Four years and €1,800: What foreigners should know about the French driving test?

When Chris O'Brien signed up to take a French driving test he imagined this would be a fairly straightforward process, since he had after all been driving for 35 years in the USA. It was not.

Four years and €1,800: What foreigners should know about the French driving test?
Photo: AFP

My four-year odyssey to get my French driver’s license began in early 2015 when I paid €215 to register at an Auto École near our apartment in Toulouse, south west France.

I had already heard the stories about the eye-gouging €1,804 that the average candidate pays for such lessons and resigned myself to the costs.

Despite having driven for 35 years in the United States I needed to take the French test as the state that issued my licence – California – does not have an agreement in place allowing drivers to swap their licence for a French one.

Studying for the written part of the French exam proved so maddening, and the classes so unhelpful, that I gave up and simply ate the lost fee.

Two years later, changing family circumstances meant I really needed a French driver’s license. So, I registered in September 2017 with an online driving school, Ornikar. (Cost: €29.50 for the code lessons.)

I dug in, determined to triumph. During the test, the candidate is shown 40 photos taken from the driver’s point of view looking out the front windshield. One must mark all the signs, road markings, other cars, and pedestrians. Then read the question. There are typically 4 responses, but up to 3 of them may be correct. So, to get credit, the candidate must mark all the correct responses.

QUIZ Can you identify these French road signs?

Most French road signs have a less obvious explanation than this one. Photo: AFP

What’s particularly confounding is that some scenarios are completely subjective, but the test insists there is absolutely one correct answer (or set of answers).

For example, imagine you are driving down a city street and a pedestrian is crossing where there is no crosswalk while a car that is parked along the side is signalling that they are going to pull out. What must you do? A) Keep driving without slowing down. B) Tap the brakes to slow down. C) Lift your foot off the gas pedal and let the engine slow down the car. D) Swerve to the left to avoid the pedestrian.

Personally, either B or C works for me. But the only correct answer is: C. Why? Because far off in the distance of your rearview mirror, there is a dude on a bicycle behind you and tapping the brakes might be dangerous for him. Better to let the motor slow you more gradually.

On a chilly December morning, I arrived at La Poste where I had registered to take the code (cost: €30) with a youthful cohort. I was seated in a nondescript room and the only pimple-free candidate on hand. The monitor handed me a tablet and the images began scrolling along. With 5 of the first 7 questions of that subjective variety, I was reduced to simply guessing. Certain I had already failed, I still had to endure another 25 minutes of testing before leaving so I could begin my well-deserved rant against the injustice of it all.

So I was shocked when, 3 hours later, an email arrived marked avis: favorable! Somehow, I had missed only 3 responses. Pure dumb luck.

Now it was on to the practical driving lessons.

Drunk with glory from my triumph over the written test, I booked my first hour of evaluation (cost: €34.50) just a couple of days later and made a formal request to reserve a date for the driving test, which must be done several weeks in advance. What a fool.

The lessons involved the instructor constantly yelling at me for failing to do one thing or another. I was too rough when changing gears. I was not “controlling” in the right sequence when I made a right turn (look left first – then right – then left again!). I was using the brakes rather than downshifting to slow the car. I needed to shift to 3rd gear at 35 km/h no matter what! “Chris!” she kept screaming, completely unnerving me.

My confidence thoroughly crushed, I cancelled my request for a driving test. After two more lessons, I stopped for my mental health. By July, I had recovered enough to try a different instructor, who had a more measured approach and mellow temperament.

I wouldn’t muster the psychic energy to restart lessons until November, approaching the anniversary of my written code success. Eventually, I would book a total of 10 lessons between the 2 instructors at €39.90 each.

The experience was far more supportive, but it still consisted of 60 minutes of fault-finding. I needed to constantly swivel my gaze between the two side mirrors and the rearview mirror, like a bobblehead doll. My downshifting skills were still lacking. I kept resting my left foot on the floor of the car when it should be placed on the incline next to the clutch pedal.

Worst of all, however, was the dreaded la priorité à droite. Under this archaic rule, certain drivers approaching from the right have the right of way into a street, even if you are driving on the main road. When rolling down a street, a driver must glance at every side street and determine if there is a solid line marking or a yield sign or stop sign. Otherwise, you must slow and see if a car is coming and let them pass first. This is completely unintuitive and requires you to be hypervigilant.

