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I currently live in the US and I am moving to France. I learned to drive in the US but I am not an American citizen. This means that currently I only have an American driver's license (the only one I have ever had) which will expire soon after I leave the USA, since it's valid only for as long as I can legally stay here.

On the website of the Embassy of France in Washington, it says,

... you can take the written and driving portions of the French licensing examination after one year of residence in France.

(But please do check the context if the quote at the link!)

Does this mean that it will be impossible for me to drive in France in the first year? Is it at all possible to get a driver's license in France before having stayed there for a full year?

  • If this matters: I am an EU citizen. I do not have the possibility (time) to get a license in my own country. I never held a driving license other than my current American one. My American license is not from one of the states mentioned on the embassy site, but I don't believe this matters anyway as it will expire in less than 2 weeks after arriving to France anyway. – Kuruma Feb 8 '15 at 17:40
  • @GayotFow "You have a one year grace period to switch licenses." <-- you're referring to licenses issued by other EU countries, right? I only have an American license from a state the license of which cannot be switched over, so I know I will need to take a test. The question is: can I take the test before I spent a full year in France? – Kuruma Feb 8 '15 at 22:59
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    The French embassy site appears to be worded poorly. – Gayot Fow Feb 9 '15 at 15:14
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    Besides legal issues, the driving license training can be quite costly (minimum 1000 € if you take driving lessons), and depending where you are in France, it might take several weeks (or months) to get to the exam itself. – audionuma Feb 9 '15 at 18:58
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    @Kuruma This might be worthy of another question. It's difficult because the service running the exams is often understaffed so that most spots are booked well in advance by driving schools, who then assign them to their students. I think that some spots are set aside for people who want to take the exam independently but that's unusual in France and I am not entirely sure how it works. Also, it's important to succeed the first time because the way the spots are distributed means that people who failed once often have to wait several months before they can try again. – Gala Feb 9 '15 at 19:48
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I could not find any other reference to this one-year residence requirement anywhere so I am not sure what to think of it. My first guess was that they wrote “after one year” because they assumed people would drive with their US license during the first year anyway but it's true that the sentence seems to imply it's not possible to take the exam earlier.

Some websites (e.g. préfecture de Hautes-Pyrénées) do mention a six-month residence requirement to exchange a driving license but that's another thing entirely.

Note that the website of the French embassy to the US would be implicitly geared towards US citizens. As an EU citizen, the rules are often different. For example, you aren't even required to hold a “carte de séjour” and you certainly don't have to show one to take the exam (incidentally this page would seem to imply that it is indeed possible to pass the exam during the first year because nobody is supposed to hold a “visa long séjour valant titre de séjour validé par l'Office français de l'immigration et de l'intégration” for longer than that; after a year under such a visa, you need to apply for a “carte de séjour” instead).

  • I do think that @Gala interpretation is correct and that there's no mention of a minimum of one year residence for foreigners. – audionuma Feb 9 '15 at 18:52
  • You're right about that website being geared towards American citizens. My situation was a bit unusual in that I only ever had an American driver's license. This is a useful answer and I'm not sure anyone will be able to tell me more, so I'll accept it. But that doesn't mean that I consider the matter settles, so any additional answers will be appreciated! – Kuruma Feb 9 '15 at 19:32
  • I guess this provision is meant to enforce that you are in fact a resident, before taking up the exams. At least in the UK, if you try to get your provisional licence, then you have to provde first that you are considered a resident, for example by being in the country for more than 6 months already – SztupY Feb 10 '15 at 9:36
  • @SztupY Would having a stable address and a job be sufficient to prove residency? – Kuruma Feb 10 '15 at 21:05
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I came to France on a six-month Language Assistant visa and was able to present my Florida license and receive a French driver's license. Check the list to see if your state is included: http://www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/fr/IMG/pdf/Liste_permis_de_conduire_valables_a_l_echange_01_2014_cle8cc6c4.pdf

I don't know if being from a different country will prevent you from doing the exchange, but I would say it is worth trying. I have heard that getting a French license takes a lot of work and money. Just contact the prefecture where you are living, but do it as soon as you arrive, so that the license is still valid.

