If you are new to Beijing and have finally managed to ride in a car
without covering your face in fear, perhaps you’ll consider getting behind the steering wheel yourself one day. The process will be undoubtedly different from that of your home country, and there are many important details to know as you move forward.
First and foremost: Are you allowed to drive here? If you’re in Beijing on a company package, you’ll need to check with your human resources department to see what is permitted, as liability is a true concern and accident insurance is required to drive in China. If your workplace does not cover this, can you get a rider (an additional service or option at an additional cost) on your existing home country insurance?
Secondly, a few policies have been put in place to limit the amount of traffic in Beijing. One such limitation is the license plate rule. 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 the Fifth Ring Road. This information is available on the Beijing Traffic Management Bureau’s website; other sources include general word-of-mouth, as well as sign posts posted at the gates of some housing compounds and villas. During public holidays, traffic restrictions are lifted.
Another traffic management tactic is the license plate lottery. You need to submit the following in order to enter the license plate lottery before receiving a valid license plate: driver’s license, valid visa or permanent resident permit, temporary registration form from the local police station, a minimum of one year living in Beijing, and no other cars in your name in the city. When license plates are available, it’s luck that determines if you can drive. You need to win the license plate lottery first before buying a car. It does little good to have a car if you don’t have the plates allowing you to drive it. Thus far, there are no transfer fees available that allow those leaving the country to sell their car and their plate to a person simultaneously, bypassing the lottery for the buyer altogether. However, if you already have a car and want to sell it to buy a new one, you may retain the right of having a license plate so that you don’t have to re-enter the lottery to plate your new car.
Having an international driver’s license doesn’t count in China. You must submit the required paperwork and adhere to all of the steps in order to earn one. Regular driver’s licenses are 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.
Now that you’re ready to apply for a driver’s license, prepare the following:
- Original driver’s license from your home country and an official Chinese translation (RMB 200). If you do not already have a valid license, you must take a Chinese driver’s education course and pass both the road and written tests.
- Passport, visa and resident permit.
- Four square, one-inch passport photos with white background with both ears and glasses visible, if normally worn while driving (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 a thousand 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.
Once the test date is set, you need to arrive at the appointed time to take a computerized exam. 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 at another appointed time. The entire license process takes two to three weeks. When it’s time for renewal, only the vision test is required; the renewal process needs to be completed 90 days before the license expires.
Visitors can receive a Temporary Driving Permit, providing they hold a visa with a valid period of stay of no more than 90 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 – and/or people who would simply prefer to pay for the convenience of having someone else deal with the bureaucracy – may elect to pay an auto service to help them through the process. While services vary, many 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 (ranging from RMB 650-960); others offer itemized services depending on your needs. These companies also assist with car purchases, leases, maintenance, and more.
A great resource for all before-and-after information is the Beijing Traffic Management Bureau. Their website will tell you everything from when your restricted driving day is to how many points you could lose off your license for fines you may have acquired. 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.
Do 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, with about 30 percent involving cyclists. Over 50 percent of drivers do not wear seatbelts, while helmet use (for both motorbikes and bicycles) is virtually non-existent. And be aware that many motorists simply do not obey traffic laws. On the other hand, if you have what it takes to pass the test and are a capable driver, a Chinese driver’s license offers you a freedom like no other.
Renting a Car
Renting a car in Beijing is relatively easy if you already have a Chinese driver’s license, a passport with valid visa, your household registration (Registration Form of Temporary Residence), and of course, a credit card. International credit cards are widely accepted, but not international debit cards.
Local companies, such as China Auto Rental (www.zuche.com), offer a wider choice of cars and pick-up points. These places often require a customer registration, so make sure to start the process a few days in advance. Once you’re a registered customer, renting or leasing a car becomes straightforward, and 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 and see if auto insurance is included in the price and what additional charges may apply. Hefty deposits – ranging from RMB 3,000 to 10,000 – are required beforehand. 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 have incurred.
If you do not have a Chinese driver’s license, it is still possible to get a temporary driving permit for a maximum of 90 days – but only those with a L visa (tourist) valid for 90 days or less. You must go either to the Foreign Affairs Department of Beijing Motor Vehicle Administration (the same place where people take a driver’s test), or to the Vehicle Management Service Station, at Beijing Capital Airport Terminal 3. While you won’t need to take a driver’s test for a temporary permit, you still need to have a valid driver’s license from your own country, your household registration, an eye exam by an approved hospital, and four one-inch photos for the permit, which can then be processed within the same day. Afterwards, you may return to a rental car company and drive legally.
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.
Important phone numbers:
Police (emergency assistance): 110
Traffic emergencies and accidents: 122
Ambulance: 120 or 999
Fire department: 119
Mon-Fri 9.30am-5.30pm. Suite 702, 7/F, Tower B, FESCO Bldg, 17 Xidawang Lu, Chaoyang District (6777 1091, 8561 6663, email@example.com)
ST Car Care Beijing Co., Ltd.
Daily 9am-6pm. 507 Pinnacle Plaza, Tianzhu Town, Shunyi District (8046 2075, firstname.lastname@example.org)
Daily 24 hours. Beigao Lukou, Jichangfu Lu, Chaoyang District (8152 3060, email@example.com)
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)
China Auto Rental (CAR)
(400 616 6666) www.zuche.com