Expats in France: French Driver's License & Driving in France
Permis de Conduire | Buying
a Car in France | Driving in
You can drive in France with your American license as a
tourist, but it's always a good idea to get an International Driver's
License before coming to France, which costs about $15 from AAA. If you
are a resident of France, you must have a French driver's license after
one year or you will no longer be insured, and therefore will be driving
illegally. This one year period starts on the date of your first carte
de séjour, unless it is an étudiant card, in which
case you can drive with your American license for the duration of your
French Permis de Conduire
Exchange: If your country or state has
a reciprocal exchange with France (check the PDF list here), then you can exchange
your license for a French license without having to take any written
or driving tests within one year of the beginning date on your carte
As of October 2014, there are 18 US states that have this exchange: Arkansas,
Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin as
well as Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and
8 Canadian provinces: Alberta,
British Columbia, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Newfoundland & Labrador, Prince Edward Island, Ontario and Quebec. If
you do not do the exchange within the one year period, then you will
have to take the tests in order to obtain a French license, though some préfectures are lenient on the one year rule.
I was able to exchange my Michigan license, and all I had to do was
give 1) a copy of my carte de séjour, 2) a copy of my passport,
3) my Michigan license, 4) an official French translation of my Michigan
license, 5) 2 ID photos, and 6) a Distingo envelope bought at the post
office to the Circulation department at my Préfecture.
I received my French license within 6 weeks, and besides the Distingo
envelope, it was free! Note however, that when you do the exchange, you
will be relinquishing your American license and may need an English translation of your French license if you want to drive in the US.
If you have a license that was issued from an EU state, then you do not need to exchange it for a French license. You may drive in France with your original license, and in fact, as of 2013, all EU states began issuing a European driver's license valid in all EU and EEA states.
The Hard Way: If you cannot do the exchange,
then you must obtain a driver's license the hard way. You will have
to pass a multiple choice test before you can take the road test. Driving
school is very expensive in France though, so expect to pay hundreds
of euros if you don't need a lot of practice and over a thousand euros
if you do need practice. (For example, the cheapest school found in the
center of Bordeaux was 600€, including exam fees, a study booklet
to borrow, and 8 hours of driving.) The
whole process takes at least two to three months to obtain a French driver's
- Advantages: they take care of the paperwork,
the exam scheduling, and talking to the Préfecture; they know
what the tests are like and it's in their best interest to prepare
you (it ups their stats!); the Préfecture reserves exam spots
for the driving schools; they have the most up-to-date information
- Disadvantage : they're expensive
- If you don't pass your exams the first time around, the driving school often
requires that you pay for more lessons, as well as the exam fees for the subsequent
exams. (ex: to repeat the road test, it could cost about 500 € more,
on top of the 600€ you'd already paid)
- Visit a couple and ask for a quote with the number of hours of lessons they'll
make you take before choosing one. Professionalism, prices, and requirements
Written Test: You can go to a driving
school to practice for the written test, but it is not required. There
are a lot of books and CD-Roms that are available for self-study if you
don't want to spend money on taking practice exams in class. The actual
test is 40 questions, and you must answer 35 correctly in order to pass,
but you only have 30 seconds to answer each question. Most questions
are based on a photo taken of a situation seen from the driver's seat
of a car. Two
to four possible courses of action are offered as answers. There
is always at least one right answer and at least one wrong answer. (There
can be from one to three correct responses to a given question.) The
practice exams are generally harder than the actual test though.
Road Test: Even if you have been driving
for many years in your home country, it will be probably be a good idea
to take some driving lessons in France before you take the road test.
This can be quite expensive though, around 35 € an hour! (And
with the rising price of gas, expect to see cost per hour of lessons
go up.) The actual test lasts about 20 minutes and you will need to
provide a traduction assermentée of your American license. And if you
take the road test in an automatic car, your license will specify that
you can only drive automatic cars in France. If you take the road test
with a manual car, your French license will not have the automatic car
restriction and you are free to drive either one. If you want to take
the road test without going through a driving school, you need to provide
a car with two sets of controls (a second one for the examiner) -- I
hear there are companies in the Paris region that rent them, but don't
know of any.
You can take both the written and the road exams with a
translator. The advantage of a translator on the written exam
(besides allowing you to understand the questions!) is that you don't
have a time limit to answer the questions... but you do have to pay for
the translator, and there are fewer exam spots available.
