Or, more specifically, how a Spain driving license can be acquired by an American, non-EU expat like me. I have the temporary license now and anticipate receipt of the permanent Permiso de conducción Reino de España by summer’s end.
I’m here to offer juicy details.
WHY BOTHER, IF MADRID HAS GREAT TRANSIT?
(♦) To explore Extremadura and other Spain afueras served by transit more poorly. Ride the Cercanías to Fuenlabrada or Las Rozas or maybe Pinto, book a rental there, hit the freeway in the exurban sticks: that’s my plan. I drove in Madrid to train for the driving exam, passionately hope never to do so again.
(♦) To provide a basis for an international license that will allow me to drive in other countries, especially the United States. My California license expired in 2018.
(♦) To explore a few other autocentric EU attractions. A native Italian recommended a trek to the Dolomites. See a bus stop in this shot?
(♦) Because I feel vulnerable without a legal right taken for granted for almost a half century. Things come up. Unexpectedly. Life presents one with so-and-so task that is more easily completed with wheels than without.
DID YOU REJECT AN ALTERNATIVE?
Kind of. Many Spaniards have sung the praises of BlaBlaCar, a Uber/Lyft-ish service for treks between cities. The AVE might not go to Extremadura, but a BlaBlaCar driver will. I heard only one negative report of a Sevilla tourist stranded by a no-show BlaBlaCar driver.
I am less modern, dislike using smartphones for transactions involving money, do not want to grant the slew of permissions necessary to make related apps work.
CAN’T YOU DRIVE WITH A USA LICENSE IN SPAIN?
Yes and no. I could have forked over a mere $20 to bag an International Driving Permit through AAA before leaving the states, and even could have arranged receipt of said IDP after arriving in Spain. But the IDP is good for one year, and must be accompanied by a valid U.S. license. I couldn’t figure out how to arrange an early renewal of my California license before I went expat in 2016.
Further, my Madrid drivers’ training included some information I regard as essential. I wouldn’t want to drive here without recognizing European road signs for maximum and minimum speeds, vehicle prohibitions, and other traffic rules, and am a little shocked that I could mail order an IDP without such knowledge. An accident waiting to happen, me thinks.
WAS IT HARD TO GET A SPAIN LICENSE? WAS IT WORTH IT?
Nearly a half-dozen Spaniards warned me in separate conversations that the process would be tough. Most suggested a trip to California to renew the license expiring there.
They warned me with reason. Both the written and behind-the-wheel driving tests are tougher than my (admittedly distant) memory of equivalents at the California DMV. Not a casual undertaking, and likely worth it only for expats planning to stay put in Europe.
Madrid also flunks more behind-the-wheel test takers than do other sites in Spain.
(♦) Enrolling in a private sector autoescuela, which will arrange for you to take the two required tests at a DGT test center. Gotta go through an autoescuela, at least to my knowledge; you can’t sign up for the tests without one.
Cost: If you already know how to drive, I’ll guess — guess, mind you — that you’ll pay 300€ to 500€ total. Greenhorns require far more behind-the-wheel training time, which explains the DGT’s average cost figure of almost 700€.
(♦) A quickie physical aptitude evaluation.
(♦) Passing marks on the first of the two required tests, the multiple choice teórico, taken at a DGT test center in English or Spanish. If (and only if) you pass the teórico, you can try to achieve …
(♦) … passing marks on the second required test, a behind-the-wheel practical driving test in a car with a manual transmission, whilst heeding the Spanish directions of a DGT examiner.
Pass both and you can expect to pick up a temporary license at the autoescuela a few weeks later, and receive your permanent license by postal mail after several months.
The autoescuela probably will assume that you’ll want a class B license, as did I and as do most of their students. If you’re planning to drive eighteen wheelers here, better say so (and skip the rest of this post).
WHAT CAN I DO WITH THE LICENSE?
(♦) Drive in the European Union
(♦) Exchange it for a license in some (mostly Spanish speaking) countries.
(♦) As noted, use it as a basis for an international drivers license.
Term? Ten years for most folks, five years for those over sixty-five. Renewal requires a repeat of the quickie physical.
TELL ME ABOUT THE AUTOESCUELA
A veteran driver probably can get away with enrolling in most any reasonably priced autoescuela close to home. I did. Close proximity to my autoescuela allowed me to stroll there quickly to meet instructors for driving classes, to swing by to ask questions, deal with paperwork and so on. Advantages galore, and I collected those advantages without much penalty, as I passed both tests on the first try.
