The Route to a French Drivers’ License

You may be terrified at the thought of driving in Paris.   Some people manage quite well without ever getting behind the wheel.  But eventually you may find that your kids’ activities, your work assignments, or even vacation plans require some driving.  You don’t have to drive around the Etoile but you do need to know the requirements for driving legally.

If you’re a tourist, your home country license and an international driving permit are valid during your vacation.   And if you’ve moved to France, you can continue to drive legally for one year on your home country documents.   (The year begins from the date on your carte de séjour.)  Some authorities suggest that you get an official translation of your foreign driver’s license but frankly, I’ve never heard of anyone having this done.

After one year, you can only drive legally and continue coverage with your auto insurance company if you have a French driver’s license.    If you are a resident of one of the 14 states in the U.S. listed below, you are in luck because you can actually exchange your existing license for a French license.  (These states have an agreement with the French government to issue U.S. permits to French citizens living in those states.)  The states are:  Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Virginia.  If you don’t live in these states and you don’t want to go through the hassle of getting a French license otherwise, you might think about getting a license in one of these states before you become a resident of France. The residence requirements for getting a driver’s license in some states is very loose and in the long run, this can save you a lot of time and money.

Residents of the Canadian provinces of Quebec, New Brunswick, Ontario, and Newfoundland can also exchange their licenses.  If you have a valid driver’s license from another EU country, this is also recognized as legally valid.

The exchange process is handled by the préfecture of police and like many other administrative processes, can take awhile. The sooner you start, the better. According to the U.S. embassy Web site, you will need to have the following documents:

  • a form to request the driver’s license (available at the préfecture).
  • your U.S. or Canadian driver’s license with sworn translation in French. (For married women, if maiden name or married name does not appear on the driver’s license, a statement or official document showing both names is required.) Some préfectures may also require a “notarized translation” done in the form of a sworn affidavit.  American citizens may obtain this at the consular section of the U.S. Embassy by appointment only for a $30 fee, or the euro equivalent; each additional seal provided at the same time in connection with the same transaction will cost $20, or the euro equivalent. For information on notarial and authentication services at the U.S. Consulate in Paris please refer to: http://france.usembassy.gov/usc_notarial.html.
  • proof of current address such as statement of domicile, electricity bill or rent receipt.
  • your carte de séjour with photocopy of both sides.
  • two French passport size photographs.

Students generally are permitted to use their home country driver’s license for the duration of their studies. 

If you are not a resident of one of these states or provinces nor a student or if you decide to act after the one year window, then you will need to pass both written and behind the wheel driving tests.

For the written test, you sit in front of a slide show which is basically a picture of a scene outside of a windshield of a car.  There are typically 40 multiple choice questions, often very tricky,  in French.   If you don’t speak French very well, you can ask for the help of a translator.  (Check on the details about translators before you sit for the test:  one source suggests that a friend or a relative can actually serve as your translator; others indicate that you have to use a translator from your prefecture’s list.) 

Once you pass the written exam, you can take a driving exam with a French examiner.  You drive around for about 30 minutes, perform two maneuvers (for example, parallel parking), and answer two basic questions about the inside and outside of the car (for example, showing where the hazard lights are).   The driving exam must be completed with a dual command car.   As a result,  you will have to go through a driving school (auto ecole).    Fair warning:  the price of driving school can be quite steep.

Once you’ve passed,you will have a probationary license valid for three years with six points, half the number of a regular license.  If all goes well, and no points are deducted during the three year period, you will receive a full-fledged license with 12 points and no expiration date.

 Resources

The fine print for U.S. citizens driving in Paris  (from U.S. embassy Paris Web site)

A personal story with lots of details from Jennie en France:  http://www.ielanguages.com/license.html

Study materials for the exams (in English) courtesy of the Webs site, Americans in France

The one Paris area driving school everyone always mentions because they cater to English speakers

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23 responses to “The Route to a French Drivers’ License

  1. I wasn’t aware that Florida was one of those states. How fortunate for me…..if I ever get lucky enough to live in France.

  2. Your post mentions that you can have “a friend or relative serve as your translator” for the written portion of the test. Could you give me the source of this information? When I asked this at the offices on bd Ney, where they handle requests for permis de conduire, they said that anyone who did not speak French had to use one of their (paid) translators. It could not be someone the test-taker “just brought in”.

