Stranded: Brits in France left with no driving licence due to lack of post-Brexit agreement

Brits in France have told how they have been left stranded with no driving licence due to the lack of a post-Brexit reciprocal agreement over driving licence swaps.

Stranded: Brits in France left with no driving licence due to lack of post-Brexit agreement
Photo: Kenzo Tribaullard/AFP

Elsa Cormack’s UK licence expired when she turned 70 in January and she has been unable to either renew it or exchange for a French one, leaving her unable to drive despite living in a small village in southern France with no public transport.

Her husband Sydney, who has been dealing with the swap, said: “There is no public transport here, just the school bus, so I have had to drive her everywhere. Our son is getting married this year so we will try to get to the UK as soon as the borders open up, but we usually share the driving as it is a long way.”

Jon Savage, 55, lives in the Vienne département in western France and without a driving licence is now struggling to access vital medical appointments.

He said: “I’m an insulin-dependant diabetic so my UK licence needs renewing every three years. I moved to France in 2018 and sent off my dossier in November 2018 to swap my licence for a French one.

“It was returned and I was told I could keep driving on my UK licence for the time being. I applied again at the end of last year because the licence was close to expiring but my application has been sitting in a queue ever since and now my UK licence has expired.

“I can’t get to my medical appointments which are in Poitiers, which particularly important for me as I have just been diagnosed with a heart problem. 

“If you are caught driving without a valid licence then the fine is up to €15,000 and a year in prison!”
Josephine Washington, who lives in Corbieres, has also been left without a licence after hers expired while waiting for the exchange.
She said: “I sent my forms off by post a few months before my 70th birthday back in June 2019, 18 months later these were returned and I was advised to apply online instead – except that my licence has now expired and the online portal is not accepting applications from UK licence holders.
“I live about a mile outside the nearest village so I need to drive for everything, even taking the rubbish out. My husband was very ill and died in October 2019 so there were a lot of trips to and from hospital that I had to rely on others to drive me.
“I’m also partially disabled so driving really is vital for me. I’m looking into taking the French driving test but I’ve heard this can be very expensive and also quite a time-consuming process even for those people who have already held a driving licence but there don’t seem to be any other options and no-one can tell me what I should do.”

Brits living in France were supposed to have 12 months to exchange their licences, with the exchange process intended to open on January 1st 2021 and an agreement that UK licences for residents in France would continue to be recognised until the end of 2021.

This applies only to British people living in France and does not affects tourists, visitors or second-home owners.

However when January 1st came around, the online portal for licence swaps was not accepting applications for UK licences.

The British Embassy in Paris initially told The Local that the French site simply needed to be updated, but later admitted that the problem was the lack of a reciprocal agreement in place between France and the UK.

There is still no agreement in place and the window to exchange licences has now shrunk to just over nine months.

But those whose licences expire face being left with no licence at all, a huge problem for those living in rural France where public transport networks are often minimal or non-existent.

UK driving licences need renewing once the driver hits 70, but currently this is impossible, making this a particular problem for the over 70s.

Sydney said: “I applied online for her in November last year, when they were at least still accepting applications from people whose licence would shortly expire, but since then we have heard nothing and every time I call or email they just say to wait.

“We can’t get any help or advice from people, some say just to keep driving anyway but the official advice seems clear that you cannot drive if you don’t have a valid UK licence and it would probably invalidate the insurance.

“We’re lucky because I managed to exchange my licence the previous year, but what about people living alone?”

A spokesman from the British Embassy in Paris said: “The latest on exchanging driving licences in France remains that UK driving licences will continue to be recognised in France until 31 December 2021.

“The rules for exchanging your licence have not been confirmed. We will provide updates as soon as we have them, and you can find full information here.”

Since 2019 Brits living in France have only been able to exchange their licences in certain specific circumstances after an earlier surge in applications left a massive backlog at the centre in Nantes that processes such applications.

This means that people who moved to France since 2019 have never been able to apply to change their licence, while many others were left waiting for months or had their application turned down.

French officials are still working through the backlog, which is also slowing down some applications from drivers of other nationalities.

Anyone who doesn’t manage to exchange their driving licence before it expires potentially faces having to take a French driving test, a lengthy and expensive undertaking even for people who have many years’ experience behind the wheel.

READ ALSO Four years and €1,800 – taking the French driving test as a foreigner 

A petition has now been launched calling on the French and UK governments to end the hardship and conclude a reciprocal agreement. You can sign the petition HERE.

