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.
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:*
- 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).
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:
- The German Way & More: Driving in Germany and Reciprocity
- AmCham Germany: Driver’s License Information for US Citizen in Germany
- US Embassy: American Driver’s License
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.