China’s booming car culture has not emerged out of necessity due to a lack of public transport as is the case elsewhere. In fact, Shanghai’s public transport boasts more kilometers of track than any other city in the world at 548 - second place is Beijing at 527. Both are clean, safe and highly efficient. That said, they are crowded. So crowded that at rush hour in People’s Square in Shanghai, you would be hard pressed to find a similar visual anywhere else in the world in terms of sheer volume of humans.
One way or the other, if you are moving to Shanghai, you will become acquainted with the Metro. The degree to which you become acquainted will vary greatly depending on the part of the city you will be calling home and where your office is as well your child’s school. Traffic in Shanghai is bad… not Beijing bad but inside the inner ring at rush hour on a Friday sitting in a taxi, one will often find themselves being passed multiple times by the same person walking on the sidewalk. In much the same way as New Yorkers living in Manhattan invariably walk more, so do those living in downtown Shanghai, parking is expensive and complicated and traffic is prohibitive.
By contrast, those who choose to live in the far more spacious suburban areas of the city, such as Jinqiao in Pudong, having a car is almost necessary as life more closely resembles a typical life back home with a small army of minivans descending on schools at the end of the day to ferry children to sprawling villa compounds nearby. That said, these minivans are almost exclusively driven by hired drivers who are very professional, may speak some English and affordable. Many drivers become like the Uncle to the Auntie “Ayi” who helps take care of the family and the house.
Add to this, the rise of ride hailing apps like DiDi, the impressive prevalence of them as part of daily life and their ease of use, and choosing to get a driver’s license may not seem the most logical of choices. This does not take into account that for many, having a car and driving it are part of a lifestyle that is deeply ingrained. Cars are personal and a place where many spend time.
International Driver's License
So should you choose to get your license in China, start by getting your International Driver’s License which is normally issued at your local Automobile Association before you depart your home country – these cannot be issued internationally in abstentia. This is not necessary to obtain your China Driver’s license but will be necessary if you plan to drive in other countries which – if you are going through the trouble to get one in China – seems likely. Then once in Shanghai, you’ll need to get your license translated at one of the city’s official notary offices for 50RMB. Then you’ll need a health certificate which you can get at the on site clinic at the Shanghai Vehicle Management Bureau. Before you head to the SVMB photocopy both sides of your license, the photo and China Visa pages of your passport, your temporary registration form from your local police station, your “chopped” license translation and head to the SVMB. You can’t use your own passport photos and can have official ones taken on site for 40RMB. The application form will be in Chinese so you will need help from someone who reads the language. Upon submission with your other documents, you can apply to take the written test. Note that there are also various agencies that specialize in taking care of all of this for you for a reasonable fee. They operate in the same reliable fashion as agencies that specialize in visa applications and demystify the whole process.
Chinese Driver's Test
The test itself is taken on a computer at a testing facility and consists of 100 multiple choice questions of which you must answer 90 correctly in order to pass. There are multiple Apps like Drive in China to download that serve as convenient test prep any time you have a few moments - and studying will be necessary. The test is divided up into sections, two of which do not typically appear on driving tests in other countries. One is strictly regulations and another dealing with emergency care. So you can expect random questions on semi obscure regulations and others on tricky emergency care questions. Some of these will trip you up. You can however take the test multiple times with a designated waiting period but you shouldn’t need to, the App is designed to test you until you can be confident that you will pass the real thing.
Should you succeed and manage to get your official China Driving License, it would be prudent to be well insured and keep the number of a local person you trust to help in the case of accident. Language barriers are one thing, but even for a small fender bender or bump, drivers will often stop on the spot – even on the freeway – to begin negotiating compensation, which may or may not be paid on the spot. Police will be called in most cases and you can expect lengthy delays. Not the kind of delays you’ll experience should you choose to do a road trip on any public holiday virtually anywhere in China as those delays are on an infinitely larger scale but delays nonetheless.