Driving is most definitely not seen as a right in Germany, but as a privilege that is granted only after one proves they are responsible, safe and aware of those around them on the road. Becoming certified is expensive; you can count on spending about €2000 to become certified to drive. The tests (theoretical and practical) are tough and can take multiple days. There are also vision tests, First Aid certificates, types of mandatory lessons (night time, country roads, etc.) that may be required. All of this can be done through a local driving school. Around here, I’ve seen many of these schools and learner cars on the road; I’m not sure if that’s because it’s a popular business here or if that’s just standard around the country.
But, you may be one of the lucky ones who does not have to go through the entire process. There are reciprocal agreements between certain states and Germany that allow for a simple exchange of licenses. This is not uniform across all 50 states, some licenses will allow you to skip just the theoretical portion of the exam and others the practical. Being a license holder from Virginia, I was lucky to skip both. Here’s where you can find the list of participating states. While you can continue to use your home driver’s license for up to 6 months, you must get a new license after that time. The exception to this is if you know you will be here less than a year, then you can apply for an extension. I knew I would be here longer than 6 months, and possibly longer than a year, so I went ahead and went through the exchange.
First, unlike the states, you can make an appointment at the “DMV” (Fahrerlaubnisbehörde)! This was very exciting for me. Go here to make your appointment in Wiesbaden. If you choose not to make an appointment, that’s ok because you can still show up to the waiting area and take a number. I also emailed the department before to inquire about the official documentation I would need (I also told them I held a VA license). This is what they sent:
The items marked with an X are what I needed to bring and they were
- My resident permit
- 1 passport photo (done in the German style)
- An official translation of my American license
- My current driver’s license
- My Anmeldung for Wiesbaden
- Money, €42,60
I didn’t have #2 or #3 so I tackled the more time consuming item of getting my license translated. I used a company called ADAC because after some research it turns out their translations are most widely accepted. ADAC is a pretty great company and we’re considering adding them to our insurance; they’re basically supplemental insurance for both inside and outside Germany. The translation was €55 because I was not an ADAC member and it takes a week to get back (it actually took 10 days, because they misspelled an item on the translation, but I just changed my appointment at the Fahrerlaubnisbehörde for a different day).
The passport photos must be done in the German style and can be done at most photo studios; there are quite a few of these in Wiesbaden. They’re about €15 for a set of 4.
The day of the appointment, I went into the waiting room at the Fahrerlaubnisbehörde (find it here) and waited for my number to be called. When I received my confirmation email, the number was included so no need to take a ticket. There are screens like the DMVs in VA that show which office or counter to go to when your number is called. Once in the office, the lady knew the reason I was there (I’m guessing because of the online booking) so it was fairly quick. She typed up a form with my exchange request, took photocopies of my resident permit, took one passport photo, photocopied the translation and then I signed the application she printed. She also said I couldn’t keep my Virginia license; I had read you could request to keep your foreign license so I politely said I required it for my job, as it had my US address on it. We went back and forth a bit but she finally let me keep it. She told me my new license would be ready for pickup in two weeks and to not make an appointment.
When I came back, I needed my passport to prove my identity. When my number was called, I went back to the same office and received my license. However, the new lady was very strict on the point of surrendering my VA license. She asked to see it and would go speak to her manager. When she came back, she of course didn’t have it and said there was no option, I could not carry both licenses. Whether or not this is true in all cases, I couldn’t much about keeping mine. She also went over the types of vehicles I’m allowed to drive and the process for adding on different class vehicles. I was interested in this because I sometimes have to drive the mini-bus for the crew club. Turns out, that mini-bus is in the regular car class so no adjustment necessary (though when it comes time to drive the trailer that will be another story).
German/EU driving licenses are not considered valid forms of ID in Germany and so your passport (or EU citizenship card) must be carried at all times. They also do not have your address on them, so they do not need to be updated every time you move.
You may have heard of the International Driving Permit, issued by State Department and AAA. This is not a driving license, it is a translated form of your home license and must be carried with you along with the license. Having just the permit with you while driving is not valid. I did get one of these while still in Alexandria, it cost me $15 and I just walked in to my local AAA (located on Eisenhower Ave.) to have it done. It stays in our car and even though I don’t need it anymore, it’ll stay there till it expires, just in case. It will be good in most of the other countries we’ll drive to and is valid around the world.
I am not familiar with this process for other non-EU nationals, however I would recommend looking to your home embassy for information first, as I wasn’t able to find much information from Germany (I’ll admit, I wasn’t looking very hard). Soon I’ll be posting about the Autobahn and what it’s not, as well as other interesting driving differences (not a lot of stop signs at intersections here, can be a bit scary.)