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French License: To Drive or Not to Drive? That is the Question

When I moved to Paris in 1994, I sold my car and never looked back. Living in a city such as Paris or Nice with such great public transportation affords one the luxury of not having to drive, own or operate a vehicle. To those of you who have always seen car ownership as a kind of freedom, think again. It can easily be just the opposite. Of course, in almost all of the United States, living without a car is a kind of prison since the public transportation is less than perfect (or often non-existent).

According to, “U.S. cities have lower public transit use than similarly sized Canadian and Mexican cities.” One out of every three mass transit users live in New York City and its suburbs. Why are we not surprised? New York is virtually the only city in the U.S. where one can actually give up their cars entirely. Other cities do have bus systems and light rail, but not many, nor are the systems themselves all that comprehensive.

When I questioned why that is, I found an article in titled “Why Public Transportation is So Limited in the United States” written by Daniel Faris in 2015. The real reason has to do with the auto-industry in the 1950’s and 1960’s encouraging an ambitious network of highways that would crisscross the country. Urban areas gave way to suburban areas and the cities grew poorer as the middle-class moved to greener pastures, creating even more need for cars. Capitalism did a good job of not serving the public, or the poor, while the auto industry prospered.

It may also not be surprising to learn that as a part of the federally funded highway structure was a way for “getting rid of the blight” of multi-ethnic areas — something they called “urban renewal,” in which lower-income urban communities, mostly African-American, were targeted for removal.

I couldn’t wait to learn to drive and did at the age of 14, when a learner’s permit was possible in Louisiana. By 15 I was driving around town with my friends and feeling free as a bird. When I turned 20, I bought my own car. At the age of 42, my days of car ownership were over, thanks to the move to France. I had no idea then that being void of a car would be a different kind of freedom. Now, I can go to Point A to Point B to Point C, etc., without having to go back to Point A to retrieve my car. Now, that’s freedom!

It’s also a lot of money I’m saving. The AAA website will tell you that an average vehicle will cost about $8,500 to own and operate annually. The least expensive cars to own are the small sedans and the most are pick-up trucks, based on annually driving 15,000 miles. The cost factors to be considered are: depreciation, insurance, maintenance and repair, and gasoline. Add to that parking, car washings and any traffic violations. It can get awfully expensive. Even if you didn’t want to take public transportation, you could taxi or Uber all over Paris all year long for a lot less than that!

Car accidents a major cause of injury and death in US

French driving licenseFrench driving license

French highway code book 2018

Joe Start at Après MidiJoe Start at Après Midi

Joe StartJoe Start

French License - By Joe Start

Illustration for the boy, by Perry TaylorIllustration by Perry Taylor

If money doesn’t matter, then think of this: more than 100 people are killed in motor vehicle crashes every single day in the U.S., or more than 37,000 a year. Injuries total well over two million people annually. That means that driving in a vehicle is not the safest transportation one can choose, either. And you’re certainly not getting one city to another faster by car than by high speed train, as we do here in France.

Getting a French driving license is another big deterrent to wanting to drive in France. For the first year of having a long stay visa, no special permit is needed, but after that, either you give up driving, get a French permit or if you’re lucky enough to have a license from a U.S. state with which an exchange can be made, you do that! These states include: Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia. It makes sense to trade in your U.S. license from another state before moving to France if you can. I know people who rented an apartment in Florida for one year for the sole purpose of getting a license there that could later be exchanged in France!

Getting a French driving license sounds easy if you read the requirements on any website:

“To apply, go to the local Préfecture de Police, if there is not an agreement between your State and France, the staff will direct you to a driving school* where you can take the exam.” (Simple! Bah! Humbug!)

You will need to bring:

– An ID
– Your U.S. driver’s license along with a notarized translation in French
– Proof of residence: statement of domicile, electricity bill or rent receipt
– Carte de Séjour with photocopy of both sides.
– Four passport size photographs

Du gâteau, right? Guess again. Yesterday at Après Midi, Californian Joe Start, author of “French License,” told us about his ten-year experience trying to get a French license and some of the hilarious moments over that period, a few of which were simply just life in France related to the quest for driving legally.

Amazon’s description of the book is correct and noteworthy — I couldn’t say it better myself, having laughed from cover to cover:

This travel memoir covers the hilarious attempt of a Californian expat to obtain his driver’s license in Paris. What appears simple enough becomes a tragicomedy as he confronts one obstacle after another. It has taken him so long, that he’s able to steer the reader onto unexpected detours along the way. You’ll cross funny town names, race against the clock, hear how to talk your way out of tickets, berate blasé customer service agents and bump into wildlife. There are impossible situations, ‘only in France’ characters and cautionary tales from the bumbling of an average Joe. Read until the end to see if he beat the odds and made it or not. It’s an easy, entertaining and quick read. Although it’s not a how-to, you’ll be informed with many surprising bits that even most locals don’t know. Many facts are published here for the first time in English. The author intertwines facts & figures inside 40 comical stories. Chapters may be read as standalone tales, or as a chronology of mishaps on the road to the pink permit prize. This book would appeal to anyone with a sense of black humor, an interest in cross-cultural relations, French culture, or a wonder for what happens when a naïve soul rides into the intersection of technology, globalization, tradition and local government.

Joe enlightened us with his personal anecdotes and read a few passages that had us laughing and frightened of attempting the same thing! One attendee was very proud to admit he had acquired the permit within just one year, but that was thanks to his being retired and focusing on nothing else, but getting the license. He had a few tales, himself.

I admit to renting a car on special occasions and taking the risk of driving without the license. The truth is that driving without the permit isn’t too much of a problem as France depends more on its radar system for catching speeders than live police on the roads stopping offenders, but should you be in an accident, it’s likely insurance won’t cover the costs if you are not properly licensed to drive.

Joe obviously drove for 10 years without it and managed to sail under the so-called radar. And with all the precautions France takes to educate and license their drivers, road deaths in France went up 15.4 percent in one year, as reported by The Local last July. Speeding is a big reason for that. I contend that since the police are no longer visible in lieu of radar, drivers are taking bigger risks.

If you want a laugh, read Joe Start’s French License. If you want to cry, apply for a French License. If you want to take the risk, but get where you’re going, drive without a permit. If you want to stay safe and get where you’re going, take public transportation.

You’ll find me on the Métro, bus or train…

*Some driving schools offer the courses in English. See the Fehrenbach Driving School, but there are others, too.

A la prochaine…

Adrian Leeds - Paris, France riding the bus

Adrian Leeds
Adrian Leeds Group

(riding the bus)


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 House Hunters International Renovation - Perturbed in Paris

P.S. Don’t miss the re-airing of our House Hunters International episode, Perturbed in Paris, Tuesday Mar 20 7:00am E6:00 C. Set your DVRs now!


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