An Expat Guide: Getting a Driver’s License in Taiwan

This post has been written by guest blogger, Dominic LeCroissette.

200 cc Hartford

200 cc Hartford

Shortly after arriving in Kaohsiung, Taiwan’s second largest city, it quickly became apparent that I needed to find a fast and efficient way of getting around.

As one might expect in cutting-edge East Asia (whose cities, by the way, put most of Europe and North America to shame in the field of technological advancement), Kaohsiung is equipped with a modern and spotlessly clean subway system. There are two lines, slicing the urban jungle from north to south and east to west in the shape of a cross. That would be awesome if Kaohsiung was shaped like a cross, but unfortunately it isn’t. My workplace isn’t located anywhere near the “cross”. A decent supermarket is considerably more than comfortable walking distance away from our new apartment. I also didn’t want my social life to be restricted to drinking beer with middle-aged Taiwanese men in the dingy little watering holes on our block, and getting out of the city on a sunny weekend was also high on the priority list.

The answer to the mobility question, at least in the cool midwinter days of January, was obvious: get a bicycle. It’s cheap and environmentally friendly, and one can park a bike anywhere. Road rules can be blithely ignored, and cycling every day is an excellent way of keeping fit without really trying. The icing on the cake was that our new apartment is literally a stone’s throw from the Love River, a murky waterway flanked by purpose-built cycle paths along the whole of its length. My place of work is located only a couple of blocks from it, and it boasts a good supermarket right on its banks. You can even follow the water almost all the way to the beach, barely having to use the roads at all.

So I got a bicycle. And in the cooler months of February and March, I arrived at work each day feeling healthy and virtuous, with only a light film of sweat tainting my brow. Then April arrived, and the temperature started to climb. By early May, I was turning up to work looking like I had fallen into the Love River instead of merely cycling alongside it. Scooters buzzed past me, catching the breezes; drivers cool as cucumbers. I gave in.

I didn’t want a scooter, mind you. I’ve always hated them. They’re ugly, whiny and annoying. A motorcycle, on the other hand, requires skill to drive, and is much more comfortable and enjoyable to navigate along Taiwan’s mountainous roads during weekends away. Secretly I coveted a rare “red plate” large motorcycle (above 550 cc), but a quick skim of the internet revealed that these are (a) very expensive in Taiwan, as they are all imported, and (b) illegal to drive unless you have held an “ordinary” Taiwan motorcycle licence for at least a year followed by taking an intensive training course.

So a “white plate” bike it would have to be (engine size: 50-250 cc). American or European bikers are probably snickering behind their hands at this point, but in this land where most two-wheelers are less than 150cc, even a 200 or 250cc machine is king. White-plated 250cc imports (Kawasaki Ninja, Honda CBR) are rare and expensive here, so I decided that a 200cc Hartford – a Taiwan-made retro-style jet-black machine– would probably be the right bike for me. For the combination of around-town practicality and open-road fun I reckoned it would be hard to beat.

Following a friend’s recommendation, one sunny Monday morning I found myself at Louis’s scooter shop on Jiuru Road. Louis speaks good English, and specializes in renting and selling bikes to foreigners. Could he get a 200cc Hartford for me? No problem, said Louis. A few days later, my future pride and joy was in his workshop, in pieces, being rebuilt and reconditioned ready for sale. Meanwhile, Louis lent me a small motorcycle to zip around town on.

As I negotiated Kaohsiung’s chaotic traffic on my borrowed ride, an increasingly persistent voice in my head was telling me that perhaps I ought to consider getting a local license. I’ve spent weeks on end as an unlicensed rider hurtling around Thailand on motorcycles considerably bigger than my Hartford, but as I get older I’m rapidly become more risk-averse and this time I wanted to do things right. If the police catch you driving without a license here, they will slap you with a 6,000NT ($200) fine. If you crash and injure someone, the cost of driving unlicensed – and therefore uninsured – is potentially ruinous.

So I decided to get a Taiwan motorcycle license.

The first step was to download the full list of theory questions ….all 300 of them. There is also a very handy practice test available  which closely replicates the actual theory test. Many of the questions can be answered by applying common sense and general knowledge of road rules from your home country, but there are some banana skins in there and some of the road signs are a little different from “back home”. There are 40 multiple-choice questions to answer, and the pass mark is 85% which means you can get 6 of the 40 questions wrong. After an hour or two of study, and plenty of dry runs on the “practice test”, I was ready. I consulted Google maps and drove to the Fongshan DMV armed with my passport, passport photos, my ARC card, and cash.

The next stage was to complete a basic medical, so off I popped to a shoebox-sized medical center around the corner. It was the kind of procedure that even someone on the verge of blindness or death could probably pass. First, the nurse checked my height and weight. I’m not sure how this is relevant to riding a motorcycle, but I assume that my vital statistics fell within the normal range expected for a human being, because I passed.

