STEVE AND CAROLE IN VENCE

Obtaining A French Driver’s License

July 30, 2020

Before I start with my story let me say three things:

  1. Obtaining a French driver’s license has been, by far, the most difficult, stressful, time-consuming and just overall maddening thing I have needed to do since moving to France. Way more difficult than obtaining a visa. Way more difficult than obtaining a Carte Vitale and health insurance. If you need to go through this process I wish you nothing but the best. And, you have my sincere sympathies.
  2. The fact that some U.S. states have a “reciprocal” driver’s license agreement with France and some don’t is just utter nonsense. What this means is that if you live in, say for instance, Kentucky, you can simply fill out a form, provide some documents and exchange your U.S. driver’s license for a French one. Easy-peasy (well, relatively). If you live in, say for instance, Tennessee (right next to Kentucky) you can NOT exchange your license. Tennessee does NOT have a reciprocal agreement with France though Kentucky does. You have to apply for and take two tests: a written test and a practical test. It’s absurd. There should either be an agreement that ALL U.S. driver’s licenses are exchangeable or NONE of them are. The fact that some yahoo from Kentucky (who may in fact be a terrible driver) can just exchange their license, knowing absolutely nothing about French road and driving laws, and I have to take a written test, a practical test, hours of driving lessons and more makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.
  3. This is a long, detailed account of what I had to do to get my French driver’s license. Some of you may simply be interested in the story and what’s involved. If, however, you are in the same boat and need to apply for a license it may be helpful to you and it may also help alleviate some concerns and anxiety associated with the process.

Some Background

Carole and I arrived in France on May 30, 2019. In France you are allowed to drive on your American driver’s license for one year, after which you must have obtained a French driver’s license. However, you can’t even apply for a French driver’s license until you’ve been here for six months. So, that meant I could apply after November 30. I had the best intentions. Really, I did. I went out the first week of December and bought two books, Le Code de la Route Rousseau and Tests de la Route Rousseau. The first is a book with all the rules and laws you need to study up on. The second is a book with practice tests. Both, of course, are in French. Note: I’m told that it is possible to purchase an English edition of Le Code de la Route, but I don’t know how easy it is to come by.

Steve and Carole in Vence - Obtaining a French Drivers License
The two books I bought.

I had the books, now I just needed to start studying. Well, you know how that goes. December came and went with all the holiday stuff. I didn’t do any studying. January came and went, I kept putting it off. Same for February. In March I knew I had to get it together and start studying and begin the process of making my application. I figured I had three months, that should be plenty. What could go wrong? COVID-19, that’s what! So, by the time we came out of lockdown on May 11th I was only three weeks away from needing a French driver’s license. I started to panic a little. And then wasted another week. Sheesh.

I asked online if anyone knew whether the one year deadline had been extended due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as had many other deadlines. Someone replied, “Yes, of course. You can’t be expected to meet the deadline since all the official offices were closed for almost two months.” That made me feel a bit better, but I wanted some “official” notice, in writing, on a website that said just that. I found something that seemed to say that, but it was a bit ambiguous. It looked to be the closest I was going to get though, so I took it on faith that I was OK driving on my Tennessee license until mid-August.

ANTS

Steve and Carole in Vence - Obtaining a French Drivers License
The ANTS website where you go to sign up for a French driver’s license.

On Monday, May 18th I finally got going. I started by opening an account on the ANTS website. ANTS is “Agence Nationale des Titres Sécurisés” and they handle all the requests to obtain a driver’s license in France. Opening an account was quick and easy. I simply filled out a short form, they sent me an email to make sure I was really a person, I replied to that email and added a password to my account. Voila, I was in!

The next step was to apply for a driver’s license. In reality what you are applying for is the ability to take the test for a driver’s license. There was a pretty straightforward form to fill out. That said, I ran into two problems which I ended up asking for help with on Facebook. The first was the kind of license I wanted. There were checkboxes for motorcycles, cars, trucks and buses. Well, I knew I wanted a car, but there were three additional options:

  • B1
  • B
  • BE

No idea which option I wanted. Was told that I wanted “B” as that is a regular car. Apparently B1 is some kind of heavy duty four wheeled motorcycle and BE is a car with a trailer. So, I checked “B.” Then they wanted to know what kind of “training course” I wanted to follow:

  • traditional
  • early learning to drive (AAC)
  • take supervised driving training

I was pretty sure it was “traditional,” but I didn’t want to mess anything up, so I checked with folks on Facebook and yes, it was traditional.

Finally I came to a section requiring a digital photo and digital signature. Turns out there is a photo shop just a few doors down from me that offers this service for 9€, so off I went. The kind man took my photo, had me sign on a digital board and then printed out a small sheet with four copies of the photo, my signature, and most importantly, an identification number. Back I went to my apartment where I entered the number and I was done.

Steve and Carole in Vence - Applying For A French Drivers License
My official, digital photograph.

I received two emails and two identical text messages, just a few minutes apart.

Votre demande en ligne de permis de conduire est enregistrée, et sera controlée avant instruction par les services de l’Etat.

Your online driver’s license application is registered, and will be checked before instruction by the state services.

And then,

Votre demande en ligne de permis de conduire a été transmise au services de l’Etat pour instruction.

Your online driver’s license application has been sent to the state services for instruction.

