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 six 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 heavily-accented American 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 a 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 one.

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 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.

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74 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,

    m

  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?

  4. I have been in France for 4 years. I didn’t know that I had a time limit on exchanging my license. Is it possible for the government to still exchange my license even after the 1 year period? Would it be worth it to try in any case? I could use your help. Thank you.

  5. Hi, and thank you for all your wisdom. 🙂

    Question: I have an Illinois driver’s license. I know I can swap it for a French one. I own property near Limoges. Feb. 14th of 2018 I closed on the house. I still work with a 3 month visa. Back and forth I go to Chicago. Since I haven’t been ‘living’ here (technically) for one year straight, does my collective time which now adds up to 15months (over a period of two years) mean that I’m over the 1-yr. status of being here? I don’t have a carte de séjour. I do have a meeting Aug. 18th at the préfecture hopeful to get a long stay or resident stay. I do own a car.

    Hope this makes sense.

    Thanks, for your time, and be safe!
    JAsper

    • The restriction is to those who have been resident here. Your stats on a tourist visa do not count. You should only refer to the date of your long term stay visa if and when you get that.

      • Stephen, I appreciate you writing a response. Good to know. I came to the right format to seek an answer.
        Continue to be safe. JAsper

  6. I just read in David Hampshire‘s Living and Working in France that in the case of reciprocal states exchanging your license for a French one, you still have to take the written test. That you were only exempt from the driving test. Is this correct?

      • No need to take a test written or otherwise. It just takes a long time to get the paperwork through the French system.
        Patience is a virtue Due to Covid it took over a year. I switched a Florida one . Send a copy of a property tax bill/rental agreement to show prior US residence as well as something that shows you have permanent residency
        in France and the date of when you first did that. I went to the Mairie and asked for a certificate stating I my primary residence and domicile in the town I live in.

  7. Hi! I’m a resident of France & US but currently living in the US for the last year. Planning to go back to France for a few months – do you think I could bring a VA license and make it work for an échange ?

    • If you have US licence and you go back to France just for a few months if you do get pulled over and have US Passport. Don’t sweat it. Just speak english act like a tourist. The cop will not bother

  8. I have a California DL and was thinking of exchanging to a Texas DL before my move to France next year in June. Would that work to exchange to a French DL? Thanks

  9. Do you know if I can exchange my driving license during the validity of my first visa visiteur valant titre de sejour? Or only after I get my first titre de sejour?

    Thank you in advance!

    • Ksenia as I said in the article, you can only exchange in your first full year of residence as an immigrant. In my case that would have been before I received my first plastic carte de sejour.

      • There is a very common misundrstanding made. Residency and carte de séjour. The latter one is just one of MANY French IDs for foreigners living in France. I have in mind 5 of them and there could be more. Therefore proving and therefore having a French immigration residency can be documented many other ways.
        There is another very common one. Holding a long stay visa called “VISITEUR” and going through the OFII procedure, makes you an IMMIGRANT, not just an extended tourist.
        Therefore you can only exchange your driver license while holding your visa+OFII document, as it is your 1st year of residence in France.
        I hope that I have not been too long for what could appear to be a very basic question once people understands and accepts what the words mean!

  10. Hi,
    I want just the opposite!
    I’m a dual citizen (Fr/US).
    I traded my CT driver’s license for a French one 7 years ago, and now, I’m ready to return to the US.
    What do I need to get a new American license? Will they just trade it in?

  11. Hello,
    I have co-citizenship but live mainly in California. We arrived in Paris on Jan. 4th (where we have an apartment), to stay for the spring. I hadn’t been in France for 18 months before that. This morning my rental car was towed (I stupidly parked in a delivery zone overnight) and though I spoke with the police and the tow driver, they refused to give me the car back, because I do not have a French driver’s license. (Hopefully the rental agency can get the car back.). I assume the City Hall is in error, and that because I am within a year, I can drive on my US (California) permit (as the rental agency also thought), but I wonder now if I might be mistaken? Any thoughts or advice would be welcome.

