Silly German Regulations, Part 439

Business Week‘s Frankfurt bureau chief decided to get a German driver’s license after a mere 11 years in the country.

How Germany Can Drive You Crazy
I’ve had a New York motorist’s license for 30 years. So why did I need to endure months of driver’s ed again and a tortuous bureaucracy?

Not long after I began driving lessons, my instructor had a revelation. “You can already drive,” he said, exhaling the smoke of yet another cigarette as we puttered along in a Volkswagen Golf equipped with an extra brake on the passenger side. No kidding, I thought. I’ve had a U.S. driver’s license for more than 30 years.

So why, 11 years after moving to Germany, was I starting the same driver’s training program as a German teenager, one that involves 40-plus hours of car and classroom instruction and costs $1,200? The answer reveals one of the less attractive aspects of German society. Not the side that’s fun-loving and generous, but the side that’s pathologically risk-averse and mindlessly bureaucratic, bent on making everything — putting up a building, starting a new business, buying a house — so difficult that nothing happens. It’s one of the small ways the nation sabotages its own economy.

Indeed. (Are other EU countries this ridiculous?)

This entry was posted in A Fistful Of Euros, Germany and tagged by Doug Merrill. Bookmark the permalink.

About Doug Merrill

Freelance journalist based in Tbilisi, following stints in Atlanta, Budapest, Munich, Warsaw and Washington. Worked for a German think tank, discovered it was incompatible with repaying US student loans. Spent two years in financial markets. Bicycled from Vilnius to Tallinn. Climbed highest mountains in two Alpine countries (the easy ones, though). American center-left, with strong yellow dog tendencies. Arrived in the Caucasus two weeks before its latest war.

26 thoughts on “Silly German Regulations, Part 439

  1. According to the ADAC page on foreign driver’s licences, you can get a German passport without taking driving lessons up to 3 years after settling in Germany. It says that for American DL’s many states don’t even need a certified translation. New York State’s DMV, for instance, gives you 30 days to exchange your foreign/out-of-state license for a NY license, and requires the same things as for new drivers (course, written and driving test).

  2. I think it’s an issue of reciprocity – an American friend of mine in the UK is having to go through all the business of driving tests to get her licence – and the problem is that you can’t exchange an American license directly for a UK one, whereas you can if you have one from other countries.

    The reason? As I was told by a driving instructor years ago, it’s because in the US you can get a full licence if you take your test in an automatic car, whereas in the UK if you pass a test in an automatic, you’re only licensed to drive an automatic. I think that could be the case in other countries as well.

  3. Are other EU countries this ridiculous?

    To get my Slovenian driving license, I had to take lessons and take the usual driving exam — even though I’d been driving for a decade already. Interestingly, though, I had to completely relearn how to drive. It’s amazing how hard it is to break “bad” habits and how hard it is to follow all the proper rules: hands in the right place, paying attention to speed limits, etc…

  4. In the Netherlands you can exchange your driving license for a Dutch one within a year of moving to our country. When you are to late, you have to pass the tests again though.

    How is that in the States? Can you exchange without time limits?

  5. Seems like this is more a problem of the different US states.

    If you look at:
    US Embassy in Germany

    A priority issue for American citizens resident in Germany is the reciprocal recognition of driver’s licenses from the two countries. The process of establishing reciprocity continues to be slow, since many informal agreements require individual tailoring to meet the requirements of each U.S. state.

    The U. S. Embassy, supported by the American Chamber of Commerce in Germany, continues to actively press all U.S. states to reach an agreement on the reciprocal recognition of driver’s licenses with Germany, essentially a waiver of testing requirements.

    New York isn?t on the list yet.

  6. dutchmarbel,

    According to the American Chamber of Commerce in Germany

    According to our information, if you are in the US for less than six months (e.g., a tourist), you do not need to register to legally drive in the US.

    The acquisition of a US drivers license is much simpler for German citizens in the USA than for American citizens in Germany. Either an applicant can claim the driver license reciprocity agreement between a US state and Germany (if the US state has one) and pay the administrative fees or apply as a first time driver. Applying as a first time driver generally requires passing a short written and driving test, both of which can usually be preformed within a few hours and for under $50. As there is no uniform requirement for all 50 US states, please contact the local US state authorities for the details. In the USA drivers licenses are regulated exclusively by each US state (Texas, California, etc.) not by the federal government as is the case in Germany.

    Seems if you?re in the USA for only 6 months
    you can go on using your “old” driving license.
    If you?re there longer, you either
    – are lucky and live in a state with a reciprocity agreement or
    – you are considered a first time driver.

    That “Business Week” guy in Germany made the mistake of waiting 11 years.
    “I know many Americans find it inconceivable that somebody could live 10 years without a car. It’s a credit to Germany’s public transportation system that it’s possible.”
    If he had tried to get a German driver license in his first three years of residence, he could have taken the tests directly without needing any paid theoretical or practical driver training.

