Your American licence is exchangeable for a French one if it is from one of the following states: Delaware, Maryland, Ohia, Pennsylvania, Virginia, South Carolina, Massachussets, New Hampshire, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado, Florida, and Connecticut (please note this list can change at any time). If you think your state may be eligible but is not on this list, then call your local Préfecture or sous Préfecture or French embassy/consulate and tell them where your licence is from and they will tell you if it is exchangeable.
If you do have a licence from one of the states I listed, you have one year from the date you entered France: the date stamped on your passport or Carte de Séjour, to make the exchange. If you wait more than a year, or if your state is not on the list,well… you will need to get a French licence the hard way. It is a nuisance and expensive to get a French licence from scratch. Here is the basic process, as experienced by Jeff Steiner.
Find a driving school
There are some schools in Paris that have classes in English. I would not suggest doing this as those schools that teach in English are very expensive. You need a basic knowledge of French to pass the written test. You can get a translator at your own expense, because the test is in French, the translator will not help you with answers, he just translates the questions and multiple choice answers for you.
When you sign-up with your driving school you pay a flat fee for the written test.. Then you pay by the lesson for the practical. If you speak to the driving school ahead of time, you may find that they will be able to exempt you from the requirement of a minimum of 20 hours of practical lessons, and reduce it to just a few sessions to familiarise yourself on the main differences in the rules of the road.
The written test is made up of forty multiple choice questions. You have thirty seconds to answer each and must get 35 or more right to pass. What I found the hardest about the written test, was that more than one answer could be correct on some of the multiple choice questions. This along with the fact that some questions are in two parts, makes the written test in reality longer than forty questions.
Your driving school will give you a textbook for the written test that explains, if that is possible, the French driving code. All of your in class preparation for the written test consists of taking a practice test and then going over the test question by question, with the instructor. The practice tests have the same type questions, only harder, as the real test with the same time constrains. It usually takes a little over a month, on average, to get ready for the written test. The school has self teaching CD ROMs during the day and classes at night. Some schools have classes through out the day with no CD ROMs. There are practise tests available online.
In France, it’s not like in the states, where you can choose the test location. Your school is given exam dates that it then gives to the students. Sometimes if demand is great, schools only have dates every few weeks.
If you get frustrated at times with studying for the written test, just remember that the actual test is easer than the practice tests.
It is possible to study on your own for the written test, although few people choose this route.
If this is the part you think will be the easiest, think again. It took nine one hour lessons before I was “ready” for my driving test. That was with already driving for fifteen years! French driving schools make most of their money from driving lessons. Mine were about $30 apiece, so in no time you will have spent a few hundred dollars.
The test lasts about twenty minutes: you may be asked to parallel park, go through a few intersections that are yield right, drive on the highway, just about anything that you might do driving. As with the written, the driving test is not as hard as your instructor will make it out to be. My instructors where very strict, you had to do everything just so. For example when you change lanes, you need to look in your mirror, look over you shoulder, then look in the mirror again. Also you need to be constantly looking in your mirrors, about every ten seconds, so you know what’s behind you. Your instructor will nitpick like crazy, it will not be nice. One thing that I found really frustrating was the fact that I was told to forget a lot of what I learned in studying for the written test. Another thing that I find frustrating and my wife will attest to this, is that no one drives like they are taught in France.
You are going to spend a few months, it took me three, to get a French licence. Then you will see on a daily basis drivers running red lights, driving way over the speed limit and other infractions.
•With thanks to Jeff Steiner
Photo by EUTouring via Flickr