When we arrived in Beijing four years ago with our two kids and pregnant with the third, my husband and I hadn’t given much consideration as to whether we would get a car here. Everyone in Shunyi seemed to drive around in little tuk-tuks and it seemed like that was all you needed because when you live in Shunyi, you tend to stay in Shunyi.
When we realized how far it was to the hospital where I would be giving birth, and imagining my future self giving birth on the side of the road in -20°C trying to hail a taxi (we weren’t such proficient Didi users back then), it was quickly decided that my husband would sit his license and we would rent a car for a couple of months.
After studying quite intensively for a couple of weeks, my husband passed the test with flying colours (thanks to his photographic memory) and we rented our first car in Beijing, but being in late stages of pregnancy with two toddlers in the middle of winter, the car was mostly used for the occasional weekend day trip to the supermarket. It wasn’t until a few months after the birth of my son that I began to develop an itch. We had a car sitting outside, and I wasn’t allowed to drive it. As I drowned in motherhood responsibilities, I decided it was time to get my license and maybe regain some independence. I downloaded the apps, began studying an hour a day, and a month or two later sat the theory test with my baby strapped to my chest.
We traded in our small car for a larger Jeep, and on that day we packed up the kids and started driving north with no fixed destination. The first sign we saw was for Yanqi Lake, so that was where we headed. I remember that day so well, the windows wide open, the music up, speeding down the highway on the most beautiful blue sky day. We reached the lake and immediately the aroma of spring flowers and freshly mown grass started filling the car. Pulling up beside the lake, the kids kicked off their shoes and ran around hollering, while mum and dad ambled along behind, filled with the joy that accompanied our newly found freedom.
And so began our adventures exploring regional Beijing. We have climbed many different parts of the Great Wall and discovered many amazing landmarks through sheer luck; we have hiked mountains and camped next to rivers, we’ve driven to the beach and we’ve driven to the snow. We have visited caves and boated through gorges and discovered small villages teeming with culture. We usually just drive, exploring new areas, and we stop at anything interesting that we discover along the way – fruit picking farms, steam train engine playgrounds, river floats, caves, replica ski resort villages, temples, and find things other people have never heard of. Even though we live in the city now, we have kept our car, using it solely in the weekends as our way to retreat out of the city, or to ferry the kids to Saturday football.
I often hear people say ‘Oh I could never drive in China, it’s too crazy!’ and this is where I feel my former life in Nigeria has prepared me to drive here: once you’ve driven in developing nations, you can drive anywhere. Renting or purchasing a car, organizing insurance and maintenance can be mafan, but driving in China isn’t too difficult – you can drive where you want, how you want and as you learn how the traffic flows and how the other drivers think (or don’t think), you realize that somehow, like everything in China, you can embrace it and you’ll be okay. In fact, you’ll be more than okay, as a whole new China experience opens up to you.
How to Get Your Drivers License in China
– You can arrange it yourself, or ask your company/employer to help you, alternatively, there are agencies in Beijing who can help you with the entire process for a fee.
– If you have your driver’s license (car or motorbike) in your home country, it is a simple process involving a medical exam and a theory examination.
– If you don’t have your driver’s license already, you need to enroll in Driving School, complete a certain number of hours of driving practice, and pass the practical and theory exams. Foreigners can enroll, however, all classes are conducted in Chinese.
– The theory test uses 100 questions taken from a question bank of 1569 questions. It can be taken in Chinese or English. Other languages are available, but the translations are reportedly very inaccurate.
– You can purchase a Study Book available from the BMVA, but the best way to study for the test is by using an app, such as ‘Driving in China.’ This is the most popular app and claims to have all the latest questions for 2018. The key to success is to memorize the answers to the questions. Confusing translations in the theory test can be very misleading, so stick with rote memorization.
– Once you can achieve at least 90 percent on the exam simulation regularly, then you are ready for the real thing.
Driver’s License Process
1. Go to the Foreign Affairs Department of the Beijing Motor Vehicle Administration (BMVA) to book your examination date. You need to take:
– Originals and copies of passport (with a visa valid for at least 3 months), Visa, Residence Permit (valid beyond 6 months), “Registration Form of Temporary Residence” and your overseas driver’s license
– Translation of overseas driver’s license (form available at the BMVA and you can do it yourself)
– Four 1 x 1″ photos with white background
– Driver’s Physical Exam Certificate (Jī dòngchē jiàshǐ rén shēntǐ tiáojiàn zhèngmíng) from authorized large hospitals in Beijing (forms are available at the hospital, you need to take one passport photo)
– Driver’s License Application Form (available from the BMVA)
2. Return to the BMVA at your appointed time, with your paperwork and sit the computerized exam. You need to pass with 90% or more. If you fail the first time, you can do a re-sit immediately following, but if you fail twice in a row you need to rebook another date to come back.
3. Your license will take a few days to process, and then you can hit the road!
Owning or Renting a Car
– Renting – Vehicles can be rented monthly, or simply rent a vehicle for the weekend as you need it. Use an agency or find a private rental by asking around.
– Owning – In order to own a vehicle, you must be allocated your own license registration plate. This plate is yours forever as long as you meet the conditions of ownership. It is non-transferable. The catch is that the Government only issues a certain quota each year, and you need to enter and win the ‘Beijing License Plate Lottery.’ Given the number of people who are entered in this draw, don’t count on winning. For further information, ask around for car owners who are leaving Beijing and are looking to pass on their cars. A word to the wise: do your research and don’t take risks.
Photos: Courtesy of Rebecca Archer, gawkerassets.com
This article appeared on p52-53 of the beijingkids July 2018 Home & Relocation Guide issue