If you live in Taiwan and you would like to drive, it is ultimately better to get a licence. Although you can drive with an international licence, they are only strictly valid for three months after you enter the country. And the days of the police waving away foreigners are well and truly over.
The home driving licences from only a few areas can be swapped for a Taiwan licence, although this list seems to vary (this one seems to be current at time of writing), and it even seems to vary when applying to different licence offices around Taiwan. It may therefore be worthwhile going into your local licence office with your home license and ask if you can apply directly.
Ultimately though, it is likely that you will need to apply for a licence here if you are staying for a while, and that means taking the driving test.
A lot has been written about taking the driving test in Taiwan, but we’ll take a slightly different approach here and report the process if you choose to go through a driving centre.
Obviously if you have never driven before then it’s a good idea to take lessons, but as with many tests in Taiwan, the driving test is not a test of your driving ability but the ability to pass the test. And as such I think that it would be difficult to pass without at least one practice run. Aside from the infamous reverse “S” (see below), you really need to be shown things like knowing where to stop (i.e. where the front wheels should be), and when to be seen to actively look for pedestrians, at least once.
So there are basically two options: find somewhere to practice, learn the written part of the test then go to a test centre (with some paperwork); or enrol in a course of driving lessons. It only costs NT$500 to take the test and you can take it as many times as necessary, where a typical course of lessons costs around NT$12,000.
I chose to take the course in the interest of, well interest really. But also having procrastinated for so long I wanted someone to tell me when to do things and where, and handle all the paperwork. The company I chose is called Top Drive and they have branches throughout Taiwan.
Whether you choose lessons or to take the test by yourself (in which case see these links for Taipei http://www.taipei.gov.tw/ct.asp?xItem=30658351&ctNode=65861&mp=102162 and http://tpcmv.thb.gov.tw/ecp.aspx?pageID=548), you will still need to take the medical, the written test and the actual driving test. You also need to have an ARC valid for more than one year. So with that in mind, on to the medical.
If you enrol with a driving school, then you need to do the medical before you start the lessons. This is because you will actually do the test at the driving school, and they need to register you with the testing body in advance.
Not every hospital is licensed for the driving health examination, so check in advance. Renai Hospital in Taipei City is a trusted favourite, and they were great. You can only do the check from 9am to 11am and 1pm to 4pm during the week, and Saturday morning only. You’ll need two photos and if you go through a driving centre they will give you a card that needs to be completed at the hospital. It costs NT$250.
The check itself is very straightforward. You will be asked if you have any major illnesses or a history of surgery, then take your height and weight. The main thing is the eye test, which includes a colour test, acuity, night vision, and field of view. It takes less than 10 minutes to complete, but get there early as the queuing can take a while. Don’t forget to get the medical stamped before you leave as well.
Whether or not you go the route of driving lessons, the test is the same. However, if you take lessons you will take the test at the driving centre, which is obviously a bonus.
Before you can take the actual driving part of the driving test, you will need to pass the written test, which is actually a multiple choice test done on a computer. The driving centre gave me the book to study, and you can download it (legally) here, but more importantly you can practice the test online.
If you have experience driving in your home country, then you will be able to answer about a third of the questions. General questions comprise another third, with questions such as “After consuming a flagon of rice spirit, you should: A) Drive home. B) Steal a car then drive home. C) Get a taxi.” However, the remaining third are on road signs, hand signals, lengths and things you should study. Whether you choose to do so using by the book or just by practicing online is up to you. Bear in mind that the online practice test only uses a certain percentage of questions at any one time. I discovered this the day before taking the test but still scraped through.
You will need to go to a government testing office to take the test, but the driving centre made it easy by having all of the paperwork completed. They even organised a bus from the driving centre to the test centre.
As I mentioned, the test is really more about being able to pass a test than a test of your driving ability. There is no road practice, and the whole thing is done on a course. If you take lessons, this is the course on which you will practice and also take the test.
A quick word about the cars at the driving centre I went to. They are not the newest, but they are small (which is a big advantage as the course is narrow), and you can choose whether you want an automatic or manual (which will affect the kind of licence you get). Automatic cars are the norm in Taiwan, and I doubt you would be able to hire a manual car.
The courses vary in order, but the challenges are the same. First off, driving on a straight piece of road for about 50 metres. Sounds simple, but there are sensors running the whole length of the straight on both sides, and if you touch either a siren goes off signalling that you have failed. This is where the small car does in handy, as there are only a few inches to spare either side even with a Nissan March.
Other basic parts of the course include stopping at traffic lights and a railway crossing, a small hill start, and turns at which you must indicate. You won’t fail for forgetting to indicate and checking your mirror but points will be taken off.
The three main and most challenging features are parallel parking, reversing into the garage, and the dreaded S bend. These are not difficult per se, but again there are sensors around each with very little clearance. If you touch any of these sensors you fail.
The most useful thing about taking lessons is that for each part of the course, the instructor helpfully points out “markers”. For example, line up a part of the car with a certain part of the course and then make the manoeuvre. As you get to practice this pretty much as often as you need, the likelihood of passing the test is high.
For the test, examiners come to the centre, and you will take the test with one or two other people in the car with the examiner. It’s really just a question of remembering when to do the little things (indicate, check the mirrors, check your blind spot etc.) and your markers. You will not be failed for going too slowly as my instructor kept reminding me, so take your time and the licence will be yours! And just for the record, I passed first time