Tag Archives: driving

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.


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


Rules of the Road

One could dedicate an entire Web site to driving in France but let’s start with the basic rules of the road. In future posts, we’ll cover obtaining a French drivers’ license and more road signs.

Respect Speed Limits

Autoroute: 130 km/h in dry weather; 110 km/h when it’s raining
Major divided highways: 110 km/h in dry weather; 90 km/h when it’s raining
Other roads: 90 km/h in dry weather; 80 km/h when it’s raining
Within city limits: 50 km/h
In central business districts: 30 km/h

Note: The speed limit on the Périphérique (the ring road around the city of Paris) is always 80 km /h.

Be aware that city speed limits begin at the town or city sign (not always where the first 50 km/h sign is situated), usually denoted by a white name panel with a red border, and the limit ends where the name panel has a diagonal black bar through it.

Fixed speeding cameras are usually preceded by a warning sign advising motorists that that there is a speeding camera ahead.

Radar traps are frequent in France. It is entirely possible to receive a citation through the mail because of a violation caught remotely on camera. In France, anyone caught traveling at more than 25km/h above the speed limit can have their license confiscated on the spot.

From left to right: speed limits on autoroute, radar camera ahead, speed limit, end of speed limit

Priorité à Droite

Unless otherwise marked, cars entering a roadway from the right have priority over the traffic already on the road or in the circle.   That is, the driver entering from the right does not have to stop; rather, other drivers are required to slow down and yield the joining vehicle.   Be alert for traffic entering from the right particularly while navigating large intersections and places in Paris.    In the countryside and in small villages, you will encounter situations where countryside lanes entering major routes have the priority over the main roadway.  Proper roundabouts will be marked with a sign “cedez le passage” which means entering traffic yields to the traffic in the circle.   Bottom line:  be alert to the traffic around you.

Buckle Up

French laws require mandatory use of seatbelts for both front and rear seat occupants. A driver is subject to receive penalty if he/she or the front or rear seat passengers are not buckled with a seatbelt while the car is in motion.

Keep the Kids Safe

Children under 10 are not allowed to travel in the front seat. In the rear they must use a proper restraint system appropriate to their weight, either a car seat or a booster seat as appropriate. Drivers failing to comply are subject to being cited.

Motorcyclists: Wear a Helmet

Wear a safety helmet while driving a motorcycle. Motorcyclists not wearing approved safety helmets are subject to both fines and impoundment of the vehicle at the scene. is subject to be fined.

Don’t Use Your Mobile Phone While Driving

It is illegal to use a handheld mobile phone while driving in France. Drivers caught using a handled device such as cell phone or PDA are subject to a fine. French law says that “the driver must be able to do any emergency operation at all time with his two hands.”

Don’t Drink and Drive

France has strict drunk driving laws. Driving while intoxicated — whether by alcohol, drugs, hallucinogens, sedatives or other controlled substances — is a serious violation.  The limit for alcohol is 0.50 g/ liter of blood. Drivers shown to be intoxicated by a blood alcohol or other test can be fined, a fine, have their vehicle impounded at the scene, their driving license subject to immediate suspension, and face possible jail time for 24 hours.

Carry a Warning Triangle and Vest

Drivers in France are required to have a warning triangle and a reflective vest in their cars at all times; in fact the vest should be in the car rather than in the trunk so keep it in your glove box or under a seat. The idea is that if your car breaks down, you should put on the vest before exiting your vehicle. This is a relatively recent requirement and police may be conducting random checks to ensure that you have the proper safety equipment with you.

Respect Red Lights

There is no “right on red” in France. Drivers who run red lights at intersections controlled by traffic lights are subject to citation.

Carry a Valid Drivers’ License

Carry your driving license and registration card at all times. Drivers found not to be carrying their driver’s license, registration and insurance cards while operating a car or motorcycle will be ticketed. The French police regularly set up checkpoints to screen drivers for their license and registration documents.

In Case of Breakdown, Accident or Emergency

If you are involved in or witness to an accident, keep calm and move your car to a safe place out of the way of the traffic and turn off the engine. Keep yourself safe.

The key numbers to remember are:

Police — dial 17
Fire — dial 18
Ambulance — dial 15

If you do not have a working cell phone, bear in mind that expressways and main highways have roadside emergency telephones every 2 kilometers.

If there are any injuries, inform authorities of the exact location of the accident, the number of injured persons, and the extent of their injuries. The first responders will then give you instructions. Until the first responders (including ambulances) arrive, give first aid to the best of your ability. Do not leave the scene of the accident until police officers arrive.


Aire de repos: rest stop
Allumez vos feux: Turn on your lights
Attention au feu:  Beware of traffic signal
Attention travaux:  Beware roadwork
Autre directions: Other directions
Barrière de dégel: Trucks not allowed
Chaussée déformée:  Bumpy road
Cédez le passage: Give priority to the other road
Centre ville:  Town center
Chambres d’hôtes:   Bed and Breakfast
Col:  Mountain passes
Fermé:  Closed
Gendarmerie:  Police station
Gîte:  Simple bed and breakfast
Gratuit:  Free of charge
Gravillons:  Loose chippings
Haute tension:  High voltage power line
Hors gabarit:  Road, bridge, or tunnel closed to vehicles exceeding certain dimensions
Interdit aux Piétons: No pedestrians
Nids de poules:  Potholes
Ouvert: Open
Péage:  Toll road
Rappel:  Remember
Route barrée:  Road closed
Sens unique: One-way
Serrez à droite:  Keep to the right
Sortie:  Exit
Suivre:  Follow
Sur: On
Toutes directions:  All directions
Verglas: Ice
Vitesse adaptée sécurité:  Adapt your speed for safety
Voie unique: One-lane road
Voitures: Cars