    That actually seems to be more generous that the US system.
    Although I readily admit that the US system for first time drivers is much faster and cheaper than the German one. 🙂

    Bad luck for him that he doesn?t live in the German state of Hamburg.

    “For those who live and work in Hamburg, have held a US drivers license for at least five years, and have not recently been involved in a traffic accident, the procedure in Hamburg for obtaining a German drivers license has now been radically simplified. Under these conditions, US drivers license holders can now apply for an automatic conversion of their US drivers license into a German license. This is valid for all license holders regardless of which US state they are from. In addition, applicants are exempt from taking any practical and/or written tests.”

  7. Tnxs Detlef, interesting material. I think the Americans are better of watching the time limit; in most European countries the tests are harder than they are in the States so passing the test might be harder than they expect. But I remember being seriously envious at friends who, via an exchange progrem, studied in the States and got their licence there. Easier, faster and cheaper.

  8. Notwithstanding the additional points mentioned in the comment thread, I’d like to disagree with the main conclusion:

    “It?s one of the small ways the nation sabotages its own economy. ”

    It’s THE MOST IMPORTANT way we Germans sabotage our own economy. However, German regulations are just one way of dealing with risk, American lawsuits are the other. One is ex-ante, the other ex-post. Both have obvious problems – the right balance is what’s needed. Badly needed. Here as there.

  9. There’s reciprocity and then there’s reciprocity. As Detlef points out, there’s at least a ?1,150 difference between fulfilling normal requirements in most US states and doing the same in Germany. Since the normal requirements are so clearly different in practice, then reciprocity should reflect that reality, and not some abstract term.

    To go and take the test in the US (difficulty hin, difficulty her), you go up to the DMV and you take the test. If you fail, you fail. Whatever preparations you think are necessary to pass are your own responsibility.

    One of Ewing’s points is that even before you can take the test in Germany, you have to do 40-plus hours of paid practicing, even if you have been driving for decades. This is silly, and Hamburg’s policy points out how unnecessary it is.

  10. “In the Netherlands you can exchange your driving license for a Dutch one within a year of moving to our country.”

    But there’s no avoiding the whole ridiculous driving-test procedure (and the “grace period” during which you can use your foreign license is 6 months, not one year). What’s more, the “accelerated exam” procedure, which is cheaper and faster than the normal one, is being scrapped as of April 1st.

    There are those in the expat community here who see this as merely a way to enrich the driving schools, and the state. I’m inclined to agree with them.

    Fortunately, I have a Belgian license, which I acquired while I was living there. The procedure couldn’t have been simpler: I just handed over my U.S. license and paid them 30 euros or so, and they issued me with a Belgian one on the spot. EU licenses do not have to be switched for Dutch ones. Best of all, my license will never expire!

  11. To get an Italian driver’s licence a US drivers licence holder has to pass the test. I think the key issue, as usual, is that the US doesn’t accept foreign anything so them foreigners take it out on the 3 or 4 of us who emigrate. On the other hand you can get a U.S. licence when you are 16. In Italy you can’t drive cars that young. Of course you can ride a moped with no helmet.

    Tourists from the USA can drive in Italy with a US driver’s licence for up to 6 months or something.
    OK what’s with this “one” business, I will confess. I have lived in Italy for 15 years. I work for lo stato italiano. There is a car registered in my name. I had a little problem when I had to stop because my lane was blocked by a double parked car and a garbage truck which was half on the correct side of the road. The driver of the truck (name withheld) tried to turn right and his rear bumper swung over onto the remaining fourth of the road and knocked my front bumper off.

    Under the circumstances a amicable denuncio di sinistro (no fault report of an accident) was not psychologically feasible. 4 nice caribinieri arrived and found out that 1) I had not done something to get a piece of paper which demonstrated that I had bought the car second hand and paid the special sales tax on cars, and was liable for a fine of a fist full of Euros and 2) I had lived in Italy for 15 years without getting an Italian driver’s licence (fine of about Euro 100 plus my US licence has to get mailed here and there and back to me before I can even think of driving again.

    They immediately decided that they hadn’t noticed that I hadn’t reported the fact that I had paid the sales tax. I made their life difficult by insisting that I have lived in Italy for 15 years, I had told them that I have lived in Italy for 15 years, they know perfectly well that I have lived in Italy for 15 years. Nonetheless, they decided that they had not noticed that I have lived in Italy for 15 years and let me go with no fine and with my US driver’s licence.

    Continental European rules are continental European rules, but Italy is not Germany.

    Next story: a guard returns to me the kite that I got entangled on the tower of Pisa.

  12. There’s a piece in today’s Telegraph about the difficulties in getting papers, not even for driving, but for breathing:

    No one wants to see my ID card…

    But one of the downsides (and one of the things that inspired me to write the book) is French bureaucracy. I sometimes wonder that the whole place doesn’t sink under the weight of useless bits of paper.

    Getting a carte de s?jour – the official French identity card for foreigners, literally a “card of staying” – was more painful than giving birth. And took much longer. The rather grandly embossed and laminated plastic card carries your name, address, date of birth and photograph, and to extract one from the French state is a rite of passage – a course in French bureaucratic lunacy.

