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How to get a UK driver’s license when you are already a licensed driver elsewhere

Once you are lucky enough get permission to work in the UK and you move here and land a job, the next big challenge is to obtain a UK driver's license. The rules that apply to you depend on your license status prior to coming to the UK and where you have passed your previous license tests.

An important website to bookmark is the UK Driver's Licensing government site for the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) which has all of the in-depth details you will need: Here is a short summary to get you started based on my experience in early 2010.

The first area you'll want to check on that site is under 'Motoring>Driver Licensing>Driving in GB on a Foreign License'. This area will give you all the details of who can exchange a license and who must take tests, and how long you have to complete them. I have both US and German licenses, but I received my German license through an exchange with my US one without taking a test, therefore I was placed in the same category as a US license person, or the average UK young person first attempting for a license. In other words, my 18 years of US and European experience counted for nothing in the UK! In addition, licenses from certain countries have additional restrictions such as requiring official translations if your license is not in English.

A tip: use the 'exchange driving license' interactive tool on this section to help to guide you to your specific requirements.

For those of us planning to reside in the UK for some years at least, many current and valid licenses such as my US one will allow you to legally drive in the UK for one year without needing any UK license approvals. However, if you plan to remain more than one year in the UK and would like to continue to legally drive, the UK requires that you get your UK license before that one year from legal residency has completed.

A tip: you'll want to start this process well before the 12 month end date because there are many steps and if you are not able to complete them by your one year deadline, you will have driving limitations imposed. The specific limitations will depend on which step you are in at the time but may involve: ceasing of driving, not driving on highways, only driving with a valid adult, etc.

After reviewing the DVLA website, the next step is to apply for a Provisional license. A Provisional license will allow you to complete the later steps such as the Theoretical (computer) test and the Practical (driving) test. As a non-UK citizen you can order the paper Provisional license application form from the DVLA site. You'll need to fill in the form, send payment, a photo and your passport. It is recommended to send this envelope tracked, and to enclose a self-addressed tracked return envelope so that you passport is as secure as possible while travelling to Swansea.

While waiting for your Provisional license, you can begin to study for the Theoretical (computer) test. There is a whole section on the DVLA website to help you to understand and prepare for this test. In addition you'll want to print out from this site 'The Highway Code' or to purchase it from a bookstore or online, or to get a copy from your local library. This 'Code' is the UK driving regulations and includes all of the road rules, signs, etc. which you need to know. In addition, there are other guide books which can help you to understand and study for this test, and some include sample questions for practice as well.

After receiving your Provisional license, the next step is to take the Theoretical (computer) test. Often there can be a wait when scheduling the test, so best to plan a little in advance for when you'd like to take it and then register early. Registration can be done on DVLA site also, and you'll need to provide details from your Provisional license as well as to pay the required test fee.

There are two parts to this test: a multiple choice 'driving theory' section and a situational 'hazard perception' section. There are pass rates for each section, and if you fail one section, you fail the entire test so best to get familiar with both sections. I passed both sections on my first attempt, but could have done better if I would have practiced more the 'Hazards' portion of the test as this 'clicking when you see danger' test is more difficult in my opinion than the standard multiple choice section where the test questions can be reviewed in advance with explanations in the test guides.

A tip: take the Theoretical practice test on the DVLA website to get comfortable with the test format.

After passing your Theoretical test, the final step is to pass the Practical (on road) driving test. This test will require you to drive for approximately 40 minutes with an examiner who will give you instructions about a route to take. This test will require you to drive on different types of roads and to perform certain maneuvers such as parallel parking, reversing around the corner, etc. In addition, beginning in October 2010, the Practical test will include within that 40 minutes 10 minutes of 'independent driving'. The purpose of this section will be to confirm that you can follow a series of instructions given in advance and can independently make your own decisions with confidence.

A tip: There is often a backlog to register for a Practical test, depending on the test Centre you choose and school holidays, as well Saturday and evening appointments are difficult to get. Therefore you must register and pay (via the DVLA website) early if you have limited availability as you may need to wait a month or more for your test appointment during peak times.

Another tip: Take the test in advance of the October 2010 change if you are a 'satnav driver' who prefers that turn by turn guidance as satnavs are not permitted on this test.

When you go to take the test you will require a car (a driving school car or another vehicle that you are insured to drive) as well as two 'L Plates' for non-driving school cars which are usually magnetic and will stick to the front and back of the car to alert other drivers that you are a Learner. In addition, you must supply a second interior mirror if your auto does not have one, it will be for the instruction to carefully observe all of your actions without impacting your driving. If you are driving within your one year grace period you do not need to have the L plates and mirror while driving yourself around, but you will need these items in order to take the test.

A tip: These items can often be found inexpensively on places like ebay.

Another tip: Be sure to check with the Test Centre on your test day if the weather is not so nice, tests can be cancelled if the centre decides that it is not safe driving weather.

As I have been driving successfully (OK, maybe a parking ticket or two) for 18 years, I went confidently into the Practical test, having taken a last minute cancellation appointment. I then proceeded to fail miserably. Even though one may be a great driver in their home country, the UK specifics of when to signal, when to look in the mirrors and the like must be strictly adhered to, otherwise you will fail. There is a categorization of mistakes and the allowable numbers of the types of mistakes, review the Practical test section on the DVLA to confirm full understanding of it.

In order to pass the test within my grace period, I decided the best thing to do was to take on a UK driving instructor and to do some lessons in which he could critique my driving style to point out the UK specific items I would need to fix. I took six hours of lessons with a certified instructor and it was quite helpful. There were certain minor flaws which I needed to adjust and it made all of the difference in the world, on my second attempt I easily passed. I would recommend to try the driving instructor route even if only to take a practice test with them as their lessons are usually cheaper per hour than failing the test!

Of course driving in the UK is a serious matter, this guide is only meant to illustrate my experience in getting my UK license and some things I learned about the process and some tips. If you have any questions about your personal situation which the DVLA website does not address, best to give them a phone call to discuss your specifics. I found their DVLA call centres to be very helpful and providing insight as to what form I needed and when in doubt as to how to answer certain questions on it.

Some Useful Relavent Discussion Links:

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the author's and not necessarily those of or any entity associated with This article is not checked for accuracy by any qualified immigration consultant or solicitor either represented on this site or otherwise. We will not be legally responsible for any statement made in this article. If you're going through the UK immigration process we strongly advise that you appoint a UK immigration consultant or immigration solicitor to deal with your case.


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