    • Chris

      You’re in an odd place. While I think that you might be able to drive within your first year of residency on your California license, having French citizenship puts you into the zone with the French of “you should have known better.” I would gently remind you that if you have French citizenship, you should know the phrase, “I assume the City Hall is in error” has no meaning/relevance here. I would simply be helpful with the rental car agency to get the car back. And get yourself a French license so this can’t happen to you again. As far as I know California isn’t one of the swap states but I suggest you follow my advice in this article: get yourself a license in a state that does have swapping rights and use that one to get yourself a French license.

  12. I am a french resident….with no for the extension of my first carte de sejour. I arrived with a American drivers license from a state without reciprocity. Firs time off our immigration attorney says the first year of residency BEGINES the date I picked up my first cate de sejour. Since that took nearly nine months to process that is a bit difference. Is he correct? Hate to find out he is wrong?

  13. I arrived in France in October 2020 with a “Passeport Talent” long stay visa. I received my Carte de Sejour December 30th, 2020. A few questions:
    – Does this type of visa require me to get a French driver’s license within one year? (Jean Taquet’s comment above about the visa+OFII document confused me a bit).
    – Does my “one year” begin with my arrival in France or the date on my Carte de Sejour?
    – I plan on exchanging my CA driver’s license for a DE license this summer and exchanging that for a French license before the end of the year. The date on my new DE license will not show I’ve resided in Delaware for 6 months, but my documents used to obtain the license will. Would that suffice (assuming the prefecture is reasonable)?

    Thanks for all your great information and advice!

    • The type of visa is irrelevant. Your residency starts the day you arrive in France. If you don’t swap within that first year, you are most probably locked out of swapping.

  14. I’m slightly confused. If we exchange our California licenses for Texas licenses before we move, do we need to prove residency in Texas for 6 months prior? Will our visa applications need to say Texas as well?

    Thanks for any clarity!

    • Mallory you’re asking two questions here. Firstly, I don’t know what is required for you to exchange a license in a particular state. Some may have residency requirements, some just require a utility bill.

      But more importantly, getting a driver’s license has nothing to do with immigration. You will not be presenting immigration paperwork for the exchange. There’s no assumption by the French government that because you are resident in one state that you must have a driver’s license from that state as well. And remember, when you are here they really don’t care, as you’re now a French resident trying to swap out a foreign license for a French one. Again, this is a separate process and has nothing to do with your immigration application.

      • My son tried to exchange his Illinois license but it was refused due to residency requirements. He returned from the USA in June and started the process again. He just received a sms saying it was definitely refused in 2019. Does this mean they will not consider a new application? Can we buy time with a ‘recour’. Can he still drive for one year after his arrival in France
        Please help he’s working and can’t get to work without a car

  15. Sorry, I misread: I understand you didn’t exchange your license and ask for a new US one- but do you know of anyone who did or what the rules are about that? Thanks!

    • Yes Beatrice I have received more than one email from someone who has successfully done precisely what I suggested in the article. Again, I cannot speak for all states but the principles I enunciated are sound, hence why I felt comfortable recommending that path.

  16. We moved to France from Kansas, which is listed as a reciprocal state. We intended to exchange our American liscences for French ones. We brought all the necessary documentation, an agent provided by my husband’s employer, and were within the first year of residence here. The Prefecture said that Kansas was not on “their” list. It was a nightmare. We both had to pass the theory code and take driving lessons and exam like a novice driver. And all in French. It was a very stressful time. So even if online, the state is listed as reciprocal, it doesn’t always work once you get here.

  17. Hi this looks like the right place to ask a complicated question. I have applied for a exchange with my Michigan license (a reciprocal state) and have done it within the year allowed with my carts sejour. My license is still valid until 2023. I’ve just been notified to produce papers showing the original passing of my exam !!! That would be in 1986 in California (not a reciprocal state)— even if I could get this information – why would they ask when I have given them 10 years of a perfect driving record in Michigan? Even translated. And proof of residency? Have you ever heard this?

