European law permits expat residents to drive in France on the licence of any other EU country. in theory that’s the case but in practice it can be risky.
A uniquely expat problem: not every EU licence is valid in every EU country. You must have acquired your permit by passing a test rather than by exchange. So, if you passed your driving test in Ireland before moving to England where you switched your Irish licence for a British one, the British licence will not then be valid for a French resident.
Does it matter? It does if you are responsible for a costly accident and your insurer is looking for ways not to pay up. And it does if you run across a tetchy gendarme who knows the intricacies of EU law.
There’s more. Although several websites and publications will tell you that you don’t have to bother swapping your European licence, after quite some research and after hearing several readers’ experiences, we’ ve come to the conclusion that keeping your old licence is an unwise thing to do. In most cases, if you intend to remain in France you’ll be far better off getting a French one.
EU law is fickle and contradictory. On one hand, foreign licences are accepted but, on the other, every EU country requires you to have your current home address on your licence. If you’re British for example, the licencing authorities clearly state “you must tell the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) immediately of any changes to your name, address or both.”
So, the address on your foreign licence will usually be one where you haven’t lived for many years. Technically, that’s illegal, but good luck trying to get it modified if you no longer live in the country. And what happens if your foreign licence is lost or stolen? Without a national address to send a replacement to you’re in for a losing battle.
Some countries don’t have age restrictions on driving licences while others do. If your licence is British, 90 days before your 70th birthday the DVL A will send you a D46P “application for renewal of a driving licence” to the address on the licence – the address where you no longer live. The chances of ending up without a valid licence after your 70th birthday are very high indeed.
In many countries you are legally obliged to update the photo on your licence occasionally. On British licences, the expiry date of the photo is shown in section 4b on the front. After that date your licence is invalid. Changing the photo involves the same hassle as renewing an expired licence.
Then there’s the question of vehicle categories. Some countries require a special licence to drive a motorcycle or a van over a specific weight. Whose law applies in case of nonconformity or accident? Chances are it’ll be the law of the lowest denominator.
In France, as in most countries, the name on your licence must be your true current name. If you’ re a woman your name might have changed because of marriage or divorce so the name on your licence isn’t the one on your car papers and passport. Try explaining that to a zealous gendarme or litigious insurer.
Whether it be through loss, expiration or name change, you are likely to be faced with having to renew a licence issued by a country where you no longer reside. You might be able to buck the system if you still have a family address in your home country. If you don’t, it will be an uphill, and sometimes impossible, battle.
One last point. Most EU nationals don’t have a French resident’s card. It’s a very handy document when you need ID to pick up a registered letter or packet at the post office, for instance. I have one thanks to my Canadian nationality but if you’ re an EU citizen, requesting a resident’s card is usually met with refusal by the prefecture. A French driving licence is an accepted substitute in almost every case.
Not swapping your licence for a French one is fraught with complications when things go wrong. If you commit an infraction which involves the docking of points you’ll have to get a French licence in any case, so why not switch before you find yourself obliged to sit a French driving test?
And what about a non-EU/ EEA licence? As one local insurer affirms, “A non-EU permanent resident must have a French licence after 6 months. If this is not the case, insurers could consider the policy null and void as he or she does not have a valid licence in this country.” Null and void could have costly (and even criminal) consequences.