If I had it to do all over again, though, I might:
(♦) Lean toward an autoescuela in or close to Móstoles. Most Madrileños take their practical tests at the DGT center there, and will want familiarity with the surrounding roads. The Cercanías and metro serve Móstoles; the 522/523 buses serve both Móstoles and the Móstoles DGT center.
TELL ME ABOUT THE PHYSICAL APTITUDE EVALUATION
My autoescuela sent me to a branch of Renuevatucarnet. There may be competitors. I dropped in without an appointment, and waited about ten minutes to take an eye exam and to operate joy sticks on a Pacman-era video game contraption that showed my ability to keep dots centered on roving red “lanes.” My dots frequently roamed off course, but I did well enough to pass.
Cost? 30€. The autoescuela also needed a DNI-sized photo. I swung by a photo center at Corte Inglés.
TELL ME ABOUT THE TEÓRICO TEST
Thirty multiple-choice questions. You can miss three. Miss four and you flunk.
It’s much tougher than the equivalent exam in the U.S.. If you take the exam in Spanish with less than native-level fluency, you may struggle with vocabulary and phrasing. If you take it in English, you may struggle with the fruity, misleading wording of many questions.
In her eighties, my mom had to re-take the written test to renew her license in California. She dropped by the DMV fifteen minutes early, leafed through the booklet, passed easily. In contrast, I studied seriously for several weeks before I dared to take the teórico.
One prepares by:
(♦) Studying a 112 page manual, in Spanish or English. Expect this manual to be three-dimensional, hardcopy, ink-on-paper; I found no equivalent online, and also found no equivalent for sale in Casa del Libro or other conventional bookstores.
(♦) Taking online ‘practice tests,’ in English or Spanish, comprised of superseded questions from teórico exams past. You can try a sample practice test right now, if so inclined:
Pick Inglés, leave ‘Documento’ blank. Remember: three mistakes max.
Your autoescuela should provide you with a username and password to access dozens of online practice tests.
I’m glad I took the teórico in my native tongue. If starting from scratch, I’d still make sure that my autoescuela could book me to take the English teórico at the DGT. I would not, however, worry or care if said autoescuela offers English test prep materials. Instead I would budget 59€ from the git-go for a related offer from PracticaTest, and would plan to do all my English test prep through them.
PracticaTest’s English manual is identical to that provided elsewhere; their advantage is in their practice tests, which offer the latest-and-greatest DGT test questions. I judged these questions to be better translated than the English practice questions available from my autoescuela, and still struggled occasionally with wording or illustrations that struck me as captious, arbitrary, fruity, weird. The last thing you want to do is prep with practice tests that are even fruitier and weirder than what you’ll encounter on test day.
I took zillions of practice tests, made screenshots of all missed questions and spent hours of serious study with the manual. PracticaTest members will log on to a “Student’s progress” page that shows percentage of correct answers in sixteen test categories. “Try to get at least 95% correct in each unit to be prepared for the real theoretical exam,” says a blurb at the top.
That is excellent advice, the single best tidbit of advice received by moi related to the teórico. You don’t want to flunk this puppy and have to wait a month or longer to take it again. Prep and pass it the first time.
I felt ready to take the teórico by late April, groaned when informed that the autoescuela couldn’t book a test date until early June. “It must be the autoescuela’s fault,” thought I, and considered enrolling with a competitor, only to discover that the second autoescuela couldn’t book me for the teórico any earlier. The DGT often reminded me of the California DMV, but I doubt Americans routinely wait six weeks to take a multiple choice quiz on a computer.
As for the test itself:
(♦) I could have traveled solo to the DGT via the 522 or 523 bus, but instead paid 5€ to join fellow students on a shuttle, which allowed me to steal envious glances at those studying their manuals en route. I had thought I couldn’t bring the book along. I could have, as long as I put it away before starting the test.
(♦) Hordes of test takers convened in a DGT auditorium, were addressed in Spanish by DGT staff, and called one-by-one to present identification before entering the test room. I struggle with Spanish pronunciation, and thus listened sympathetically as a DGT staffer mangled the syllables of my name so badly that I almost failed to recognize it. Be prepared, if test taking with an other-than-Spanish name; listen carefully.