  13. Are other EU countries this ridiculous?

    Yes. Or at least, Belgium is. I have to start all over with driving school too, but that’s at least in part because I don’t have a valid license in the States right now. But the American process – pass the written, pass the driving exam, get a licence – just doesn’t happen in Belgium.

    There are reciprocity agreement now with some US states and some Canadian provinces, but that’s very recent – just the last year.

  14. From the above comments (issues of reciprocity, automatic gear etc.), I conclude we have a textbook case of someone being too fast to take something as reinforcement of his preconceptions. (And who is surprised a Business Week correspondent thinks regulations are risk-averse and mindless and sabotaging the economy?)

  15. From the article: “I know many Americans find it inconceivable that somebody could live 10 years without a car. It’s a credit to Germany’s public transportation system that it’s possible.”

    Well, this is something that runs counter to the author’s conception of Germany as a basket case.

  16. DoDo, are you arguing that forcing someone who has been driving for more than 30 years to take more than 40 hours of on-the-road-training is sensible?

    (And what if the scam ran the other way? What if, say, I had a direct line to the DC city council … So I call up my friend on the council and said, let’s do this reciprocity thing accurately. Any German, except residents of Hamburg, who wants a DC license will have to pay $1,200 and wait four months before taking the driving test. After all, that’s what they would have to do at home. Would that be right?)

  17. “[…]After all, that?s what they would have to do at home. Would that be right?”

    If all DC citizens do so, yes, else no.


  18. In the UK, you have to take the test if you’ve been here more than a year. You don’t have to take any compulsory training, just book a test and turn up on the day.

    Seems reasonable to me. Apart from other differences, we drive on the other side of the road, remember.

  19. But one of the downsides (and one of the things that inspired me to write the book) is French bureaucracy.

    My experience has been: Germany is complex but clear and largely sensible (a little pre-solo-autobahn practice is not a bad thing if your last driving experience was some years ago on American freeways); France is chaotic and negotiating the rules has more to do with luck and charm as anything else; America is relatively simple and forgiving but as soon as you get your local license you suddenly get tickets other unwanted side-effects 🙂

  20. Seems reasonable to me. Apart from other differences, we drive on the other side of the road, remember.

    Reasonable if you made anybody take a test. But where’s the logic in requiring tests of those who have a year of experience and letting loose those without any experience?

  21. Yeah but it’s all swings and roundabouts really isn’t it ?

    In Germany, you can only take the test 3 times and it is pretty extensive testing. BUT there isn’t any speed limits on the German Autobahn so you can go fast as you possibly can. But in America, there are strict speed limits and woe betide anyone who gets stopped by the police for doing so.

  22. i’m not really sure what the rules and regulations are for belgium – something that i could easily find out by visiting the british consulate’s web site, i presume.

    but in all honesty, i don’t really think the belgian police care. i don’t drive but my partner does and we once had a random check when leaving zaventem airport. not only did he not have his driver’s license with him, but neither his ID card. but as the car papers were in order, despite being in someone else’s name, everything was fine.

    my partner’s driving license has raised eyebrows before, though, as it is so old that it dates back to those that were distributed (in the UK) without a photo. but my partner has never been pushed to get a belgian license – and isn’t pushing for one either.

  23. EU licenses do not have to be switched for Dutch ones. Best of all, my license will never expire!

    Not entirely true. If you officially move to the Netherlands you have to change your driving licence for a Dutch one – within a year after formal immigration date. If you officially live in Belgium there is no problem using a Belgian driving licence in the Netherlands. If you officially have lived in the Netherlands for more than a year…. you’re stuffed I’m afraid. You might consider officially moving back to Belgium for a while 😉

  24. a) When you move to the US from France, no matter how long you have been driving, you must pass your license again.
    b) the US roadtest part is a joke in most states. One is rather happy to hear that Germany takes seriously the right to hurl a car down the road.
    c) the Business Week bureau chief should consider himself lucky that he wasn’t thrown in jail. He might consider checking what exactly would have happened to him in the US if the situation had been reversed.
    d) When you are a guest in a country, no matter what your station in life, you respect the law.

  25. I’m an expat Canadian living in Spain and had to go through the whole driving classes and testing rigamarole again, and at a hefty cost, even though in Canada I was qualified to drive a charter bus, as well as a car and a motorbike.

  26. Actually, here’s how it works:
    If you live here, you’ve got to get your German license within 6 months (it was one year back when I did it in 2000). What you have to do depends on which US State you come from, and is based upon reciprocity. New York drivers need to pass a written test (in English, since the UK is in the EU) and then take a driving test. Florida drivers (as I was) only need to pass the written. Alabamans need only fog a mirror.

    The real hammer was that I had to enroll in a driving school but didn’t have to go. I also had to get a certified translation of my Florida license done. All things considered, I got off “cheaply” at about 500 USD.

    Nearly anyone can say “Roll Tide” or “War Eagle” the one time it takes to get your Alabama license, so do it and save.

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