READ ALSO How does France’s priorité à droite road rule work?

Passing the driving test requires performing a series of tasks to accumulate at least 20 points. But there are a handful of fautes éliminatoires. If you commit one these grave errors, you automatically fail, even if you have more than 20 points. Failing to recognise la priorité à droite is one of the major fautes éliminatoires. I was surely doomed.

When the day of my test in January 2019 finally arrived, we drove to the rendez-vous point where a stern examiner climbed into the passenger seat and my instructor moved to the back.

It did not start well.

We approached a massive roundabout and I saw another car circling and not signalling. With his intentions unclear, I decided to wait before entering, a decision that infuriated the examiner who demanded to know why I had this done this. As I tried to explain the American concept of defensive driving in French, she lectured me on the importance of never unnecessarily impeding traffic and inconveniencing other drivers. So it went.

READ ALSO Driving in France – the offences that can cost you points on your licence

The precious French driving licence. Photo: AFP

At any moment, the examiner asks the driver to stop an perform a manoeuvre This could be a three-point turn or parallel parking. Mine was simply to back the car up in a straight line. I began to do so, but the examiner noted that I had failed to use my right turn signal. Sigh.

One of the other major gut-wrenching moments of the driving exam is the verifications. At a random moment, the examiner will tell you to stop the car and read the last 2 digits on the odometer.

From these numbers, she will choose from a list of 100 verifications on the 40-page document generated by the Interior Ministry. The driver must memorise all of them. All of them.

Each verification has 3 parts: the interior of the car, the exterior, and first aid.

My digits read “11.” First part was easy: Point to the indicator for the gas level. Second part: What precautions do you take when putting gas in the car. Answer: Turn the car off, don’t smoke, don’t use your phone. Third part: What do you do when you see an accident victim who is not responding?

The correct answer must be given in the correct order: Place the victim in a stable position in a secure area. Alert emergency services. Monitor breathing of the victim until the arrival of paramedics.

I couldn’t remember the third one, and so didn’t get the point.

As the test ended, I had no idea if I had passed. I stepped out of the car while my instructor remained inside with the examiner, no doubt lobbying my case. I can only imagine the arguments. “Well, he is American after all…It’s hard to learn new things when one is older…No one died.”

Whatever he said, it worked. I scored a passing 25.5 (though out of a possible 40 this was hardly stellar.)

Four years after starting, I finally had earned my French driver’s license.

Member comments

  1. I remember when I had a test in Martin County Florida. It was fun and laid back to a point. Rolled up in a Camaro to great amusement at the centre because they are the car of choice in the drug trade.. The examiner was an extremely large black lady in a uniform, the Americans love their uniforms. The first test was to park the car, she went ballistic because I reversed into the space. Then out onto the open road at the staggering speed of 20 mph, the emergency stop was performed doing 5 mph. Five minutes later back into the office a question about what a stop sign looked like, just look at the red light and walked out with a Florida driving licence. Mind you this was 40 years ago so perhaps things have changed.

  2. Great article on a huge issue for some expats…There are a lot of expats who simply give up at the daunting prospect and ridiculous expense…made doubly hard if you’re French isn’t great. Many opt for the smart car route which is not ideal (nor viable for everyone). Considered the seemingly random and bizarre list of reciprocal states, does anyone know how the process of lobbying/applying for reciprocity works? Honestly think it would be quicker to lobby for regulatory change than try and pass the test…especially for some older Anglophones. A petition anyone?!

  3. I’m surprised by the rigorous questioning for the driving test when there are so many very bad French drivers out there. Every time I go out in the car there is some individual genuinely driving dangerously. In the countryside one of the worst is insisting on driving on the wrong side of the road towards the oncoming traffic and refusing to indicate. There seems so be a serious lack of forward thinking involved.

  4. Thanks Chris, ah…had a feeling it might be bundled up with other bits of legislation and that sounds rather typical…maybe with the new administration there will be positive movement. Well done on getting yours in France! Cheers.