So then I had to wait. And study. To apply to actually take the written portion of the test I needed a NEPH number. Once my application was reviewed and approved I would receive such number and could then apply to take the test. Most folks said it would take two to three weeks to get that number. Not ideal considering my driver’s license would only be good for two more weeks (unless the extension was really valid), but nothing I could do. I even read a few horror stories about it taking up to three months! All I could do at that point was wait. And study. And study some more.

The very next day I received a text and an email from the ANTS website. At first I was quite excited, thinking that my application had been approved. But, no. They needed more information. As proof of identity I had sent them the ID page from my passport. Apparently what they now wanted was proof that I was an actual resident of France. So I sent them back the Visa page from my passport. And waited.

Steve and Carole in Vence - Applying For A French Drivers License
The email saying I needed to send more information.

After hearing nothing for five days I went online to check my application. Unfortunately, they wanted still more information. It was a good thing I had checked because this time I did NOT receive an email or a text requesting more information. My Visa page was not good enough. Now they wanted a copy of my “certificate of residence permit or the OFII sticker which is on your passport.” Well, there is no “OFII sticker” on my passport, they stopped doing this shortly before we arrived. So, I sent back a copy of two documents I had received from OFII when I went for my appointment:

  • Confirmation de la validation de l’enregistrement de votre visa long séjour valant titre de séjour
  • Certificat de Controle Medical

The very next day I received an email and a text saying that my application had been approved! So, exactly one week, even with two delays for not providing the correct information. I was able to login to my account online and get my NEPH number, which is what you need to apply to take the code test.

Applying to Take The Code Test

Now that I had a NEPH number I could apply to take the written part of the test, the “code.” I went to the website for those interested in applying as a “free candidate.” A big notice informed me that as of May 13th, all tests, both written and practical, had been cancelled. Now what? I checked with the Facebook group Applying for a French Driving License and Kim (the moderator) said I should check with one of the testing agencies just to be sure.

So, I opened another account, this time with the service-public.fr website. I then answered a few questions about my age and nationality so that I could get specific instructions. I was told that as a “foreigner over the age of 25” I needed a NEPH number. OK, no problem, I have that. There was a link to register as a free candidate at an approved examination center. Following that I was presented with a choice to register with one of five companies authorized to give the written test: La Poste, SGS, Pearson Vue, Bureau Veritas, Dekra. Most people I had seen on the web had recommended La Poste, so I went with that. The closest centers to me are in Nice, Carros, Antibes and Grasse. To an American it’s a bit odd that these written tests are administered at several private agencies. In the U.S. this would all be handled via your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles (or the equivalent).

Steve and Carole in Vence - Applying For A French Drivers License
The Service-Public.fr website where I went to register to take the written exam.

I chose the Carros center, registered for a date about two weeks in the future and paid 30€. Why two weeks? Well I needed to get this done as quickly as possible but I also needed to give myself enough time to study and actually pass the test. Two weeks seemed like a good sweet spot. I received a “Convocation” with all the information, and instructions to print this and bring it with me. Kim, from Applying for a French Driving License, said to make sure and print the two page convocation double sided, not on separate pages, as they would reject that at the center when I showed up. Good to know!

Studying

I had two weeks to study. There were a couple of resources recommended online and after doing some research I decided to use Ornikar. For a price of 30€ (very reasonable in my opinion) they provided tons of information, including practice tests. I decided to jump right in and take a few practice tests to see how well I did. It didn’t go so well.

Steve and Carole in Vence - Applying For A French Drivers License
The Ornikar website.

On my first test I only got 26 correct answers. You need at least 35 (out of 40) to pass. So, clearly I had a lot of work to do. At this point I would say that about half the questions I missed were because I just didn’t know the correct answer and about half were because I didn’t understand the question. They are, of course, in French, and my French is improving, but it’s still not that great.

The test is said to be “multiple choice.” But, it’s not. Not really. Yes, there are technically 40 questions, each with four possible answers (usually), but many of the questions have two parts, each with two possible answers. And you don’t get a half a point if you get one part correct and one part wrong. Additionally, there are some questions with more than one correct answer! That’s not how multiple choice is supposed to work. It took me awhile to get the hang of this because I would often see an answer that I knew was right, select it and submit it before remembering that there may indeed be more than one correct answer. This really complicates things in my opinion. There were some questions that just had one correct answer, some that had two and even a few that had three. (I didn’t run into any where all four choices were correct.) The bottom line is that this really does make the test more difficult. You really have to know your stuff when there is more than one possible correct answer.

Ornikar offers online, interactive versions of the “Code de la Route” for you to read and study and I tried working my way through some of this material. In the end I decided to stick with the practice tests. It seemed to me that taking the practice tests over and over was a better way to “cram” for the exam. If I had more time I would have definitely gone through all the “Code” exercises but with just two weeks it didn’t seem like the best route. Here’s what I did to get the most out of the process.

I work on a Mac (but a PC should be almost exactly the same) and I used the Google Chrome browser because it has a “extension” that will translate pages from French into English called “Google Translate.” You’ll need to have this extension installed in your browser. It’s easy to do, look for help online if you need it. Once you have the extension installed, when you visit a page that is in a foreign language you should see a small Google Translate icon in the right side of the URL pane. A small box should pop up with links for the native language and English and allow you to easily switch from one to the other with a click. There should also be three little dots which, when you click on them, will allow you to choose to “Always Translate French” (or any other language if the page is in a different language). Make sure that is checked. Then when a new page loads in French it will just automatically be translated, you don’t have to do it yourself each time. Of course, you can always switch back to French if you want to (see more about this below).

