Last April, I hopped a train from the North Shore of Massachusetts to Boston. As we slowly made our way down the coast, I struck up a conversation with two middle-aged Chinese travelers who were in the area for business. The pair, who hailed from the southern megacity of Shenzhen, had choice words for the United States’ slow and clunky commuter rail system, which in their minds compared unfavorably to China’s vast and growing network of high-speed rail.
Like many other Chinese visitors, they would have preferred to rent a car to get around. Yet, much to their chagrin, China was not among the more than 100 foreign countries whose driver’s licenses were recognized by the state of Massachusetts at the time.
Over the past decade, a booming Chinese economy has led to a dramatic rise in outbound tourism. And this new wave of travelers isn’t confining itself to the organized group tours of years past: More and more Chinese tourists are opting to arrange their own itineraries. In particular, increasing numbers of Chinese visiting the U.S. are interested in exploring the country by car. According to a 2017 Nielsen report, that year, 44 percent of Chinese tourists used car rental services in the U.S. and other countries where such services are popular. Many of these would-be road trippers have hit a pothole, however: A number of countries — including the U.S., in many areas — don’t recognize Chinese driver’s licenses.
According to data compiled by Derek Yang, a Chinese-born blogger based in the U.S., just 29 out of the 50 U.S. states accept Chinese driver’s licenses. The remaining 21 either don’t or don’t have a clear policy in place.
For most drivers around the world, all you need in order to take an overseas road trip is an international driving permit, or IDP, and your original driver’s license. The IDP is an officially issued booklet — similar to a passport — that provides multilingual translations of your original driver’s license. Issued by national governments in accordance with the United Nations’ 1949 Convention on Road Traffic or its successor, the 1968 Convention on Road Traffic, IDPs can be used to drive a car in other signatory nations.
China, however, has a complicated history with the convention. After 1949, the losers of China’s civil war, the Kuomintang, fled to the island of Taiwan, where they set up a parallel government. It was this government — which continued to be recognized by the U.N. as the representative of all of China until 1971 — and not the one on the mainland, that acceded to the earlier Convention on Road Traffic in 1957. When the U.N. officially switched recognition to the People’s Republic of China in 1971, it invalidated Taiwan’s accession to the convention.
Meanwhile, despite attaining formal U.N. recognition in 1971, the Chinese government has never acceded to the convention. Hence, with the exception of the special administrative regions of Macau and Hong Kong — both of which are signatories to the convention — the Chinese government cannot issue IDPs to its licensed drivers, even though a number of countries will not recognize Chinese driver’s licenses without them. Japan and South Korea, despite their geographic proximity to China and popularity with the country’s tourists, functionally prohibit Chinese drivers from using their original licenses by requiring foreign drivers to have IDPs.
While inconvenient, this roadblock doesn’t deter everyone. Some U.S. car rental companies will still provide vehicles to Chinese drivers as long as they hand in translated copies of their driving documents in addition to their licenses. A few of them even advertise this on their websites and offer free license-translation services to customers.
“Most Americans -- including many police officers -- don’t know much about the international driving permit (IDP) and U.N. conventions, let alone which countries have signed these conventions, or which have not,” notes Yang on his blog. Still, Yang takes pains to remind his readers that while such policies are not always rigidly enforced in the U.S., there still are legal risks to driving without the required documentation.
Frequent travelers have turned to safer workarounds. Some head to neighboring countries that issue IDPs for driving tests, obtaining licenses from places like South Korea, Malaysia, or the Philippines. But acquiring foreign documents in this manner is often pricey, and some countries require drivers to renew their licenses frequently.
In other cases, destinations popular with Chinese tourists have taken the initiative to address the problem. The New Zealand Transport Agency explicitly states that Chinese drivers may use their domestic licenses so long as they carry with them an official translation that has been certified by a Chinese notary public. Similar policies exist in most Australian states, parts of Canada, and in European countries such as Germany.
The two Shenzhen natives I encountered on my ride to Boston had previously taken several road trips in California, which allows for the use of Chinese driver’s licenses, but were unwilling to risk doing so in Massachusetts. Last July, however — just months after our conversation — Massachusetts began permitting tourists with a driver’s license issued by any country to operate vehicles in the state, provided they carried with them a translated version completed by a member of the American Translator’s Association, a Massachusetts-commissioned bilingual notary public, a local consulate of their home country, or a bilingual teacher at an accredited state institution.
Ultimately, however, a real solution to the problem will require the Chinese government to recognize the burdens the current policy places on the country’s outbound tourists and work to ease them. Although the newest version of the Chinese driver’s license is labeled in English as well as Chinese, the driver’s personal information is still given in Chinese only. A fully bilingual redesign could potentially save Chinese tourists a few trips to the notary public.
China’s refusal to certify the 1949 convention also means loads of paperwork for foreign visitors who intend to drive in the country. Even without signing the convention, it could still enter into bilateral agreements with foreign governments to improve the usability of its licenses abroad in exchange for allowing international drivers to use their licenses in China. In at least two cases, it has already done so: In 2015, China and the United Arab Emirates signed an agreement to recognize the validity of each other’s driver’s licenses; a similar agreement between China and France was announced in February 2017.
According to the Henley Passport Index, which ranks passports based on the access they provide to various countries, the Chinese passport is now the 69th best travel document in the world — a jump of 16 places in just 2 years. In other words, it’s now more convenient than ever for Chinese tourists to travel abroad. Yet many of them remain reliant on planes, trains, and buses to get around. Other countries have already begun revising their driving regulations in order to roll out the welcome mat for Chinese drivers; China should do what it can to help its citizens realize their dreams on the open road.
Editor: Kilian O’Donnell; profile artist: Zhang Zeqin.
(Header image: shanghaiface/VCG)