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DRIVING

What you need to know about getting a German driving licence

Keen on exchanging your driving licence for a German one or learning how to drive in Germany? We pick through the trickiest parts of the bureaucracy.

What you need to know about getting a German driving licence
A driving lesson in Straubing, Bavaria. Photo: DPA

This article is available to Members of The Local. Read more Membership Exclusives here.

Using a foreign licence

One of the first things foreigners think of when they move to Deutschland is whether or not they’re allowed to drive without restrictions in the country.

That depends on where you got your driver’s license and how long you’ve been here.

If you’re 18 years of age or older and you have a licence which was issued from a member state in the European Union (EU) or the European Economic Area (EEA), you may drive motor vehicles in Germany of the category that’s indicated on your licence without restrictions.

And if it’s on the verge of expiring or for whatever reason you’d prefer to exchange it, you can get your hands on a German one of the same category upon request. The cost is around €35 but it varies across the country.

A German driving licence. Photo: DPA

You should note as well that when it comes to renting cars in Germany, you need to be at least 18, states the German Automotive Club (ADAC), with individual companies setting their own age limits from 19 or even 25.

Motorists from non-EU and non-EEA countries may similarly use their foreign licence as a resident in Germany – but only for a maximum of 185 days. After that, your driving licence will no longer be recognized. So if you plan on staying a while, you might want to consider getting a German one.

Getting a German licence

When it comes to getting einen deutschen Führerschein (a German driving licence), it gets a bit more complicated because the rules differ according to what country your original licence is from.

Germany has a special agreement with several countries, such as Canada, Australia, Japan, Namibia, South Africa, Switzerland and Israel. People with driving licences from these countries have to submit fewer documents and generally do not need to complete exams in order to get a German licence.

When I moved to Germany in 2012, I remember the process being surprisingly unbureaucratic and simple at my local Führerscheinstelle (driving licence office). As a Canadian citizen, for a reasonable fee I was able to exchange my licence for a German one without having to complete any exams – the same applies for Canadians in Deutschland today no matter which province or territory they’re from.

For American nationals keen on obtaining a German licence, whether or not you need to complete a test depends on the state your licence is from.

People with licences from New York, California, and Hawaii, for instance, must complete both a practical and a theoretical driving test. But people with licences from states such as Florida, District of Columbia and Tennessee only need to complete a theoretical test.

Meanwhile US citizens from 28 states, including Michigan, Texas and Washington, can exchange their licence for a German one without having to complete any exams.

It's advisable not to wait too long if you do decide you want to trade in your licence for a German one. Some cities in Germany require that you do so within three years of establishing residency in the country; after this time you risk having to start from scratch (take tests, complete driving school, etc.).

If your licence isn’t listed as from one of the countries with which Germany has a special agreement, nor is it from within the EU or EEA area, you need to take theoretical and practical tests in order to get a German Führerschein.

1. Apply for your licence

The first step in applying for your driving licence is to submit the required documentation. This is necessary in order to take driving lessons and eventually, the final test.

Information on the documents which are required for the application can generally be found on the website of the city in which you live. If you live in Berlin, for instance, you need to book an appointment online as well as come in for a personal meeting. A typical prerequisite is that you have to be a resident in the city where you apply.

Further documents you might need to show are proof of first aid training as well as certificates for eye and medical tests. Moreover, if your original licence isn’t in the German or English languages, it may need to be translated – though this is up to your local Führerscheinstelle to decide.

Photo: DPA

For UK national Anja Samy, signing up with a driving school from the get-go was useful as they helped her through this process even before she was permitted to get behind the wheel.

After the 21-year-old registered with a Fahrschule (driving school) in Celle, North Rhine-Westphalia in 2014, they organized a first aid course and an eye test for her. “Both of these tests were in German,” she tells the Local, adding that “you don’t need to speak German well in order to pass them.”

It usually takes about four to six weeks for the application to be processed and costs about €45, though this varies from city to city. During this time Samy went ahead with the next step and began preparing for the written test with her Fahrschule.

2. Prepare for your theoretical and practical driving test

In order to obtain a German driving licence, a compulsory amount of theoretical and practical training hours must be completed in a driving school. In other words, unlike some countries where it’s possible to learn how to drive from a relative or a friend, legally this doesn’t fly in Germany.

This also means you’ll have to be prepared to take on the cost of a full course with a driving school – anywhere from €1,000 to €2,000.

The good news is there are plenty of Fahrschulen to choose from across the country, some of which even offer lessons in English. For a total of about three months, Samy attended weekly lessons focusing on traffic laws. Alongside these classroom sessions, she applied what she learned behind the wheel with an instructor.