    I’d love to be able to point them to where you got your information, if only to show them!

    Thanks.

    • Emma: Thanks for reading and raising this point. That information came from the U.S. embassy Web site. When I looked at the French government site, I couldn’t find anything about translation at all! Anybody else have a clue?

  3. You can use an interpreter, but it definitely has to be from their list of certified interpreters (otherwise, how could they be sure your friend/relative wouldn’t just give you the answers??).

    Something else to note is that there have recently been a lot of drivers license reforms – the most important one being that they have decided to make the impossibly difficult written test EASIER. They’ve also made the driving portion easier as well – so if you’ve been putting it off all these years, now’s the time to start studying!!

  4. Forgot to add – if you already have a drivers license from another country, you don’t need to do the 30 hours of required driving lessons, which, at 30-40€ per hour, lightens the total cost considerably.

    I paid almost exactly 300€ total – which may seem expensive to an American, but it’s actually not too bad of a deal when you consider that the average person pays between 1000-1500€!!

    • Thanks, ksam, for this information! Would be share where you took your code classes?

      Emma

      • I took them at an auto-école in Bretagne. If you are nervous about signing up, I’d recommend buying one of the practice test DVDs from any big supermarket. They will help you get comfortable with the exam format, plus the more tests you can do the better your chances are of passing!

  5. Thanks for the post. Are they strict about getting the US license before the date on your residency visa? What if you renew your license after the date for example?

    • Christine: I can’t say for certain because everyone tends to have a somewhat different experience. But I would say that French bureaucrats take their jobs seriously so don’t expect to get cut any slack. If you do, count yourself lucky!

  6. Charlie McDermott

    Just got back from my second attempt to exchange my Japanese license for a French license (I am a US citizen with almost no French language ability). Here is a quick account of where I’m at so far that you can integrate into the information above, if you’d like:
    I live in Paris. I went to the Prefecture of Police HQ and they sent me to:

    92 Boulevard Ney 2nd Floor 75116. Metro Line 4 terminates at Porte de Clignancourt. Exit at the Bd. Ney exit and it’s about 2 blocks down.

    There is a date-window for applying for the exchange. It starts 6 months after you finally receive your Carte de Sejour. And it closes (firmly, I’m told) on the one year anniversary of your Carte de Sejour.

    I needed: Attestation from my Passport country that I lived in my License country (or state) for at least six months; Electric Bill or other proof of residence in France with copy; 4 passport pictures; Passport with copy of my picture/issue page; Carte de Sejour with copy (mine is affixed to my Passport); Cerfa n°11247 which can be downloaded, but they wanted me to fill out their carbonized copy; certified translation of my drivers license; copy of my drivers license, front and back. I am confident my next trip will be successful.

  7. Hi Charlie, Thanks for the info. Where do you get an attestation from your licensed country that you lived there for at least 6 months? And does that have to be lived there recently or just in your entire life?! Thank you! Christine

    • Charlie McDermott

      Christine,

      First, I need to correct the Arrondissement I listed in my post. It’s not the 16th, its the 18th.

      You get the attestation from your “Passport Country” since, in theory, they are the only ones who can decipher the stamps in your passport, since they are the ones who issued it. So in my case, that would be the American Embassy, consular notary section. My theory is the Embassy must attest that you lived in your “Drivers License Country” for at least 6 months during the time your Drivers License was issued by that country i.e. some people fly to a country that has easy drivers license rules and get one on a weekend. The French don’t want to exchange a license for those people.

  8. Hi Charlie,
    Have you success with the paper?
    I have chinese passport, Japanese license, now live in paris. I went to the Ney office 5 times already, last time they told me aslo need attestation from my Passport country that I lived in my License country then. But I called chinese embassy in paris they said they can not attestate my residency in japan…… what am i going to do?
    Thanks a lot in advance for your reply

  9. Charlie McDermott

    Bei,

    Sorry, I haven’t tried yet. I have until the end of this month and I’m a ‘last-minute’ type person, especially on bureaucratic matters.

