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How To Get A French Driver’s License

Carlie: Hey there, it’s Carlie with the Expat Focus podcast. When American, Samaki Dorsey Schneider moved to France permanently 5 years ago, the last thing the 44 year-old expected was to need to take a driving test. But that’s the reality for some expats who can’t simply exchange their existing driver’s license for a French one. Keep listening to find out why this is the case, what the testing process is like in France, some of the costs involved and the road rules that might be a little different to what you’re used to.

How a foreigner gets a driver’s license in France depends a lot on where they’re from. So, Samaki, where are you from?

Samaki: So, I am from California. Oakland, California, in the United States. And I came to Strasbourg to do a semester abroad at the School of Management at the University of Strasbourg in 2016. And I had met my now husband while I was here. And when I moved here, I realized, I actually found out after the fact that I could have been driving for the first year while I was here on my California license.

I did not know the rules of the road and really was kind of terrified of even trying, so I didn’t really do that at all. But when I, you know, eventually was like, “I want to be able to, to drive, I wanna be able to get around see things”, I decided to go for it and start studying for the driving theory test.

Carlie: Because when you did look into getting your French driver’s license, you discovered it wasn’t as simple as just exchanging California for France…?

Samaki: Yeah, sadly the state of California does not do an exchange with France. There are only a handful of states in the United States that will allow someone to move here and just submit their old license and do a direct exchange. And sadly, that was not my experience!

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Carlie: Do you know why that’s the case? Like why not all states of the USA can exchange licenses with France?

Samaki: No, I have no idea why certain states, you know, have decided to enter into that agreement. It could be that they have some similarities in their road rules, but I have not researched that!

Carlie: You were living and settled in France and you decided it was time to exchange your license. At what point did you discover that it wouldn’t be a simple swap?

Samaki: So, I went online, I checked rules, I also joined a Facebook group called “Applying for a Driver’s License in France”. And there was a ton of information there around which states would allow an exchange and if not, what steps I could follow in order to obtain my driver’s license.

And so, for example, I could apply as a free candidate, un candidat libre, which means that I have driving experience, but I need to take the written test, and then I have to take the driver’s test. And you can sign up in a driving school and go out for a practice drive and they’ll do a little…they’ll see how well you drive on the road and then decide how many hours you’d need based on that.

Carlie: So, you had to basically do driving lessons all over again.

Samaki: Yeah, and it was actually a good thing. I thought it was a good thing, because there are a lot of rules that are quite different from in California. We don’t do a priority right, meaning that at any intersection, if you don’t see a sign or a line that indicates the other person is going to yield to you, you have to slow down and let this other driver go. And so that’s definitely a reflex that I had to practice.

Also, the signage is very different. So, there’s a lot of different rules that in reading la code de la route, which is sort of the driver’s guide in France that I ended up learning about the different rules. And I actually think for the people that exchanged their licenses, it would probably be a good idea for them to be required to take the written test just so…to confirm all those rules and all that kind of stuff. Because I know that people come here, you know, on vacation and they apply the rules that…from the place where they’ve come from and, you know, they’re not necessarily always following the right directions!

Carlie: I have to say. I do agree with you a bit. I’m in the fortunate position, having a European passport, I fell into the category where I had, I believe it was two years from when I moved to France to exchange my driver’s license, show the right documents, and it would just be a straight swap. Now that’s been really easy for me just to be able to get my French driver’s license. But I do find myself on the road sometimes looking at a sign and not quite knowing what it means. And my partner says to me, “oh, I think maybe it would’ve been a good thing if you had have had to do the French test at least.” You know?

Samaki: I agree. I don’t think…

Carlie: I like to think I’m not dangerous by the way, but sometimes I’m a bit confused!

Samaki: But I agree. I think it’s just if you want everyone to be able to drive safely and apply the right rules, what’s the harm in making sure that everybody has the same information? It’s a pretty inexpensive test to take. You can sign up at the post office. There’s actually a handful of sites where you can go online, enroll and it’s, I believe, 40 questions, you have to get 35 of them correct. 

And for example, I signed up…before I could do my driver’s license…driving school, in fact, I went to the post office, signed up. I actually had to take the test twice because I was just shy of passing the first time. And it’s, I think, 30 bucks, so, you know, 30 euros, it’s not that expensive. So, you know, even if they chose to waive that fee for exchange applicants, I just think it would be a, I don’t know, a more equal application of the rules.