First-time exam-takers have priority. If you don't
pass your French exams the first time around, it can be a 2-6 month wait
to retake them!
Restricted License: If you obtained a
license in France the hard way, you will be considered a jeune
conducteur and receive a restricted license even if you have years of driving
experience. This means that you will have only 6 points instead of 12
on your license (points are deducted instead of added in France) for
3 years. And you will have to put the red A on the back of your car,
meaning that you must drive slower than the speed limit on roads outside
If you have the old papier rose (pink paper) type French license, it will be valid until 2033. If you received the new card style license (from 2013 on), it will expire after 15 years. Since American licenses do not specify whether you can drive an automatic or manual car, your French license will not specify this either, meaning that you are legally allowed to drive a manual in Europe even if you do not know how to.
Buying a Car in France
You can search car listings on several websites: leboncoin.fr,
paruvendu.fr but if you are looking
specifically for an automatic, make sure to double-check with the seller.
When I was looking for an automatic, I inquired about 5 different cars
that were listed as having an automatic boîte de
vitesse, but in fact,
they were manuals and the sellers were too lazy to proofread their listings.
The paperwork you need in order to buy a car and get your
new registration includes:
Carte grise - registration (if the seller
does not have this, DO NOT BUY the car!)
Certificat de cessation - proves that seller is actually
selling you the car (3 copies)
Certificat de non-gage or situation - proves that there are no legal problems
with the car
Certificat de contrôle technique - proves that car passed
Justificatif de domicile - proof that you live in the département where you are
registering the car
Pièce d'identité - passport, visa, CDS, etc.
Usually you can download the certificat de cessation and
non-gage from your prefecture's website instead of making a trip there
just to pick them up, but the seller should have these ready for you.
You will need to take all of the above paperwork to the Circulation department
of your Préfecture to get your new Carte Grise and perhaps a new license
plate number. You have one month from the day you bought the car to get
it registered in your name.
Carte Grise: This is your registration
that you must keep in the car at all times. The cost depends on how many
horsepower (chevaux) your car has. For example, my car is only 5 CV,
so I paid 108 € for my carte grise. As of 2009, cars in France now have license plate numbers for life (regardless of who owns it), so you might not have to get a new number if you bought your car in a
different département from where you live and the car already has the new license plate. You still need to get an updated carte grise though. The license plate change went into effect March 15, 2009 for new cars and October 15, 2009 for used cars.
Contrôle Technique (CT): This is
a vehicle inspection that must be done every two years. Sellers must
do the CT within 6 months of selling a car, so if the CT is not done
when you look at a car and the seller doesn't plan on doing it, don't
buy it (because technically it's illegal and there could be many problems
with the car). There are two listings on the CT: contre-visite means
that there are problems that need to be fixed asap or the car cannot
be driven legally; and the second just lists other problems that should
be fixed, but aren't required by law. The CT costs about 80 €. The garage
will place a little sticker on your windshield with the date of the next
CT to remind you. Click on the image below to see the last CT for my car - obviously it had some contre-visites!
Insurance: Car insurance is required in
France, and there are several companies you can choose from: Macif,
Direct Assurance, Eurofil,
etc. or you can go through your bank. I pay 30
€ a month for my basic insurance, with a secondary driver. You will
receive a small pocket-like sticker to put on your windshield, in which
you must display your proof of insurance. In addition, you should keep
the larger proof of insurance paper with your carte grise, as the police
will ask for it if they ever stop you.
Yellow Jacket/Red Triangle: A new rule
as of July 1, 2008, states that you must have a yellow jacket in your
car (not in the trunk) at all times to put on in case of emergencies
when you must leave the vehicle. In addition, you must have a red triangle
that needs to be put at least 30 meters behind your car to warn oncoming
traffic. As of October 1, 2008, you could face a fine of 135 € if
you do not have both of these in your car.
Remember that police in France have the right to stop drivers
at any time for no reason, unlike the US. You must pull over when they
direct you to do so and present your license, carte grise and insurance.
Random vehicle inspections are common and not illegal, so always comply
with the police.
Driving in France
Rond-points aren't that difficult to master as long
as you pay attention to the signs. The majority of rond-points in France
give the priorité to cars that are already in the rond-point.
When you come up to a rond-point, you will most likely see a sign that
says céder le passage (yield) and maybe a blue
sign with a white arrow showing that you need to go to the right.
