If you’re considering driving in Beijing, it may feel like having to learn the skill all over again. But with a little bit of practice and some common sense, a driver’s license will provide you with an incredible amount of freedom and flexibility, especially when it comes to visiting natural and historical wonders in the surrounding counties.
Before putting the key in the ignition, check your driving eligibility.
If your company provides insurance, check if that that covers driving. If not, will the insurance company carry a rider for you or can you add one if you’re willing to pay? Do you have existing insurance in your home country that might cover you? In any case, car insurance
will be separate.
An international driver’s license won’t do you much good in China, unfortunately. You must submit the required paperwork and follow all of the steps in order to earn a regular driver’s license. The latter is only available to those between the ages of 18 and 70; some special licenses also have height requirements.
If you’re here with an embassy, you might not have to take the test at all due to diplomatic reciprocity. Depending on which nation your current driver’s license was issued in, you may only be required to take the written theory test, which is available in Chinese and some foreign languages, including English. Citizens of Belgium have the rare privilege of being able to exchange their licenses directly for Chinese ones with no additional testing needed.
Just because you have a driver’s license does not mean there will be vehicles available to drive. Beijing’s swelling traffic problem has led to restrictions on the purchase of new cars, meaning that the likelihood of showing up and being able to buy a car is, well, unlikely.
In order to restrict the number of new cars on Beijing’s roads every year, would-be car buyers must first obtain a license plate – one of only 20,000 issued every month – by entering the dreaded license plate lottery. Think of this license plate as not just the registration for the vehicle, but your license to own a car, separate from your license to drive it. It remains with the driver, which has an additional controlling effect: a driver cannot sell you a used car with a license plate, as the license plate is non-transferrable. In the case of old cars, the plate is sometimes worth more than the car itself!
You need to submit the following in order to enter the license plate lottery: a valid driver’s license, valid visa or permanent resident permit, temporary registration form from the local police station, a minimum of one year residence in Beijing, and no other cars in your name in the city. If you “win” the lottery, you must buy a car within 30 days of the issuance date or lose your right to buy a car forever. No kidding. If you win the lottery and pass on buying a car (or receive your notification late), you are then permanently ineligible or must buy the car in the limited time you have left. The good news is, a plate is yours for life once you have it.
Oh, that license plate comes with at least one more limitation. Rotating every 90 days or so, the last number on a vehicle’s license plate determines which day of the week the driver is forbidden to drive within Fifth Ring Road. This information is available on the Beijing Traffic Management Bureau’s website (goo.gl/AF2u6i) as well as signs posted at the entrance to some housing compounds and villas. There are no restrictions for weekends or public holidays.
Still interested in driving in Beijing? Now that you’re ready to apply for a driver’s license, you’ll need the following:
• Passport, visa, and residence permit. Visas issued for fewer than 60 days are not eligible for the driver’s license. At least 90 days must remain on the visa in order to apply.
• Four square, one-inch passport photos with a white background in which both ears and glasses – if applicable – are visible (RMB 20).
• Vision test from an approved Chinese provincial-level or higher public hospital (RMB 10). Beijing Friendship Hospital and China-Japan Friendship Hospital are two of the many available choices.
• Application form and payment (RMB 50).
• The official study book (RMB 90, available in nine languages: Chinese, English, French, German, Spanish, Japanese, Korean, Russian, and Arabic). There are over 1,000 sample questions that you will need to read, study, and memorize. Do not assume you will pass if you do not study.
• A trip to the Foreign Affairs Department of Beijing Motor Vehicle Administration to take the test.
Appointments are no longer required to take the computerized test, but it’s best to get to the Department of Beijing Motor Vehicle Administration when it opens at 9am. To pass, you must correctly answer a minimum of 90 randomly selected computer questions out of 100. Results flash on the screen immediately. If you pass, you’ll receive your license in five business days (valid for six years); if you do not pass, you may re-take the test after 30 days. The entire licensing process takes two to three weeks. When it’s time for a renewal, only the vision test is required; the renewal process needs to be completed at least 90 days before the license expires.
Visitors can receive a Temporary Driving Permit, providing they hold a visa with a valid period of no more than 60 days. This permit allows access to rental cars only. The process takes five working days to complete and will cost RMB 450 if you use a service provider to assist you.