Steve and Carole in Vence - Applying For A French Drivers License
The Google Translate extension that allows you to translate French web pages into English.

I really needed to improve my reading comprehension so I made sure to always start by looking at each question in the original French.

Ornikar offers three “types” of practice tests: training, mock exam, or thematic series. I used the training ones almost exclusively because they gave me information about the questions and the correct answer. I tried the other two a few times, but I found the “training” exams to be the most helpful. Here’s what I did:

I started a new “training” test quiz, making sure my browser was not translating the page. When the first question appeared I read it in French, did my best to understand it, answered the question and hit submit. Immediately a little sidebar pops up that tells you if you got the question wrong or right. There is also an explanation of the question and often times some follow up information on other aspects of the question. Very helpful indeed. Now I clicked the little button to translate the page into English and made absolutely sure I had read and understood the question correctly. Then I read the explanation and any supplementary information. Once I was sure I understood everything I switched the page back to French, clicked the “Continuer” button and repeated the process for each of the forty questions.

Steve and Carole in Vence - Applying For A French Drivers License
An example of a test question in the original French.
Steve and Carole in Vence - Applying For A French Drivers License
Now the same question translated into English.

I can’t promise this method will work well for everyone, but it worked great for me. I found that taking the practice tests helped me retain the information better than just reading the “code.” Same with my vocabulary. I kept notes with new words I ran across that I needed to learn and drilled on them over and over. Verbs like démarrer (to start) or éblouir (to dazzle or blind). Nouns like l’embrayage (the clutch) or la capot (the hood). But really, seeing them again and again in the context of the practice tests was the best way to learn them.

I also kept notes on the rules that I learned. Things like, “The principle cause of flat tires is under inflation.” Or, “On an accident report you can add info on the back (verso), but not the front (recto) after it has been signed.” I had several pages of notes that I would go over and over to help me retain the information. These tests are difficult. There is a lot of information. Sure, some of it is common sense, but a lot of it is very specific to the French driving laws. And since there are a lot of laws and you never know what will pop up on the forty question test, you really have to learn a lot of stuff.

I want to say a few things about these questions. I found a fair amount of questions that used language and vocabulary that I wasn’t familiar with and upon looking it up I had to ask myself why were they asking the question in this way? Let me give you an example. I know what, “J’ai une voiture,” means: I have a car. Pretty basic French. But, on one test question it was worded like this, “Je dispose de voiture.” Hmm. I’m not familiar with “disposer de.” Turns out it means the same thing. “I have a car.” So why ask it like that? Are they just trying to be difficult? Is this the way most French people would say that? I asked my French tutor and she said she didn’t know, but perhaps because this is “official” state business they use more formal language. Bottom line is I ran across a fair amount of this. The test would ask questions in ways and with grammar that seemed unnecessarily difficult and definitely not the normal way a native French person would speak.

I also found some questions that I just downright felt were trick questions. That’s fine, they are really trying to make sure you understand the rules and laws. Note: I used to go through this all the time with my students. “No,” I’d tell them, “it’s not a trick question, it’s just very specific.” Well the shoe was on the other foot now! So you have to pay close attention, read the questions carefully and really think about what they are asking. Here’s an example of what I mean:

Steve and Carole in Vence - Applying For A French Drivers License
OK, maybe it’s not “trick” question, but it sure is tricky.

So the question is what will you encounter in 200 meters. I said a roundabout AND a traffic light. But… the small “200m” sign ONLY applies to the sign above it. So, the way the question is phrased I will only meet the roundabout in 200m. I will meet the traffic light in about 150m since there is no extra sign attached to it. So, the correct answer is B and only B. That’s tricky. Here’s one more:

Steve and Carole in Vence - Applying For A French Drivers License
This one made me crazy.

The question asks what the little black sign that says “Arème Cros” indicates. Well I chose answer A: “a place.” That’s what that sign indicates. It seems very specific to me. And, I was right. But… as far as they are concerned it also indicates that the the speed limit is 80kmh and I should slow down. So, to get this question correct you had to check “A,” “C” & “D.” I find that a bit misleading. The sign does NOT INDICATE the speed limit or tell me to slow down. Again the question asks, “What does the sign indicate.” In the answer they explain that it should be clear from the road that the speed limit is 80kmh and that if you are approaching a “place” you should slow down. But damn it, that’s NOT what the sign indicates. Maybe it also implies that, but it doesn’t indicate it. In my opinion. But, I learned to accept these things and do my best to anticipate what they wanted. You can’t argue with the test after all.

I took two to four tests each day. My scores gradually improved. At first I was getting 26 – 25 – 25 – 24 – 26 – 23, etc. When I finally got a 30 I was excited. Eventually, I started getting results like 33 – 29 – 32 – 29 – 31 – 31 – 32. Finally, after almost two weeks I got my first passing grade, a 35. Then I got results like 35 – 31 – 36 – 32 – 32 – 33 – 36, etc. All in all I think I took over 50 practice tests. I wasn’t sure if I was really ready or not for the real test. I would have liked to have gotten to the point where I was consistently hitting 35 or above, but I had certainly improved quite a bit and I simply ran out of time. I was off to take the exam.