Carlie: So, when you had to do the written test did you have to do a lot of study for it?

Samaki: Yeah. So, I chose to take the written test…well, I chose to do my whole study in French. You can, if you don’t speak perfect French, you can get a translator to assist you during your exam, and also during, I believe, the driving test as well if you need it. But I just said, “you know, I’ve been studying French anyway, I’m gonna go through the book in French and learn all the vocabulary.” 

And that took a little while, you know, I wasn’t always…I was doing my commute to work, so I’d try and study on the train and then I’d kind of get tired of it and pick it back up again! But I spent, you know, quite a bit of time, you know, leisurely learning that. Once I felt like I had a decent grasp of it…the other thing that I did was there are tests that you can do on YouTube and just kind of practice quiz tests.

But the one thing that I used that really helped me is I downloaded an app called code de la route io. And it was a really good app because it had all the sections with the theory, but then it had about, I don’t know, 40 white tests. So, you could just do these quizzes. And what I really liked about it is when you got a question wrong (whether you got it right or wrong, you could read the answers), but it…you could look at the explanation of why that was the wrong choice and it tied directly back to literally, I feel like when I would go to the book, it said exactly the same thing in the book.

So, it was a really good way to reinforce the rules, not just like, “oh, I got it right”, but just reinforce like why that’s the right answer. And I…that app cost maybe 4, 7 euros…4 euros a week. I don’t know, it wasn’t super expensive, but I thought it was a really good investment. And that helped me get there faster with taking the written test.

Carlie: Are there any…I mean, you mentioned the priority right, which, you know, I have to double check myself whenever I come across a right entering road all the time and be like, “oh God, do I have to stop for this car?” You know? What other different road rules have you discovered exist in France?

Samaki: So my, by the way, my little mnemonic is “sign or a line: you’re fine!” So, I go to the intersection…

Carlie: “Sign or a line: you’re fine!”

Samaki: If you don’t see anything, and sometimes even that’s hard because the lines aren’t always very well painted or there’s like a…

Carlie: A tree in the way!

Samaki: Or a passage for the piétons and people walking down the street and it’s intermingled with it. So it’s hard to tell if that’s actually aligned for the driver in front of you.

Carlie: Hang on, if there’s a pedestrian crossing, do you still have…do you have to yield or is that okay?

Samaki: No, no. I don’t think you have to yield if there’s one parallel to you, but sometimes the lines on the ground look like the dotted line for the yield of the other driver. It’s just, like, very mixed up. And they’re faded, you know, sometimes you just can’t tell what you’re seeing when you’re looking. But in any event, you should probably just slow down!

Carlie: I think that’s probably the point of the rule, isn’t it? To make drivers more aware of who might be coming from the side of the…!

Samaki: Exactly. As far as other rules…For me, you know, living in the Strasbourg area and in Schiltigheim, I wouldn’t say this is a rule that’s difficult, but the speed limit changes all the time is…can be really stressful because I feel like you’ll be rolling along, and one minute it’s 50, then it’s 40, then it’s 30, then it’s 40. It’s constantly changing, even within, you know, a stretch of a couple blocks, it can change several times.

And I just find it’s very disruptive to driving. I feel like if you’re driving safely as one should be, you’re not gonna be going crazy fast to begin with. But I find that there are many zones that are quite reduced in speed and you just have to be, I don’t know, hyper…in addition to looking for all these priority rights, you’re constantly surveying your speed! And I feel like it’s somewhat of a distraction because you’re trying to do like five things at one time.

Carlie: Also, because I find generally in France, they don’t always display the speed limit on a regular basis. And I’m told, “oh, well it’s really simple. Like, if you’re in a town, it’s 50 or if you’re going through a main street it’s 30 and then you know, it’s 40 if it’s like this…” and I’m like, “maybe if I grew up here right and had done the code as a 16, 17 year old, that would be ingrained”. But as a foreigner, not so much.

