Last week on Tuesday, I received my German driving license. Now I know what most of my American friends are thinking, “How cool! You get to go so fast on the Autobahn!”. We all hear about these high-speed highways and think everyone on the road is Ricky Bobby. While there are some speed racers on the road, just as there is in California, I find the driving in Germany to be quite systematic and safe. I think that also stems from a difference in driver’s education. I’m going to continue to explain the process of me obtaining my driver’s license, as well as some differences between driving in California and Germany.
My experience comes from that as a foreigner who already had a driving license. I can’t really say how the process is for new drivers here in Germany, as that’s not the route I took. The rule for foreign driving licenses is that they are valid in Germany for 6 months from the date you entered the country. To continue driving, you either need a German license or apply for a 6 month extension with proof that you’re leaving the country after a year. Germany has reciprocal (and partially reciprocal) agreements with some states in which American driver’s license holders do not have to take a written test or behind-the-wheel test and can simply apply for a license here. Now, did California make that list of states? OF COURSE NOT 😀 But, it is what it is, and in the end I’m glad I did the complete training.
- Fahrschule (driving school): I had to sign up at a driving school for driving lessons (to familiarize myself with the surroundings and rules, as well as learn to drive stick-shift!) and start my training for the written test.
- Fahrstunden (driving lessons): This did not go so well for me in the beginning. I started training in July and my German language knowledge was very basic. Now imagine, learning to drive stick-shift and learn the rules of the road, when you can barely understand what’s being said to you. The worst part for me was that I already knew how to drive! From the age of 17 until May of this year, I had driven approximately 200,000 miles. I had experience. However, this experience was quite humbling and in the end, I learned quite a lot.
- Training (same word in English lol): To train for my written test, I was able to access an online program that presented the exact same questions that would be on the written test. Sounds easy right? The thing is, I had to learn 1,075 questions that could potentially be on this 30 question test. Good news is, I could do all of my training in English and take the test in English as well (so I thought…keep reading).
- There’s more…. Before I could turn in my application to the Führerscheinstelle (aka the DMV) to get signed up for my test, I had to complete a mandatory first aid class and a vision test. Once I turned in my application, it took about 4 weeks to process. Two more things before I could sign up for the written test: I had to provide proof of payment for the tests, as well as complete my online training with passing 20 mock exams in a row.
- Die theoretische Fahrerlaubnisprüfung (written test): On December 1, I showed up at 7:15 am at my driving school to take the written test. A group of others and myself were driven to the testing center. I was ready. I had studied a lot and knew the almost all the questions and answers. I go to check in with the examiner and I notice on my profile under “Sprache” (Language), it says Deutsch. So I asked the examiner if that was correct because I had signed up to take the test in English. He said he would look into it and for me to take a seat at my computer. I look at my computer screen, and the start page for the test is in German. I looked at the computer two spots down from me, as the man was also foreign, and his start page was in English. Worry start to set in. I called the examiner over to my computer and told him what was going on, and from there he proceeded to speak about the problem with the lady from my driving school, and she proceeded to speak with someone else about it. She came back to tell me the following: when I turned in my application for my license, I was supposed to specify a language for the test (which I did not know), and since I was registered with another county because of my home address, they were not able to make any changes then and there. I had the option of either not taking the test and calling the Führerscheinstelle later to schedule the test on a later date in English, or I could take the test in German. I was worried because I had done the training in English, but I was also not willing to wait any longer to get my license because my 6 months of driving with my American license was over. So I took the test in German, and thankfully I knew the questions so well that all I had to do was translate. And I passed the test without any mistakes!!
- Die praktische Prüfung (behind-the-wheel test): December 12 was the big day. I had completed two more driving lessons with my instructor to practice for the test. Also included in my online training is a feature called “Driver’s Cam” which took me through various scenarios that could be presented in my driving test in Münster (the videos were actually filmed on the roads there) and there were informational videos about the mechanical questions they could potentially ask. And yes, they do ask questions about car mechanics, including the lighting system, what’s under the hood of the car, tire profile and pressure, etc. My instructor and I did a practice round on the day of the test and thankfully we did. I was a WRECK. I stalled the car at least 4 times and I just could not get it together. I think it was a combination of nerves, and the fact that it was a cold winter day so I decided to wear some warming leggings under my jeans but it made my pants really tight so I couldn’t feel my legs so well, which explains why I was not giving the car enough gas when I was releasing the clutch. Then the examiner came, he asked me some simple technical questions (locate the horn, hazard warning lights, and high beams). Easy. Then we proceeded to drive and we took a route that my instructor and I had practiced many times before. I was so excited to learn that I passed, especially after my shaky warm-up round! The last thing I had to do was go to the Führerscheinstelle and turn in my certificate of completion, and I received my driver’s license right then and there, but only after turning in my American driving license. No worries, when I travel home I can always switch them out, I’m just not allowed to carry two licenses at once, which makes sense.
DRIVING IN CALIFORNIA VS. DRIVING IN GERMANY
I will start by saying, that I do not prefer the driving school, roads, or regulations better in one place than another. I think they both have good qualities.
While driving school in California is a lot less expensive (and somewhat easier) than in Germany, I found that I learned more from the German driving school. I’m not sure if the reason is because when I was 17 in California all I cared about was passing the tests so I could get on the road, or the fact that there is much more information to be known for the tests here in Germany. In my driving training in Germany, I had to learn about environmentally friendly driving, mechanical functions, and even the physics of driving. I definitely preferred the online training system called “Fahren Lernen” because I thought it was well organized, easy to access, and provided me the chance to learn while preparing for the test. I also did online driving school in California, but it was so much reading and informative videos, that I barely paid attention. I felt this system grasped my attention better.
In Germany, you tend to see a lot of smaller cars on the road (think Fiat, SmartCar, Mini Cooper) and there’s a reason. Some streets here are much narrower. Sometimes I get a bit worried when I’m on a two-way street with no middle line or divider and I have to pass a horse trailer, but thankfully I drive a SmartCar! You don’t see a lot of Chevy Silverados or Ford pickup trucks on the road here. I sort of took that for granted in California, the luxury of having so much room on the road and lots of space for parking.
One of the first things I noticed on the roads in Germany is that there are SO MANY SIGNS. Signs everywhere. You never have to question what the speed limit is because there are always signs to remind you. If you’re entering an environmentally friendly zone and you need to make sure you have the right colored emissions sticker, there’s a sign for that. If there’s a potential of people using the road for winter sports, there’s a sign for that. But the signs make sense. The speed limit changes before a traffic light or roundabout because you need to slow down for safety reasons. They also these great speed traps, “Blitzer”, and if you’re going above the speed limit they take a picture of you and you get a ticket in the mail. There are definitely not as many road signs in California as in Germany.
Overall, it was a long, and sometimes frustrating, process to get my German driver’s license. However, I learned a lot of valuable lessons and I’m so glad I can drive stick-shift now! Down the road, I would like to get my license to be able to drive a horse trailer here, even though the thought of driving a trailer on a small road still worries me a bit. Haha. In time!