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Germany - Getting a driving licence

Getting a driving licence in Germany: when, how and if.

Not all expats who transfer to Germany will have to get a German driving licence (Führerschein).
All European Union driving licences are valid in Germany, and some states of the USA and Canada can "swap" their licence for a German one.
In general foreign licences are valid for 6 months after the date stamped on your residence permit. If you are caught driving without a licence after that time, you can be prosecuted. If your lack of licence is disclosed because you were involved in an accident, then your insurance probably won't cover you. So it is a good idea not to drive uninsured!

If you wish to continue driving in Germany once your initial 6 months are up, it is advisable to start the licence application process 8 weeks in advance of the end of this 6 month period.
You can only drive on permitted foreign licences for 3 years. After that you must get a German licence. Your foreign licence is retained by Germany. Your exchanged licence is sent back to the issuing authority.

The German licence is, in most cases, a better form of ID than the residence permit or passport as it is smaller and easy to carry, less susceptible to damage, and the post office accepts a driving licence as ID to pick up a parcel, whereas a residence permit is insufficient ID.
In order to apply for your licence you need to have lots of time, patience and money.

If you have a licence from one of the following countries: Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Greece, Great Britain, Ireland, Italy, Luxemburg, the Netherlands, Austria, Portugal, Sweden, Spain or Gibraltar, you may live in Germany for 3 years without having to swap your licence for a German one. Fees: after 3 years it will cost you 35,00 euros for a full licence or 35,70 euro if you have a probationary licence.

If you have a licence from one of the following countries: Andorra, Estonia, Guernsey, Isle of Man, Jersey, Croatia, Latvia, Malta, Monaco, Poland, San Marino, Switzerland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Czech, Hungary, French Polynesia, Israel, Japan, Lithuania, New Caledonia, Republik Korea, Singapore, South Africa or Taiwan, depending on the date of issue of the licence, you may need to retake a test.
Fees: 35,00 euros to swap a full licence, 35,80 euros to swap a probationary licence, or 42,60 euros if you have a full licence and you need to take a test or 43,40 euros if you have a probationary licence and need to take the test.

People with licences from the following states of the USA: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming can do a straight licence swap.

People with licences from the following states of the USA: Connecticut, District of Columbia, Idaho, Florida, Mississippi (Class R, O), Missouri, Nebraska, North Carolina, Oregon and Tennesee (Class B) need to take the theoretical test. Prices are 35,00 euros for a straight swap, 35,80 euros for a straight swap of a probationary licence, 42,60 euros if you have to sit the theoretical test and 43,40 euros if you have a probationary licence and have to sit the theoretical test.

If you have a class B licence from the Canadian provinces Alberta, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland, Northwest Territories, Yukon, Quebec, Ontario, British Columbia or Manitoba you can do a straight licence swap. If you have a class 7 licence, level 2 from New Brunswick, then you can also just swap it. The fee structure is the same as for US licences.

The agreements with different countries and states are constantly changing, so it is recommended that you double-check your particular case at the Fuehrerscheinstelle in person.

To swap your existing licence for a German one, your licence must be translated by the official ADAC translation service.

ADAC Translation services
Ridler Str. 35
Tel: + 49 (0) 5195 312.
The opening hours are 7am to 12pm.

You can also mail your driver's license (by registered mail!) to
ADAC Südbayern e.V.
Ridler Str. 35
If your licence does not have an issue date printed on it you will need to get an official document containing this information from the issuing body in the country where you got the licence, which also needs to be translated.
Translation of both the licence and the document containing the date of issue did cost 35.79 euro in 2003.

If you are unlucky enough not to come from one of the countries or states listed above, you will need to re-sit both the written and practical components of the German driving test to obtain your German licence.
Although long, complicated and ridiculously bureaucratic, the good thing about this is that you (sometimes!) get to retain your original licence, and the German licence is valid for life, provided you don't commit too many traffic offences and have it legally taken off you.