Samaki: We’re not always looking for that all the time. And I feel like even you just may go a bit of a stretch without seeing a change and you go, “did it change?” And so you’re a little…hoping you’re not going over, you know…you want to be in compliance with what you should be, you know, the speed that which you should be driving. But I find that it’s sometimes difficult. I mean, it does help with a lot of the GPS (if they’re updated) they tend to show the speed limit. And so that’s good. I mean, that’s, that’s a lifesaver.

At least I can just, you know, glance over and go, “okay, cool, I’m going the right speed.” But there’s also just weird rules, like if there’s a divider that’s in concrete and there’s two lanes and then that means it’s a certain speed. I mean, it can get really crazy, fast.

Carlie: So you mentioned doing the written test cost you about 30 euros and you had to do it twice. Was there any minimum wait time between doing the written test or could you reapply and do it like the very next day?

Samaki: I could reapply whenever I wanted. And what was cool actually is, like, I had signed up for the test and, like, say I was kind of practicing a little bit more and I was like, “no, I’m not quite ready yet”. I could just cancel that reservation and just rebook it. So, that was really nice. It was super flexible. I could cancel it all together or I could just roll it, you know, if I wanted to do it a month later or two weeks later, it was pretty easy.

Carlie: So, once you had that piece of paper saying you passed the written test, were you then free to just go ahead and book in your practical, your driving test with the assessor?

Samaki: Yeah, so I…well, no. Well, yes and no. So, I remember having to go to the ANTS.gouv site and that’s where you kind of sign up to…you send your photos, you upload documentation, and then that puts you into the system. I believe you have to print out something from there and bring that to your driving school at some point.

I don’t exactly remember the order of the steps, but I know that’s part of it. You have to register to be a candidate to get your license. So, you can shop around, find whichever school you’d like, find out what their fees are, so on and so forth. And then you have your written test with you and you can sign up with them. You do your drive around and see how you’re doing.

Now I know that, for example, some driving schools maybe you don’t already have to have the written test completed, but maybe in my situation, since I was a free candidate, I needed to have that completed. And once we did our drive around, they said, “okay, you need about four or five hours”, and it’s usually around 40 to 50 bucks per hour for your lessons. And you start booking those out with your instructor. 

And they usually take you around the area of the driving…where the driving test will be. So, you know, you’re going on the freeway, you’re driving a lot of side streets and it’s in usually within the zone of where you’re gonna be doing your test anyway, which is helpful. So you’re not, you know, panicked about where you might be driving. And because I was doing this in 2020, there was some pauses with COVID lockdowns and things like that. So, in the fall I ended up having to do maybe one or two extra lessons because some time had passed, which was fine.

Carlie: So you have to do your driving lessons in a specific timeframe before your test?

Samaki: No, no, you can just book them out. And I was also thinking to be aware of times when it’s extra busy. So, when a lot of the youngsters are getting their licenses sometimes in the summertime, it can get a little more busy to be booking in your…

Carlie: So you just took extra lessons to be ready?

Samaki: Yeah. I think the person was like, “well, you know, maybe we do one or two more and we can…”

Carlie: “Get another 50 or a 100 euros from you!”

Samaki: I felt shook out!

Carlie: I have to say, like, were you pleased when you did your first assessment and they said, “oh, you only need about five or six hours”? Like what’s the minimum normally?

Samaki: 20 is the normal…for a regular person just taking it out the gate who’s never driven, it’s 20 hours. So it’s pretty expensive, it’s, you know, a thousand dollars.

Carlie: So, when you decided you were ready to do the test, was it just a matter of finding an available date?

Samaki: Yeah. You work with your…so you arrive at the driving school, there’s a little bus stop and everybody’s waiting there who’s planning to take the test that day. Your instructor rides in the car with you as well. And, you know, they go the (what is it?) the proctor, you know, is there, and you get in the car, you go do, you know, drive around with them and then they drop you off and then, you know, they, you’re kind of like, “I hope I did okay, da da da da da!”

Carlie: When I did my test in Australia, they had a clipboard and they were, like, taking notes while I driving. Was it like that too?

Samaki: Yeah, they do take notes. And at the end when you get the results, it has the grading sections. And in the code de la route book, it shows what they’re grading you on. And so you do get your results and how many points at the end, and so where you did well and where you maybe could improve. And so if you don’t pass, you can also see, like, what you need to work on.

Carlie: Was there anything, any moment during your test where you were like, “oh, I messed that up”?

