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English driver license

After promising it on several occasions, I am carrying on with my expatriate experience series of articles. The first entry dealt with relocation package specifics. This post is about UK driver licensing.

A foreign resident in England who holds a valid driver license from abroad can use it without getting an English license for 12 months from the moment of arrival. The allowance is, in fact, more generous than any US state would give to a transplanted foreigner. So far so good.

It should be noted that, unlike in the US, where we all use a license as our everyday identification document, you hardly ever need your license in England. “Can I see some form of id?” is unheard of at a checkout in a store. The wide use of PIN-and-chip credit cards ensures that a card is used by a rightful owner (or, at least, someone close enough to the owner to know the card’s PIN). The police do not stop you on the street… let me rephrase… the police cars are almost never seen on the street – there are enough enforcement cameras to take care of various traffic misdemeanors.

Natasha has seen police-manned speed check point, but I only saw police involved in accident resolution. And an accident is really when you need to produce a valid license, not so much for the benefit of the police officer (who will be happy to tap into his central database and use your name as spelled on a credit card to check whether you have a valid license), but for the insurance company, who will likely decline paying out your benefit in case of invalid license. I also suppose that insurance renewal could eventually be impeded by continuing use of an “international” license.

Well, we’ve been in the country for eight months now, and we are certainly law-abiding enough. In addition, as luck – or the absence of it – would have it, our New Jersey licenses happen to expire at the end of July of this year. We are still undecided whether to renew them when we travel to the US later this year (there are potential negative taxpayer status implications – a topic for another post), but we want to be properly licensed in England by October.

And that’s where the fun starts.

If you are a citizen of any of the other 26 members of the European Union, you can simply exchange your foreign license for a UK one. There are 15 other countries (quite obvious Australia and Canada among them, but also Japan, Korea and even Zimbabwe), with which England has reciprocal agreements for license exchange. But if you are from the rest of the world, including the great US of A, you are going to have to complete the full licensing process; your existing driving credentials sort of do not count.

Fine, it may sound stupid that I have to spend time on tests to prove my worthiness as a driver at my advanced age after having been driving for so many years, but I can see the logic of rigorous approach to licensing people who come from differing traffic law environments.

The process is honestly way too complicated, but let’s bite the bullet and follow it through. First, we need to get a provisional license (i.e., a permit), which – if we are outside our initial 12-months-on-a-foreign-license allotment – restricts our driving privileges: We would have to stay off motorways and attach a big red L (for “learner”, not “loser”) to the front and back of the car.

Provisional license costs £45. This is just a starter fee. Subsequent stepsthrough the process costs additional money.

Once the permit is obtained, we can schedule a theory test, and upon passing it, a practical exam, which includes a superficial eyesight check and then proceeds to test your driving skills for a prescribed time of 40 minutes. Once you pass all tests, your provisional license can be exchanged for a full one.

There are up to 15 minor faults that are allowed on the practical test to be able to pass it. How hard can it be?

But wait, here comes the most absurd part.

Application for a permit can be presented in person at a local DVLA (Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency) office, at a post office, or even mailed in. It will not, however, be processed immediately even if you do it in person. Instead, it will be forwarded to the central DVLA office in Swansea, in Wales, with a promise of a 3-week turnaround.

Fine, I can’t figure out how a single office can efficiently deal with all applications that are generated by 50-million-strong country (America has over 300 million people, but it does not make do with just six offices for the entire country, does it?), but if that’s how they want to do it, let them. The problem is that you are also required to provide a proof of identity with your application, of which the only acceptable form not of British origin is your passport.

And this is where my comprehension of the process ends. If you are entitled to a license exchange – no problem. Show up at a DVLA office or a post office, show your passport, have the clerk sign the appropriate box on the application and send it in. But if you are going through the full process, the confirmation of your identity can somehow be only executed in that same central office. In other words, your passport has to be attached to the application that arrives in Swansea. Your body stays where it is, separated from your most important piece of documentation for the aforementioned three weeks (or five, if you rather believe not the DVLA website, but the clerk who accepts your application at the local office).

Besides your obvious inability to travel abroad (which would be much more amenable if we were not stupid enough to postpone what could have been easily done in January), there is an obvious concern about getting your passport back altogether. Is it really hard to imagine a document being misplaced? American passports do not have addresses on them – although I am attaching sticky strips with handwritten address to the back of ours – if it falls out from a pile, can I expect any diligence from some faceless clerk in matching it back to an application that has the correct address on it? And what if the return mail simply gets mis-delivered?

The absurdity does not end there.

The photographs that you attach to the application have to be certified. What it means is getting someone who knows you well sign the back of the picture and a section of the application. This reference of yours must belong to a short list of professional vocations and have been residing in the UK for at least two years.

Short of asking a neighbor to pretend that (s)he knows us well, we have no one who could do this for us. But the same function can be performed by a clerk at a local DVLA office, in which case the “know-well” requirement is waived. The clerk, in fact, simply certifies that the attached photograph is truly yours.

Think about it!

That clerk effectively verifies my identity and puts her signature to it; yet, I still have to give up my passport, so that my identity can be again verified, only some 200 miles away without me physically being present.

Every one of my English co-workers who’s been explained this procedure by me agrees that it is entirely ludicrous. No one can come with a single reason why it is that way. (DVLA clerk refused to discuss it, predictably not viewing Natasha as a customer who deserves an excellent service).

Well, we have 7+ weeks before our trip home, so we figured that Natasha should take the plunge. Her application and passport are hopefully already on its way to Swansea, and everything will arrive back, hopefully, in plenty of time before we go.

As for me, I have a business trip to Chicago next week. When I come back to London next Thursday, my window to obtain the permit is left at exactly six weeks, and that’s cutting it way too close for comfort. I will only take up the task upon returning from the States in mid-August, given that we are unlikely to travel beyond UK borders for a couple of months afterwards.

In light of all of this, my advice to the new expatriates is very simple: Unless you do not foresee a need to own a car and regularly drive, do not postpone starting this process, if you can. Apply for the provisional license literally on the first day of your first long (two months or more) uninterrupted stay in the country. You have to be cognizant of possible other needs to use your passport (for instance, when withdrawing considerable sums of money from an offshore account in an onshore branch of the same bank), but this is the only instance known to me when you actually have to be without it for a while. The sooner you cross this bridge, the better.


This entry will have an obvious continuation devoted to the theoretical and practical driving tests, once we take them.

P.S. It just occurred to me that I am not at all sure that we would not have to give up passports again when exchanging the provisional license for a full one. At least, we should have close to a year to do that, and being a lot smarter now, will find a less-intensive travel period for that…

Posted in Expat Archive