  5. Hi Chris, fellow Californian here and I got my French driving license last year after a similar ordeal (it took me a couple years to actually accept that I needed to go back to driving school after driving for half of my life). It’s strange that your practical test was out of 40… mine was out of 31 (29 plus the two bonus points, one for ecological driving and one for “courtoisie”. My written test (le code) was out of 40 points however.

  6. My husband managed to pass his French driving test in just under a year, first time, at the age of 70. He had been driving for 50 years but I was still so proud of him. I have to say his driving instructor was brilliant and the school very helpful. Not at all like the experience above. I’m just praying they sort out a reciprocal arrangement before my UK licence runs out.

  7. I had to take my driving test in Oklahoma in 1985 (despite having a UK driving licence) and – after the multiple choice in a kind of voting booth – the only vehicle available to do it in was a Suburban with smoked glass windows all round (apart from the windscreen). I’d never up to that point driven an auto – I was watching my driver to the test center very carefully as to how he put the car into Drive with the stick-shifter on the steering wheel (if you get my drift). The fully armed (impressive for a Brit – what does he need a firearm for taking a driving test?) Highway Patrol officer first asked me to “parallel park”. I said I didn’t know what he meant (its all parallel parking in UK, so no adjective needed) – he patiently explained I had to park between two fencing posts? The Suburban (built to take up to 9 cowboys) would not fit in the space, so he eventually said “go on”. I don’t recall doing a 4-way stop than goodness (maybe too traumatic to remember), but I do remember the officer asking me to stop on a hill. I think I was meant to do something like put on my parking break and turn the wheels into the kerb: I did neither anyway. I didn’t even know where the parking break, because it wasn’t in the usual UK place in between the front seats. And I was driving for the first time on the right. And I passed! I think they did’nt want to see me again! A few months later I was driving a Mack truck from Texas to Montana for a custom harvester company on a farm license tag (didn’t require a truck-driver’s (“chauffeurs”) license back then. Imagine! Another life.

  8. I have an international licence from the UK which expires in 2023 can I use this in France until then.
    Trevor Gibbon

  9. I was from the UK. My test was in a parking lot in Florida. Top speed 5 maybe 7 mph. I was told I was parking on a ‘hill’, had to ask was I going uphill or downhill to set my wheels correctly. Then I was asked to perform a ‘hill start’. The parking lot even had a STOP sign. Must have covered at least 500 yards in total. And the French think they’ve got it hard!

  10. I have not read the article but my 21 year old son born in France but with a German passport cannot take driving lessons and a test in France because he is not on the census because he is not French and being on the census is the only way to receive a “convocation” to take part in some sort of national service day with the French army and a certificate to say one has attended such a day is obligatory for 17-24 year olds who want to learn to drive. I have paid €399 to a driving school towards a package of code, code test, driving lessons, driving test but will have to request the money back because it seems that between the ages of 17 and 24 (it does not apply to other ages and is a recent law) ONLY French nationals are entitled to learn to drive in France. Weird, not to say discriminatory, or what.

  11. I’m from California. I went through an auto école in Angoulême, Charente last summer. I treated it like a job. They did all the ANTS bureaucracy for me. From start to finish, took me three months and cost under 850 euros. Sorry this author had a hard time, but if one is diligent and takes it seriously, it can be done in months. I studied three hours a day for three weeks for Code de la Route, then had five hours of driving lessons. The examiner on my driving test was kind, test lasted ten minutes and he gave me 38 out of 40.

  12. Hi there…is there any up-to-date info about reciprocity between California and France? Or does anyone have any recommendations for English speaking instructors in Dordogne or Lot et Garonne?

  13. I’m from California, too, but was fortunate to have lived in Texas for a few years and was able to get my TX Driver’s License renewed through the mail (an ordeal in itself, but not quite as involved as getting a Permis de Conduire!) This allowed me to “trade” (yes, I had to physically give it away) my TX DL for a French one.

    But HERE’S what’s eating my lunch: Though I had motorcycle endorsements on both my CA and TX licenses, they would NOT allow that aspect to convey to the French license…So my passion for and nearly lifelong experience riding motos matters naught…I must pay, study and take THAT separate series of written, verbal and IN-THE-FIELD-ON-A-BIKE tests just as a voiture driver must do! Or give up the sport (not happening! Just…umm…Delayed 🙁

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What to do if you are arrested in France

Everything you need to know if you find yourself in handcuffs in France.