However, there are a few rond-points that are actually the opposite. If
a rond-point does not have the céder le passage sign (like
the huge rond-points in Paris or rond-points under construction),
then the priorité goes to cars that are entering the
and those that are already in the rond-point need to stop and let them
à droite). But unfortunately, most people don't know/don't respect
Rond-points with two lanes have the following rules:
if you are going to turn on the first road to your right, or on the
road that is directly across from you, then you need to stay in the right
lane and keep your right blinker on. If you are going to turn on the
third road to your left, or the road that was next to where you originally
came from, you need to be in the left lane with your left blinker on
until you get close to your road, and then you can switch to the right
lane. But once again, many people do not know/respect this rule, so you should be expected to get cut off at the last second in large rond-points.
Priorité à droite takes a while to get
used to because it seems to make no sense. Even if you are driving on
the main road, you may need to slow down and stop at every little side
road on your right to let that traffic through. These intersections
are generally marked with signs with an X and priorité à droite
painted on the road. However, if you are to the right, don't plan on
other cars respecting this rule and letting you go. If you are at an
intersection where the lights don't work because of a power failure,
then the rule becomes priorité à droite, but of course, most
people don't know/don't respect this rule.
Autoroute: You should always drive in the right lane,
as the left lanes are only for passing. If you come upon a traffic
jam and you are the last person, you should put on your hazard lights
to warn the traffic behind you to slow down. If you have an accident
or break down and do not have a cell phone, there is an orange SOS phone
about every 2 kilometers where you can call for help. Rest stops, called aires
de repos, usually have at least one store and some (free) bathrooms. Some
have restaurants and gas stations, but gas is very expensive there. You
should always buy gas at supermarkets before getting on the highway.
Toll Booths: The majority of highways in France are
not free, so you will have to make frequent stops to take a ticket and
pay the tolls. You should not pull into a toll booth that is marked
with a red X or with a yellow T (this is for people who have a little
box in their car that records each toll automatically). You can pull
into the lanes marked with a green arrow if you want to pay in cash
or by debit card (there will be an actual person at the toll booth),
or you can pull into lanes marked with CB or a tiny hand holding a card
if you want to pay with your debit card in the machine. Note that only
bancaires with the little puce (chip) work - you cannot
use an American credit card in these machines.
Click for larger picture
Speed Limits: In residential areas, the speed limit
is generally 30 kph. Within the agglomération of a city, it's
50 kph. The speed limit on
the highway is 130 kph, or 110 kph when it's raining/snowing/foggy/etc.
Roads outside of cities without a barrier between the lanes going in
different directions are "always" 90 kph unless marked otherwise (often
they're marked at 70) Roads outside of cities with a barrier between
the lanes going in different directions are 110 kph. This includes
all those highway-looking roads that aren't classed as "autoroutes".
Peripheries (rocades) are almost always limited to 90kph, except that
of Paris, at 80kph.
Parking: All of the garages I've seen in France require
you to take a ticket when you enter, but pay at an automatic machine BEFORE
you get back into your car and try to leave the garage. You put the ticket
in the machine, pay the amount shown, and it validates (prints something
on) your ticket. Then you put that ticket in the machine on the way out
so the bar will be raised.
Gasoline: Make sure you know if your car takes gas
or diesel. If it takes gas, there are two types: 95 or 98 (more expensive).
essence or sans plomb are used for gas; while gasoil and diesel refer
to diesel. Never put gas into a car that takes diesel! Currently,
the price of gasoline is around 1.30-1.40 € per liter, but diesel is
slightly cheaper at about 1 € per liter.
Road Signs: Knowing the meaning of the shapes and colors
on road signs will obviously make driving much easier in France, plus
you will be tested on them if you have to take the written exam anyway.
- Triangular signs with a red outline are warning signs, such as for
railroad crossings, construction sites, or sharp turns.
- Circular signs
with white backgrounds and red outlines are prohibitive signs, usually
things that you cannot do,
such as the speed limit signs or no pedestrian signs. Most of these
signs do not have the red line across them, so pay careful attention
to these signs!
- Circular signs with blue backgrounds and white outlines show what
you must do (such as turn right) or show the end of something (such
as a bike path) with a red line across it.
- Square signs with blue backgrounds and white outlines are generally
informational signs about parking, number of lanes, pedestrian crossings,
A few sites with examples of French road signs and their meanings in
in France, DrivingAbroad.co.uk and
US Embassy's official document on Automobiles
and Driving Information in France.
Thanks to Rebecca for additional information!