  • As I mentioned in the comments, my license is not from one of the states whose licenses can be exchanged. But even if it were, I couldn't exchange it because it's a "temporary license" for an alien, and it expires at the same time when I leave the USA. – Kuruma Apr 14 '15 at 2:36
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I was in the same situation some years ago. Eventually I gave up and went back to driving school in France and got a car and motorcycle permit. Based on what I went through I advise:

  1. Get the International Drivers Permit from the AAA. It lasts one year, in theory. Even though your license expires when you leave the US that little detail might not be so clearly marked on your international permit. (The front cover says "good for one year starting on {issue date}). So if you are actually stopped in France there's a good chance they'll just look at the date on the cover and not the text on your license that says invalid-when-this-person-leaves. Don't forget to end all sentences with "..., monsieur." while he's thumbing through your papers and considering whether you are the one he'll drag back to the "caserne" in order to fill his quota of scuzzbuckets or whether he'll wait for something better to come along.

1a. The AAA, on the other hand, might give you trouble. You will have to convince them that you intend to come back to the US or else they might refuse to issue the permit.

  1. If your permit really does become invalid don't bother trying to exchange it. The fonctionnaires (bureaucrats) who handle the paperwork are very keen on dates, unlike the gendarmes, and it is highly likely they will see it and reject your request. They won't tell you right off the bat. First they'll make you go get all relevant paperwork (the license, maybe your birth certificate) translated into French, which costs about fifty euros per page from a "traducteur assermenté" (govt. approved translator). Having obtained this expensive paperwork they will then proceed to reject it.

  2. Pay the money and get your French Driver's license. It's expensive but the exams are difficult (written and practical) and the driving schools are very good at making sure all their students pass. It is only "work" in the sense that you have to study and attend the practical lessons. They take care of all the bureaucracy. After some class instruction they run you through simulations of the written exam on computers and monitor your progress. Once they judge that you can pass they take care of everything else, you just have to show up for the exams, written and practical. I did 104 exam simulations before they judged me ready for the written exam, for example. You definitely get your money's worth. The practical part is also excellent. I already had several hundred thousand kms of experience in cars and on motorcycles but no-way would I have passed the exams without going through the driving school. Gala's comment is also correct, the driver schools scoop just about all of the exam slots and it's just about a state secret how you can take the exam without going through the schools.

Other points that are not immediately relevant to the solution I proposed, but:

  1. Don't put too much faith in what French embassy web sites say. Or even what their personnel say. They are not paid to explain how things work inside France. They may have put something on their site (et bravo if they do) but they are under no obligation to ensure that it is up to date.
  2. The départements in France handle motor vehicle issues. Their websites are much more likely to be correct. Find the web site of the préfecture (department government) you will be moving to. Even then it may not be "correct," in the sense that when you actually go there to do something it is the person handling your request who has the final say and they can contradict what is on the web site. Your best bet is to call and get a live person and ask them to confirm the details on the web site.
  3. Everything auto-related is more expensive in France than in the US. But there are other things in France that are less expensive. It's all about the Benjamins, or the Hamiltons in my case, ha ha ha.
  4. The exception to the above rule is insurance. Definitely bring all your insurance paperwork with you and shop around until you find an insurer that accepts your paperwork that proves you are an excellent driver. You won't have to translate it if it's in English, just point out the relevant phrases ("zero claims while insured with us") etc. I got wildly different quotations for the same basic car insurance based on whether the insurer took the paperwork seriously or not. Some of them won't and that's that. Just go to the next insurer.
  5. Having obtained a French license from scratch, a person can still keep and (maybe) renew their original permit.
  6. Once you have fulfilled residency requirements you can go get your license. (in your case you're an EU citizen so you've already got them) Whatever delays exist on paper are not actually enforced. Besides, it will take months to get the CdS and some more months to do all that schooling. So it will probably be a year before you get your French permit.
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    OP is an EU citizen and won't be needing a carte de séjour. – phoog Sep 22 '16 at 15:31
  • Good point. I modified the answer appropriately. – ssimm Sep 23 '16 at 7:44

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