After having your licence and statement of issue officially translated into German, you must attend a six-hour first aid course.
Lists of the dates, locations and fees for the courses vary, and are available from any driving school.
Fees range between 20 and 30 euros, depending on timing and location. Do not be late, or you will be shut out (even after a lunch break)!
Courses can be done in a single day or over two evenings. The courses are delivered in German. You can take a translator along, but it's not strictly necessary. As long as you complete the practical exercises (let someone else volunteer first and watch closely!) you will get a certificate at the end of the course.
Make a photocopy of your first aid course certificate in case you need proof of having done it for something other than your driving licence, as you have to submit the original when you apply for your licence.
You also have to do an eye test, which can be arranged and done on the same day as the first aid course. If you successfully pass both the sight test and the first aid course, you can apply for your licence.

You apply for a German driver's license at the Führerscheinstelle. The location depends on where you live.

Look in the yellow pages under Fahrschulen for one that is convenient for you to get to (the instructors do not come to you). You have to register in person. Bring your passport, your licence (plus translation), your residence permit and 96.50 for the registration fee and 15.50 for the study booklet and mock exam papers (which you can get in almost any language). All questions on the final written exam are guaranteed to be taken from these mock exam papers, so it is a good idea to work your way through them all before sitting the written test. If you need more clarification, it is possible for you to also enrol in theory classes. Attendance at these classes is compulsory if you are obtaining a driving licence for the first time.
The classes are all conducted in German and go through the 14 chapter book in excruciating detail, so luckily attendance is not compulsory if you already hold a licence from another country.

Having enrolled at the driving school, it's back to the Führerscheinstelle. You need the same documents as before, plus the new ones the driving school gives you, your first aid certificate, and proof that you can see, as well as a passport photo authors tip: and a long and interesting novel.
Make sure the passport photo is 35x45 mm. You can also take passport-sized photos at a photo booth in the building. Make sure you bring enough change in coins, and don't look away until you've seen 4 flashes (it says 2 flashes, but there are actually 4 as there are two additional red eye reduction flashes).
You will need to take a number and wait a very long time for your number to be called, hence the long and interesting novel. Once you've handed over all your documents, plus the 42.60 registration fee, you are free to go.

Author's note: It should take only 4 weeks, but I had to wait over 7 weeks for a letter to arrive at my house saying it was okay for me to sit the driving exam. Before doing so, it's a good idea to take a lesson or two (28.50 euros for a 45-minute lesson) to familiarise yourself with the German road laws in a practical situation. First time drivers need several lessons, including special trips to learn how to drive on the Autobahn.
There is a 12 euro surcharge for these types of lessons.

Once your driving instructor says that you're ready, and not before, you can enrol to do the theory test. You have to do this in person, as you pay up-front. It costs 87.81 euros for test registration with the licensing body and 84.58 euros for the driving school. Request the language you want at the time of enrolment. You must take your passport and a pen to the test. Even though you're sitting shoulder to shoulder with all the other candidates, it's impossible to cheat, because everyone is given a different test on the day.

If you pass the written test then you can enrol immediately for the practical test. You will be told a date, and maybe a general guideline as to whether your test will be morning or afternoon, but they won't be able to confirm the exact time until a few hours before the test! The practical test is supposed to be in German, but both my examiner and my husband's examiner spoke English. The practical test costs 163 euros. You need to take your passport along for ID.

If you pass, the examiner will give you a sheet of paper that says it's not a driving licence, but you have passed the test and can pick your driving licence up from the Führerscheinstelle. Again, take your passport and that good novel (if you have not finished reading it the first time round!). The building is only open from 7am until midday.
Author's note: There was already a half hour wait at 7:15am when I got there, so try arriving before it opens! The nice thing about picking up your licence is that after all the money you've so far forked out to get it, you don't have to pay anything further.

If you fail the test, you have to take another 5 hours' worth of practical lessons.

Successful first time drivers are put on a probationary period for 2 years. This probationary period can be extended to 4 years for a criminal offence.

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