Oh, remember those two books I bought way back in December? I never really used the one dedicated to the code at all. However, the book of practice tests contained four tests very, very similar to what I was doing online with Ornikar. So, I began studying those tests as well. I found them to be quite helpful as they contained some slightly different information that I had encountered with the online tests. However, I must say, four practice tests is nowhere near enough! You just can’t cover enough information in four tests. Online, with Ornikar, I took dozens of tests and in doing so covered a lot more information. This little book of four practice tests was a nice supplement, but I definitely wouldn’t recommend it as the only avenue for practice tests.

The Written Test

I had registered to take my exam via La Poste. I showed up at the testing center about a half hour before my scheduled time. You are instructed to be there at least 15 minutes before your appointment, but I left early, not wanting to take any chances on being late. I waited outside with two other young teenagers. When it was time to begin we were taken into a small room (masks were mandatory) with some long tables arranged in a rectangle. We each showed the man in charge our convocation (the print out confirming our appointment) and our identification. Unfortunately, one of the teenagers, a young girl, did not have her convocation with her and so she could not take the test and it ended up being just two of us who took the test.

The man in charge motioned for us to sit down. At each place was a small iPad and set of headphones. The man spoke to us a bit, but honestly, I didn’t understand much of what he said, which made me a little nervous. I understood enough to turn on the iPad when he finished, enter my SEPH number and confirm my identification. Some instructions came on which I was able to read. Right now I’m much, much better at reading French than understanding spoken French. The only thing that threw me was the announcement that I would only have 20 seconds to answer each question! I wasn’t ready for this. When I applied for my SEPH number at ANT one of the questions they asked was if I spoke fluent French. I answered no, of course. I was under the impression (wrongly) that non-fluent French speakers would be given extra time on the questions. Apparently not. A short video played with some more information and then there was a little three question practice test to get us used to the format.

When I was ready I tapped the button to begin. I was nervous, no doubt about it. I really wanted to pass this test and I had been studying a LOT for the past two weeks. Some of the questions were very easy, some of them were more difficult, but I felt pretty good about most of them. There were definitely a few that I was simply guessing about. My biggest stumbling block was the language. Some of the questions used vocabulary that I just didn’t know and I was forced to make a guess. Sometimes the context would help me figure out what they are asking, but sometimes even that was not enough.

Each question appeared on the screen, one after the other. In the upper right corner of the screen was a circle that counted down the 20 seconds. A little dial started as blue and gradually changed to purple and then red as it got close to completing the circle and signaling the end of the 20 seconds. The time began after the question was read aloud. I then had 20 seconds to make my selections. At the bottom of the screen were boxes (A,B,C,D) and I tapped the appropriate boxes that corresponded to the answer I was choosing. As with all the practice tests I had taken, sometimes there was only one correct answer to choose. Sometimes there were two questions on one page, and so there were two answers to choose. Sometimes there were questions that could have multiple correct answers and I had to choose one, two or even three of the boxes.

As I said above, when people refer to this as a “multiple choice” test it’s really not very accurate. In a true multiple choice test there is only one correct answer and you have a 25% chance of just guessing the correct answer (if, for instance, there are four possible answers). Not so here. It’s also incorrect to say that there are 40 questions. Many of the questions have two parts and you don’t get half-credit if you get one right and one wrong. Bottom line, this is much more difficult than a “traditional” 40 question multiple choice test. When the time was up for each question the program moved on to the next screen. In the end the 20 second limit that I had freaked out a bit over wasn’t an issue. I was easily able to answer each question within the allotted time.

The exam seemed to take forever! Even though each question was only 20 seconds long and the whole thing only lasted about 20 minutes, while I was taking it time seemed to slow down tremendously. At the bottom of the screen it tells you which question you are on (it will say, for example, 14/40). I kept thinking, oh my, I’ve got so many more questions to go, I wish this would just hurry up end. It was a bit of a blur and when I was finally finished I couldn’t really even remember any of the questions in detail.

I honestly didn’t think I had passed. I thought it would be close but that maybe I had missed by one or two or even three points. I told myself it was OK, I would simply make another appointment for a week later and spend another week studying. (With the written test you are allowed to take it over and over again as many times as required until you pass it. You just have to pay another 30€ each time.) It would be good for me and help my French even more.

I drove home and checked my email. Nothing. They said it would take anywhere from 30 minutes to 48 hours to receive my results. About an hour later the email came. I nervously opened it. No results here, just a note telling me to login to the La Poste site and I could get my results there. OK, I logged in. No results there either! I had to download a document that had the results. I quickly opened it and the first thing I saw was “FAVORABLE.” That means I passed it, right? Woo-hoo! I read the rest of the document, saw that I got 35 out of 40, the minimum required to pass, but what the hell. I didn’t care, I PASSED THE EXAM. Now I had to find a driving school, take some lessons and then pass the practical exam.

Steve and Carole in Vence - Applying For A French Drivers License
I passed! Just barely, but I passed.

