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Expat Life | Führerschein!

Expat life: Exchanging my driver's license in Germany

For more than a decade I’ve lived in cities with comprehensive public transportation systems — New York, Hamburg, Berlin — and I must admit, I’ve barely driven at all in that time. That’s certainly one of the reasons why, for the last five years, I’ve procrastinated on the bureaucratic process of exchanging my American driver’s license for a German one.

Technically, you’re only allowed to drive with your foreign license in Germany for a year. But since there’s no need for me to drive here, it was never high on my priority list. Even so, with no plans to move back to the US anytime soon, I knew the longer I postponed exchanging my license, the more problems I would have at the Führerscheinstelle.

PIC-Driver-License for DWS
Not me, obviously.

Luckily, my driver’s license is from one of those states (Washington) with an agreement with Germany allowing a straight-up exchange of one license for the other. Every state seems to be a bit different, with some requiring you to take driving exams (or even lessons, I think) here in Germany. Phew!

Paperwork for the Stadtamt

But it wouldn’t be Deutschland if there wasn’t at least a little bit of bureaucracy and paperwork involved. So here’s what I had to bring with me to the Stadtamt in Bremen for exchanging my US driver’s license for a German one:*

  • Passport
  • Washington driver’s license + certified translation
  • Verification of Washington state status + certified translation
  • My old expired Washington driver’s license
  • Biometric photo
  • 35 Euro

To prove that I’ve been driving since 1994, I had a verification letter from Washington State.  In the German system, driver’s licenses are for life — although this is changing with new EU-wide regulations — so when they see “issue date” on US licenses, it can be misunderstood as the date that you first received your license, rather than the date of your last renewal.

Visiting the German DMV

Admittedly, I was a little nervous that they’d say I’d waited too long to exchange my license. But that seemed to be less of an issue than the fact that I’d renewed my US license since I’d been living in Germany — which I’d done without thinking during one of my trips home.  Although the lady was convinced that that wasn’t allowed, she couldn’t find that specific rule written in any of her rule books, and neither could her boss (even though they spent at least 15 minutes searching).

So she let it slide. (Take a minute to let that sink in, I’ll wait.)  A German bureaucrat let a technicality slide because she couldn’t find any evidence to prove otherwise. I wouldn’t necessarily call that flexibility, but it does show some problem-solving initiative!  I think my case was bolstered by the fact that I had my expired license with me and could prove I’d been driving since before I came to Germany (apparently the verification letter from the Washington DMV didn’t hold much weight).

via ADAC

I did this all back in December, thinking that would allow enough time before I head off to Norway in March.  But, no.  Turns out they were waiting to issue any further licenses until the new EU license went into effect.  So my license waited in Bremen for me until I could pick it up this week.  It’s so shiny, so new!  The sad part is that I had to hand over my US license — hence, the word “exchange”. The Frau told me it would be sent back to the DMV in Washington. (I’ve actually heard from other Americans that the Germans hold on to the licenses for a certain number of years, but I don’t know if that’s changed recently.)

So, success! Now to begin with my next project — learning how to drive stick, since there are hardly any automatic cars here….

Some helpful links

For more on the technicalities of exchanging a US license for a German one, I found these links really helpful, but keep in mind that every Bundesland does things a bit different:

Also make sure to check out Sarah Stäbler’s post detailing her experience with exchanging her license — it’s actually what inspired me to get off my ass and finally get mine too!

* Since I’m officially angemeldet in Bremen because of PhD and visa requirements, I needed to apply for the German license there. Plus, I figured it would be easier to deal with the bureaucracy of a smaller city rather than navigate Berlin’s Kafka-esque system.

17 comments

  1. Terry says:

    It’s good they have all the rules and regulations to distract them from the question of whether or not you can actually drive.:-)

  2. Jul says:

    Wow, I am extremely impressed that you got away with that. I always thought that the rule was if you don’t exchange in your first year, you have to start from zero. Well done!

    • That was always my assumption as well, but then I heard from a few different Americans that they had converted their licenses way after that cut-off, so I decided to give it a go too!

  3. I’m so glad she let you get yours exchanged! It sure was a lot of work, wasn’t it? I was extremely lucky too, as I also had waited too long. Glad you were able to do it.

    I can’t drive stick either. Hah.

    Now the question is do I need an international driver’s license for when I visit the States again and want to drive? I’m going there this summer for three weeks. I remembered reading somewhere that you DO need one, but that someone had gone back to the German Führersteinstelle and exchanged it back temporarily for their US license…which would imply that they do keep it. I’m curious about that too. My husband drives in the US without an international license but has never been checked…I can’t imagine an American police officer would let that slide. There’s no way they’d speak German.

    • That’s a good question about the international driver’s license. I’ve heard conflicting stories. One version says that while car rental companies don’t require one, the cops still might if you get pulled over. I guess it’s something to investigate!

  4. Emily says:

    Exciting!! I love that they let it slide because they couldn’t find evidence to state otherwise. Good luck learning to drive stick. I learned on one, but never quite got the hang of it.

  5. Heather says:

    I second the congrats on sliding one through in the system… That’s pretty impressive! I’ve never had any reason to change my license either, but I fear those days may be waning. Wisconsin has that same reciprocity but I’m faaaaar over the time limit too. I think I’ll just wait to see how the stick-shift driving lessons go, and if it’s a total disaster then I won’t worry too much about it. Avoidance!

    • Sounds like a good plan. :) I wish I could find some solid rule somewhere of how long you can procrastinate on exchanging the license, but it sounds like it might sometimes just be the luck of the draw. And good luck with the stick-shift practice — it definitely has the potential to be disastrous for me too!

      • Heather says:

        Luck of the draw seems to be a safe bet for a lot of things in the bureaucracy world. I’ve already warned the boyfriend that anything that involves doing two things at the same time is probably a bad idea but he seems to think I can learn stick. Foolish boy.

    • Oh man, that doesn’t sound like fun! I think I might have given up driving altogether if I would have had to do that again. ;) I hope it’s a relatively painless process for you, though.

  6. Lucky you coming from a state with reciprocity! Since CA, does not, I still haven’t bothered to go through all I would have to do to get a license… three and half years later. Like you say, with public transportation and without a car of my own, I’m not sure the expense and the hassle is worth it for me. I’m sure I’ll get to it one day. And then tackle mastering manual transmission as well!

    • Well, I’m glad to see I’m not the only procrastinator out there! Although it sounds like you’ve been wrapped up in all the bureaucracy involved with having a baby here in Germany, so you’ve got a great excuse. ;)

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