In the Garage

Getting a German Driver's License Part 1: The Bureaucracy

January 13, 2019 | 8 Minute Read

I’ve been living in Germany for about 12 years at this point, but never felt the need to get my driver’s license. Where ever I’ve gone, I’ve been able to manage by public transportation, even if I had to wait for a bit for the bus. It might’ve been a slight nuisance, but it’s not like in the United States where you have to drive yourself everywhere. What changed my mind after so long?

At my job, I started going to Brussels about once a quarter and found it much more practical when I could convince a coworker to get a rental car and roadtrip together. I had taken the Thalys (train) too often and seemed to always wind up next to the toilet, which was unpleasant. And generally, it was more fun day tripping with some coworkers.

In October 2017, I took the train to Tilburg, Netherlands with my pen pal to see Weezer on a Saturday. Linda booked her flight back to London from Düsseldorf on the Sunday. Long story short, the train had problems and we were stuck in Dinslaken, a small town about 40 kilometers (25 miles) north of Düsseldorf. I called Christian to see if he could get me a cab since there weren’t any available, but his parents were around and generously volunteered to pick us up. We barely made it back to Düsseldorf for Linda’s flight. You can see how unamused we were about getting stuck in Dinslaken:

Pissed off in Dinslaken

After that, I resolved to get my German driver’s license because it would’ve been cheaper and more convenient to have driven to Tilburg and back. And it would’ve been less stressful. For work, I wouldn’t need to rely on getting coworkers to drive me, and I could also offer to drive one way if we wanted to go together.

The Background

American licenses are recognized in Germany by state. If there’s an agreement between Germany and the state, then drivers can easily transfer their licenses. Had I gotten my license in Pennsylvania, I could’ve transferred it. But alas, New Jersey is not one of the states where the licenses are recognized here.

Instead, this means that I have to pass both the written and practical exams. In the grand scheme of things, this isn’t surprising considering that the practical test in Jersey is on a freakin closed course with no other traffic on it. This may have changed since I got my license 15 years ago, but I somehow doubt it. And the written test? I don’t even remember taking it. All I know was that there was a pretty easy multiple choice test on a Scantron.

The German driver test is notoriously rigorous and rightly so—remember, the Autobahn has no speed limit on some parts. And of course, Germans love rules.

The Bureaucracy

Of course, there’s a bunch of annoying stuff involved with getting a license. Moreover, there’s additional bureaucracy involved trying to get my license sort-of-transferred so that I don’t have to pay for all of the lessons and it takes less time (theoretically).

The first list of things I had to do:

  1. Find a driving school willing to help me get my license without paying the full price with all lessons
  2. Do a first aid course and get the certificate saying I completed it
  3. Get an eye test done
  4. Have a biometric photo taken
  5. Get my driver’s license translated officially
  6. Submit the paperwork to the German equivalent of the DMV (Straßenverkehrsamt)

I got steps 1 to 4 done within about a week, two max. The last two points? That was complicated (of course it was).

Important side note for this story: Last year when I signed up to do my German license, my NJ license was set to expire in May. Licenses are valid for four years and are required to be renewed. My goal was to get my German license by the time the Jersey one expired. It didn’t happen.

I got my valid NJ license translated from an online service and made an appointment at the Straßenverkehrsamt. They informed me that I would have to start the process from the beginning because my license was issued in July 2014. They thought I had illegally gotten my license after moving to Germany, i.e. did my license abroad because it’s cheaper. I patiently explained that the Jersey license is renewed every four years, but they insisted I needed to show the license issued when I first started living in Germany or I needed a letter from the New Jersey DMV saying when I first got my license to prove I had it before I came here.

Long story short: My dad couldn’t find my stack of old licenses at home because he had moved some of my stuff around in my bedroom. I requested paperwork from the NJ DMV, and it turns out they don’t keep paperwork after four years. I thought I was screwed. I waited until I went home in May to look for my licenses myself since I am a packrat and don’t throw out things like that. Eventually, I found all of my licenses buried in a box. Success!

I used the online service again to have my license translated and went back to the Straßenverkehrsamt to submit my paperwork. The woman working that day told me my translation wasn’t valid because I had to have one where I showed the actual physical license to the translator. These types of translations state that the translator has seen the physical copy. I nearly flipped out at her, telling her that nobody had told me that the first time I was there and they had seen the translation I provided. It meant that I had wasted almost 100€ for two translations that weren’t valid—one for my valid license I showed the first time, and one for the license that was issued to me in 2006 before I moved to Germany permanently. I left unsuccessfully again.

After finding an official translator in Düsseldorf, I made my third appointment at the Straßenverkehrsamt and hoped that everything would work out. And it finally did—the guy working that day accepted my paperwork without any further questions.

….Except it didn’t quite work out. I got a letter four weeks later telling me that I had officially been registered as living in Germany on 29 September 2005, but the license I had translated and presented was issued in June 2006. I thought that my year abroad in Berlin wouldn’t count towards the license since it was a temporary situation, and for me, I moved back and have been continuously here since August 2007.

I sent a letter back with a copy of my first license ever, issued way back in 2002, without a translation because I was so pissed. Not only that, I wasn’t going to drop extra money on yet another translation only to have them say, “This looks like a library card.” This is what my license from 2002 looks like, and yes, this is what the New Jersey license looked like back in the day:

New Jersey license from 2002

A week later, I finally got approval from the Straßenverkehrsamt that the fact that I already had a license would be recognized. I was finally approved to take the written exam—but that’s enough for the next post.

But to give you an idea of how stupidly complex everything was up to that point:

Time involved:

  1. Find a driving school and have initial consultation: 2 hours
  2. First aid course, eye test, biometric photo: 1 full day
  3. Waiting for translations: ca. 2 days each, so 6 days total
  4. Setting up the three appointments at the Straßenverkehrsamt with wait times to get an appointment: ca. 2 week waiting period from when I knew that I needed an appointment, so at least 6 weeks’ wait time total
  5. Wait time to hear back from the NJ DMV about a letter proving when I got my license: ca. 3 weeks
  6. Time between my second appointment at the Straßenverkerhsamt and when I could go home to find my old licenses myself: 7 weeks
  7. Wait time to tell me I had provided the wrong license when I moved to Germany: 4 weeks
  8. Wait time to approve the scan of my 2002 license: 1 week

Total time involved up to August 2018: ca. 22 weeks

But that’s actually just for the times that I know of. The time stretched out because of all the back and forth between Germany and the US, figuring out stuff here with the official authorities and translations and the driving school, etc.

Total costs:

  • Driving school: 329€
  • First aid course, eye test, biometric photo: 25€
  • Online translations: 90€
  • DMV request for driver history: $15 (about 13€)
  • Translation in Düsseldorf: 50€ (I think)
  • Straßenverkehrsamt processing fees: 44€
  • Cost for written exam: 22.50€
  • Cost for practical exam: 91.75€

Total costs involved up to August 2018: 665.25€

This isn’t even the total cost of what it will actually end up costing me, but I’ll detail more in forthcoming posts.