    • It might be the right place to ask Tatiana, but I’m sorry I don’t have a good answer – as I’ve never heard of this case before. Perhaps someone else in the comments may have and can share an answer!

      • my guess since I cannot read the French answer is probably the statement from your Michigan DMV that your license is still valid (you have not lost all your points) and includes information as towhee did you get it the 1st time, … In short the normal information found in a French license.

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  19. Hi Jean, call me a dodo, an idiot, a half-wit, or whatever else you’d like (in large part because my question might’ve already been answered) — when does the 1 year limitation begin, a) our initial arrival to France? b) the date we received our titre de sejour card?

    In my case I arrived Feb 4 2020 on just a normal tourist visa (just before covid), but didn’t get my titre de sejour until Apri 4 2021.

    Thanks

    • Jerry

      No need to name call! As it’s been noted above, the clock starts from the time your residency in France begins. If you’re on an ordinary visitor visa and you are now in possession of a card, your year has already elapsed.

  20. I have a valid Florida license with motorcycle endorsement. Will France do a straight swap with the endorsement? Some have said i mist take a course all over again in France for the endorsement to be on the French license.
    I have been having the endorsement for 35 years.

    • William

      The French don’t care how long you’ve had the endorsement. If you want to ride a motorcycle more than 50hp, you’re going to need to take a 7 hour class. This is assuming that Florida is approved for a straight swap.

  21. I think a lot depends on the individual bureaucrat who handles the applcation. I didn’t submit my request for reciprocity (from MA) for a couple of years. Luckily I got a duplicate MA license before declaring residency. After submission I waited 18 months (pre-covid). I wrote twice to the agency without reply. I had essentially given up when voilà my French license came in the mail! This is the only time in eleven years I have had a problem with the supposedly notorious bureaucracy here. And actually it was not a problem, just an escargot’s pace.All of my few trips to the tax office have been handled politely and helpfully and professionally. Ditto insurance and medical care. Of course there are a few differences in the formalities between USA and France, but that is to be expected. À mon avis, be respectful and you will be treated respectfully.

    • KP this is awesome that this happened for you, but you are very much the exception. I’ve never heard of such a thing in ten years of answering questions and hearing feedback about this specific issue. The French bureaucracy is very rule-driven and this one-year rule is in place for a particular reason.

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  23. I am not sure if you have the answer, but maybe you can direct me to who might! I have been working for the US Department of Defense in Germany for the past 7 years and in Japan for 14 years before that. I have a California Driver’s license which I can easily change to Colorado (parent’s residence) to have reciprocity with France, but I will not have proof of 6 months of residency as I am applying for my French long-term VISA through the Frankfurt French Embassy. I have a ‘special’ driver’s license that allows me to live and drive in Germany and the EU, but it is not an EU driver’s license. Once I leave service, I become a tourist in the EU and all special privileges, including the special driver’s license, fall away. My question is, do you know who I can contact to see what would be best in my situation? Do I go the Colorado route, or is my driving record in Germany good enough? Thank you for providing this platform for questions and solutions!

    • Debi

      I don’t know which is the “best” way to do this, but if your German license doesn’t have an expiration, expires after you leave the service, simply swap it for a French one.

      If you don’t get to keep that license when you leave, then go the CO route, as long as CO is a swappable state.

      • Stephen, Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts! I guessed this might be the best route, to have two plans of attack, but your confirmation makes me feel better about my prospects of avoiding the French Driving Lesson and Test route. I must be honest, the paperwork piles and hurtles I will be jumping are making me question my decision to live in France. I sure hope I don’t have rose-colored glasses on! Again, thank you.