Finding a Driving School

It is theoretically possible (I think) at this point to simply skip a driving school and apply to take the practical test. But, it’s very difficult to do. To take the practical test you must use your own car and it must be a car with dual “controls.” In other words, the car has to have gas, brake and clutch pedals on both the driver’s side and the passenger’s side. Interestingly enough, it does not need two steering wheels like I think the training cars in the U.S. have. So, if you have one of these cars I think you could apply to go take the test. But, only driving schools have these cars, so you’re pretty much stuck with using one of them. In France the driving schools are intimately associated with the testing process. You might even say it’s a bit of a “racket.” Basically, everyone who wants a driver’s license has to go through a driving school in one way or another. And, for a beginner, a teenager for instance, it can be very expensive. Around 1,500€ to 2,000€. Like I said, a racket.

Steve and Carole in Vence - Applying For A French Drivers License
Example of the sign on a training car to alert other drivers.

In Vence there are two driving schools. I wanted to find a school where one of the instructors spoke a little English so that he/she could advise me as to what I needed to know to successfully pass the test. The first school I went to said, no, they didn’t have anyone who spoke English, though I’m not sure that was really true. They were very dismissive and did not seem interested in working with me at all. The second school was a bit better, but in the end, it didn’t work out. The woman in charge said, yes, one of the instructors spoke English and I should come back at 3:00PM to speak with her. When I did I found a very nice young woman instructor who spoke very good English. We spoke for a few minutes and she said it might work. However, she then began speaking to the woman in charge and though I couldn’t understand a lot of what they were saying, it was clear that the woman in charge did not like the idea and did not want to work with me. I guess this doesn’t come up very often here in Vence. The instructor kept saying we could give it a try, that I could take one “evaluation” lesson and then we’d have a better idea if this would work out. The woman in charge was not convinced. Finally, the instructor had to go give a lesson and she left me with the woman in charge. I could see by now that this looked very problematic so I told her I would just look for another school and she said that was a good idea.

I searched online for nearby schools. I found one in Valbonne (about 1/2 hour away) that seemed perfect. Lots of English speaking people live in and around Valbonne and this school came highly recommended. I contacted them, and yes, they had several instructors who spoke English, they specialized in this. But, they couldn’t get me in until mid-September, more than three months away. So, clearly that wasn’t going to work.

A woman contacted me online who had seen a post of mine in one of the Facebook groups. Turns out she runs a small school out of Orléans and could offer me a spot up there where they would do all the necessary lessons in one day and then I could take the test the next day and be done with it. That was very appealing, however Orléans is over 800km away. It would mean a long trip via either car, train or plane, several nights at a hotel and at least five or six days in total. I seriously considered it, but in the end it was just too much time and too expensive.

Another school in Nice was recommended to me online as a school that had some English speaking instructors. I drove down to Nice, visited the school and was quite surprised to find the woman at the desk spoke perfect English. I explained my situation, she said they could definitely help and we set up an appointment for an “evaluation drive” the next week.

My Driving School

I arrived at the school the next week for my “evaluation” appointment. Now, theoretically, if I am a good driver, I shouldn’t have to take ANY driving lessons. However, many people recommend that you take a few just to make sure you understand the differences between driving in France and driving in the U.S. The goal is for the instructor to help you understand what you need to know to pass the test. And, there are differences. Ever heard of “priorité à droite?” In France this means the driver on the right has priority. We have a similar law in the U.S. Say two drivers show up at an intersection at the same time and both have a stop sign. The one on the right has priority. The French take it a bit further. Suppose you are driving down a large rural road. Up ahead is a small intersection with no stop signs in either direction. The crossroad is very small. If someone is entering the larger road you are on from the right, they have the priority! They can pull right out in front of you and you have to give way to them. This is mind boggling to Americans. So, the idea is a few lessons will help make sure you are absolutely clear on all of the little differences in driving in France. I actually do think it’s a good idea.

The examiners are supposedly very strict about little things that your driving instructor can clue you in about. For instance, if you have been instructed to turn right you are supposed to look in your rearview mirror, look in your side mirror, turn and look in the blind spot and then turn on your signal. In that order. Very important apparently. Now, I would always turn on my signal immediately and then begin looking in mirrors and blind spots. So, that was helpful to know.

The instructor who gave me my “evaluation” lesson seemed like a nice enough guy, though a bit old and somewhat distant. After driving around Nice for about 1/2 hour we stopped back at the school. He said he thought he could get me into shape in about 6 to 8 hours. 6 to 8 hours! Really? I was hoping for 2 or 3. Well, OK, whatever. I need this license, I’ll do whatever I have to do. So, I signed up for the lessons. They were not terribly expensive, 45€ for each hour and they gave me four appointments, each being a two hour lesson, so I liked that as it would make things go faster. They made me appointments for Monday and Wednesday the next week and then the same the week after that. I was told that once I finished my lessons, if they thought I was ready, I could take the test fairly quickly.

Steve and Carole in Vence - Applying For A French Drivers License
An example of a French training car with dual controls.
NOTE: this was NOT a car I drove in, just an example of one.

I’m going to be completely honest here, I have mixed feelings about the school I used. On the one hand I was very happy and thankful that they were able to fit me in so quickly and schedule my lessons in a two week block. On the other hand I absolutely didn’t need 8 hours of lessons. Remember the “6 to 8” hour quote? Well, I knew from the start that meant 8 and I was right. Everything I needed to “learn” about driving in France could have been accomplished in 2 to 3 hours, easily.

