits for bus, bus does not wait for man. I’ve certainly experienced the sinking feeling of watching my only morning bus pulling away around the corner as I’m waving my arms wildly and willing my legs to sprint faster just 20 meters away.
Buses run four times a day, to ferry you to the school in time for the classes of 45 minutes each, in blocks of two or four. They’re set at 07:00-09:00, 09:00-13:00, 13:00-17:00, and 17:00-19:00. The max number of hours you can book a day is six – safety first!
Learning the rules
Test One – the theory. Upon sign up, you’ll be given a welcome pack that includes bus schedule, driving handbook, and importantly, a white booklet. This is your bible. There are more than 900 questions and answers from past theory exams. Learn it well. This is when you’ll be glad you had no choice but to pay the VIP price, as otherwise you would have had to attend half a day of mandatory classes on traffic rules in order to attain this booklet. 100 questions in 45 minutes, and the pass mark is 90. Most are fairly obvious judgement questions as long as you don’t have psychotic predilections, along the lines of: do you honk wildly at old folk and children, or do you slow down and stop for them? However, there are also very technical questions, such as traffic signs and fines and demerit points for violations, which common sense alone isn’t likely to answer. The computerized test is available in many languages, and you even get a second go if you flunk the first.
Behind the wheel
The next 32 classes are to prepare you for Test Two: the skills-based obstacle course, completed within the school grounds. Prepare also to be astounded by the sheer size of the grounds. Over 1,300 square kilometers of land – it’s a miniature city complete with winding country roads, a highway, a flyover, and to top it all off, an interactive bus stop with a dummy pedestrian that moves at intervals. This is just for regular car learners; there are also separate grounds for large vehicles and two-wheelers. Several times I’ve had to double check with my instructor that we hadn’t somehow slipped outside. Some 2,000 cars are on the move typically each day, out of the 3,000 plus in the parking lot. It’s quite the operation – the school has 5,000 teachers, and sees 20,000 students pass through yearly.
You may be in an enclosed and artificially modelled area, but it sure feels real; even down to the fellow learners already displaying signs of Chinese-style recklessness. I was fast acquainted with Chinese road priorities, as my instructor assured me that as long as it’s my right of way, any accident is the responsibility of the other driver, so I should just plough on ahead. That explains a lot.
The ensuing hours are very much geared towards helping you ace the test, which consists of parallel parking, uphill drive and stopping within markers, turning on a right angle, an S-curve road, and finally bay parking. The training zone is a replica of the test course, so the specific steps for manoeuvring you must follow, such as turning at point A or reversing at point B, correspond exactly to the actual test. Not so handy for real life scenarios though. Even my instructors openly admitted the uselessness of some of the steps.
You’re prepared for the worst: there’s no examiner riding with you along the course, but the cameras and car sensors determine if you’ve judged spaces correctly, leaving little to human error. Tread a line and you fail. But on the day, have no fear if you’ve got the memory of a goldfish or the spatial awareness of a fly. Fortunately, for those who just want a license, or frustratingly, for those who actually want to prove their skills, you’ll have your very own parking attendant/examiner barking instructions at you at each stage to “turn the wheel”, “reverse”, “stop” and the lot. It really is quite impossible to fail at this stage. Though I hear this little added help is again special treatment for VIPs.
On the road
Hurrah you say, finally the real deal in testing your abilities. Well, kind of. Test Three is indeed a road test, but the stretch of road you’re examined on is all of 3 kilometers. You share the car with another student. One person drives one direction, pulls a U-turn and parks by the side of the road, and then the other swaps and drives back along the same stretch. All in all, I was probably in the car for 15 minutes (traffic depending).
In the lead-up to the test though, there is much anticipation. You’re allocated eight classes for practicing out on the real roads, in an area just beyond the sixth ring. Think enormous trucks swinging into your lane unexpectedly and cars whooshing past with no signalling 80% of the time. Yes, just an everyday scene on Chinese roads. As my instructor quite rightly said, if you can survive this training, you can handle anything. I certainly feel I got lucky with both my instructors; they were more about imparting tips on safe and courteous driving, than ushering me towards the goal of a license. That said, courtesy went right out the window when I had an episode of road rage, tossing out an entire dictionary of Chinese swear words and international hand signs of displeasure. In the words of a friend, congratulations, I’ve become a real driver.
You’ve survived the roads, and now the final stage – one more theory test to drum into your consciousness what good driving manners entail. Thirty minutes for 50 questions, mostly on being considerate to other drivers and showing respect to pedestrians and bikes. If you’ve been in Beijing too long and that doesn’t come naturally to you, there’s of course another white booklet of model answers to get you through it.
You’re officially wheel worthy. Now if you’re mulling the next step of buying a car and a procuring a license plate… good luck, and welcome to China.
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Keywords: beginner’s guide to driver’s license in China Driver License in China
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