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Now that you're here in Germany, you probably can't wait to take on the challenge of the Autobahn, to tour the beautiful countryside or to grind to a halt in a Stau. But to do any of these, you first need to have a valid driver's license. If you're an EU national, you don't have to worry about this, as your home country license is fully recognized in Germany. For the rest of the world, the matter is much more complicated.
Don't imagine that you can simply use one of those international driver's licenses while living here they're invalid in the country where you're a legal resident. Your home license remains valid for exactly six months from the official date of your first residence permit. But this is only after it has been officially translated into German. Important exception #1: if your total stay is longer than six months, but less than one year, your home license can remain legal. You must apply for an extension at the local driver's license office (Führerscheinstelle). Although you can use this license for the first half of the year, you should definitely move to acquire a German license as soon as possible. If you miss that six-month cutoff date, you'll be required to take driver's training courses at a local driving school and then you'll have to take both written and road tests.
In getting your home license recognized in Germany, you'll have to work your way through a maze of regulations, depending on which country originally issued your license. Under bilateral agreements, a number of countries enjoy what is called Prüfungsfreiheit, which frees their license-holders from requirements for taking written and road tests. These countries include Japan, South Korea and a roster of others. Check whether the country that issued your license is included. Note that while you might be freed from taking the tests, you're not freed from paying the fee for transcribing your license. Important exception #2: if your license is from a country with a bilateral agreement, the three-year deadline for transcribing your license no longer applies.
You can get your driver's license or other motor vehicle documents translated at one of Germany's automobile clubs, at certain consulates, or by government-certified translators. ADAC, Germany's largest automobile club, charges a sliding scale for its translations, ranging from 26-36 euros. For a list of ADAC regional offices, go to www.adac.de.
U.S. citizens coming from states that deny full or partial reciprocity to German drivers are equally denied the same privileges in Germany and are therefore required to take road and/or written tests. For a current list of reciprocity agreements you can consult the American Chamber of Commerce in Germany website: www.amcham.de. Five German states (Hamburg, Hessen, Saarland, Saxony-Anhalt and Schleswig-Holstein) have in recent years introduced regulations which permit a conversion of US driver's licenses. American citizens, regardless of which US state they are from, can apply for the conversion of their US driver's license if they meet certain, albeit complicated, conditions.
If you've never had a driver's license before, you'll be required to go to a driving school. Seasoned drivers may only need a couple of lessons to demonstrate that they can navigate local roads and streets, after which instructors will approve of them taking the necessary written and road tests. New drivers and those who need longer to adjust to German driving habits will, of course, require more lessons. But be forewarned: driving lessons for beginners can cost upwards of 1,500 euros. In addition, most driving schools in Germany are focused on teaching teenagers and not adult foreigners, so they may not know all the rules about transferring licenses.
And now after all this hard work to finally get your German drivers license, you'll be happy to know that the local authorities will confiscate your original driver's license. There is a German law that no one is allowed to hold two driver's licenses at the same time in the same country. Important exception #3: there are ways to get around this, but it's too complicated to explain here...so ask your driving school.