For each lesson I drove around Nice for two hours while my instructor sat next to me in the car. He was a bit condescending and I felt like I was being treated the same way a 16 year old learning to drive for the first time would be treated. He wasn’t exactly rude, just a bit patronizing. I mean, come on, I’m a 64 year old who has been driving for 48 years. I know the basics. I didn’t like the situation much but I made the best of it. I needed these lessons in order to take the exam, so I smiled, agreed with what he told me and acted very polite. The bottom line is this: yes, I wanted and needed a couple of hours of lessons to point out to me exactly what mistakes I might be making that the examiner would be looking for. And there were some. But, as I said above this could easily have been accomplished in 2 to 3 hours, max.

We spent a lot of time just driving around Nice that honestly had no value for me. He did spend some time pointing out things that I needed to know, though he was not very good at explaining things. When I tried to ask questions he didn’t seem very interested in trying to clarify the situation for me. Like I said, a nice enough guy, just not a very good teacher. He spoke excellent English, so that wasn’t the issue. I’m sure he knew all the rules and regulations and I think he had been doing this for a long time. He just seemed uninterested and maybe a bit burnt-out. But, hey, he got me through the process and I am thankful for that.

The Practical Test

My driving school scheduled the practical test about ten days from my last lesson. I was very happy about this as I had heard that the system was clogged up due to the down time from the COVID-19 pandemic and that it might take a long time to get an appointment. I was told to show up at the driving school office on a Friday at 2:00PM. The entire practical test is scheduled via the driving school. They make the appointment and on the day of the exam the instructor takes you to a “meeting place,” in one of the “dual control” school vehicles, where the examiner will be waiting to administer the exam.

On the day of the test I have to admit I was a bit nervous. Not about my driving skills but mostly about not being able to understand the examiner since the entire thing would be in French. There wasn’t much I could do about this so I just told myself to make the best of it, have a good attitude and hope for the best. I arrived at the school promptly at 2:00PM. Apparently, I was not the only student from the school taking the exam as there were two other young men as well. At about 2:30PM we piled into the school car and drive about 20 minutes to where the exam would take place. I found it very odd that we were not going to some official building (like the equivalent of the Departent of Motor Vehicles). Instead, we simply drove up to a small, unmarked “bus stop” like shelter on a busy street. The examiner was waiting for us there.

The other two young men taking the test seemed eager to go first so I let them. I wasn’t in a hurry and was OK with being last. Each test lasted about twenty minutes. When it was my turn I got into the car with the examiner next to me in the front seat and my instructor in the back seat. The instructor always accompanies each person taking the test, though they are not allowed to speak. I’m told because the car belongs to the driving school they must be present.

I adjusted my seat, the rearview mirror, the side mirrors and the steering wheel and then told the examiner that I was ready. “Je suis prêt.” He told me to turn left into the street and off we went. It wasn’t that difficult and I immediately felt a bit more at ease because his instructions were pretty simple and direct. “Tournez à guache dans le rue suivante.” I was able to understand most everything he said and I repeated his directions back to him just to be sure.

We drove around Nice for about twenty minutes. He didn’t have me do anything out of the ordinary except to turn the car around making a “3-point” turn. He chose a particularly tight area where there was no way that just “3 points” were going to be enough, but no problem. I backed up, turned, went forward, etc. several times until the car was turned around. No parallel parking, no backing into a tight parking space. Everything seemed to go smoothly, I didn’t feel like I made any mistakes. There was one point where the “prioité à droite” came into play, but it was the opposite of what you would expect. I was on a small road that intersected with a larger road and I had the priority. But, not realizing this I was waiting for the car coming from my left to pass. “Allez,” the examiner said. “Go, you have the right away.” Oh, yeah, so I did. I guess that’s better though than not giving the priority to someone else when they have it. When we arrived back at the starting point I parked the car and got out.

The examiner packed up his stuff, said goodbye to the instructor and headed off. I was confused. I thought I would get the results right then and there. I asked my instructor, “Did I do OK?” He said, “Yes.” He said he thought I did fine, that he didn’t see any mistakes. He said the examiner did mention something about my “position on the road,” but it wasn’t serious. I told him I thought I would get the results right then and there, but he said no, I’d get them within 48 business hours. OK. I was disappointed. More waiting. I just wanted this to be over with!

I asked on the Applying For a French Driving License Facebook page about the time lag. I was told that it used to be that you would receive your results right there on the spot. But, apparently they had some issues with irate drivers beating up the examiners when they got results that they did not like. So, they changed the system to protect the examiners. You can’t beat them up if you don’t know whether you passed or not! Someone wondered if this was really true or just some urban folk tale. Several people assured us it was indeed the case.

My driving school called on Tuesday with the good news that I had passed! I was so relieved. They forwarded me the document with my results. I got a 28 out of what I think is a possible 30. I lost points for the following:

“Adapt your pace to the circumstances.” I think maybe I was a bit too timid some of the time, for example when I had the priority and didn’t immediately take it. They don’t like that.

“Sharing the road.” I think maybe I was a little off from the center of the lane when driving? Probably what the examiner was talking about when he mentioned my “position on the road” to my instructor.

Still, I did very well and was quite happy. Finally, it was over!

Steve and Carole in Vence - Applying For A French Drivers License
The results of my practical test.

