Testing times for foreigners


Illustration: Chen Xia/GT

Driving in Shanghai is a new experience for Westerners who have to deal not just with new roads, signs and traffic conditions but different road rules. In China you have to have a driver’s license to drive a motorcycle, car or larger vehicle. But for a foreigner getting a license can be a major challenge.

Foreigners who have a license from their home countries have to sit a written test here. To obtain a license costs about 205 yuan ($32) which includes 70 yuan for an official translation of the home country license, 25 yuan for a photograph for the Chinese license, 60 yuan for a medical examination and 50 yuan for the actual test itself. The written test comprises 100 questions and candidates must answer at least 90 correctly to pass.

For many foreigners, the ability to drive in the city is a bonus and they enjoy the freedom it gives them. German motorcyclist 56-year-old Uwe Wüst enjoys the looks of admiration and astonishment he gets as he drives his customized white motorcycle and sidecar around town. He has been in Shanghai for more than four years and bought his distinctive vehicle from a local customized vehicle shop.

“I knew I needed a new license in China to drive. If you don’t have a driver’s license, you can only ride an electric bicycle here,” he said.

It is necessary

The same problems faced 34-year-old Marco Bianchi from Italy. He got his license last year. “My company secretary and friends who had lived in China told me that I needed a Chinese license.”

Briton Paul Johnson, 21, got his license to drive here in 2009. “I always knew you needed a separate license. I may have seen it on a forum. My previous boss advised me to get a license so that I could help out with driving duties at the company. I found out about the procedures from the Shanghai Expat website and my boss took me down to the test center to take the test.”

Brian Mcnally, 57, from England got his license in Beijing six years ago. But he now lives in Shanghai so next week he has to go to Beijing to renew his license. “I think everybody knows that they have to get a Chinese license to drive in China. Businesses are very clear about this. My company actually doesn’t want me to drive in China. They think it is dangerous for foreigners to drive here. But I want to drive not for work but for pleasure and drive to the countryside at weekends.”

Some foreign drivers don’t drive every day but take to the roads only occasionally. Like German-born Sven Weigand who rented a car recently. “I just drove more than 4,500 kilometers through South China, half for pleasure and half for work.”

But for those who want to develop careers or businesses here, having a Chinese license is much more convenient. A 48-year-old company executive named Jan from Germany said he used his car to transport company items and people as well as using it for shopping and sightseeing.

Eight languages

Armed with their home country licenses, foreigners then have to face the written test to obtain a Chinese license. In Shanghai the test is offered in Chinese and seven foreign languages, including English, French, German, Spanish and Arabic.

Jan, the executive, said he could have chosen to take the test in the German translated version. “But I heard from friends that the German translation was not as good as the English translation which could spoil my understanding of the questions so I chose to do the test in English.”

That was probably the right choice, fellow countryman Sven Weigand said. Three years ago he sat the test for the first time in Ningbo where there was a German translation available. “I took the test without any preparation but the translation was so bad that I didn’t even understand most of the questions,” he said.

“The regulations changed the next year when I went to take the test again. The organizer then only had English questions and they gave me all the 1,350 questions that I might be asked for preparation. I prepared for one week and I scored 93 – enough to pass,” said Weigand.

A few years before there were official translations, foreigners could sit the license tests with a Chinese person accompanying them to translate the questions for them. Joachim Braem, 45, from Germany got his license in 2004 one year after he arrived in China: “At that time, there were no foreign language tests available. All the questions were in Chinese. A colleague helped me through the test. He read the questions and the optional answers on the computer and translated them into German for me. In those days foreigners were allowed to take the test with Chinese friends.”

In 1999 it was even easier for a foreigner to get a Chinese license. A German engineer who calls himself “Low Holly” said he was still working in Bangkok, Thailand when he applied for a Chinese driver’s license. “A colleague helped me to fill in the application forms. Then I flew back to Shanghai to have a medical check. When I handed in the form and my medical certificate, I was given my license.”

