Foreigners In France: How To Get Your French Driver’s License

Written By: Mariana

A step-by-step guide to legally driving in France.

We may all agree that driving in Lyon isn’t really a necessity, considering the city’s simple and beautiful urban planning. As long as you can reach one of the two rivers, no matter how bad your sense of direction is, you can easily manage to find your way. All you have to do is look around and find the Croix Rousse or the Fourvière. And when we think about the nightmare of finding a parking spot in some neighborhoods, we just quickly give up the idea of driving a car. Instead,we canbenefit from the city’s well-deserved eco-friendly status, by riding a bike or using the efficient public transportation.

However, once living in Lyon, you might as well want to benefit from the city’s excellent geographical location to do a road trip to the Alps or to the French South Coast, for example. If you haven’t done that yet, you’ll be surprised by the stunning landscapes that awaitsyou in both roads. Or you might eventually need to drive around if you work in one of the surrounding cities of Lyon.

Regardless of your reasons, if you need to drive in France, you’d better get yourself a French driver’s license to avoid getting into trouble, unless you are here as a tourist - a condition in which different rules are applied (if you come from any EU country, you are allowed to use your original license. Citizens from non-EU countries may use their original license, but MUST also have an international one). Based on my personal experience, I’ve put together a step-by-step guide to making the process easier for you:

First step: you need to find out if you need to go to a driving school or if you can exchange your original driver’s license for a French one.

The regulation in France varies from one country to another. But basically, most of the foreigners living in the Rhone-Alps region (the rules also change according to the region of France that you’re living in) may, under certain conditions, exchange their original driver’s license for a French one for free. The general rule is: you must do the exchange within one year that you’ve established residence in France. For some EU countries, the exchange is not mandatory. To find out which condition is applied to your country, you can find a list on the website of the prefecture du Rhône: (information in French).

French driving license

If your country is not eligible for the exchange, then the only way to obtain a French driver’s license is going through the whole standard process ata driving school, including paying the fees and getting some classes. If that’s your case, you may stop reading the article at this point. But if your country is eligible then you have to go through the following steps:

1. Prepare your dossier

The whole process of exchanging your license is made at the prefecture du Rhône and is very bureaucratic.If there is at least one missing document, your application won’t be accepted. So make sure you take some time preparing your dossier so that you can avoid going back to the prefecture. The list of mandatory documents and specific conditions applied to different countries is also available on the website of the prefecture du Rhône.

If at this point, the bureaucracy hasn’t yet made you change your mind on whether to get a driver’s license or just stick to your bike, congratulations! Because your patience will keep on being tested once you reach the next step!

2. Book an appointment at the prefecture

Once your dossier is complete you must book an appointment to take it personally to the prefecture on the same website mentioned above. Appointment booked, the prefecture will send you the confirmation by email. You must print and take it with you together with all the other documents and forms on the day of your appointment. There’s usually A LOT of people at the prefecture everyday. So it’s advisable to arrive a bit earlier, because you’ll have to queue outside and, once you get in, you need to go through a receptionist that distributes service passwords. In other words, first arrived, first to be served. That’s the rule. That means that even if you were scheduled for 9 AM, it’s very unlikely that you’ll be assisted on time. So my precious tip at this moment is: take some earbuds, a book and forget you’re at the waiting room, cause it can take a long time before you’re done (just don’t forget to keep an eye at the calls, because after all this, you wouldn’t want to miss your turn).

To brighten things up a bit, after your number is called, if your dossier is complete, it won’t take long. And within less than a month, you will be rewarded with your French driver’s license delivered right into your mailbox for free. Enjoy it! You’ve earned it!

What you should know before your appointment:

  • The prefecture only opens at 8:30AM, so if your appointment is at 8:30 and you arrive at 8AM you’ll have to queue outside the building for half an hour before you’re able to sit on the waiting room. So don’t forget to consider the weather conditions.
  • Don’t book anything else for the morning you are going to the prefecture. Your appointment might be fast, but it’s likely that it will take longer than you ‘ve expected.
  • If after reading this article you’ve decided you don’t want to go through the trouble, I’m very sorry to inform that, at some point, you’ll have to face a visit at the prefecture anyway (at least to apply for a resident’s permit). If you haven’t yet been there, your expat experience in Lyon is still incomplete. So keep calm and good luck!


The author: Mariana (your best expert to go throught French bureaucracy in Lyon) 

"I’m a Brazilian journalist and writer living in Lyon. Exploring the world since I left my hometown - Brasília, I’ve lived from North to South of Brazil, as well as in The United States, China and, currently, France. Combining curiosity, social interest and apassion for different cultures, in recent years, I’ve worked as a journalist, as a university scholar, as a researcher and as an actress. I am now a freelance journalist who just finished writing my firstnovel, “Que o Oriente me Oriente”, a book inspired on a train trip that crossed Mainland China untilthe arrival in Tibet. After getting a bit tired of the busy pace of life in Asia, I decided to settle down in Lyona year ago,to start a new adventure in Europe. In “Airxpat” blog,I’ll be sharing a bit of my stories as an outsider who feels athome wherever I choose to be, as well as some useful information on being an expat in France."

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