What to do if you are arrested in France

France’s legal system is born out of its Code Civil, and for criminal proceedings, the relevant legal infrastructure is the Code pénal.

The way the system works is very different to many anglophone countries, so if you are arrested do not expect events to follow the pattern you would expect in your home country.

Here are some of the scenarios you might find yourself in, and what to expect:

The police have stopped me:

There are a few scenarios here, they could give you an amende (fine), it could just be a contrôle d’identité (ID check) or contrôle routière (traffic stop) or you could be under arrest. 

READ ALSO Your questions answered: Legal rights as a foreigner in France

Fine – If they have stopped you to give you an amende, this is likely because you committed a minor infraction. 

This could be a traffic related offence – maybe you went through a red-light while riding your bicycle – or a minor crime such as littering.

The amount of the fine will depend on the severity of the infraction, which is at the discretion of the police officer. In most scenarios, the officer will ask for proof of identity, your address, and then the fine will be sent to your home. You’d be advised to pay it right away, because if you delay the fee can be increased.

Be aware that police officers will not ask you to hand over cash on the spot. It’s unfortunately true that scammers prey on tourists by pretending to be police and asking for cash ‘fines’ – a legitimate officer will not ask for this.

If you’re on public transport, transport police such as the Paris-based RATP Sûreté are also empowered to stop you and to issue fines if you have committed an offence such as travelling without a ticket. 

READ ALSO ‘Don’t mess with French cops’ – Tips for dealing with police in France

ID check – The other scenario where you could be stopped by a police officer is during a contrôle d’identité (identity check). This is when a police officer stops to check your identity, and it can only happen under certain conditions: they suspect you have committed or will commit a crime, you are in a ‘dangerous’ location where crime is known to occur, the public prosecutor has ordered an area to be watched, or you are operating a motorised vehicle (contrôle routière).

If you refuse to provide proof of identity, the police can find you guilty of refusing to obey or find you guilty of contempt and rebellion. If you do not have documents on your person to prove your identity, the officer can take you to the police station to check your identity there.

Many activists and NGOs argue that police practice racial profiling when they perform ID checks and it’s unfortunately the case that these ‘random’ checks do seem to happen more frequently to people of colour.  

Arrests – Finally, an officer might arrest you.

The French criminal code allows police to arrest and detain (for a limited period of time) any person against whom there exists one or more plausible reasons to suspect that they have committed or attempted to commit a criminal offence – this is at the discretion of the officer so it can cover a pretty broad range of circumstances.


The French police are allowed to detain you if the police suspect you have committed or could commit a crime that is punishable by jail time. This means they cannot detain you for something that is punishable simply by a fine, but no arrest warrant is required in order to detain you.

If police detain you, you need to be aware of your rights: 

  • Right to interpretation and translation if needed
  • Right to information (you have the right to know the exact legal definition of what you’ve been accused of)
  • Right to legal assistance (from the moment of arrest)
  • Right to have someone, such as a family member, be made aware of your arrest
  • Right to have an opportunity to communicate with your family
  • Right to be in contact with your country’s consulate and receive visits if you are arrested outside your home country
  • Right to the presumption of innocence
  • Right to remain silent and the right against self-incrimination
  • Right to be present at your trial
  • Right to consult police documents related to the investigation such as: the transcript of police interviews, medical certificates and notice of the rights in custody

In most circumstances you can only be held a maximum of 24 hours.

This can be extended if the crime you’re accused of is punishable of more than a year in prison. If so, the initial period of custody can be increased by 24 hours (up to 48 hours in total). In order for it to be extended, a public prosecutor must deem it necessary.

If the crime you are accused of is punishable by more than 10 years in prison, or relates to organised crime, initial detention can be up to four days, while those suspected of terror offences can be detained for a maximum of 144 hours (six days).

Court hearing

If the offence you are accused of is too serious to be dealt with by way of a fine, you will need to appear before a court.

If you’ve found yourself in this unfortunate situation, you should know that your hearing could either take place immediately at the end of your time in police custody or it could be sometime in the distant future – maybe even years later if it’s a complex matter.

