No, I don’t have a French Driver’s License (and probably never shall)

I hadn’t written about this before, but a number of people have emailed me about it more recently and I also just finished a book called French License by Joe Start which chronicles just how challenging it can be to get one of these.

So, why haven’t I written about it?

I’m writing this article while visiting Singapore, the city-state I was born into and where my mother’s entire side of the family lives.  It has a world-class public transportation system and I was taking the metro (known here as the MRT) by myself as early as 6 years old.

I love living in a city where not only do I not need a car, but even the costs of owning a car are a deterrent to ownership.  Apart from purchasing, there’s a flurry of licensing fees and taxes that go along with standard car costs, not to mention parking fees and gasoline that costs at least double what it does in America.  Did I mention the ticket-happy Parisian meter maids?

In the five years I’ve lived in France I’ve driven precisely 28 days, on vacations in Bordeaux, Provence, and the Basque country, as well as a work trip in Brittany.  These are all places you cannot truly get around without a personal vehicle.  Each time I drove I rented a vehicle using my American license.  In fact, the one time I got pulled over in France (I stupidly overtook a cop in a small town – it didn’t look like a cop car) I decided to pull the “dumb foreigner” act and spoke English, handing over a US license, all while looking suitably scared, penitent, and compliant.  They had no wish to do paperwork as they thought I would probably never pay the fine anyway, and there doesn’t seem to be a mechanism to chase down foreigners (as they imagined I was).  I promised to pay more attention to the signs and slowly drove off with a smile and a wave.  Driving a vehicle without a French license is letter of the law illegal, as I am a resident of France past my one year grace period, but my insouciant attitude on the matter confirms that indeed, I have adopted the French spirit entirely. 🙂

Yeah, yeah, yeah, but…

So assuming that, like me, you love that hole in your budget where auto expenditures used to go, but are constrained by your circumstances and hence need a car and requisite license of your own, what are your choices?

The easy way

Trade in your US license during your first year in France.  The following states offer a straight swap of your license for a French one: Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia.  If getting a driver’s license in France had been a priority in my first year I would have swapped my Kansas license then and then did what I advise my visa consulting clients to do, report their US license as lost (and it honestly was – lost to the hands of the French government) and get a new one.  Two licenses for the price of two.

The hard way

It’s too depressing to relate, and why bother when the US government has a handy PDF that you can peruse at your leisure?  If you want to get more depressed, read the book I referenced above.  The work I’ve done at the prefecture for French residency seems to pale in comparison to the work for a license, and given that 1/3 of the French nation doesn’t have a license, the written and practical portions, as well as the cost of the schools themselves, drive most people off from the process entirely, and keep in mind that these are native speakers who play games like Mille Bornes from their youth and have insight into just how arcane and impossible the French licensing process can be.

But why be depressed at all?  France’s infrastructure is advanced enough for you not to have to have a private car, and with services like BlaBlaCar more closely connecting us all the time, you won’t need to.  In a driverless future, no one will need driver’s licenses, and that future will come to France, albeit slowly, I’m sure.

8 thoughts on “No, I don’t have a French Driver’s License (and probably never shall)

  1. My son Joseph received his Illinois drivers license 18 months ago.
    Since he has double nationality French/USA, he applied to exchange his Illinois permit for a French permis de conduire.

    We received a temporary drivers license from Nantes but they have now said we have to prove that he has lived in the US for one year. I understand that proof of residence is not needed if he is bi-national. Can you confirm this information?

    Thank you for your response,


  2. This is incorrect. The exchange is only possible if the applicant proves he/she has lived in the state that issued the license. My daughter is also bi-national and stayed with her grand mother in DE, and went through the exact procedure and had her license exchanged in Rennes and we provided the proof that she lived there for more than 6 months which made her a fiscal and therefore a legal resident of that state.

      • My daughter took kind of gap year, and went to stay with her grand mother in DE. If I remember correctly she was there for about 9 months. She had nothing in her name in terms of proving that she was living in that address. What is called in French “preuve de domicile récent”. So it was quite complicated for the DMV to accept her proof of living there with the grand-mother’s affidavit of lodging and support and her utility bills and so on. Finally she got her American license.
        When she went back to Rennes, she had the proof that she had lived in DE for all that time as she had it from her DMV visit and she was renting her own studio with everything in her name including the tuitions of Sup de Co. Rennes. That part was extremely easy.

  3. I am living in St Barth, a French Collectivity, and have been a resident for 3 years after marrying my husband (French). I had a medical condition that precluded me from driving so I did not get my driver’s license in the 1 year mandatory period. Also, my US driver’s license didn’t transfer because it is from Rhode Island and there is no agreement for my little home state.
    So I guess I’m asking if I have to start all over again and take driving lessons?

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