Next, I looked into a machine and guessed which way the vague blurry outlines were pointing. It was difficult. I must have got some of them right, or maybe they just didn’t care, because I passed this part of the test too. For the grand finale, I was ushered into a back room where an extremely elderly doctor put down the newspaper he was reading and motioned for me to hold out my hands. After ascertaining that I could close them into a grip position and therefore, presumably, hold onto the handlebars of a motorcycle, he signed my form. Back at the nurse’s station, I handed over my 90NT fee and a passport photo, and I was out of there clutching my completed form less than 10 minutes after I had arrived.

Turns out I had missed my slot for the theory and practical tests; if you want to get it all done in one morning, I suggest arriving at the DMV no later than 8.30am. I returned the following morning for my theory test at 9.30am, and a helpful English-speaking employee named Steven was on hand to walk me through the red tape. Immediately after the theory test, you are informed of your score.If you pass, you are given a piece of paper that authorises you to take the practical test, so I collected my motorcycle from the parking lot and headed over to the testing arena.

The premise of the test is basically to drive around a narrow horseshoe-shaped track without setting off any of the sensors along the sides. The first part is the trickiest: from a standing start, you must drive slowly along a narrow but straight strip of track in 7 seconds or more. Wobble, and you will touch the sensors and fail. Go too fast, and you will cross the finish line too soon; also a fail. It’s a good test because in Taiwan’s close-packed scooter traffic, the ability to make a smooth and straight low-speed getaway from the traffic lights is an essential skill to have.

Next, you cruise around a gentle left-hand curve before reaching a traffic signal. If the light is red, you must stop before the line, and proceed when the light turns green. Around another left-hand curve, there is a mock-up of a railway crossing. Same as before, stop if the lights are flashing. After that, you’ve finished.

If you fail a stage, you have to drive the whole circuit again, but you only get two chances. Failing a third time means you have to wait a week before coming back and trying again. You also get an ample practice session before the test. I did about 15 circuits of the test track before getting bored; you probably have time for 30 or more practice runs if your attention span can stand it. Of the 20 or so people taking the test that morning, the pass rate seemed to be about 50%. Most of my fellow test-takers were young first-time riders accompanied by their nervous-looking parents. I wasn’t sure if the parents were worried that their kids would fail, or that they would pass. Two grizzled old men perhaps had had their licences revoked for drink-driving or traffic violations and were trying to get it back; both failed.

As for me, I was a bit wobbly on the first part of the course. It’s amazing how much harder it is to drive steadily on the real test compared to the practice. Fortunately I didn’t touch any sensors, although I had to slow almost to a standstill at the end to avoid crossing the line in less than 7 seconds. I then smoothly coped with the traffic light and railway crossing, before triumphantly emerging from the arena to a thumbs-up and a toothy grin from a woman holding a clipboard. I was now, for a brief moment, Kaohsiung’s newest-qualified motorcycle driver. I enjoyed my moment of glory while others who had failed on their first attempt filed dolefully past me and joined the back of the line for their second and final try.

Driving licenses are issued on the spot from a small booth that lies within the horseshoe of the track. In a stunningly low-tech process for such an advanced country, you watch as the clerk prints your license from a computer onto a flimsy bit of cardboard, glues on your photo, and feeds it through an ancient laminating machine. It’s ready in 3 minutes and costs 200NT.

It wasn’t quite all over. I had to meet Louis at the test center a few days later, in order to transfer the papers for my new bike into my name. While we were there, Louis had to pay a fine for one of his rental bikes. A long-ago customer had rented a bike from Louis, then sold it to someone else – yes, he actually SOLD a bike that wasn’t his to sell. Louis is still the legally registered owner of the bike, even though he has no idea where it is or who is driving it now. It seems that the current rider is fond of running red lights, and Louis must pay 1,800NT ($60) every time he or she does so. It’s grossly unfair and just one of the many reasons why foreigners shouldn’t buy motorbikes without papers.

As for me, I am now a licensed, insured, fully legal motorbike rider on Kaohsiung’s crazy streets. And while the laminated piece of paper in my pocket won’t stop my body from coming apart if I’m hit by a truck, I find that it gives me a lot of reassurance nonetheless.

About the Author

Dominic LeCroissette has been globe trotting for the past 7 years, his adventures bringing him to 49 countries. When he is not cycling, or conquering mountains and volcanoes, you can find him in the classroom teaching English. He is currently living in Taiwan.

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Comments

  1. Hi Dominic, my name is Tito, i live here in Taiwán also, i got already my license for 7 years and papers done (insurances and stuff done), i ride a SYM 125Gt (125cc) is a pretty good scooter, super awesome commuter in the city (Taipéi to Taoyuan) but now i want to do touring on a bigger bike, i’m planning on buying a kymco Nikita 200i (200cc) and also have a taiwanese driver’s license. My question is: do i need to apply to another test or my scooter and driver’s license should be enough?
    Thank you!

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