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.
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