Strictly supervised

But those days are well past and the tests today are strictly supervised with cameras in the examination room to ensure there is no cheating. The entire test is completed on a computer and involves 100 multiple choice questions.

Driver Marco Bianchi said he used an iPhone application to prepare. “It gave me confidence with the sort of questions that I would get in the test.”

For some the test is not a problem. The executive named Jan spent four nights preparing and scored 96 points.

Paul Johnson, who got his Chinese license three years ago, explained: “You know beforehand which questions they are going to ask so you just learn the right answers in advance. In fact, you would have to be pretty stupid not to get at least 90. I can’t remember any of the specific questions but I remember that some were easy to guess even if you hadn’t learnt the answer. That’s because the three ‘wrong’ answers were so ridiculous you knew they couldn’t possibly be right.”

But others view the test differently. Brian Mcnally felt that some of the approved answers were not correct probably because of the poor translations. “When I was preparing, they gave me 1,000 questions to practice. The test involves 100 questions from the 1,000 practice questions. I got 94. My Chinese friends said that was not very good.”

A few have found the test difficult. Italian Roberto Costa scored 84 the first time he took the test. “I didn’t have much time to look over the questions before the test, so I failed the first time and tried a second time. It was such an embarrassing experience that I didn’t want to tell anyone.” The 38-year-old, who has been staying in Shanghai for nearly four years, finally got his license three months ago.

One German visitor is considering an alternative solution to save time and trouble. “I’m thinking about paying someone to take the test for me if it is possible. I will try to find a city where there are no foreign language tests available. Then I can pay someone who will work with me as my translator to help me pass the test.”

Unlike the West

The test itself is unlike most driving license tests offered in Western countries. Jan reported: “The questions that were asked were very different from the test questions in Germany. In Germany, all the questions were about the traffic regulations. However, many of the questions here were about the system of traffic administration.

“Some of the traffic regulations are also different. In Germany, we cannot turn right when there is a red light ahead. However, we can turn right here in Shanghai. Another thing that I am not accustomed to is that in Germany we can only overtake on the outside, but people can do both inside and outside overtaking here,” Jan said. 

Costa remembered one interesting question: “If you feel sick in the car, what should you do? The options included ‘vomit in a bag’ and ‘vomit out of the car window’ as far as I can remember.”

“The traffic signs that were shown in the test were very similar to those in Germany. And the traffic rules were also very similar. The difference is that some people here do not obey the rules,” another German Joachim Braem said.

A question of understanding

Here are some of the option questions that people applying for a driver’s license in Shanghai might encounter. They are taken verbatim from the English translation.

When running on a road without traffic signals and encountering pedestrians crossing the road, the motorized vehicle should: A. Honk to urge the pedestrians to go faster; B. Speed up and pass; C. Reduce speed or stop and yield; D. Bypass. Answer: C.

The driver may drive a motorized vehicle: A. After drinking alcohol; B. When he suffers from a disease that impedes safe driving; C. When he is exhausted; D. After drinking tea. Answer: D.

The annual publicity day for “No Violation of Traffic Regulations, No Traffic Accident Road Traffic Safety” of Shanghai is: A. January 1; B. May 25; C. March 15; D. September 15. Answer: B.

According to Amendment to Regulations of Shanghai Municipality on Road Traffic Administration, if a driver ignores the red light signal and continues to drive across and beyond the stopping line, it will constitute: A. A violation of the traffic signals; B. Failure to brake due to wrong judgment; C. Lack of driving skills and improper operation; D. An act of facilitating the traffic capacity. Answer: A.

In terms of the location of traffic accidents, the Quick Disposal methods apply to the following roads of Shanghai: A. Roads within the Outer Ring (inclusive) and the elevated roads outside the Outer Ring; B. All the elevated roads of Shanghai; C. All the expressways of Shanghai; D. Roads within the Inner Ring of Shanghai. Answer: A.

(The “quick disposal” apparently allows drivers to drive quickly away from the scene of a minor accident or incident without interrupting traffic flow but having to report the incident later).


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