getting your driver’s license in France – baptism of fire

The Webster dictionary describes baptism of fire as an introductory or initial experience that is an ordeal. If that is so, then I’ve experienced dozens of baptisms since coming to France. People who haven’t moved here don’t have a clue how hard it can be. Paris is not all flaky croissants, rose-colored macarons and chocolate eclairs.

There’s a difference between being a tourist and a (working) resident.

Getting French citizenship (which I didn’t even want, but after Brexit, me and my British passport were no longer part of Europe) was a two-year ordeal. Pounding the Parisian pavement hunting for work wasn’t exactly a party, nor was interviewing and doing myriad tests in a foreign language. I won’t even touch on the subject of apartment hunting. This isn’t a pity party. But moving to a foreign country – alone and with no support system – can be challenging, to say the least.

Years ago, my sister sent me a whiny email from Toronto complaining how hard it was to run our father’s small publishing company – “Do you know how hard I worked? It wasn’t easy. YOU have no idea.”     “You wouldn’t last 24 hours in my world,” I retorted.

Anyway, back to my driver’s license which is the title of this post. Back in Canada, I got my driver’s license when I turned sixteen. I remember nothing about the test and driving exam, but I don’t think it was too difficult. I passed, and from that moment on I drove. Decades later, I bought myself a car here in Paris. Using my Canadian driver’s license, I drove for two years before concluding that owning a car in Paris is madness. So I sold it. And then my driver’s license expired. So I was car-less and license-less, but I did nothing about it.

Fast-forward another decade and I want to drive again. I miss it. I envision myself sailing down a Spanish highway on my way to Toledo, Seville or Cordoba. (I could also take the train, but my dream fantasy involves a car.) So it was time to bite the bullet and get myself a French driver’s license. I had heard all kinds of nightmare stories: that it was really hard; that very few people pass the theory test the first, second or even third time; that the driving examiners are sadistic and gleefully flunk you just because they can. And that it’s expensive! It can cost anywhere from 900 to 1800 euros, depending on what driving school and package you choose. I paid just under 1000 euros for an online driving school called Le Permis Libre. I recommend it.

Stage One is to obtain what’s called “the Code”. It’s all theory and covers every aspect of the driving experience from actual driving to first aid, the environment, car mechanics, traffic offenses and more. Today, it’s harder and more technical than it used to be. Work colleagues who have been driving for 20 or 30 years have told me that if they ever had to take the theory test today, they’d flunk. There are not only ten themes and a thousand questions to study and memorize, but traffic signs as well. These are just a few of them:

Did you know that headlights are brighter on the right side than the left? (above slide).

And because the French love to make things difficult, there are multiple trick questions as well as illogical ones.

A month ago, I took my first exam at the local post office. We were three in a small room equipped with three desks, tablets and headphones. There are 40 questions. In order to pass, you must get 35 of them right. I failed spectacularly because I hadn’t studied properly. I approached the whole thing flippantly with an attitude that said – I’ve been driving since I was 16. How hard can this be?

So I studied more seriously, crammed for an entire weekend, and did the test again on Monday at 9 am. This time round, I was all alone in the small room. The woman padlocked my phone, coat and handbag in a locker and walked away with the key. “You have 35 minutes,” she said before closing the door.

I did the best that I could, finished, then went to work believing that I had flunked again. A few hours later, I went onto the website of Le Permis Libre to see the results.

Vous avez passé l’Epreuve Théorique Générale du permis de conduire le 22/05/2023.

Vous avez obtenu la note de 36 sur 40.


Frankly, I was surprised, but thrilled. Now for the next step: the actual driving test, which shouldn’t be difficult unless I get a sadistic examiner.

5 thoughts on “getting your driver’s license in France – baptism of fire

  1. Well done on passing Juliet , it looks like a total nightmare !
    Your tale of a 2 year battle to gain French citizenship strikes a chord as it’s just taken me the best part of 2 years to claim the pension that I am entitled to from my late husband , he was French , I’ve often asked myself whether I’d have been treated the same way if I were a French national ? It’s a beautiful country but the bureaucracy is unbelievable !
    Have a good day !

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