The location of your hearing will depend on the severity of your offence: petty offences (contraventions) are typically dealt with in police courts (tribunal de police) or ‘jurisdictions of proximity’ (juridiction de proximité).

For misdemeanour crimes such as theft, you would likely go to a correctional court (tribunal correctionnel), and for the most serious offences such as rape or violent crimes you would be tried in a criminal court called a cour d’assises or la cour criminelle

If you have a ‘fast-tracked proceeding’ (comparutions immediates), this is because the public prosecutor has chosen this avenue.

Typically, it only happens in very straightforward cases, and it would involve your case being heard immediately at the end of your time in police custody (garde à vue). You cannot request a fast-tracked proceeding yourself. You should be advised that in these situations, it means that there is very little time to prepare a defence. You can request more time, and of course, you can request a lawyer. A fast-tracked proceeding will happen in the tribunel correctionnel.

There is also the option of a “Comparution sur reconnaissance préalable de culpabilité” (CRPC), which is a pre-trial guilty plea procedure. In order to go through this procedure, you must have the assistance of a lawyer

Ongoing detention

If your offence is too serious for an immediate court hearing, you will need to wait for a court date.

In most cases you will be released from custody while you wait for the hearing under contrôle judiciaire, which is similar to bail and often involves certain conditions such as not attempting to contact the victim or witnesses in the case.

In certain circumstances the judge can institute a caution, which is a sum of money that must be paid to ensure that the person be present at the proceedings, but paying money for bail is much less common in France than it is in the USA.

If you are a foreigner you will likely have your passport taken and be forbidden from leaving the country. If you do not have a permanent residence in France, the court can assign you one and demand that you stay in France until your hearing date.

If you commit further offences, or try to contact witnesses or victims while waiting for your hearing, or breach any of the conditions, you are likely to be brought back into custody.

I want to contact my embassy

You have the right to contact your embassy at any point after an arrest, though you will need to expressly request this, they will not be automatically contacted when you are arrested.

The role of the Embassy is much more limited than many people think – the Embassy is there to ensure that you are not being mistreated because of your nationality. As long as you are being given the same rights as a French national in the same scenario, The Embassy will not intervene on your behalf.

The Embassy does not have the power to tell a court whether you’re guilty or innocent, to provide legal advice, to serve as an official interpreter or translator, or to pay any legal, medical, or other fees.

They can, however, help you to find the above services, and most embassies have a list of English-speaking lawyers. 

If you have been incarcerated, depending on the country you come from, the French government might be required to inform your country of your incarceration. For US citizens, this requirement exists with your permission, and for UK citizens the obligation to inform exists even without your permission.

I would like legal assistance

You can request a lawyer at any time when in police custody in France.

As mentioned above, your embassy is a great resource for finding an English-speaking lawyer. Most embassy websites will have extensive directories for lawyers.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: How to find a lawyer in France

You can also check the local “tribunal d’instance” (your local courthouse), your département’s bar association (le batonnier/ Barreau), or consult websites, such as AngloInfo, which compile directories of English-speaking lawyers. 

If you cannot afford legal representation and need legal aid, you must be able to prove that you are low income. You can contact the Maison de Justice, which is the courthouse. Your département or region should have a website explaining the legal aids near you. This is Paris’ for example, HERE

Key Vocabulary

Appeal: appel

Bail: contrôle judiciaire

Bar Association: l’ordre des avocats/ barreau

Charge/Indictment: Accusations

Embassy: Ambassade

File: Dossier

Investigative Judge: Juge d’instruction

Judge: Juge or Magistrat

Lawyer: Avocat – keep in mind, when addressing a lawyer you should use the honorific Maître (the same title applies for male and female lawyers)

Judgment: Jugement

Legal Aid: Aide juridictionelle

Criminal offence: infractions

Felony: un crime

Misdemeanour: un délit

Petty crime: contravention

Police Custody: garde à vue

Public Prosecutor: Procureur de la République

Sentence: Peine

Warrant: Mandat

Witness: Témoin

Expert help for this article was provided by Maitre Matthieu Chirez, who is a practicing lawyer at J.P. Karsenty & Associates and is specialised in criminal law. You can access the firm’s website HERE.

Please note that this article is not a substitute for legal advice and if you find yourself in trouble with the French legal system you should always get professional help.