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Ask Hans-Torsten: Driver’s licenses

Hans-Torsten Richter answers your questions about surviving and thriving in Berlin, like why switching a driver's license for a German one is easier for some than for others.

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Hans-Torsten Richter answers your questions about surviving and thriving in Berlin. Write to [email protected]

Dear Hans-Torsten,

I’m from Florida
 and I have a driver’s license from there. Friends from other US states living here have had no trouble getting their licenses switched to German ones. But I heard that Florida licenses aren’t accepted, and that you have to take classes that cost thousands of euros. What’s up with that, HT?

– Patricia

Dear Patricia,

Yes, it would be nice to rent one of those cute car-sharing Minis and go careening down the Autobahn once in a while, wouldn’t it? Or
 to be able to hire a van next time you move flats. Most rental companies only accept EU driving licenses. Officially, you can only drive in Germany with a non-EU license for six months once you’re a registered resident. It seems like the authorities often turn a blind eye to that rule, though.

Getting your US license converted into a German one is either laughably easy or quite the pain in the arse, depending on which state you come from. Each state is treated like a separate country – each has a different agreement on licenses with Germany. Bizarre and crazy, oder? My friend took his driving test in the US state of New Mexico at age 16. The written exam was a mockery: he was expected to answer 20 simple multiple-choice questions and get a minimum of 60 percent correct. The practical part consisted of driving around the block once in a car with automatic transmission. God knows why, but Germany and New Mexico have a special agreement, so he could simply trade his license in for a German one, no additional test required. He’s now had a German license for years – but still doesn’t understand all the traffic signs!

Less fortunate Floridians like you, Patricia, are required to take the German “theoretical” i.e. written test. Contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t mean you necessarily need to enrol 
in an expensive driving course. You’ll have to first submit an application for Umschreibung einer ausländischen Fahrerlaubnis at your local Bürgeramt, including your passport, a biometric passport photo, your foreign driving license (and possibly a certified translation of your license for less common languages), plus a fee of €42.60 (or €35 if no testing is required). If a test is required, you’ll get a letter three
 or four weeks later. Take that letter down to 
a Fahrschule (driving school), schedule a test (ca. €20 fee), and maybe ask about learning materials: a book or an online course for “Führerschein Klasse B” (to drive a car). Download a Führerschein app to quiz yourself. Of course, your German will have to be decent enough to understand the questions.

Consider yourself lucky you don’t hail from another US state – like New York, California or Alaska – none of which have any agreement with Germany at all. Their licenses are treated like those from other random non-European countries like Iran and China, meaning theoretical and practical tests are required. These unlucky buggers will have to go to a school and take a couple of hours of driving classes (about €25/hour) so that they can drive the way a German examiner wants them to, before taking the driving test (fee ca. €85).

Once you’ve passed your test(s), return to the Bürgeramt with your paperwork. It’ll only be a matter of weeks before you’re tearing down the Autobahn. Viel Spaß!

Originally published in issue #129, July-August 2014.