After K-Pop and shopping, drivers' licenses lure Chinese to Korea

A Chinese driver looks through the car window.
Xi Xin Xing | Getty Images

Chinese shoppers already have a seemingly insatiable appetite for South Korean pop music, TV dramas, cosmetics and fashion. Now they're after another must-have item: a driver's license.

In China, would-be drivers can wait up to a year for a license and pay double the $420 that one costs in South Korea. That has fueled a boom in Chinese visitors taking South Korean driving tests and converting the licenses when they get home.

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At a driving school in the suburbs of Seoul, a buzzing operation which sees some 200 Chinese applicants a month, half of the class listens to a Korean-speaking teacher while the Chinese visitors fix their eyes on a TV screen showing sample questions for written tests in Mandarin.

"It is easy to get a driver's license in South Korea. Although I feel nervous, it is fast and easy to convert into a Chinese one," said Wang Yingfang, a 46-year-old Chinese applicant on her first drive in Korea.

South Korea has eased rules for licenses, cutting the hours of training to 13, including six hours of driving time. That has led nearly 70,000 Chinese nationals to become holders of South Korean driving licenses in the past three years.

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It takes only a week to get a license at state-appointed driving schools. Applicants can even do their driving tests on rooftop tracks, meaning they have little experience in dealing with actual traffic.

Wang traveled to South Korea by ferry with four other hopefuls. If she gets her license, she can convert it to a Chinese one by sitting a written test back at home.

On her first day behind the wheel, the school's part-time translator was absent and the driving instructor had to communicate using body language.

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But these are minor obstacles for Chinese applicants who are determined to get a South Korean license.

"I will tell my friends to come here," Gao Yiai, a 35-year-old housewife from China's Shandong province, said as she proudly held up her new license.

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