Those with limited Mandarin skills – or if you’d simply prefer the convenience of having someone else deal with the red tape – may choose to pay an auto service to help them through the process. Services vary but often include completing forms, translating licenses, providing transportation to and from the various steps, providing the test study book, and delivering the license to you. Some services offer an all-inclusive fee (about RMB 1,000); others offer itemized services depending on your needs. These companies can also assist with car purchases, leases, maintenance, and more. However, most foreigners find the process straightforward, if time-consuming.
A great resource for all before-and-after information is the Beijing Traffic Management Bureau. Their website tells you everything from when your restricted driving day is to how many points you could lose off your license for fines. Some sections (such as traffic fines) are currently only available in Chinese, but companies like ST Car Care Beijing Co., Ltd. can assist non-Chinese speakers.
Consider the risks before getting your license. According to the International Newcomers’ Network (INN), China has the highest number of traffic fatalities in the world, about 30 percent of which involve cyclists. Over 50 percent of drivers do not wear seatbelts, while helmet use for both motorbikes and bicycles is virtually non-existent. Car seats for children are rare, though increasing. And many motorists simply do not obey traffic laws. However, if you have what it takes to pass the test, a Chinese driver’s license offers a freedom like no other.
Renting a Car
Renting a car in Beijing is relatively simple if you have a Chinese driver’s license, a passport with valid visa, your Temporary Residence Form, and a credit card. International credit cards are widely accepted, but not international debit cards.
Local companies such as China Auto Rental (zuche.com) offer a wider choice of cars and pick-up points, though international rental car companies like Avis and Hertz are also present. These places often require a customer registration, so make sure to start the process a few days in advance. Once you’re registered, renting or leasing becomes straightforward; if you use the online booking service, the process can take less than 20 minutes.
Even when dealing with large firms like Hertz and Avis, be sure to check if auto insurance is included and what additional charges may apply. Hefty deposits ranging from RMB 3,000 to 10,000 are required. In addition, around RMB 1,000 is kept as a deposit (on your credit card) for 30 days to cover any traffic violations you may incur.
If you do not have a Chinese driver’s license, it is possible to get a temporary driving permit for a maximum of 60 days – but only if you have an L (tourist) visa valid for 60 days or less. You must go to the Foreign Affairs Department of Beijing Motor Vehicle Administration (the same place where the driving test is administered) or the Vehicle Management Service Station at Beijing International Capital Airport, Terminal 3. While you won’t need to take a driver’s test, you still need to have a valid driver’s license from your own country, your household registration, an eye exam from an approved hospital, and four one-inch photos for the permit, which can be processed within the same day. Afterwards, you may go to a rental car company.
If you’re only here for a short stay and aren’t familiar with the roads, this is a much more cumbersome way to get around. With so many cars and drivers for hire, it may be best to go that route for the duration of your visit.
Foreign Affairs Department of Beijing Motor Vehicle Administration
Mon-Fri 8.30am-8pm, Sat-Sun 9am-4pm. 18 Nansihuan Donglu (southwest of Shibalidian Nanqiao, Nansihuan Waihuan), Chaoyang District (8762 5150) 朝阳区南四环东路18号 (南四环外环十八里店南桥西南侧)
Beijing Traffic Management Bureau
1 Fuchengmen Beijie, Xicheng District (Hotline: 122) bjjtgl.gov.cn/publish/portal1/ 西城区阜成门北街1号
ST Car Care Beijing Co., Ltd.
Daily 9am-6pm. 507 Pinnacle Plaza, Tianzhu Town, Shunyi District (8046 2075, 139 1021 1215, firstname.lastname@example.org) stautoclub.com.cn 顺义区天竺镇荣祥广场507
Daily 24 hours. Beigao Lukou, Jichangfu Lu, Chaoyang District (8152 3060, email@example.com) expatcar.com 朝阳区机场附路北皋路口
China Auto Rental (CAR)
2F, Lead International Building, A2 Wangjing Zhonghuan Nanlu (400 616 6666) zuche.com
Photo courtesy of bfishadow (flickr)