At the end of my results was the following:

“Your driving has been deemed satisfactory on the whole and should enable you to circulate on your own driving in compliance with the rules of the highway code, without endangering your safety and that of other users. However, you still lack experience. Over the kilometers, you will have to acquire the practice necessary to consolidate your skills, and therefore increase your safety. Remember that, unless otherwise stated in the regulations, you are a novice driver, subject to specific speed limits and a probationary period.”

Really? Again, this way of treating a person with 48 years of driving experience as if they are a complete beginner is a bit irritating. There should be some way of differentiating between a real “novice” and someone who has lots of driving experience but is just getting their first French driver’s license. Seems very odd to me. Whatever.

Requesting the Actual License

So, after all that, after passing both exams, I still had to go online one more time to request my actual, physical driver’s license. Seems like the system would know that I passed both tests and issue me a license, but no, I have to go request one. I logged into my ANTS account and under “My Driver Area” I clicked on “Applying for a driving license.” It took me awhile to figure this out, in fact I had to ask for help on Facebook, because I didn’t think I was now “applying” for a driving license. I did that at the beginning, right? Well, it still comes under the main heading “Applying for a driving license,” but this time I then had to check the box “I request the production of a driver’s license title” instead of “I register to be able to take the driving license tests” (which is what I did the first time around back a couple of months ago).

Steve and Carole in Vence - Applying For A French Drivers License
Applying on line to have a driver’s license made.

On the first screen they asked for my name, birthday, nationality and birthplace. On the second screen they asked for my address, phone and email. On the third screen they asked for a digital photo. Remember back at the beginning I had a digital photo taken that contains a serial number? I used it for my application to take the driving tests. I pulled it out, entered the number and got an error message saying that it had already been used once. I would need a new one. What? You would think that once the verified, digital photo is in the system that I could use it to apply for the tests and also request my license. But, no. So, off I went to get another photo taken. The little photo shop that I used the first time around was closed (it was a Monday) so I looked online and found that there was a booth at the local Monoprix (grocery store chain) where I could do it.

The process was pretty straightforward, though the written and verbal instructions were in French. I managed though, got my new photo card and headed home. Tried to enter the new number and go an error. They said if I had just taken the photo to try again in half a day. After a few hours it worked OK.

On the fourth screen I was required to upload proof of address, my ID (passport), my VISA and certificate that I had passed the examination. Which seemed really strange, as the first three things I had uploaded when I applied to take the test. And wouldn’t you think they would have a record of me passing the exam? Whatever. The entire systems seems a bit antiquated and it appears the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing. A streamlined system that kept all the information in one place for both your application to take the tests and your request for the actual license would be a good thing for all involved.

On the fifth screen was a recap of all the information I had entered so far and they also wanted to know how much my training had cost and how many hours I had taken. Why? I don’t know, but I filled it in. 455€ for the training and nine hours. On the final page I was asked to download a document as “proof of submission.”

I received an email fairly quickly saying that my request had been received and would be checked by the state services. So, I was done (unless I’d made some kind of mistake or not provided the documents they wanted). Now I just have to wait for my actual license to arrive in the mail. I’m told that should only take a couple of weeks.

But wait! More complications. About ten days after applying for my actual license I received an email saying that “some supporting documents provided were incorrect or missing.” Damn. Of course, they aren’t specific. Upon logging into my account it appears to have to do with the “identification” documents. I orignally uploaded my Passport and the Visa page in my passport. They specifically ask for “both sides of a residence card,” a carte de séjour. Problem is, I don’t have a carte de séjour. They don’t issue those the first year, only after you have been here for at least one year.

Well, I uploaded the OFII documents that basically act as my carte de séjour:

  • Confirmation de la validation de l’enregistrement de votre visa long séjour valant titre de séjour
  • Certificat de Controle Medical

Then I waited. I got a phone call but my phone was turned off. I couldn’t even begin to understand the message that was left. I let a French friend listen to it and she said they were telling me that my visa was expired and I needed to get it renewed before I could get my driver’s license. Well, yes, my visa did expire on May 25th but… All visas that expired during the COVID-19 lockdown and up until June 15th had been extended for six months. So, no, my visa hadn’t expired. I was amazed they didn’t know this.

Now what to do? I found an online form where I could submit a message to ANTS and so I told them about this extension and provided a link to the official French government website where it was clearly stated that my visa was extended. Then, I waited some more.

After about another 10 days I still had heard nothing. My request, in my ANTS account, was still listed as “Under investigation.” At the suggestion of Kim on the Facebook “Applying for a French Driving License” group I sent them another message, this time via Facebook Messenger. I don’t know if it was a coincidence or not, but almost immedaitely (within an hour or so) I received an email saying, “Your online application relating to your driving license has been accepted. In the case of a request for the production of a driving license, it will be sent to you within 15 days.” Hurray! I also received a text message saying basically the same thing. And someone responded to my Facebook message saying that she had checked my file and everything had been approved. Just to make absolutely sure I logged into my ANTS account and sure enough, the request of my request status had been changed to “Validated by the Administration.”

Steve and Carole in Vence - Applying for a French Driver's License
My ANTS account showing that the second “procedure” had been validated (approved). The first procedure was the request to take the tests, the second the request to receive my actual license.

My actual license showed up in the mail about a week later.

Limitations

The final thing I would like to address here is this: I read online in various places there would be some limitations on my new license because I was a “beginner.” I was told that the following applied all “beginners.”