    Can’t speak for the Chinese embassy, but if you go there in person, you might be able to get them to attest that their reading of the entry/exit stamps that the immigration guy at the Japanese airports put into THEIR passport indicates that you were in Japan from Date1 until Date2. They don’t need to attest to your residency, just the time that THEIR passport indicates you were present in that country.

    I don’t trust bureaucrats, many tend to be lazy. They also realize that if they say NO then they have less work and no risk. So I would type up my own version of the “attestation” and ask them to read it, double check it against your passport entry/exit stamps, and then sign a paragraph that it is true and correct.

    Good luck.

  10. Hi Charlie,
    If you have ever sucessed, please let me know.

    I had a lot of international business trip from my job in Japan, there are about 40 stamps on my passports(changed passport 2 times since it was full of visa and stamps) in those 4 years period, really not sure any officer is going to be that much patient to read information out of those , given the fact none of stamp was from their authority.

    Actually one suggestion from paris embassy now is asking me to contact chinese embassy in Japan for that paper. I have still two and half months to go before deadline, hopefully I can make it.

    You may need to be careful too, since the deadline for exchangement will be really strict dated, and you need go to full test for french license after, in case you need to have paper from US embassy in Japan not Paris, that will take time I assume…

    Anyway, await for your good news.

  11. Charlie McDermott

    Well, I went back for my 3rd time. At the reception, there are two people, a black woman and a young Caucasian male. The male is very friendly, speaks no English, and doesn’t seem to be terribly interested in getting this transaction completed. Even though he had written in his own hand the additional materials I needed, he saw no irony in writing a new requirement: I need a translation of my Japan Residence Certificate.

    It appears that I may not have needed the “Attestation” from my Passport Embassy after all. I think he indicated that was merely a translation of my Japanese drivers license, a document I already had.

    So, if you have a copy of your “Gaijin Toroku Sho” translated, that may be all you need to prove to him that you were, in fact, in Japan for a period of time when you got your Japanese drivers license.

    Next time I go, if I get him, I’ll shuffle my papers as if I’m missing something and let the person behind me go. I think I’ll fare better with the woman.

  12. Hi Charlie,
    You are right, and I came with the same thought, even though my Gaijin Toroku Sho was returned when I left Japan, I do have a resicency registration paper from local Shiyaksho which I made for other purpose but did not use. In last week I got this paper translated by official Japanese-French translator who did my driver license translation already. And yesterday I went the 6th times with this last translated paper, it works!!! The lady just asked to check the original paper once more.
    Finally they accepted all my papers and told me they started to produce my French license, I just need to wait their letter at home and then come back to pick up the license, it will be in about a month time.
    Uulalalala, finally….
    So it is true the official translation of resicency certification is fine, no need passport embassy attestation.
    By the way, the people work in the reception counter is not the one for final check, they are just there for first check and give you the waiting number, then you wait for the real interview after. My first 4 times I was sent back by the reception people directly since they told me each time one more document needed, and the 5th time the reception guy was ok after his check and had gave me the waiting number, but after I waited two and half hours in the hall, the final interview lady told me I still need that one more “attestation paper”…
    This time it took aobut 20 minutes and everything was done. Seems you will have less queue if you arrive about 3:30pm, between 12pm-2pm the queue is quite long.
    Hope you will have good luck soon.

    Best Regards.
    Bei

  13. Charlie McDermott

    Bei,

    Congratulations.

    I must have been at the office the same day you were there because I also had the same experience. The people at the front are only ‘gate-keepers’. Once you can get past them, you’re in the clear. The black woman I mentioned in my earlier post just looked at my packet and asked me if I had everything (I think she remembered me from my meeting with her colleague earlier). I said ‘yes’ and she gave me a number. So now I, like you, am waiting for the letter in the mail for the pick-up date. Glad this ordeal is almost over!

  14. Hi Charlie,
    Congratuations to you too!
    Yes, glad it is finally done.
    Enjoy the spring of Paris,
    Cheers!
    Bei

  15. Can anyone recommend a company or person that is a certified translator? I need to have my driving transcript translated from English to French. Thanks.

  16. I had good service from celine.normier@sfr.fr
    She is a certified translator in the 10th arrondissement.
    I don’t remember what I paid.

    Good luck.
    Charlie

  17. Thanks, Charlie!

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