And while I am stoked to have the opportunity to legally operate a car here.. I’m actually quite terrified to do so.
Because I’m that American: the one that can’t parallel park, doesn’t have any real experience with a manual transmission, likes wide lanes, has never parked on a sidewalk, etc.
But, I’ll get used to it, right?
Ah, well, the first step to getting comfortable with German driving rules and etiquette is actually being allowed to legally drive. So, we’re starting there.
Unfortunately, a “here’s how an American gets a German drivers license” official document does not exist. I did a lot of internet research and combed the Toytown forums for advice.
The first and most important thing is to determine the reciprocity agreement your home state (the state that has issued your driver’s license) has with Germany. For a list, see here.
Florida only has partial reciprocity, so I must take a written (theoretical) test. Luckily, this is available in English, and I’ll be using an online study guide with actual English-version test questions.
If I was from a state that had NO reciprocity agreement, I would be required to take a practical test as well. Germans learn to drive at driving school (Fahrschule), not at home with mom and pop. Fahrschule costs thousands of euros, but if you don’t do it, you won’t pass the test. If I found myself in this situation, I wouldn’t bother getting a license. It could cost me as much to obtain a license as it would to purchase a cheap used car!
But, I’m willing to try my hand at the written test (particularly since I can take it in English). So, based on what I found in the forums, I determined I needed the following documents.
Passport and residency visa. If you’re here in Germany for less than 6 months, your US driver’s license is valid. If you’ll be staying for more than 6 months but less than 1 year, you can apply to extend the validity for an additional 6 months. After that, US licenses must be converted to German licenses. Or, you can just take the train instead!
Valid US driver’s license. I’ve seen some comments here and there in the forums mentioning that licenses must have been issued at least one year ago. This is to prevent residents from going around the reciprocity agreements (see above). Mine says it was issued in 2008, even though this is a renewal date, not when I first received my license.
Official translation of your US driver’s license. My neighbor paid 35 euros for the translation of her license, but the price has now jumped to 55 euros. It’s a complete rip-off, but you must have a translation with an official stamp. No asking your German friend to “translate” for you!
Passport photo. I was told this had to be “biometric,” but I just used one of my free passport photos with no problem. I have not seen any specifications as to how recent the photo must be, so I used an older one that doesn’t show my pregnancy face. Note: a German driver’s license is issued for LIFE so make sure to like the photo you submit!
Eye test. Any Optiker or Augenarzt can give you this test. Bring your passport and about 7 euro. If you fail the test, it’s possible the equipment is old and fuzzy. Try another place before freaking out at how expensive glasses in Deutschland are. Don’t ask me how I have this advice. Just go with it.
Proof of First Aid Class attendance. This one is a toss-up and might depend on which German state you live in and who collects your paperwork. German drivers are normally required to take a first aid class that teaches life saving techniques. I hoped and prayed that I would not have to take this class! It’s only offered once per month, on a Saturday, and it’s 6 hours of instruction… in German. If you have to do this, it costs about 20 euro. I was not asked for proof of attendance, and I hope it’s the last I hear of this requirement.
Application. I found this online, and filled it out in advance. It’s shockingly short – only one page. For the pleasure of applying, I had to pay 35 euro.
I took all my required papers to the local driver’s license office (Führerscheinstelle). The woman was refreshingly polite and understanding of my limited German skills. She took all of my paperwork, and asked me to fill out a declaration. What exactly I was declaring, I’m still not sure. My understanding is that I was affirming the authenticity of my license (that I didn’t manufacture it myself or buy it on the street), but it could also be stating that my license is still legal and valid.
Luckily, I was prepared to not receive a new license immediately. For Americans, this is quite strange. But, she reminded me of my required written test, and asked me to call her in 2-3 weeks. If all my paperwork is in order, I’ll be approved to take the test. Only then can I make an appointment with the testing agency. After I pass, I must take proof back to her, and then my license will be issued.
So, here’s to 2-3 weeks of studying German driving laws! Stay tuned for an update on the test and all the subsequent hoops I must hop, skip, and jump through in order to be legal on the streets in Germany.