This was written by an American who got their French driving license in 2007. Some of the information below can be found on other parts of this study guide. If you would like to read this persons’ experience of getting a French license scroll down to ‘My Experience’ or click here. You can also read another narrative here.
The license (Permis de Conduire) in France needed to drive a car is the B type (Permis B). It is a 12 point-based license. New drivers are only allotted six points for the first three years. Any time a driver is convicted of an infraction his or her B license is deducted the appropriate number of points. When a license no longer has any points the driver must repass the driving exam, both the written and practical. Some driving schools offer stages de récupération, or short training sessions that will allow you to recuperate some or all of your points, depending on the infraction committed.
The B type license permits a driver to drive a vehicle with a maximum weight of 3.5 tons, seating no more than 9 passengers, including the driver. This includes standard passenger cars, carriers and minibusses. The license B driver may also tow a trailer with a maximum weight of 750 kg (or at least not heavier than the towing car) with a total weight of 3.5 tons. If the driver has had their B license for two years, they can also drive a motorcycle of 125cc or less.
Starting on March 1, 2004 all new licenses issued will have 6 points. This provisional license - Permis Probatoire will after three years (or two years for those who have done la conduite accompagnée) become a full 12-point license.
Learners Permit: Apprentissage Anticipé de la Conduite (AAC)
Basic driving practice can begin at 16 years if certain criteria are met. First register with the prefecture. Then sign up with a registered driving school for an "evaluation of knowledge". If successful, the learner must follow a minimum of 20 hours driving practice with a school before taking a general theory test. If successful, the candidate is issued with a certificate valid for three years to drive accompanied by an adult, with a teaching follow-up by the driving school in preparation for full test and training from age 18.
The practical exam can only be taken from the age of 18 years by a learner who has completed the accompanied driving trai??ning for a period of 1 to 3 years and who has driven at least 3000 km.
An unlicensed trainee driver may not drive outside of France and is restricted to a speed limit of 80km/h in 90 zones, 100 km/h in 110 zones, and 110km/h in 130km/h zones.
Process to obtain your French license:
About the Driving Exam:
The exam is in two parts, written and practical. The written exam is 40 questions. Passing is 35 or more correct answers. The questions are multiple choice, true or false and yes or no. Some questions are in two parts. Multiple-choice questions may have more than one right answer.
The format of the written exam is as follows: each question is presented as a slide. There is a photo, with the question written underneath in French. The photo illustrates a driving situation or rule. Each question will be read aloud by a recording. You have 30 seconds to answer.
Your answers are recorded on a boîtier, looks like a TV remote control. For each question you select your answer or answers, then v??alidate or save and go on to the next question. Once a question is saved it cannot be changed.
You may choose to have a translator. To do so, you will need to inform your driving school in advance, and they will schedule you for one of the « séances non-francophones ». Be warned that these special test times are often only held once per month. You will also need to have them ask for the list of certified translators to choose from (traducteur assermenté); check with your driving school, but normally the fee for this is at your expense. You will take the test with other non-French speakers, and each person will have their own interpreter. After each question is read, the interpreter repeats it in your language, but the question itself on the screen is still in French.
If you fail the written exam, you will have to wait a month before you can take it again. You can take the written exam as many times as you need to pass.
Once you have passed the written exam, you have three years to pass the practical exam. If you do not pass it within this time frame, you will need to retake the written exam.
The practical exam is a little more straightforward; you are graded on how you drive. This part is very similar to a US driving exam. On January 1, 2007, the exam length was extended to 35 minutes, instead of the previous 20-25 minutes. This means that you will drive for roughly 25 minutes, both in town and on the highway if possible. One of the major things to be aware of it the rule of priorité à droite, or right-away. As it is such an important rule to know while driving in France, missing just one of these can cause you to fail your exam. It is also very important that you drive with your hands at 10 and 2 on the steering wheel, and that you show the examiner that you are constantly checking both the rear and side-view mirrors by physically turning your head. The more exaggerated the better!
The rest of the time will be devoted to you completing at least two of the required manoeuvres, one of w??hich will be in reverse. Most of the time, they will just ask you to park the car or to do a three point turn. Another nouveauté - you will also be asked random questions about the names, location, or function of various parts both inside and outside the car. These questions can be anything from where certain warning indicators are to where the fog lights are, or may involve you showing the examiner where the brake fluid tank is, for example. These questions carry less weight than the actual driving, so don't stress if you get one or two wrong. They can also ask you to turn on the lights or the windshield wipers while driving.