Each driving school is different though. While some offer theoretical lessons as frequently as twice a week, others have crash courses during certain periods such as the summer holidays where you can get the written component out of the way much more quickly.

After Samy passed her written test, which was in English, she was ready to focus on acing her practical driving test. Depending on your city, you might have the option to complete the written test in your native language (e.g. Turkish or Russian).

“My instructors were German but they spoke mostly English to me,” Samy says.

12 driving lessons with an instructor is usually the minimum, but this number can vary depending on how quickly you learn. This means that those who are really motivated can complete both the classroom sessions and the driving lessons in as little as three months.

3. Taking the final test

If you’ve gotten this far in your German driving school adventure, congrats! You only need to overcome one last hurdle: the final test. Keep in mind that this must be taken within twelve months of passing your theoretical test.

The practical test is typically taken in German with your driving instructor and an official examiner. If your German language skills aren’t anything close to fluent, however, don’t sweat it.

“There's no need to worry,” says Samy. “If your driving school teaches in English, your instructor will be there during the test to give you instructions.”

But even for those with driving schools that only teach in German, if you’re prepared and understand a little bit of German you should be fine, as the examiner doesn’t say much.

Samy’s test lasted about half an hour and she was tested on such things as her parking capabilities and her ability to drive on the Autobahn. She was also asked to make an emergency stop and a three-point turn.

A young man in Schwerin right after he passed his driving test. Photo: DPA

Immediately after the test is over you are told whether you’ve passed. If you've aced it, not long afterwards your official driving licence will be sent to you via post.

There’s no reason to panic though if you've failed it; you can schedule another practical exam as long as it's at least two weeks later.

Your Führerschein will be valid for 15 years, after which you'll have to apply for a new one.

SEE ALSO: Six reasons why I never want to drive on the Autobahn again

For members

DRIVING

REVEALED: The key traffic violations and fines to know about in Germany

Every country has its own unique way of keeping drivers in check, and Germany is no exception. Here are the main traffic violations foreigners should know about - and the penalties for breaking the rules.

REVEALED: The key traffic violations and fines to know about in Germany

When many people think of Germany’s road rules, the first thing that comes to mind is the famous speed-limit free section of the Autobahn. Though speeds of 130km or less are recommended, speed junkies generally don’t have anything to fear when they step on the accelerator – although reckless driving, like speeding in rainy or icy conditions, can be penalised by the police.

Nevertheless, there’s a lot more to driving in Germany than getting an adrenaline rush on the motorway. In fact, there are numerous strict rules to follow – and many of the penalties for breaking them have been tightened up in recent years.

Since 2014, authorities have used what’s colloquially known as the “Points in Flensburg” system, which refers to the location of the Federal Motor Transport Authority. Drivers can accrue up to eight points on their licence for various misdemeanours, at which point their licence is revoked. 

While it’s possible to get another driving licence if this happens, it’s not a particularly straightforward process: a suspended driver first has to wait for a certain amount of time, and will then be subject to a psychological and medical assessment. 

Of course, the best way to avoid getting points on your licence – or facing hefty fines – is to have a good grasp of how drivers should behave. Here’s an overview of some of the main rules and penalties you should know if you plan to spend some time driving in Germany. 

READ ALSO: What you need to know about getting a German driving licence

Speeding fines

Generally, there are two types of speed limit you’ll need to observe in Germany: in built-up areas, drivers should observe speed limits of up to 50km per hour, and in non-residential zones, drivers can generally drive up to 100km per hour. 

As mentioned, the Autobahn does have some sections where speed limits don’t apply, but a maximum speed of 130km per hour is recommended. People who want to drive particularly fast generally drive on the far-left lane, where the minimum speed is 60km per hour.

However, even here, drivers are expected to have their car in a road-safe condition and adapt their behaviour to weather conditions, since police can still use their discretion to penalise drivers they feel aren’t being careful enough. 

Cars drive on the A73 in Bavaria in the rain

Cars drive on the A73 in Bavaria in the pouring rain. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Daniel Löb

The fines for exceeding the limit range from €30 for going up to 10km per hour over the limit to €680 for going 70km per hour or more over the speed limit. Authorities will also penalise drivers with points on their licence and driving suspensions for more severe violations. 

For example, drivers that travel more than 21km over the speed limit can expect to get an €80-90 fine and a point on their licence, and if they’re caught going this fast in a residential area, they’ll also face a one month suspension of their license. The same applies for people going 26km per hour or more over the limit in a non-residential area.

People going more than 41km over the speed limit, meanwhile, will get a €200 fine, at least two points on their licence and a suspension of either one or two months, depending on whether they were driving in a residential zone or not.

