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DRIVING

By country: How hard is it to swap your driving licence for a French one?

If you live permanently in France, sooner or later you may need to swap your driving licence for a French one - but where you learned to drive in the first place could dictate whether you have to take a French driving test. Here's a country-by-country breakdown of the rules.

Close-up of an 'auto-ecole' sign on top of a vehicle used by a driving school in France
Some foreign drivers may need to retake their driving test in France. Photo: Georges Gobet / AFP

It’s important to note that driving licence rules are based on where the licence was issued, not your nationality. So for example French people who learned to drive and got their licence in the UK are also affected by post-Brexit rule changes regarding UK driving licences (more on those below).

Here are the basic rules for swapping your driving licence:

EU licences

These are relatively straightforward. Because of freedom of movement rules within the EU, full driving licences from Member States are considered equivalent to full French licences. EEA country licences have the same status.

Holders of an EU/EEA driver’s license are not required to exchange their foreign licence for a French one as long as they have not picked up any points on their licence through committing traffic offences such as speeding.

If you want to exchange a European driving license for a French one, however, you can by following this procedure.

UK and NI licences

There have been a lot of twists and turns on this issue since the 2016 Brexit referendum, with shifting official advice that left many in limbo and others stranded without a licence altogether

Eventually British and French authorities announced in June 2021 that a reciprocal agreement had been reached with that effectively allows people who live in France and hold a UK or NI licence that was issued before January 1st, 2021 to continue using them.

They only need to exchange when their photocard licence or actual licence runs out. You can apply to exchange your licence for a French one once you get within six months of the expiry date of either the licence or the photocard, whichever is first.

You may also be ordered to exchange your licence if you commit certain traffic offences.

Those whose licence was issued after January 1st, 2021 will need to exchange it for a French one within one year of moving to France. 

Full details on the rules and how to do the exchange can be found here here

READ ALSO Eight online services which make dealing with French bureaucracy easier

Non-European licences

Anyone who holds a non-European driving licence may drive in France for a year after their legal residence in France is confirmed on their original licence. After that, if they stay in France any longer, they should apply for a French driving licence.

This is where things get a little tricky. If the state that issued the non-European licence has signed a bilateral agreement with France, the exchange is relatively straightforward. It involves applying to the French driving licence agency and providing them with all the necessary information.

If, however, the driver passed their test in a country that does not have such an agreement in place, then they will have to take a French driving test before they can legally continue driving in France.

The French government has a list of countries that have a swap rule with France listed here (pdf) and on its Welcome to France website for people looking to move to the country.

You can find the online portal to make the swap here.

US and Canadian licences

Not all States or Provinces are the same.

The following US States have licence swap agreements with France. Drivers with licences from States not listed here will have to take a French driving test within a year of moving to France, or risk a court summons for driving without a valid licence.

  • Delaware*,  Maryland*, Ohio*, Pennsylvania**, Virginia*, South Carolina, Massachusetts,  New Hampshire, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin*, Arkansas*, Oklahoma*, Texas*, Colorado*, Florida**, Connecticut**

* Swap for Permis B licences in France, ** Swap for Permis A and/or B licences in France – see below for what this means

The following Canadian provinces have licence swap agreements with France. Drivers with licences issued from other provinces will have to pass a French driving test

  • Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Newfoundland et Labrador, Québec, Manitoba, Ontario, Alberta, British Columbia

Only New Brunswick offers a straight like-for-like swap. All the others swap full Canadian licences for French B permits.

What else you need to know

First things first. Unlike numerous other nations including the UK, having points on your licence in France is a good thing. 

Full, clean French licences have 12 points, with motorists losing points if they are guilty of motoring offences.

Anyone who has been driving for more than three years, and who exchanges a full, clean licence in France will, therefore, receive a French licence with 12 points. 

Provisional French licences – issued to motorists who passed their tests within the past three years – are loaded with six points, rising to the full 12 after three years of ‘clean’ driving here.

Permis A, Permis B

The Permis A French licence is basically for motorbikes. Holders can ride two- or three-wheeled vehicles, with or without a sidecar.

The Permis B French driving licence allows holders to drive a vehicle with a maximum weight of 3.5 tonnes, which seats no more than nine people. This includes standard passenger cars, people carriers and minibuses.

What about driving in France on holiday?

If you’re just in France for a short period, such as for a holiday, you will usually be able to drive a vehicle using your usual driving licence.

You may, perhaps, also need an International Driving Permit – check with driving authorities in your home country to see if you need one to drive in France. Drivers with European licences and British licence-holders are exempt from the International Driving Permit requirement.

Member comments

  1. Briefly I applied when there was a “window of opportunity” in about December 2020 (when there was no requirement your UK licence had more than 6 months left). My application was rejected due to a change in French Ants rules as I had more than 6 months left. A further application within the 6 months period was made in July 2021. This was rejected for no apparent reason. As a result of a letter to Ants requesting reason for rejection I received a reply last week listing the motifs I had not met. Strangely, and this tells us alot about the quality of the Ants staff, the important motif of a UK licence expiring within 6 months was NOT listed ! It seems they make up the rules as they go along. So I have wasted 1 year now with yet another application in process which is being “examined” with due diligence ? I am not at all optimistic I will have my French Permis by the expiry of my licence early next year. You can imagine my stress and annoyance

  2. I am in a similar situation to Hugh. I applied early only to have it rejected as too soon. I applied again 6 months before my British licence was due to expire and I’m still waiting. Meanwhile my British licence has expired so I am unable to drive. When I rang up I was told it could take up to 1 year to receive my French one. My partner is in a similar position so in month’s time, neither of us will be able to drive, even though we have fulfilled all the French requirements.

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CRIME

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.

Detention

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.

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