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 studies.
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 de séjour. 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 license.
- 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 often vary.
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 of cities.
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.
You can search car listings on several websites: leboncoin.fr, ebay.fr, priceminister.fr, annoncesjaunes.fr, or 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 vehicle inspection
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.
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 rond-point and those that are already in the rond-point need to stop and let them through (priorité à droite). But unfortunately, most people don't know/don't respect this rule!
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 European carte bancaires with the little puce (chip) work - you cannot use an American credit card in these machines.
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). The words 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.
US Embassy's official document on Automobiles and Driving Information in France.
Thanks to Rebecca for additional information!