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

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

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?

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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’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 🙁

  2. 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?
    Cheers.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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!

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

  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. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

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