(♦) The test room offered rows of desks supporting a small battalion of touch screen computers, and little else. My touch screen and a half-dozen others refused to offer up test questions in English. The proctors printed paper exams, offered pens; we completed these paper exams instead.
I checked a DGT link for test results the next morning. One mistake out of thirty. I’d passed.
TELL ME ABOUT THE PRACTICAL TEST
My autoescuela was able to book a practical test date for me in early July, a month after I’d passed the teórico.
When I enrolled in the autoescuela, I assumed that the teórico would be the tougher of the two tests for a veteran driver, and that I could expect the practical test to be relatively easy. Online articles — here, here — and a torrent of correction from my autoescuela teachers convinced me otherwise. I chewed figurative fingernails before test day, arrived at the DGT in a spirit of unpleasant trepidation.
I now believe that my first assumption was closer to the truth. The DGT does flunk lots of test takers, and is especially likely to flunk them in Madrid, but I suspect this is because so many of those tested are inexperienced drivers. Teenagers.
Please don’t let your guard down too far. A veteran can flunk; I met one who did. I did need instruction on differences between driving do’s and don’ts in Spain and in the U.S., and believe I would have failed the test without that instruction. But the bar to be met was lower than for the teórico. I wish I had focused calmly on differences between Spain and U.S.A. driving, and arrived at the DGT for the practical test in a mellower mood.
My tuition entitled me to six hours of one-on-one instruction in the autoescuela training car: a compact, manual transmission diesel, with a separate set of passenger-side controls for the instructor. I soon learned to book sessions long enough to allow travel to and from Móstoles, where the test would be administered. Students are free to pay for additional class hours, if they or their instructors think it appropriate.
One teacher occasionally spoke to me in A2 English, but the rest of the chat was in Spanish. I could have hunted for an all-English school, but believe that the exam itself has to be taken in español: on test day, the DGT exam-giver tells you in Spanish what to do and where to drive, and you obey. B1 Spanish probably would be sufficient.
I held the friendly, attentive autoescuela office staff in high regard, but was much less impressed with the practical instruction. Corrections were given haphazardly; an instructor might harp on a minor point — my tendency to upshift at an rpm appropriate for a gas car, for instance, and not for a diesel — and make only incidental mention of a blunder that might provoke an automatic fail. I decided that I had to be proactive, to take detailed notes after every session, to pry the information I needed to pass the test out of my teachers, whether they felt eager to give it or not. I also asked for lots of practice in roundabouts: rarely encountered in the U.S., but as common in Spain as stoplights.
(Your instructors may be better. My autoescuela was conveniently close to home, but one of the lowest ranked .)
On test day, I again traveled to the Móstoles DGT in the autoescuela’s shuttle, and noted the youthfulness of most riding the shuttle with me. I learned that I would take the test in the autoescuela’s familiar, manual-shift diesel with the DGT examiner, the autoescuela instructor and another student. One student would pilot the vehicle away from the DGT, and follow the examiner’s instructions for about twenty minutes. The second student would drive back.
A blogging deity may have anticipated the eventual appearance of this missive on transitophile, and took pains to pair me with a test-taker of characteristics relevant to this post. I’ll call him Oliver. Like me — and probably like you, if you’ve read this far — — he was an angloparlante, a veteran driver, an inexpert Spanish speaker, and no longer young. Like me, he was also nervous. “My wife will kill me if I don’t pass,” he said, and repeated a dark rumor: if we flunked, we wouldn’t be able to retake the test before September. Yuck.
Oliver went first. I exchanged polite greetings with the DGT examiner — a well-preserved Ricardo Montalbán type, holding a clipboard — and sat beside him in the back seat. Oliver apologized for his fluency issues; like me, he had learned in the autoescuela that he could ask for clarification if unable to understand the examiner’s instructions. The examiner nodded. Off we went, to the roundabout adjacent to the DGT, south on De Cervantes, to another roundabout south of the freeway.
I soon gathered:
(♦) that Oliver was more nervous than I had thought, and that the nervousness would hurt him during the test. He had already misunderstood the examiner’s instruction to take the exit for the M-50, and had been forced to circle the roundabout a second time.
(♦) that he was nonetheless an experienced driver who knew what to do behind a steering wheel.
