Monday, October 14, 2013

Getting a UK Driver's License: AKA The UK's way of Getting Back at Americans for Winning our Independence

As we get closer and closer to baby boy’s due date, I’ve been feeling so much pressure to get things done. It’s exhausting because I am beyond tired and have been warned by everyone to ‘rest up while you can’, but still I know that certain tasks will become low priority or next to impossible with a newborn in tow. 

One of these tasks has been qualifying for my UK driver’s license which is a long and arduous process, and most people hit a snag somewhere along the way which pushes their timelines for achieving this way back. (For instance, on Jonathan’s initial application, he signed his name slightly out of the box so had to completely reapply.) 

I didn’t have any room for error if I wanted to become a legal driver before baby boy arrived, so over the past few months I’ve invested a lot of time and money into study materials and driving lessons to prepare me for the two qualifying exams (a written and a practical). Basically, I had to go through Driver’s Ed all over again.  Here’s a bit of an overview of the process: 

First you have to apply for your provisional license (learner’s permit). This is a scary step because it involves sending your passport away for potentially up to 4 weeks. No expat wants to be without their travel documents because you just never know when you may need to go home or travel out of the country. Technically, you have a year of eligibility to drive on your American license before you become an ‘illegal’ driver. However, because Jonathan was traveling so frequently for work and we were busy exploring Europe, we didn’t feel like we had a 4 week opportunity to be separated from our passports until after our ski trip last March. 

Once we got our provisional licenses (aka learner’s permits) we could sign up for our theory test. Usually it takes at least 3 weeks to get a test opening so I waited until after our May/June trip to the States to get this scheduled. Since we got here in May of 2012, this meant that as of May 2013 I was officially driving illegally in the UK (but I was still insured legally so it’s a bit of a loophole).   

In August I finally decided to just bite the bullet and take my theory test. I studied for 4 days straight, and despite being quite bitter about the fact that I had to answer questions on driving a manual car despite the fact that I was specifically applying for an ‘automatic’ license (yes, they differentiate  between the two), I was able to pass this step in the process. 

The theory test is broken in to two sections: 1) multiple choice questions 2)Hazard perception. For the multiple choice questions you are just supposed to answer a series of questions regarding information in the Highway manual and Road Signs booklet. There are several apps to help you adequately study for this part of the test. I paid a pretty penny for the official DSLA app and it did the trick. Most of the test questions were identical to ones on the practice tests. 

The problem is with the Hazard Perception test. During this section, you are supposed to click on the mouse every time you see a hazard appear on a simulation screen. However, if you click too early, you don’t get any points and if you click too often, you automatically get a zero for that particular scenario. Despite there being many potential hazards in each instance, there is only one or two that you’re actually being scored on. It’s all very subjective, but I managed to pass with pretty high marks so I want rant too much on this. Here is a video to give you a glimpse of the hazard perception portion. 
Once you pass your Theory test you are given a code to sign up for your ‘practical’ test. This one is the real doozy and I would say that MOST people have to take it at least twice before passing. I’ve known several drivers who are way better than me have had to take it twice. The big issue is that it costs about $100 every time you take it and it also takes about 6 weeks to get in for a retake. 

I was under a lot of pressure to pass the first time around because the earliest test date I could get was October 9th, exactly 2 weeks before my due date.  I knew that if I didn’t pass, I wouldn’t have time to retake it before getting swallowed up by motherhood. 

I hired an instructor, Gary Laing, for lessons and over about an 8 hour span in the past 3 weeks, he slowly broke me of my ‘American’ driving habits. It’s quite a patronizing experience after driving without incident for 15 years to have to be ‘taught’ to drive correctly, especially since the British driving standards are impossibly high.

The driving test lasts for about 30-40 minutes in which you drive around with an examiner while they observe you. I was super nervous. During the test you have to complete one of 4 maneuvers of the examiner's choice: parallel park, reverse into a ‘bay’ (parking space), reverse into a side road, or a 3 point turn in the road. 

I would say that my skill level ranks these tasks: 1) 3 point turn 2) reverse into a bay 3) parallel park 4) reverse into a side road. Well, OF COURSE, I got reverse into a side road and as soon as I started the maneuver, it started hailing outside and I had zero visibility. My hands were sweaty and midway through the turn, my sunglasses fell off of the top of my head onto my neck and I had to stop and remove them. 

I’m sure my examiner thought I was a total spaz, but my baby bump must have won some sympathy points because despite some mistakes and misjudgments on my part, she PASSED me! Woohoo!  

I am now legal to drive in the UK. It is such a relief to have that whole fiasco behind me and it really does feel like being initiated into some bizarre sorority. All of us Americans who have gone through the hazing ridiculousness of the UK driving licensing process feel quite bonded to one another. After my test, I headed to lunch with a few of the AWA ladies and as soon as I stepped into the restaurant they started whooping and hollering in congratulations. It was quite the scene. Later in the week, my British friends James and Tash even got me a congratulatory card for passing. 
It’s seriously like a rite of passage here in the Kingdom. All in all, it cost about $700  in the form of processing fees, exam costs, and driving lessons (most of which Jon's company reimburses us for) and I put in about 30 hours total of study time. 
But still, it’s nice to have my driving skills validated after 15 years on the road. Sheesh….

 P.S. One of the things that still angers me about American citizens not being able to automatically exchange their US license for a UK license is the list of countries that can. For instance, our Canadian, Australian, and European friends don't have to jump through these hoops, despite having vastly different driving rules than the UK. In fact, here are a list of countries in which immigrants can exchange their driving license for a UK license, not including all countries in the European Union:
Andorra, Australia, Barbados, British Virgin Islands, Canada, Faroe Islands, Falkland Islands, Gibraltar, Hong Kong, Japan, Monaco, New Zealand, Republic of Korea, Singapore, South Africa, Switzerland, Zimbabwe.

That last one cracks me up. I don't know if any of you have ever been to Zimbabwe, but I have...
and the driving standards are definitely not equivalent to those in the UK. But I digress...Alls well that ends well and I am just happy to be a legal driver!!


  1. Congratulations! I have read on many expat blogs over the past several months about the hassles Americans have to go through to get their license over here. I don't really understand it. Being Canadian, I am SO glad I don't have to go through it, but I would still like to read the materials and maybe even take a driving course before I start driving over here because it is very different. Again, congratulations and looking forward to news of baby boy!

    1. You are so lucky that you can just swap out your Canadian license! But it is still worth reading over the driving rules and road signs because they aren't very intuitive. I have several friends that take a driving lesson or two right when they get here just to learn the rules of the road. I wish I had done that!

    2. I think that will be my plan when we get a car! Thanks!

  2. Congratulations! I have read on many expat blog over the past several months about the difficulties Americans have getting their license over here. I don't really understand it. I am SO glad, being Canadian, that I don't have to go through all of that, but I would like to read some materials and maybe even take a short driving course before driving here as it is so different. Again, congratulations and looking forward to hearing about baby boy!

  3. I know your pain! I too have been/seen how bad the people of Zimbabwe drive, that's shocking!!!

  4. Congratulations! I'm so proud! Those Brits have to get back at us somehow...