Hey, hey, hey future (or current) UK expats! How’s driving on the wrong left side of the road? And more so, should you actually be driving at all? I’ll share what I did, what I recommend you do, and the laws and tips and tricks as best I know them. This will be Part 1 of 2 in posts concerning getting your driving life sorted in the UK, aka getting your UK driving license as an American…the only country I can speak on behalf since I’m American.
First things first, REGISTER FOR YOUR PROVISIONAL DRIVING LICENSE ASAP. The sooner the better. Like As soon as BT sets up your home Internet. Why? Because the whole process can be a very long, super pain in the ass and you could wind up either driving without insurance illegally or being on house arrest. Not so bad if you live in the hopping downtown area of Aberdeen, but if you have more neighbors with four legs instead of two, it’s a bit of a problem.
Coming from America with a valid American drivers license, you can legally drive in the UK for exactly one year from your visa’s date of entry. Getting insurance is a whole different issue. We were lucky in that we get one company car that the company takes care of insurance for us. I have no idea what company they use and how they go about it, but they were able to insure us with our American license info. For our other sweet little hatchback commuter car, we had to insure on our own. In the UK car insurance doesn’t work the way it does in the US. Your insurance is specific to who is driving the car (and possibly even down to what days the respective person drives and what distances). You actually can’t just let your friend drive your car and have your insurance cover them- the insurance is person specific. So both E and I had to be individually insured on the car.
So, it should be noted in this process, you need to get insurance after you buy your car, before you can drive it home. If you buy it from a proper car lot they probably won’t let you drive it off the lot until you come back with proof of insurance. Something to consider.
I was told that only Geico insurance would accept our American license numbers and driving histories. Now I’m hearing differently, but regardless several expats did recommend Geico to us and it was easy (and cheap) enough. But I’d advise to use a quote comparison site (very common here) like GoCompare.com and perhaps reach out to Geico independently as well to get a quote. And don’t be concerned when your quotes for insurance are from the grocery store and post office…everyone offers every kind of insurance here.
Anyway…while you can continue paying your car insurance premiums after your year in the UK (Geico isn’t going to stop taking your money) if you get in an accident, you won’t be covered. When the claim comes through they will say, “Sorry, it was up to you to get a UK license and alert us to it, you’re no longer a valid driver in the UK. Not our problem.” Don’t expect anyone to chase you down to get a valid license. Although, E’s company did email us telling us the month before our year mark that after 30 days we’re not allowed to drive the company car until we send them our UK license info, but insurance providers won’t.
We had actually started the license process before we got that email (like a couple months before), but even still we didn’t get our UK licenses in time. And I’m not too proud to admit that we were driving illegally for some time. E for a month and me for about two months. Luckily, nothing happened…but if we did get in an accident we would have been screwed.
So you should notice that timeline of a couple months over the year mark despite starting the process a couple months prior. This is a shining example of how unlike the states this process is.
So what do you need to do? You need to first and foremost, apply for your provisional license. You do this online here and it costs £34. You’re thinking oh, this is easy, you apply online and they send you your license. But you’re wrong. In 2 weeks time post applying, you’ll get a form in the mail that you’ll have to fill out and mail back in with your passport/visa. That process takes another two weeks. But what if you have a trip coming up? Well, you can’t risk your passport not getting back to you in time so you think okay I’ll send this in next month. BUT, you only have two weeks time to send back in your paperwork and passport since applying. So you’ll then have to call and get an extension, which is what I had to do because I was going to Portugal. I WENT TO PORTUGAL IN JUNE. I DIDN’T GET MY LICENSE UNTIL OCTOBER 1. TAKE NOTE.
So getting the extension was easy enough. So E mailed his passport and paperwork back in. In two weeks time (everything runs on two weeks time almost exactly to the day in this process) it came back to him and was explained he had to re-fill it out and submit because he sent in his current passport, not the expired one that has his visa on it. So he just lost two weeks in error and had to resubmit sending BOTH passports. When I returned from Portugal I sent filled out the paperwork and sent in my passport (which is current AND holds my visa). But two weeks later I got it sent back saying that I had to resubmit the form because my signature strayed outside the box. Seriously the bottom of my “B” dipped below the box and it was declared invalid. So lessons you can take away from this: you’ll need in extension if you’re traveling, send in visa and current passport if they are different, and do not, even just barely, cross the parameters of the box in your signature.
Okay so if you do it all correctly you get your Provisional Driving License back. Hurrah. Now what?
First things first, sign up to take your theory test. It generally takes about 2 weeks (there’s that number again) to 4 weeks to get a slot to take the provisional test. You can’t register to take the test until you get your provisional driver’s license number. You can sign up here and it costs £25. I think it’s beneficial to have been physically driving in the UK prior to taking the test. And in all honesty, you should get behind the wheel pretty soon after moving here. Yes it’s scary and takes a lot of concentration and reminding yourself, “left, left, left” every time you pull out onto a road, but bite the bullet and dive in. Everyone else does it, don’t be a Nancy. You’ll figure it out.
It is also THOROUGHLY recommended to get driving lessons. Some expat packages include this, ours did not. I protested to driving lessons kicking and screaming. I am GREAT (taxi-style) driver in the states! I’ve been driving for 15 years! Why would I need a lesson?! Um, I actually needed about 3 lessons. Driving is different here. Trust me. And I would NOT have passed the driving test if I didn’t have them. If you’re in Aberdeen I have a great instructor that I’ll be happy to pass on. His lessons cost £30 an hour and most lessons are booked for an hour and a half. More on physically driving in the UK in Part 2. Not only driving here prior to the theory, but I would also recommend having 1 driving lesson before taking the theory test. Not mandatory, but I think it only helped.
Otherwise, in terms of studying for the theory test there are two options. There is the official book or you can purchase the DVSA Theory Test Kit App which cost about £5. I kind of used both since the book was given to me (which I paid it forward giving it to someone else) but the reason I passed was because of the app. I read through the highway code on the app, but liked to study the signs with the book and with the important numbers and stats you need- it was nice to bookmark them in the book. But the book includes all like 1000 questions you MIGHT be asked on your theory test. You’ll never get through them and know them all. The app does practice tests. I took 10 and scored passing in all 10. That signified I was ready and saw a nice mix of questions. The app also has the hazard perception test. You read right. Hazard perception. You do driving stimulation and have hazards jump out (literally in some cases when they throw sheep across the screen) and time how long it takes you to respond. I’m not joking….
So I’ll give you a minute to catch up, sign up for your provisional, and start studying before part 2 (hopefully next week). In the meantime, if you’re still under that year since you came into the UK, you can drive as normal. If you’re over that year, the provisional is like your learner’s permit in the states. You can only drive with someone who has their UK license (and has had it for over a year!). It does not matter that you’ve been driving all around the country for a year already. You are now unfit to drive alone and your insurance might not cover you.