  24. Hello!
    I have a rather urgent question pertaining to your article.
    I will have been resident in France come August 1, 2022. My International License expired on June 30, 2022.
    I need to rent a car and can see that I will need to get a French license however! my license is from Washington ( a non-reciprocating State. What can I do if done before August 1, 2022?? Would love your immediate reply as it is time sensitive!
    Kindly,
    Cristiaana

      • The question is though, if you have been residence in France for over a year, you do in fact need a French license to rent a car. Is that true or not?
        Thank you for your reply!

        • According to the law, yes.

          But in reality, there’s no way for a private rental car company to know what your residence or immigration status is in France.

          Hence why I’ve rented cars more than a dozen times since I’ve lived in France and only once have I been asked for an EDF when they realized I live in France.

          I don’t see any practical way for a car rental company, who wants your money, to ask where you live, then how long you’ve lived there, then ask why you haven’t swapped your license. I’ve never been asked that question and I rented a car as recently as January.

          Hand over a US passport and DL and smile. 🙂

          • Love that! However… since I’m renting long term from Leclerc here is what they require…
            The credit card that was used for the reservation (in the name AND first name of the Tenant)
            Your valid driving license (and accompanied by a sworn translation of less than 6 months in the case of an international license)
            Your identity document or passport
            A proof of address less than 3 months old.
            Thoughts?
            Cristiaana

          • I don’t see a single document on that list that has anything to do with how long you have been in France.
            In fact, if you bring your passport instead of your carte de sejour you will have precisely zero immigration documents with you.

          • Thank you Stephen, what about the ‘accompanied by a sworn translation of less than 6 months in the case of an international license’ bit? Is that a big procedure or, how is that done?
            Sorry to be dragging this out!
            Cristiaana

          • Go get an official translation of your driver’s license. Not a big procedure. Just need to find an official translator near you or one who can do it online via a photo of your license.

          • Perfect! Thanks a million for working through all of this with me Stephen!

  25. Hello ~
    We are Americans having lived in France permanently for the last 18 years. We’ve always used our California licenses until they’ve expired over the years here without any problem. California doesn’t exchange with France so what can we do now to have a French license as we won’t be traveling back to CA anymore? We are 73 and 76 years old and have a perfect driving record here. Yet our insurance company now requires a French driver’s license; an American one won’t do. Groupama which has insured our cars for the last few decades here has now suggested that I go to the mairie to have “help”. What can they do for us, concretely, do you know? My husband cannot take the driving written test in French at 76! Can you suggest any solutions to our problem? Does being over 70 allow us to continue to drive with a perfect record without having a French license?

    • Janet

      Unless you have some friends in French administration who can help you, I don’t see how you can get an exception here.

      And as far as the French are concerned, you do not have a “perfect record” as you’ve never had a French license to have a record on.

    • You can get the drivers test translated here it’s allowed
      You can also take hour by hour courses , usually 4 hours should suffice at your experience level … it costs around 50 e an hour
      Hope this helps !

  26. Hi,
    My wife and I moved from Maryland to France seven years ago. We both tried to exchange our Maryland drivers licenses for French. Mine was approved and my wife’s was lost long enough for them to tell us that it was too late to exchange and she had to start over again. Now, seven years later, shehas passed the code and is taking driving lessons to be able to take the driving test. My question is, can she continue to drive our car on her unexpired Maryland drivers license while she is doing this? The driving instructor told her that it was absolutely forbidden, and she could be put in jail if she were caught. I am unclear what the ramifications are if she continues to drive.

    • Rick

      I don’t know why you would believe that any country would allow you to drive on another country’s driver’s license when you’ve been resident there for 7 years.

      My advice, especially so close to her taking the driving test, is not to risk it. Even if it’s not jail, do you really want to pay a fine, which will not be a small one?

      • I share Mr. Heiner’s advice here.
        Yes, it is rare to be controlled by the police if you do not commit any violations.
        Yes, commonly, the French police are lenient about these situations involving Americans.
        This does not offset the fact that this is a felony as you are driving without any valid license in France. The cases I am familiar with through my clients ended up having the car pounded right there and there is a hefty fine to be paid, and the money paid to get the car out of the pound.

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