With public transportation as cheap and convenient as it is in Shanghai, many foreigners living here don't even consider getting behind the wheel of a car, something that was probably a daily occurrence back in your home country. But what if you want to have that option, just in case? Just change your country's full license into a local Chinese one!
After meaning to do so for years on end, I finally got everything together, studied China's road code, and took an exam to switch my New Zealand license into a Chinese one. I don't have my own car, but that's besides the point.
Like most things in China, it's not completely straight forward, but today I will spell out the entire process for you so that you, too, can tick that off your list.
Step one: Study hard
Like every driving exam, China's is no walk in the park. China's driving exam has 1,000 multiple choice questions in total, 100 of which you'll need to answer in the exam. A result of more than 90 correct answers is required to pass.
Good news, though: You don't have to take the exam in Chinese (there are multiple languages available), but you will need to recognize a few road signs that use Chinese characters. There are some simple ones, like 让 (rang, give way) and 停 (ting, stop) where you can tell by the shape and color of the sign what it means, but others are a little harder. You'll be quizzed on many things from obvious road rules to different speed limits under different circumstances, all the way to different punishments for breaking the road rules and what certain parts of a car do.
Two invaluable resources for studying for China's driver's license quiz come from a company called Laowaidrive: their book, which is great for learning all of the 1,000 questions in the quiz, and their app which is great for taking mock exams and checking your progress. I bought both, but if you just want to buy one I'd recommend the app.
The book is great, especially for those who like to hold something physical and make notes while studying, but it has a big drawback: the correct answer is printed after every question, which means you constantly need to try and cover up part of the page to test if you really know the answers. That's where the app is great, because you can't see the answer until you click your choice.
Step two: Prepare your documents
Most of the documents you need are easy enough to find, including your passport, driver's license and temporary resident's permit from the police. But on top of that, you are required to bring a notarized translation of your country's driver's license with you, which can only be done at a few places.
I went to the Shanghai Interpreters' Association (Room 1607, 1277 Beijing Road W. in Jing'an District) which is open from Monday to Friday. Just walk in with your license, hand over 50 yuan (US$7.70), and the staff will translate your license on the spot. If your license is in a fairly uncommon language, they may need longer.
Step three: Book an exam
Unfortunately, the Shanghai Department of Motor Vehicles (车管所) don't have a phone number to call and book, so you'll need to take all of your documents and go in person. More bad news: they only have one or two branches foreigners can go to, so I went to the one at 2999 Huaxia Road W. in Pudong (华夏西路2999号).
When you arrive, go to the front counter and let them know you are there to do your exam. They will give you a number. In the hall behind, wait until your number comes up and the staff member will input all your documents into the system.
Next, you will head to take your photo and do a medical exam (the exam consists of an eye test etc). After that's all done, go back to get a number again. The staff member will input that new information, and you can book an exam time.
There are exams daily from 9am until 10:30am, and then 1pm until 2:30pm. If you are at the right time, you may be able to register and take your exam on the same day, but I had to go two days in a row.
Step four: Take your exam
The exam room is upstairs on level two. Go up, press the machine for a number and wait to be called. You will be given 45 minutes to complete the 100-question exam on a computer. If you fail, you can take the exam again right away for free. If you fail again, you'll have to pay 40 yuan and book again.
If you pass, you will be given your license after paying 10 yuan.