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Driver’s Licenses and Traffic in China

Want to hit the road in China? Then better get prepared! The country has done much to make driving safer, but roads and traffic in China are still considered dangerous by many. InterNations Expat Guide tells you what to look out for and how to get a valid driver’s license in China.
Don’t expect the traffic in China to always be this quiet and streets this empty!

At the time of writing in 2015, the Chinese automobile market had grown to be the largest in the world, with more than 17 million new cars sold in 2013 alone. While this is good news for car manufacturers and dealerships, traffic in China has consequently suffered. Large cities like Beijing and Shanghai have to cope with extreme congestion and smog on a near daily basis. The development of China’s road infrastructure is similarly struggling to keep up with the rising number of vehicles.

Chinese Roads

In 2013, more than 30 percent of China’s counties were not yet linked to the national express and highway grid, despite its length of more than 173,000 kilometers. So if you plan on living in the countryside and joining the traffic in China, be prepared for possibly bad country roads shared with cyclists, pedestrians, and the odd mule.

As the government is well aware of the challenges to the nation’s road network, investments have picked up considerably in recent years. If news reports from 2013 are to be trusted, a staggering 4.7 trillion CNY (767 billion USD) will be spent on road construction until 2030, to help cope with the rising demands of traffic in China.

When driving, you will encounter the following types of roads:

  • Expressways are very well-maintained, with a general speed limit of 120 km/h. Traffic signs are typically in English and Mandarin.
  • Express Routes are usually found in cities with a speed limit of 100 km/h.
  • National Highways have a speed limit of 40 km/h in a city and 80 km/h outside of a city.
  • City Roads and Provincial/Country Highways are often only one lane per direction with speed limits ranging between 30–70 km/h.

To help finance the continuous expansion of the Chinese road network, toll is charged on the majority of expressways, express routes, and many national highways.

Traffic in China: Rules and Regulations

At first glance, traffic in China can seem chaotic, hectic, and somewhat dangerous. Sadly, this is often still the case after a second glance as well, despite stricter rules and rule enforcement. This is partly due the tendency of many drivers to simply ignore the rules and regulations of traffic in China.

What exactly those rules are, you can learn when getting your (temporary) Chinese driver’s. In the following, we have summed up some of the most important road rules:

  • You must be at least 18 years old and in possession of a valid (temporary) Chinese driver’s license.
  • Traffic in China is on the right-hand side of the road.
  • Handheld mobile phone use is prohibited while driving.
  • Seatbelts (or safety helmets for motorcyclists) must be worn at all times.
  • Do not drive after drinking alcohol. You may be fined and your license suspended for six months with a blood alcohol level (BAC) of 0.2–0.8‰. A BAC of over 0.8‰ is considered a criminal offense and leads to at least a five-year loss of your permit.
  • Do not drive your car on lanes for buses or non-motorized vehicles.
  • Make way for crossing pedestrians.

In general, traffic in China is based on a certain mentality of accident avoidance. As such, you may be at least partly to blame when crashing into a car that should have rightly given way.

In case of an accident, do not leave but keep the scene as is and call 122 for the police branch responsible for traffic in China. If helping an injured person disturbs the scene, make sure to mark any changes. If no one was hurt and all parties involved agree on fault and compensation, you are not required by law to call the police.

It is always a good idea to at least take pictures and get contact details, accident statements, etc. in writing, though. Your insurance company may have further information and conditions on how to behave after a traffic accident in China. You can also find other safety advice for China in this guide.

Getting a Chinese Driver’s License

You are not allowed to drive a car in China with a foreign or international driver’s license. As a tourist on a visitor’s visa, you can get a temporary driving permit to join the motorized traffic in China. Those staying for longer have to apply for a regular, Chinese one.

Temporary License

This type of permit is only available to those staying in China for a maximum duration of three months. Consequently, it is also only valid for a maximum of three months, and often less depending on your travel plans.

The most likely easiest way of getting a temporary license is at the Vehicle Management Service Station in Terminal 3 of the Beijing International Airport. Here, you can get everything done, from your health check to translations and passport pictures, and even a short introductory handbook on the traffic in China.

If you are not arriving via plane in Beijing, head to your nearest office of the Department of Motor Vehicle Administration. For your application, you typically need the same documents as when applying for a regular license.

Regular Permit

If you do not fall under the category of temporary visitor, you have to apply for a regular Chinese driver’s license in order to be allowed to join the motorized traffic in China. Head to your nearest Department of Motor Vehicle Administration and take along the following:

  • filled out application form
  • ID document(s), including visa and entry stamps, plus copies
  • foreign driving permit with copies and certified Chinese translation thereof
  • health certificate
  • passport photos
  • money for fees

Note that the exact application requirements may vary depending on where in China you apply. In most cases, holders of a valid foreign driver’s license need not complete a practical driving test before joining the traffic in China. The necessary theoretical test, though, is considered by many to already be hard enough on its own!

In bigger cities, translations of the written test are available in a number of languages, including English. The exact translations can at times be challenging, though. Should there be none available, you can typically bring a translator. However, as most traffic signs are in Chinese only, a certain familiarity with Mandarin and its characters is highly recommended.

In order to be able to correctly answer the necessary minimum of 90 percent for passing, make sure to study the rules and regulations of traffic in China. For additional help, driving instructors or schools specialized on foreigners can be found in a number of large cities.


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