Samaki: I felt like there’s two things that I…that would come up. Even in my driving lessons, is they want, they’re like, “go faster!” You know, they want you to be like at 50. And I was always like, “what?”

Carlie: It’s the limit, not mandatory!

Samaki: Yeah, so that was interesting. And then I misunderstood she was asking me to go a certain direction and I…it might have been the whole droite/tout droit thing where I was like, “over there, are you sure over there?” “Yes, over there.” And she was just kind of testy. So, I was like, “oh, did I mess that up?”

Carlie: Because droite means ‘right’, and tout droit means ‘straight ahead’.

Samaki: Exactly. So, you know, there was one or two moments where she was a bit, you know…the tone in her voice made it sound like she was a little angry with me. So, I couldn’t tell if I just totally messed it up, messed it up, or if it was okay. But in the end it was fine. I passed my test. 

And then, something else that was interesting was after I was like, you know, putting in all my…submitting all my paperwork to the ANTS site, the woman…I got a letter saying, “oh, you need to go for a health…go to a doctor that’s like one of our approved doctors on our list and do a health check.”And I was like, “what?!” So, I had to go and, whatever…they’d ask me questions or whatever.

Carlie: Basically they get you to do a physical to make sure you’re okay to drive.

Samaki: Yeah. Didn’t make any sense. I don’t know if it was randomized or might’ve been my age, I don’t know. So had to do one last little hoop before I could get my actual permit. And then once you do get your permit, you’re considered a ‘young driver’ for three years. And so you have to wear, (you have to wear!), you have to put a magnet that says ‘A’ on the back of your car.

And this also signifies that there are certain speed limit restrictions for you. So, if everyone else can go 90, I think you can go 80, you know, there’s weird little things, which I think is strange because if you know the rules of the road and how to drive, they should not be creating this system where some people are going slower than others and causing those drivers to get upset with the other people or speeding around them because that’s what really happens on the road. I find it kind of a strange practice to, I don’t know, create this, like, weird tiered system of who can drive what. But anyway, you have to drive around with that for three years and then once that period’s over, you can not have that on the back of your car.

Carlie: It must feel a little strange in your forties to be considered a probationary driver again.

Samaki: Oh, for sure. I’m like, I see people my age driving crazy on the streets!

Carlie: “I’ve been driving for more than three years guys, I swear! Ignore this sign!”

Samaki: Yeah, it’s a little strange, but whatever, you just got to deal with the system.

Carlie: So, how long from when you passed your practical test to when you had that license in your hand finally?

Samaki: I don’t know. I probably…well, considering COVID happened! So that was a bit of an interruption as well. But I don’t know, I didn’t rush through it either. So, my timeline isn’t maybe, like, the same timeline as other folks. But I feel like it took at least a year and maybe a year and a half. I don’t know. I really took my…

Carlie: Is this from when you really started or from when you did your final test?

Samaki: It would’ve been in maybe like a couple months, you know, between having my written test done and completing. If I had completed my driving test when I was supposed to, I probably would’ve done it in the summer. But due to some lockdowns and pauses and stops and starts, I did it…had to finish it in October.

Carlie: Do they tell you the same day as your practical test, like, if you passed when you get out of the car, or do you have to wait?

Samaki: No, you have to wait. And I don’t…it wasn’t super long, but it wasn’t right away.

Carlie: And then how long after you’ve been told you passed did you get your license in the mail?

Samaki: I think you get a piece of paper that is your, you know, you’ve passed and then you have…

Carlie: Temporary license.

Samaki: Yeah. And then, you know, having to do the whole medical thing that threw it out!

Carlie: Samaki, you chose the hard route of deciding to do all of your license testing in French. And I applaud you for that. I’m very impressed personally. What about for people that do choose to use a translator because it is an option? Is that a cost to yourself?

Samaki: I don’t know if the schools offer to provide you with someone or you have to find someone and hire them and go that route. I know in the Facebook group people have talked about it, so, you know, that would be a question to pose there.

I know now with having, for example, like the Google camera translate when I was reading the code de la route…in fact, I was thinking of going back over over it now and using that just to refresh and you can see it in your own language and be like, “okay, cool…”, you know, just reinforce that learning. Because there is a lot of…when you’re studying for the test, you know, you’re just trying to like memorize these numbers and kind of lock it in and “what’s the right tire pressure?” and da da da, you know, it’s like a little bit intense. 