Member comments

  1. I have just been on the uk government website which says “You can use your French licence in the UK for short visits, or exchange it for a UK licence without taking a test. We will update these pages if there are any changes to the rules, as soon as information is available”. Is this the case for french residents and if so why do our licences run out at the end of the year in France and we have to take a test until/unless an agreement is reached?
    Andrew Tarr

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Brexit Brits in EU feel European and don’t want to return home, survey reveals

The majority of Britons who live in the EU, Norway, Iceland or Switzerland and are protected under the Brexit agreement feel European and intend to remain in Europe permanently, but many have concerns about travel problems, a new survey reveals.

Brexit Brits in EU feel European and don't want to return home, survey reveals

The research also shows that problems exist and “travel is where most issues relating to the new status currently occur”. For instance, border officials are still stamping passports of UK citizens with residence rights under the EU UK withdrawal agreement, even though they shouldn’t.

“There is constant confusion around passport stamping. I was ‘stamped in’ to France on a short trip… but could not find anyway to be ‘stamped out’ again. I think I can only spend 90 days in other EU countries, but have no idea how anyone can check or enforce that – until someone decides to try. It’s a mess,” was one of the answers left in an open question.

“Every time I go through a Schengen border control, I need to provide both my passport and Aufenthaltstitel card [resident permit in Germany] and watch to check that they don’t stamp my passport. As I am currently travelling a lot that’s been 20-odd times this year…” another respondent said.

The survey was carried out by Professor Tanja Bueltmann, historian of migration and diaspora at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, between October and November 2022. About 1,139 UK citizens replied.

Of these, 80 per cent found acquiring their new status easy or very easy, 60.7 per cent feel their rights are secure, while 39.3 per cent have concerns about their status going forward.

Staying permanently

More than three quarters (76.6 per cent) of respondents said they plan to live permanently in the EU or the other countries of the European Economic Area and Switzerland. In fact, 65.7 per cent said that Brexit has increased the likelihood of this choice.

For some, the decision is linked to the difficulty to bring non-British family members to the UK under new, stricter immigration rules.

“My German wife and I decided we no longer wanted to live in UK post Brexit referendum. In particular, we were affected by the impact of immigration law […] We cannot now return to UK on retirement as I cannot sponsor her on my pension. We knew it was a one-way journey. Fortunately, I could revive an application for German citizenship,” was a testimony.

“My husband is a US citizen and getting him a visa for the UK was near impossible due to my low income as a freelance journalist. We realized under EU law, moving to an EU country was easier. We settled on Austria as we had both lived there before… we could speak some German, and we like the mountains,” said another respondent.

Professor Bueltmann noted that the loss of free movement rights in the EU could be a factor too in the decision of many to stay where they are.

Citizenship and representation

Among those who decided to stay, 38.2 per cent are either applying or planning to apply for a citizenship and 28.6 per cent are thinking about it.

A key finding of the research, Bueltmann said, is that the vast majority of British citizens do not feel politically represented. Some 60 per cent of respondents said they feel unrepresented and another 30 per cent not well represented.

Another issue is that less than half (47.5 per cent) trust the government of their country of residence, while a larger proportion (62 per cent) trust the European Union. Almost all (95.6 per cent) said they do not trust the UK government.

Feeling European

The survey highlights the Brexit impacts on people’s identity too. 82.6 per cent of respondents said they see themselves as European, a higher proportion than those identifying as British (68.9 per cent).

“Brexit has really left me unsure of what my identity is. I don’t feel British, and I certainly don’t identify with the mindset of a lot of British people who live there. Yet, I am not Danish either. So, I don’t really know anymore!” said one of the participants in the survey.

Professor Bueltmann said the survey “demonstrates that Brexit impacts continue to evolve: this didn’t just stop because the transition period was over or a deadline for an application had been reached. Consequently, Brexit continues to shape the lives and experiences of British citizens in the EU/EEA and Switzerland in substantial, sometimes life-altering, ways.”

Considering the results of the study, Professor Bueltmann recommends policy makers in the EU and the UK to address the issue of lack of representation, for instance creating a joint UK-EU citizens’ stakeholder forum.

The report also recommends the UK government to rebuild trust with British citizens in the EU introducing voting rights for life and changing immigration rules to allow British-European families to return more easily. 

This article was prepared in cooperation with Europe Street News.