When I first got into the UK on a Tier 4 visa, 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.
If you’ve come to this page hoping to learn how to get a driving license in the UK for foreigners, stick with me, it’s coming soon!
Anyway, the UK driving test is similar to what I would imagine getting a PhD in driving would be like. Foreigners in the UK need to take this test unless they are from a country which has an agreement with the UK to simply exchange your license for a UK one. You can find more information about how to exchange your license for a UK one.
Americans in the UK must take the UK driving test, as we have no arrangement to exchange our licenses and also, we drive on the other side of the road so I’m not surprised they want to make sure we’ve got the hang of it. Getting a driving license in the UK as a foreigner seems daunting, but the basic process is this:
1. Go online to the government website to apply for your provisional (learning) license. There is no special place for foreigners to get a UK provisional driving license, you simply apply like you would do if you were 16 years old and just learning to drive!
And to reiterate – it doesn’t matter how old you are, it doesn’t matter what kind of license you hold back in your home countries, foreigners getting UK driving licenses do it all the same way. One thing to also note is that you do not need to give up your American license to get a UK license. I have both licenses that I use in the respective countries.
2. Once you have received your provisional driving license as a foreigner in the UK, you then need to sign up for the Driving Theory test at a test center. This is not a real driving test, yet.
Instead, the theory test is 50 multiple choice questions long, all taken from the official Highway Code (I would highly recommend practicing by ordering this book from Amazon which was amazingly helpful and helped me pass).
After the multiple choice section ends, you move on to 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.
Again, in this case, it’s all about practice. You can practice online, you can order a practice test kit with video that allows you to practice, but you shouldn’t just show up assuming that since you “know how to drive,” it will all be okay.
3. The third step is to sign up for the practical driving test. As a foreigner trying to get a UK license, it’s so important to remember that this test may not be like the one you were used to in your home country.
In Florida, we took a test that was about 7 minutes long and involved parking and going about 20 miles an hour on a backroad. In other states, they have to parallel park and go at actual speed. Whatever your initial experience with your driving test, remind yourself that you should expect it to be different.
When you show up to take your test, 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 anyone can make on the UK driving test: minor, serious, and dangerous. Minor is, well, minor. Serious or dangerous are things that can result in collisions or other really bad situations. All test takers, including foreigners getting a UK license, 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 of that same summer with just three minors. The first question I had to answer was “Show me how to honk your horn,” so I think she heard my American 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 when it comes to getting a UK driver’s license as an American.
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). When you send off for your provisional license, 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.
This also means that you shouldn’t plan to apply for your provisional license at the same time that you need your passport for visa purposes, for travel, or for other identification where it would be a bad situation to not have it with you.
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.
Go easy on yourself. This is a new skill, especially if you’re learning to drive a manual car instead of an automatic and haven’t experienced that before. Have patience, and if you’re scared (many people are), take it bit by bit. Ease your way into the experience, get rid of any notion of crashing or out-of-control fear (that was totally me), and learn to get comfortable in your new car and road environment.
I found it helpful when I was learning to really watch what my boyfriend was doing when he was driving, and asking him questions along the way. Once I started to know the answers about why he would stop in a certain place or park in a certain way or give way to a certain car, I would then explain his driving as he was driving.
So, for instance, “You slowed down there because you always yield to the right on a roundabout,” and he would confirm (or deny!) that what I said was correct.
This only works, I suppose, if you are with someone who is actually good at driving in the UK and not just crazily speeding through traffic lights, so do be cautious!
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.
I took two, two-hour driving licenses to give me the best chance to get a license as a foreigner in the UK. My instructor came and picked me up in his car for the first lesson, and then for the second, once he was confident that I knew how to drive well, he let me have the final lesson in my own car as I prepared for the test.
Having that driving instructor was invaluable because it was a much calmer learning process, and he knew the test back to front. He knew which maneuvers to teach me, tricks for getting them done well (parallel parking, I’m looking at you!) and what kind of questions they might ask me to start off the test.
Don’t be embarrassed to take driving lessons. In fact, it will probably save you money in the long run as you’ll have a much better chance of passing the first time instead of having to pay the test fee over and over again until you finally will yourself through it.
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. We live outside of London, and I made sure to take mine further away from London rather than in it or anywhere near it.
In fact, there is a pretty large town near us that many people take their driving tests in, and I still didn’t want to do that as I felt it was too busy and congested and would freak me out. So instead, I went to a smaller town with more open space and more room on the roads. I also scheduled it for a weekday when people would be at work or otherwise at home, not doing the school run or rushing home from a long day at the office.
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.
The culture shock that you experience as an expat can be hard to overcome until you fell like you really belong and have the same opportunities and abilities as people who live in the country, and getting your drivers license in the UK as a foreigner is an important way to do that.
I also think the sooner you learn to do it, the better. Don’t give yourself time to build up nerves about it or get so worked up in your head about feeling stuck. The longer you wait, the scarier it will see. Take each step of the process slowly, but with confidence, do your research, and just book it!
Trust me, if I in my infinite panic could do it, there’s no reason you can’t!
Things You Should Buy for Your Driving Test in the UK
You don’t need to purchase much to take your driving test, as you would often take it in your driving instructor’s car, but I would highly recommend the following items….
This helpful guidebook that has practice test questions for the theory test, you might want to consider getting a blind spot mirror for your side mirrors, and you’ll need an extra rearview mirror for the instructor to use during lessons or the driving test examiner to use during your test.