But now that I’ve been driving for a while, you know, it’s always good, you know, like, as you said, you know, you might see a sign and you’re like, “I thought that meant this”, or da da da, you know, you can just go back and, and use that book as a guide and then they update certain, you know, rules and things like that. So it’s never a bad idea to, you know, go back and look and actually think in our own home countries, like we do certain things and it’s like some of those really minutia rules, you know, people just drive safely on the roads. We’re not necessarily splitting hairs on like all these, you know, details. And you find that here.

Carlie: Oh, if I did an Australian license test again now I don’t know…like, when it comes to road signs and really specific rules, I don’t know if I would pass. I’d have to do some studying.

Samaki: “How many feet before a railroad crossing…?” You know, all that kind of stuff where it gets really, you know,detailed. Yeah. But I think, like, knowing what I know now, I’d probably use one of those camera translators, read through the book and really just kind of get all those…get it all down in my language. And then I would probably still use that app. I thought that app was perfect. It was really, really good for me. Like, I really liked it.

Carlie: You mentioned knowing what you know now, is there anything else you would do differently if you had to go through this whole process again?

Samaki: One thing that I would’ve done differently, I did not realize until much after the fact that the first year while I was here, I could have driven with my California driver’s license, if I hadn’t been such a scaredy cat, I probably would’ve tried to take to the roads. But I do think that learning the theory would’ve been important to do, so I wish I would’ve maybe started sooner so I could be learning and driving at the same time.

That way when I did go for the driver’s practice test to just see how well I’m driving, I probably would’ve had much more comfort on the road already and maybe would’ve had maybe two lessons to take because it wouldn’t have been, you know, just that acclimation period. So I would’ve done that differently.

Carlie: What are your biggest pieces of advice for others that find themselves in the situation of needing to start all over again to get their driving license in France?

Samaki: Just do it. I feel like the sooner you start…the reason why I did it is I was used to…even though I didn’t really have a car in California, I also did car sharing there. You know, I had relatives with a car if I wanted to borrow somebody’s car. I just like having the freedom to drive. I love driving, actually. But I needed, I wanted to have the freedom if I wanna go shopping and pick up something or if I have to move, for example, like, that was kind of a challenge because I couldn’t rent a moving truck. I had to have two years in France. I had a two years of driving experience in order to rent a moving van.

And so I was like, “oh, if I had known that, I wish I would’ve done it sooner,”because I was only a year and some change in when I did one of my moves. And so there are all these little things that are kind of, you know, blocking your freedom to go out and explore and see the country. And so for me, that was my big push to get my license and to be able to do what I want to do. And I like traveling. I like moving around.

So, for those of you people who feel that’s something you want to do, but “oh, I got to…”, you know, do this. Just, just do it. The sooner you do it you know, the sooner you’ll have your license and the sooner you’ll be able to go out and do those things you enjoy doing. And there are cars, I believe that you can drive without a license. They look a little bit, I think like those smart cars, those little…

Carlie: Oh, those tiny little cars, like clown cars!

Samaki: I don’t think you go on the autoroute with them, but you can kind of get around with them. So, I mean, there are, you know…where there’s a will, there’s a way, but…

Carlie: I don’t know if I’m game to drive one of those really.

Samaki: But, you know, they’re good for, you know, if you wanna just get around or if you’re…

Carlie: If you’re really in a bind.

Samaki: Yeah. But I would just…my advice would be just to do it and seek out the resources that are there. There’s the Facebook group who are there to help you and answer your questions. And you know, a lot of the Facebook support groups for expats are great and people are happy to share their knowledge and help other people, you know, succeed. So, that would be my advice.

Carlie: Samaki, thanks so much for sharing your story of getting a driver’s license in France.

Samaki: Thanks for having me.

Carlie: That’s it for today. If you’ve taken a driving test in a foreign country and have some advice to offer, let us know in the comments of our YouTube channel. Head to expatfocus.com for loads of useful guides and articles covering all aspects of moving abroad easily. Remember to like and subscribe to never miss an episode of the show, and I’ll catch you next time.

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