Once you pass the practical exam, you are issued a temporary driver's license, the attestation provisoire. This is valid for 2 months and permits you to drive anywhere within France. When your license is ready, it will either be mailed to you directly or you will receive a letter notifying you to pick it up at the Préfecture. All new drivers are given a permis probatoire, or a provisional license, for three years. You will only have six points (half the number of points on a regular license).
Note: If you wear glasses or contacts, it must be stated on your license and it is compulsory to wear either of them to drive. If you use contact lenses, you must keep a set of glasses with you at all times while driving, in case you lose a contact.
If you fail the practical exam, you will have to wait at least a month before you can take is again. However, there is currently a shortage of driving examiners in France, so the wait may be up to six months depending on the region. If you fail the practical exam five times you must retake the written exam and pass it before you can retake the practical exam. Be sure to check about costs with your driving school – some schools will charge you to retake le code and/or the practical exam, others include a certain number of tries in their application fee.
It's possible to take the driving test on a car with an autom??atic transmission, though it will likely be more difficult than on a manual car, if only for the reason that you may have trouble finding a driving school that has an automatic car. Driving lessons are likely to be a bit more expensive as well. Automatic cars themselves are a lot rarer in France, and are mainly only driven by the elderly or the handicapped (so prepare yourself for some ribbing from your French neighbors).
Note: If you pass the automatic permit, you will not be able to legally drive a car with a stick shift. However, the results of your written test are good for five years, so you can always retake the practical exam on a manual car later on, without having to redo le code.
Like many other Americans, I do not know how to drive a manual car, and since we had two automatic cars, I just decided to go for the automatic license. I signed up for the driving school in the fall, and went 3-4 times per week up until Christmas. Life got in the way, and I didn't go regularly again until April, after which, I tried to go six days per week for the next two months. By the end of May, I was usually getting less than six wrong on the practice tests, so they signed me up for the written exam in the beginning of June. At the testing center, there were about 50 of us in a large conference room. The proctor seated us randomly by driving school. She went over again how the test was going to work and explained again how to use the boîtier.
I'd heard that the actual test questions were a lot easier than the practice ones at the driving school, but I found the opposite to be true. Maybe it was just nerves though, I'm not sure. Either way, there were some pretty tense minutes at the end of the exam, while waiting for my name to be called. Even more so because the majority of students ahead of me had failed the exam. Luckily I got a « c'est bon » when it was my turn!
I then had to bring the sheet saying I had passed the written portion back to the driving school, and they were ab??le to schedule my practical exam right away, for the following month. I did an initial driving lesson with an instructor so she could evaluate my skills, after which she suggested I do one more lesson just before the exam so I could get some practice driving the car I'd use during the exam.
The day of the exam, I met both the instructor and the examiner at the testing center. The examiner sat in the front seat, and the instructor sat in the back. The instructor explained that I'd already been driving for 12+ years and that I'd been driving in France for 2 years, so I think the examiner decided to take it easy on me. I drove a little bit in town, but mostly in the countryside, paying strict attention to all the priorités à droite. He had me park just by driving into a parking spot, so I didn't even have to parallel park. I also had to back up in a straight line alongside a curb.
As for the now-mandatory questions about the car, the first one he asked was « Where is the indicator that turns on when your door is ajar? » I didn't know the answer because it wasn't my car, and it was one of those new dashboards where you can't see the indicator unless it's actually on. So I got that one wrong. For the second question, I had to stop the car, get out, open the hood, and then show him where I would go to check the brake fluid. The last question was « If your car overheats, should you add water/liquid straightaway? » (FYI: The answer is no, because you could burn yourself). All of the questions were chosen randomly, by taking the last two numbers of the odometer (the questions were asked throughout the exam).
And then we drove back to the driving center and he informed me that I'd passed. I think that they tend to go pretty easy on people who already have a license from another country, but I guess you never know – you could get someone who's anti-American! I got a temporary paper license, similar to what we get in the US, and then my real license was mailed to me about 6 weeks later. Funnily enough,?? it's not written anywhere on my license that I am only allowed to drive an automatic car! I don't even see any place for it to be written, so maybe that was another one of the reforms that took place earlier this year. Or maybe it's just one of those bureaucratic errors that are all too common in France. Either way, I'm extremely happy that I won't have to retake the practical portion on a manual car now!
In total, it cost me almost 300€ exactly to get my French license. This included the auto-école fees, unlimited practice tests, 2 driving lessons on an automatic car, the written exam (which I could take again for free if I failed the first time) and one try at the practical exam. If I'd failed the practical exam, I would've had to pay 70€* to take it again.
Bonne chance and bonne route!
*FYI: Exam fees will vary by department, as will the price of the driving lessons (which will also depend on the size of the town you live in).