  1. I would need to apply a big sticker with an “A” on it to the back or your car to signify that you have just received your license.
  2. I would not be able to rent a car in France for one or two years.
  3. I would only be able to drive 100kph on the freeways, instead of the normal 130kph.
  4. I would only receive 6 points on my license instead of the normal 12.

However, this seemed very much up for debate. No one, absolutely no one, could provide a source for these stipulations. If you look online you will find a lot of conflicting information and opinions. No one seems to know for sure and no one can point to a place online where it is made clear. Here’s what I have found out, though it is by no means definitive.

Regarding issue number 1: It is absolutely true that all “first time” drivers in France must put this sticker on their car. Mostly teenagers, of course, but if you are 40 years old and have never gotten a driver’s license before, the same applies to you. But, it is unclear if this applies to someone who had a driver’s license somewhere else. Because, of course, they are not a “first time” driver. Online people had different opinions about this, but, again, there is nothing anyone can point to that clarifies it. I asked my driving school and they said, “No, you don’t need to be the sticker on your car because you had driver’s license from somewhere else previously.” OK, enough for me. Are they right? Who the hell knows, but I’m going with what they told me.

Regarding issue number 2: This appears to be true. Though some people say it’s one year and others say it’s two. Still others say it is at the discretion of the car rental agency and that some might rent to you and others might not. If you explain to them that you had a previous license from another country you might be OK. I’ve been renting cars in France for almost 30 years so it seems quite absurd that I would suddenly not be able to now because of the fact that I passed two tests to make me an even better driver in France! Completely backwards.

Regarding issue number 3: Again, it is true that a “first time” driver in France can only go 100kph on the freeways for the first year (maybe two?). But, again, does this apply to someone who already had a license from somewhere else? You would think this would be taken into account. I asked my driving school and they said I could drive at the normal speed. Again, I don’t know if they are really correct (there is no way to confirm that) but I’m going with what they told me. I do plan to keep copies of the emails they sent me answering these questions in my car in case it comes up if I get stopped.

Regarding issue number 4: This is absolutely true, unfortunately. Again, it makes no sense. Someone from Kentucky can exchange their license with no training whatsoever and get 12 points. I take two exams, clearly know more about French driving laws than they would, and I only get 6 points? It should be the other way around! For those in the U.S. who don’t know about this “point” system (we don’t have it there) here’s how it works.

In France you can have a maximum of twelve points associated with your driver’s license. If you commit an offense you may get a fine, points removed from your license or both. For instance, a small speeding ticket will get you a fine and the loss of one point. A big offense, such a drunk driving will get a bigger fine and the loss of three points. If you lose enough points your license is suspended for a period of time.

“New” drivers get six points and if you behave yourself points get added on each year until you are up to the maximum of twelve.

Final Thoughts

As I said at the beginning, this entire process is a real ordeal. It’s much harder and more stressful than it really needs to be. I think the entire system is way overdue for a reevaluation.

Bottom line: I did it. I passed the test. I got my license. I learned a lot about French driving laws. I improved my French.

I’m very, very happy that it’s all over. Well, I don’t actually have the physical license yet, but hopefully soon.

If you are going through the same process and you need any help or advice please feel free to contact me at steve@steveandcaroleinvence.com.

8 thoughts on “Obtaining A French Driver’s License

  1. Thanks, Steve, for this very detailed writeup, it’s sure to be very useful to new people going through the process. I wrote about my experience in my book French License which is a more comical take on the absurd process. Believe it or not, but reading about your travails indicate that it’s become easier, faster and less expensive in the past few years. There’s hope for the future! Cheers, Joe

    1. Thanks, Joe! Bought and downloaded your book, looking foward to reading it. Yes, I’ve heard that things are easier now then they were just a few years ago. Good grief!

  2. We could have written your story! We come from Canada and while at the time a few provinces could just exchange their licences, ours was not one of them. We did the code at an école de conduite with the youngsters thinking we were retaking our tests because we had lost our licenses due to drunk driving. We both passed the code and concur with your description of the difficulty. I would add that can, must, should are verbs that make it very tough. We also did the 6-8 hours of lessons (6 for one of us, 8 for the other). Passing the practical was easier than the written. We had to sport the A for 3 years even though we had been driving for more than 40 years including 20 years in France. We already owned a French licensed car and had the 50% discount for no accidents. In 2012 we were able to drop the A. As tough as it was, we learned a lot. Your story was well written and so apt. Thank you.

  3. Fantastic write up, Steve. Thank you for this. I am from Washington State and need to get on this ASAP. Like you, I postponed because of an emergency surgery in October, holidays, COVID, etc etc. This was very insightful and definitely will help me better understand what to expect. Congrats on getting the drivers license! And wish me luck!

    1. Hi Shannon, thanks for your comment. Good luck with everything and if you need any help or advice, feel free to ask.

  4. Wow you just confirmed all my fears. This is so insane and I’m kicking myself for ever exchanging my Illinois driver’s license when I moved to Hawaii. I just bought the 30 euro Ornikar package and have been practicing the exams. Its very helpful but let’s see how much I can retain. Thank you so !such for sharing you experience in such great detail. We all need help getting through this.

    1. Hi Gina and good luck with everything! If you need any assistance along the way feel free to contact me and I’ll try to help if I can.

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