This is a special report related to the Campingcar series. Throughout the entire adventure of looking for and purchasing our vacation on wheels, I had overlooked one small detail—my driver’s license.
The International Drivers’ License I started out thinking I could drive with my US license, good until 2003. But then I hear, just to be on the safe side, better get an International Drivers License (IDL), which is a small passport-like booklet that translates your current license so that you can drive around in foreign countries on vacation. If you have a DL from another European Union country or an EEC country, you can use that in France, no IDL needed. If you’re from outside Europe, it’s a good idea to get the IDL. You can get one for $10 at any AAA office near you. All you need is a valid US driver’s license and a passport sized photo. Certain travel agencies may sell them as well. To make sure you’ve got the correct UN approved one, it should be a gray cardboard cover, with a few white pages inside that translate your license into several foreign languages. Your picture and the AAA stamp go on the back cover. It’s only valid outside the US, and must be used with your regular license at all times.
Resident of France? Of course, there’s always a catch. Once you’ve been living in France, the rules change. The French will only accept the IDL and/or your regular DL if it is still valid in the US. Technically speaking, since I no longer live at the address on my DL, it’s not valid in the US. I could probably slip by that one, especially if the address listed was my mom’s house. Fine, if you’re just in France for travel, and don’t mind risking it with the good ol’ insurance company if you have a wreck. But I have been in France as a resident, with my very own carte de sejour, the French version of the Green Card. Once you’re a resident, if you don’t have an EU country issued DL, you must obtain a French driver’s license (permis de conduire).
An Easy Exchange To get a French permit, you may be able to simply exchange your old US one: if it hasn’t expired AND if your carte de sejour is less than one year old AND if the State where your DL is registered is on the list. If this is the case, simply appear at the Prefecture where you live, with your current DL, your carte de sejour, and the usual identifying papers and passport photos. But, if your state isn’t on this list of twenty or so accepted states, or if you’re carte de sejour is more than a year old, you must take the driving test.
Is it REALLY necessary? I know some people who still drive around France with an old license from home, and have never been caught. I have no doubts at all that I could talk a police officer into accepting my old DL if I was pulled over on the highway. That’s not what worries me. Since we have purchased a Campingcar, and this probably applies to anyone buying any vehicle in France, we must now provide the insurance company with a valid driving permit. It’s a bad idea, in any country, to try to fool the insurance people. Especially if you are injured in an accident and need medical attention, or if you squash someone’s poodle and are being sued.
So, I must take the exam. In French. In Paris. I’m not exactly looking forward to this. It’s been quite a few years since I took my first test in a rural town in the US. But since I’ve got to live through the pain, all of you might as well feel the virtual pain, and hopefully find some of these links helpful. The first is Vos Droits, a French government site. Very useful for getting information about driving regulations, how to register a vehicle, and all of the legal info about the driving permit (don’t confuse the French ‘permis’ which means license, for the American ‘permit’ which is for 15 year-olds). Here you can find out if you can exchange your US or EU permit for a French one, or if you can drive with the permit you already have. I found a gem of info: there exists a special written test for foreigners that reports to be in simple French, with lots of pictures, and you can have a translator if necessary. LePermis.com is another French site, with info on driving schools and the general rules of points and suspension. Pratique is a nice, easy French site to navigate and understand, with practical info on not just getting the French permit, but also all sorts of legal and administrative topics that may arise, like how to sue someone (can come in handy if someone squashes your poodle). If you’re really in need of some help in English. Jean Taquet, the expat legal expert, has an archive of questions regarding driving in France in his column for the Voice, and you can send him your own questions. He lists some of the approved US States for exchanging your DL, but there have been a few states added since he wrote the response a few years ago.
Coming Soon: Driving school, the exam, and the high speed jinks of the Parisian motorist. (cross your fingers for me)
This article is one of the 78 original “Secrets of Paris” articles published between September 1999 and July 2004. After disappearing into the internet graveyard for almost 15 years, I’ve republished them in autumn 2019 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Secrets of Paris: “1999-2019: Twenty Years of the Secrets of Paris” Broken and dead links have been updated or deactivated, but otherwise the article remains unchanged.