Getting your Driving License as a Foreigner in the UK: Top 5 Tips

As mentioned, I needed to get my UK driving license by the end of the summer, as that would have been a year since I had been in the country (any longer and my American license would have been invalid to drive on). By this point I had been driving on my own for months, but honestly it was more of a “try not to close my eyes and scream while passing someone” kind of driving rather than a confident kind.

The UK driving test is similar to what I would imagine getting a PhD in driving would be like. The process looks like this:

Order provisional (learning) license online.

Take the Driving Theory test at a test center. The theory test is 50 multiple choice questions long, all taken from the official Highway Code. It also ends with a “Hazard Perception” test, where you have to click when you see a hazard that is developing. If you don’t click soon enough, you won’t get any points, and if you try to cheat the system by clicking like a maniac, you’ll also fail the section.

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Take the Practical Driving test. On the day, you will drive a predetermined route for about 40 minutes, have to perform 1 of 4 maneuvers chosen at random and have a 1 in 3 chance of being asked to do an ‘emergency stop.’ You also have to answer two questions about the mechanics of your car. There are three types of mistakes: minor, serious, and dangerous. Minor is, well, minor. Serious or dangerous are things that can result in collisions or other really bad situations. You have to pass with less than 15 minors and NO serious or dangerous mistakes.

To make a long, panic-filled, story short, I ended up taking 2 sets of 2 hour lessons with a qualified driving instructor and passed my test in July with three minors. The first question I had to answer was “Show me how to honk your horn,” so I think she heard my accent and took pity on me.

On that note, if you somehow find yourself in my shoes and have to tackle the UK driving test at some point, I’ve made a list of some things to keep in mind.

                    Top 5 Tips on Getting your UK Driver’s License as a Foreigner

1. Apply for your provisional license after 6 months of living in the UK (the minimum amount of time you need to wait). You must send off your Passport to the DVLA (also terrifying! This whole process is fraught with danger!), and then they have to send you back your license before you can book any tests. Mine came back pretty quickly, but always best to be prepared.

2. Start slowly. If you have the time to practice, don’t just hop in the car and take it on a road trip the first time you drive here. Plenty of people do, I’m sure, but it’s extremely disorienting at first to drive on the other side and your perception will be off.

3. Take driving lessons. Most of my friends in America, including myself, were taught to drive by our parents and had no other help. This isn’t the norm in the UK, and as someone who is learning new rules of the road, it’s almost a guarantee that you will need at least a few lessons to pass.

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4. Book your driving test as far away from a main city as possible. You can take your UK driving test at any center in England, Wales, or Scotland, and some of them have MUCH higher pass rates than others. There are websites that will show you the pass rates, and while you shouldn’t use that as a crutch, it’s obviously going to be a more difficult test in busier conditions or closer to a city. Some remote areas in Scotland have over 70% pass rates because you don’t really have any ‘hazards’ besides a sheep or two, so if you’re really struggling, there’s that!

5. Enjoy your freedom. I was so scared to learn to drive in the UK for years, and after I finally was forced into it, I am so glad I did. Especially as an expat, you find that sometimes you feel as if you are dependent on everyone else to help you get by or guide you and it can lead to a feeling of being ‘stuck’ or helpless. As soon as I learned to drive, the town that we lived in became ‘mine’ and I began to explore and branch out a bit more. Even having the freedom to go to the grocery store on my own and do the shopping was huge. Trust me, if I can do it, so can you.

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5 Responses

  1. When I lived in NYC I had to sit the “alcoholic” class which was supposed to make me aware of the dangers of drink driving.

    It was a bit of an eye opener, we had mainly expat foreigners who were fairly clued up, and a couple of 16 year olds who thought it was funny to talk about how they could drink loads and still drive straight. Scary! We don’t do anything like those classes here in the UK – perhaps the culture of drink driving is more socially unacceptable here?

    Ps well done on passing 😉

    • Ah, yes, I didn’t even realize that was unique to the States. From what I can remember, I had to take a “drug and alcohol” course online before I could even take the written driving test in Florida. I think you’re right about why–either that or America is just bigger on ‘policing’ instead of trusting that people know that it’s the wrong thing to do.

      Thanks 🙂

  2. janicemurphy says:

    I moved to the UK at the end of August and I was searching tags for other American’s living in the UK and found your blog. My husband let me drive in a parking lot two weeks after I got here and I have to say it was so overwhelming that I feel really discouraged about trying to drive again. Driving a stick isn’t a problem, but more of spacial awareness and making sure I’m on the left side of the road. I know I’ll get out there and try it again soon and eventually get the hang of it, but I just wanted to say your post is very informative! When it’s time for me to begin the process of getting my UK license I’ll now have an idea of where to begin!

    • Oh, good! Really glad I could help! Just for the record, I completely know what you mean. My boyfriend literally said to me in a huff that I had “no spatial awareness” and it was really difficult for me to explain how different it felt driving on the other side of the road. So just in case you needed any more reassurance–just stick with it and try again and it’ll get easier and easier to adjust. I don’t even think about it anymore–it’s become so natural. Good luck on everything, hope you’re enjoying the UK!

  1. August 21, 2015

    […] After about six months of driving on my own, it was time to prepare to take the UK Driving test, as you can only drive up to one year on an American license. That nerve-wracking story and my top tips for foreigners learning to drive in the UK continues here.  […]

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