Travelling more than 70km per hour over the limit will land you a €680 fine, a three-month suspension and two points on your licence. 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Germany’s tougher driving fines

Driving under the influence

The consequences for driving under the influence of alcohol depend on a number of factors, including how much you’ve drunk, how old you are, and whether it’s your first offence. 

In general, drivers must have no more than 0.5 percent alcohol in their blood to get behind the wheel. People caught with a blood alcohol content of between 0.5 and 1.09 percent face a fine of €500 and a one-month driving ban. For second offences, this goes up to €1,000 and a three-month driving ban, while third offences are punished with a €1,500 and a three-month driving ban. In every case of being caught over the limit, drivers get two points on their licence. 

These rules get stricter for anyone under the age of 21 or who has had their licence for less than two years. In these cases, no alcohol whatsoever is permitted before driving and people who break that rule will get a €250 fine and a point on their licence.

People with a blood alcohol level of 1.1 percent of higher are considered completely unfit to be driving and will face criminal proceedings that could result in hefty fines and even prison time. They’ll also get three points on their licence and a lengthy driving suspension.

All of this assumes that there are no accidents or reckless driving involved. If you are deemed to be driving dangerously while drunk, you’ll likely have to go to court and face a much harsher penalty. 

READ ALSO: The German rules of the road that are hard to get your head around

Parking violations

Parking violations are generally handled by the Ordnungsamt on a local or regional level, but they generally vary from small fines of around €10 for parking without a permit or ticket to fines of around €70 for more serious violations like blocking emergency vehicles or parking on the Autobahn. 

To stay on the right side of the law, look out for blue and white signs with a ‘P’ that indicate that parking is permitted – though you may still need to buy a ticket. 

A 'Park and Ride' sign in Potsdam, Brandenburg.

A ‘Park and Ride’ sign in Potsdam, Brandenburg. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Jens Kalaene

Running a red light 

Though running red lights isn’t entirely uncommon, drivers who do it should expect tough penalties from the authorities if caught. The most lenient of these is a €90 fine, but if drivers run a light that has been red for at least a second and cause damage, this will increase to €360, two points on the licence and a one month driving ban. 

Railroad and pedestrian crossings

Not giving way to pedestrians at a pedestrian crossing can lead to a fine of €80 and a point on the licence. For violations at railroad crossings, the penalties are much steeper: you can expect a €240 fine, one point and a one-month suspension for running a warning light and a €700 fine, two points and a three-month suspension for crossing when the gate is closed.

Hit and run

Understandably, hit and run incidents are taken incredibly seriously in Germany. Leaving the scene of an accident before the police arrive can land you three points on your licence, while causing an accident and fleeing the scene is likely to result in a fine, licence suspension and even time behind bars. 

Tailgating 

Tailgating penalties vary dramatically depending on the speed at which you’re driving. At high speeds, driving too close to the car in front can result in fines of up to €400. If you’re travelling slower than 80km per hour, a much more modest €25 fine is the norm. 

Turning, intersections and lane changes 

Especially when driving in cities, it’s important to signal properly, be careful and attentive when turning and observe the proper system of right-of-way, which generally follows a “right before left” principle.

People who don’t indicate when turning or changing lanes will only face a proverbial slap on the wrist with a fine of just €10. However, failing to observe the proper right of way rules will likely land you a much steeper fine of €85 – so make sure you’re clued up about these.  

Early morning traffic in Göttingen, Lower Saxony

Early morning traffic in Göttingen, Lower Saxony. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Swen Pförtner

Overtaking on the wrong side – or unsafely

In German cities, you should always overtake on the left – and not doing so could result in a fine of €30. If you try to pass another car without observing road signs or lane markings, you’ll likely be suspended from driving for at least a month, as well as getting two points on your licence and a €300 fine. 

READ ALSO: How much does it cost to get a driving licence in Germany?

Mobile phone and seatbelt violations

Of course, traffic violations are not just about how you drive your car, but what you do when you’re in it. Talking on or otherwise using your mobile phone while driving will result in a fine of at least €100 – but this could be much higher if you end up causing an accident.

Failing to put on your seatbelt or fasten it properly will land you a €30 fine from the authorities, while failing to put seatbelts on children in the car results in a fine of €70.

Driving in a defective vehicle 

Keeping vehicles in a road-safe is vital for any driver in Germany – and there can be steep fines for those who don’t. Unsafe deficiencies in a vehicle can see drivers slapped with a €90 fine, while driving with inadequate tires gets you a €60 fine and driving with the licence plate obscured gets a €65 fine. 

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