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Using French and foreign driving licences

Drivers from other EU countries, including the UK,  can continue to use their existing driving licences for years after coming to France – although that may change for Britons after Brexit. Here we recap key licence rules

In February's Practical pages we wrote about how to pass your driving test in France to obtain your permis B – but what if you already have a licence when you arrive and are there differences between French and other countries’ licences?
In fact if you have come from another EU country, most new residents will continue to drive on their existing licence, at least in the short-term. However, at some stage you may want to look at exchanging it for a French one.

How do French and UK licences differ?
Driving licences in the EU have become standardised in format and the codes used on them for entitlements. In both the UK and France they now have a ‘pink credit card’ style. However some important differences remain, such as:
- The UK uses a system where you are penalised by gaining penalty points and can lose your licence after gaining 12. France has an opposite system in that you start with 12 points and lose them for offences, being disqualified after you lose them all.
- A current UK licence has an expiry date of 10 years after issue; French ones last 15 years before they need to be renewed.
- In the UK a British licence can only be renewed at the age of 70 on taking a medical; this requirement does not exist in France, although you are legally required to tell the authorities (prefecture) if you develop medical conditions which may affect your ability to drive.
- There may be differences in entitlements. For example, UK licences for those who passed tests before 1997 allow for the towing of all caravans whereas later ones and French ones require you to take a short course to tow larger caravans. However, if you swap a British licence for a French one, all its entitlements should be transferred to the new French licence. You can check your UK licence entitlements at: gov.uk/view-driving-licence

What is the rule for using a non-French licence in France?
If you come from a non-EU country you can only use your foreign licence in France if it is accompanied by a translation into French by a sworn translator, and it is only valid for one year before you must change it for a French one.
If you have an EU licence you may drive on it for as long as it is valid. In the case of a recent UK credit-card style licence this means the date on the front of the card (4b), which relates to the validity period of the licence (ie. of the card itself), should not have passed.

You should also be within the date on the back of the card next to a car symbol, indicating expiry of your right to drive (this is usually the date when you will reach the age of 70, at which point in the UK you need to take a medical to renew the licence for three years).

Formats of British licences have slightly varied from year to year but the above comments apply to all recent ones. The exception would be if you have an old paper-only licence (issued before 1998), which did not have any cut-off date apart from the one for entitlement to drive. These may be used in France until age 70 because the licence itself has no separate validity date.
People who have UK licences issued in the late 1990s to early 2000s which included both a photo card and a paper part should note that the paper part is now considered invalid and the official UK government advice is to destroy it and keep only the plastic card.

The validity date on UK card driving licences is 10 years after issue so if you have been in France some time, you may be driving on an invalid card and may wish to look at rectifying your situation (more below).
You can also check when your licence expires at gov.uk/view-driving-licence

Note that you cannot update your British licence with a French address as the DVLA does not issue new licences to drivers without a UK address. However, this does not affect your legal entitlement to drive on the licence. In fact French licence holders moving house within France are also not legally required to renew their licences.

When does a licence from another EU country have to be exchanged for a French one?
According to French law you should swap the licence for a French one if you commit a driving offence that would involve the removal of points from a French licence. It is pos sible to be fined for not having done so if the authorities find out, although to Connexion’s knowledge this is not often enforced.

Note, however, that as of this year France is introducing an IT system whereby it is intended that people who drive on foreign licences in France will be deducted ‘virtual’ points, losing the right to drive in France on the licence after 12 ‘virtual points’ have been lost. Otherwise an EU licence should be changed for a French one if it is approaching its expiry date (as shown on the front of a UK licence card, next to 4b) or if you are approaching the end of your ‘right to drive’ period (the date on the back next to a car symbol).

How do I exchange a licence?
The process is via application to your prefecture. Documents needed for this include a photocopy of a recent utility bill (eg. EDF) proving your address in France (dated in the past six months), four passport photos, a document proving residence in France for at least six months (a rental or work contract or income tax bill), two colour photocopies of both sides of the UK licence, a photocopy of your passport and two forms filled in, signed and dated (obtain these at the prefecture or download them at tinyurl.com/exchangelicence).

Typically an official will take your UK licence and will give you a temporary document that can be used to prove your right to drive in France until the new licence is issued.

Do they need to take UK licence and, if so, what if I need it to go back to the UK on a visit?
The Interior Ministry told Connexion it is not legally essential and some prefectures will accept colour photocopies and give you back your original immediately. But they said methods may vary. The ministry said they would take note that this might sometimes cause problems. You are, however, obliged to part with the UK licence when collecting your French one.

What happens if my UK licence has expired? Will I have to sit a French test to receive a French one?
A spokesman for road safety in the Interior Ministry said that even if your EU licence has expired, you may still ask for it to be exchanged for a French one. You will have to, among other matters, prove that you are a resident of France (as usual, when exchanging licences).
If necessary, he said, it is possible for officials to directly check your right to drive with an EU driving licences network called RESPER and it is not usually necessary to provide any attestation from the DVLA.
If necessary, however, the DVLA can, on request, provide a ‘letter of entitlement’, which will confirm proof of your entitlement to drive.

What happens if I lose my British licence - or it is stolen?
As mentioned above, the DVLA can supply a ‘letter of entitlement’ certifying your entitlement to drive, which will mention also the expiry dates of your licence and the driving right. The DVLA says this may be used to apply for a French replacement.
If you contact the DVLA it will require you to confirm details about yourself, so it is satisfied that you are the licence holder. A document will be sent by post or fax.

What happens if I am aged over 70 and have not exchanged my British licence?
The Interior Ministry spokesman said it is still possible to request a French licence even if your British one has expired because you are aged over 70, on the condition of you passing a medical if you have any health conditions that may affect your ability to drive.

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