“You don’t wait until you need something and then set about acquiring it.” This is one of my Dad’s many sayings. With these words of wisdom ringing in my ears, I purposed to make the most of my husband being off of work for an extended period of time and attain my Chinese driving license. After all, having my husband at home during the day meant that I didn’t have to run around Beijing jumping through hoops with three children in tow.
At the moment, a combination of dirt-cheap public transport and the use of Didi drivers means that I don’t actually need to drive. However, things change quickly in Beijing so I figured that a local driving license would be beneficial to have in my back pocket “just in case.”
Like many things in this great city, the procedure for acquiring a driving license is riddled with bureaucracy. However, if one is willing to persevere and complete all of the necessary steps, the light at the end of the tunnel soon emerges in the form of a green card with your name and photograph on it. Before you embark upon your mission to conquer the system there are some things that you might want to know.
1. Call the hospital before you visit
One of the prerequisites for obtaining a Chinese driving license is an official document confirming that you have passed a medical examination. Don’t think you can just rock up to the first random infirmary that you happen across. There is a list of pre-approved hospitals that have been deemed fit to bestow this prestigious documentation. Before you expend any time or effort venturing out to obtain such paperwork, it is well worth calling the hospital to verify their hours of operation. Don’t assume that arriving before 5pm will suffice. The consequence may well be that you spend a precious part of your day traveling across the city and arrive at the hospital at 3.36pm. Upon your arrival, you might just be told that you cannot be seen today because the driving medical examination department closes at 3.30pm. I may or may not have resorted to begging. Anyway, my “passionate petitioning” eventually paid off and the powers that be decreed that I could, in fact, be seen that day. The cost of the medical exam was RMB 20.
2. The “medical examination” is actually just an eye exam
The term “medical examination” can conjure up all sorts of unsavory images. Less, you spend the days leading up to your hospital visit tossing and turning at night, you should know that it is just an eye examination. Having said that, this particular eye exam mandates that the individual being tested decipher extremely tiny print. It is therefore essential to attend this examination equipped with the necessary instruments that allow you to read such print. Don’t be like me and find yourself in a predicament where you are reduced to asking random strangers to let you borrow their glasses. I am eternally grateful for the young lady who succumbed to my request. I literally could not have done it without her.
3. The theory test is not a joke
Prior to taking the test, I had heard through the grapevine that it was a walk in the park and capable of being passed with common sense alone. In my opinion, this is absolutely not true. The test is taken at a computer that arbitrarily generates 100 questions from a bank of over 1,000. You have to answer at least 90 questions correctly in order to pass the exam. There were a few questions that were amusingly simple. However, a large proportion of the test was extremely difficult. I attribute this fact to the necessity to memorize a combination of traffic signs, the Chinese law pertaining to driving offenses and complex facts regarding vehicle maintenance. There is also the added difficulty that stems from so many of the questions being poorly translated.
4. There is an app
The app is a convenient way to prepare for the test. I purchased the aptly named “Driving in China – theory test” (RMB 18 / USD 2.99 / GBP 2.99) app, which meant that I was able to study on the subway without carrying around any additional weight. The mock examination function was particularly useful, even though I failed my first “few” attempts. During my three-day study binge, which saw me cramming into the early hours of the morning, I managed to read through all of the questions in the question bank. So, I was somewhat surprised to find that the wording of the questions on the actual test did not always line up exactly with what I had studied. After the initial panic subsided I found that I was able to apply the knowledge I had acquired to the questions I faced on test-day.
5. You need to travel to an obscure location on two separate occasions
For some reason, the agency responsible for handing out driving licenses to all of the city’s inhabitants has decided to set up shop in the hidden recesses of South Beijing. You will find the Foreign Affairs Department of the Beijing Motor Vehicle Administration (BMVA) far from a subway station or anything else of notable interest. Booking a test needs to be done in person at which time you are expected to pay RMB 50 and present a heap of paperwork: passport, residence permit, foreign driving license, a Chinese translation of this foreign driving license, medical examination document, and three small photographs. Once all of this documentation has been approved and photocopied, a test date is booked. You then return on your test day, take the test, pay RMB 10 if you pass, pay another RMB 20 if you would like the license delivered to your address (otherwise you have to return to collect it in person), and then moonwalk out of that building never to return again. By the way, it took me ages to find a Chinese address for the BMVA so I’ll save you a job:
Foreign Affairs Department of the Beijing Motor Vehicle Administration (BMVA)
Southwest of Shibalidian Nanqiao, Nansihuan Waihuan, 18 Nansihuan Donglu, 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) (translates to #18 East Fourth Ring Road, southwest of Shibalidian South Bridge, on the outer side of the Fourth Ring Road)
How to get there: Take Subway Line 10 and get off at Exit C2 (southwest) of Chengshousi 成寿寺 station. From the exit, cross the road then head towards Chengyi Lu 成一路 bus station. Take the Line 990 Bus toward Xiaohongmen Paifang Cun 小红门牌坊村 and exit at Shibalidian Nanqiao 十八里店南桥 station. From there, walk the opposite direction of the road (250m, around 5 min) until you reach the Beijing Traffic Management Bureau Office of Vehicle Management (as it’s named on Apple Maps).
Photos: Courtesy of Pamela Djima, Adobe Creative Cloud