We headed southeast on the M-50 freeway. I had toured Móstoles byways with a city native who had offered to show me the streets near the DGT, but soon realized that the examiner would shepherd us to more distant blocks, to south Alcorcón, perhaps, or even as far as Arroyo Culebro. Oliver later would recommend DonCar, which offers online videos of DGT-proximate streets, but still misunderstood two more “go this way” instructions from the examiner. He also braked once on the freeway before entering the deceleration lane, which evoked an involuntary, disapproving ‘tsk’ from the instructor; this error had been covered in my driving classes.
But, with all that said: Oliver obviously knew how to drive.
The examiner instructed him to parallel park. I have no idea where we were, and still can’t find the streets in StreetView. Somewhere in Spain.
Oliver and I changed places. I proffered identification documents to the examiner, including the newly-renewed visa griped about in a previous post. Off we went, hither and yon in whatever quiet dormitory community we had landed in, round roundabouts, on a street paralleling a Cercanías line. The examiner offered directions in crisp, clearly-enunciated Spanish. I noted later that my nervousness affected my driving in an unexpected way; I drove no worse than usual (except for the about-to-be-described parallel parking fiasco), but forgot some tips imparted in the classes, and instead reverted unthinkingly to habits acquired in decades past. For instance: I don’t trust side mirrors that I haven’t adjusted myself, and quickly swivel my head to check blind spots when changing lanes. Not kosher for the exam, one instructor had told me. Nervous me did it anyway.
On one of the quiet dormitory streets, the examiner asked me to park. I picked a slot with plenty of room, pulled parallel to the car in front, commenced a maneuver completed untold hundreds of times since age sixteen … and, nervously, muffed it. The rear tires bonked the curb.
A glance in the rear view mirror showed that Oliver was wincing sympathetically. Maneuver, Tim! Try again. Forward. Back.
The tires hit the curb a second time. I might have blushed.
Happily, that was as bad as things got. I got the car properly parked, and did so without touching adjacent bumpers.
The examiner told me where to drive next. I motored on, while wondering if my dismal parking had put me out of the running.
“Take the second exit on the right,” the examiner told me, as we entered a new roundabout. I misunderstood, recognized my error as we neared the exit, but decided that it would be better to continue driving smoothly in an undesired direction than to attempt a quick, ungraceful correction. The examiner took my error in stride, calmly directed me to proceed to the next roundabout, then to circle back and take the exit I should have taken earlier.
We were on the southbound A5 now, then in the roundabout near the DGT. I followed instructions to stop at the curb next to the main building. How had I done? Examiners weren’t obligated to give results to test takers; I might have to wait to check the DGT web site the next day.
But the smiling examiner informed our instructor that both Oliver and I had passed.
While waiting for the return shuttle, I talked to:
(♦) A veteran driver who had flunked. He was about thirty, told me that he’d held a drivers’ license in Mexico City. His examiner had dunned him for inattentiveness.
(♦) A teenager who had passed on her second try, and another who had passed on his third.
I also saw, but was diplomatic enough not to question, several teenagers staring in doleful silence at the DGT test center. I guessed that they had just contributed to the Móstoles site’s high flunk rate.
My results appeared on the DGT website the next day. Under ‘errors committed,’ it had spaces for ‘claves leves,’ ‘claves deficientes’ and ‘claves eliminatorias.’ I had two for ‘claves leves’ — likely earned while thumping the curb with my rear tires — and none for the others.
If I could time travel to take the test again, I’d use Google StreetView to study the two roundabouts closest to the DGT, and the nearby exits from the west and eastbound lanes of the A5. I wouldn’t study other streets, and wouldn’t sign up for DonCar. (Although the existence of a site like DonCar shows how fearfully some students regard the exam.) Too much likely irrelevant information to try to keep in mind, I think. Better to sign up with a Móstoles autoescuela, and get practical neighborhood experience in 3D.
WHERE WILL YOU DRIVE IN SPAIN?
On Tenerife, eventually, said to be better explored by car than by transit. Across the Pyrenees, perhaps. In Extremadura, as noted. And through Galicia, perhaps in the near future. I can ride the Ave to León, book a rental car there, set out for Vigo, A Guarda, points north.
Friends will guess that I mostly wanted the license “just in case,” and that I’ll rarely use it. They know me well.