While most visitors find they have enough of trouble surviving Chinese traffic without actually getting behind the wheel, some may choose to take up the challenge. International licenses are not recognized in China, so you will need to obtain a Chinese license. First take your U.S. or international drivers license to an official translator and stop by a hospital for a physical exam (local clinics don’t count). Next is a written test, which in major cities is available in English; if not, you will be allowed to bring a translator with you. Bring a few passport photos for the application, your residence permit and passport, your translated foreign license, and money to cover the fees. When the process is complete you can return in a week for your card. If you live in Beijing, it’s easier just to pay FESCO (Foreign Enterprise Service Corporation, www.fescochina.com ) to handle the whole process for you.
Once you have found your way legally into the driving seat, you’ll find the rules of the road a bit ambiguous. Traffic weaves all over the road ambivalent to marked lanes. Chinese drivers feel they can do just about anything they want to as long as they use their horns to announce their intentions, such as going the wrong way down a one-way street, running red lights, playing chicken in oncoming traffic to pass a slower vehicle, forcing left-hand turns directly into oncoming traffic, and driving in bike lanes and even on sidewalks. Speed limits are regularly posted, less regularly followed. Mobile phones are off-limits for drivers; seat belts are required in the front seats. Be aware that hidden traffic cameras are abundant in some areas, so even though you don’t see any police, they are watching you, and they know how to find you. If you do find yourself the lucky recipient of a ticket, you’ll be required to go to the traffic police station nearest the spot where you broke the law to pay the fines.
In mainland China the traffic drives on the right-hand side of the road. Various neighbors – Hong Kong, Macau, India, Nepal and Pakistan – drive on the left; beware of the transitions.
Speed limits are as follows:
- 30 km/h (19 mph) on city roads where there is only one lane per direction, 40 km/h (25 mph) on China National Highways;
- up to 70 km/h (43 mph) on city roads where there is a major road with central reservation or two yellow lines, 80 km/h (50 mph) on China National Highways;
- 100 km/h (62 mph) on city express roads;
- 120 km/h (75 mph) on expressways.
Tolerance is generally around 10 km/h (6 mph). Some expressways may have tolerance set all the way up to 20 km/h (12 mph); however, anything around 15 km/h (9 mph) to 20 km/h (12 mph) over the stated speed limit is relatively high risk.
Penalties for exceeding the speed limits are as follows:
- up to 200 for excess speeds over 10 km/h but under 50% of the speed limit. Example: if driving at 100 km/h (62 mph) in a 80 km/h (50 mph) zone.
- up to 2,000 and possible loss of license for excess speeds over 50% of the speed limit. Example: if driving at 190 km/h (118 mph) on a 120 km/h (75 mph) expressway.