Exchanging an American driver’s license for European

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If you’re an American who resides in the EU, what you’re seeing with this current refugee issue you will see or have already seen on a personal level when it comes to driving legally. There simply is no cross-European policy on how to exchange your American driver’s license for one that will allow you to drive legally in Europe. The only thing that most countries seem to agree upon is that you can drive legally with your license for up to six months. I don’t really get the reasoning behind this as it seems you will kill untold scores of people in this time due to not understanding roundabouts after which then they think you should probably get a legal license. Countries also seem to differ as to whether this six months applies when you’re a legal resident. And then there’s also the issue that say I’m living in Spain as I do and I cross in to France, is it then legal for me to drive there as I have “just arrived”?

It’s due to this quagmire of “What the fuck?” that most Americans I know living in the EU often don’t bother getting a license in the country they’re residing in. Again, if you happen to be in Spain, you can easily pull the “Uh, no hablo Español” bit and they’ll probably just think you’re an idiot tourist, bitch at you for not having a translation of your license and send you on your illegal way. I knew one guy living in Barcelona who had done this for something like 10 years given that if you have recent stamps in your passport, you can pretend that you’ve just arrived.

Eventually, the walls start to close in though and this guy I bring up as an example had his moto impounded and was slapped with all kinds of fines to the point where he never, ever drove and started work on getting an actual Spanish license. He failed both the theoretical and practical tests several times before getting one.

At this point, most people ask, what about the “International License”? That is a piece of shit and anyone who tells you differently should be thrown down a flight of stairs whenever possible. People would never shut up about this thing as no one really gets that it’s just for tourism and only acts as a translation of your original American license. Make no long term plans with this. Well okay, so why didn’t this guy just exchange his license for a Spanish one? And here we get in to the meat of things.

Spain does have an exchange accord with all the countries of the EU as well as some others in North Africa. But it has no exchange system in place for any license from an American state. I repeat, American license, no traslada a España hombres. If you think you can pop up to France to make an exchange, no beans there either, although if you go to Congo, pay $60 USD for their license you can (or at least could) then exchange that for a French license. And it’s a similar problem throughout the rest of Europe although I’ve read in Germany, certain US state licenses can indeed be exchanged, just not California from where I hark and have driven for over 20 years–yeah, I’m that old.

So if you can’t exchange your license, what do you? Simple, you start from square one, go to the stupid driving classes, take the theoretical test (it’s available in English now) and then the practical test. It costs something like 1000€ when all is said and done though. Of course the ironic thing is that as long as you have legal residence in the country, you can indeed buy and insure a car in your name but then you can’t legally drive it. Viva España…

This being Europe, there are many grey spots in how this is implemented and it turns out that you can indeed exchange an American license in Croatia of all places. There are however several catches to this. The biggest one being that you need to either be a citizen as I am or then an actual resident. But, even if you are a citizen, you still need to be residing in Croatia in order to apply for both the license as well as the national ID. And yes, you need the national ID (whether as a citizen or resident) before you can get the license. And… there is of course more you need which is all outlined here (this is an archive, don’t know the current one) and not available in English so I’ll sum it up:

  • Your original license (this is be surrendered upon acceptance of your application)
  • Translation of your license (more on this sack of spaghetti poo below)
  • Certificate of medical fitness (again, below)
  • A single photo size 30×35 mm (make sure to tell them it’s for the license not the ID as they’re different parameters and if you wear glasses, have them on in the photo)
  • 70 kuna in government stamps (you buy these at the post office, they’re some antiquated thing like apostilles, the Republican party, or family meals during the holidays)
  • Proof of payment of 151 kuna (regular procedure), or 200 kuna (accelerated procedure) by means of payment in the police department or station, slip or via internet banking, the IBAN is HR1210010051863000160. (you pay this at the post office, which is often in the police station or damned near it but you only do it after you’ve started applying)

So, let’s chat about a few of these things as they differ a helluva lot compared to what you do in the US. First off, a couple of words of warning. First, you need to do all of this in the region where you reside. As I had to sorta do a “triage” residence, I did it in Pula. Your kilometerage will vary but at each decent sized police station, there should be someone who speaks English as absolutely none of these forms will make a lick of sense. Even for native speakers they have archaic terms that give one’s face a touch of “What the fuck…?”

There is a cottage industry that has grown up around the police stations in Croatia to meet all the needs of things you need to do there. Within 100m there should be a place to get photos, a post office to pay fees if it’s not already in the station (as it is in Pula), a doctor’s office to do the physical, a copy shop (you will pay and make all copies), and a legal translator. There are probably some decent fast food/burek shops as well since one or two days will be absorbed in this operation. I think I wore a groove in the ground around the police station with how many times I had to go back and forth.

So first, the translation. This isn’t a big deal. You find a translator who will do from English to Croatia, give her/him a copy of your documents and pick them up a few days later. I can’t remember the cost per sheet but it’s not terrible. I think you might need a translation and copy of your passport as well. I didn’t as amazingly, my Croatian passport is in Croatian.

The real issue is that on a US license, it says, “Class C” for the type of license; at least in California. In Europe, this the classification for heavy trucks and instead it needs to be “Class B”. The problem is that you can’t tell them, “Hey look, it’s a Class B, no problem, right?” Croatia is descended from Yugoslavia and you need forms and so you have to send a copy of your license to the US Embassy in Zagreb to then have them send you a letter that looks like this which explains the difference. Do this at least a week ahead of time or it will slow you down. It was only this letter that stopped me from completing all of this in one very hectic day.

The medical certificate is a bizarre thing. The physical part makes sense as they do this all over Europe as honestly, there was no reason my 90 year-old grandfather should have still had a license and be legal to drive. It’s a reasonable thing to do. The mental part is a bit odd though as I guess they’re checking to see if you’ll go agro on the road or something. At the police station, they’ll give you a list of the offices nearby to do this. It’s not cheap though at 600kn or something as it takes less than an hour. Do it as close to getting your license as you can since it can’t be older than six months.

But that’s about it. There are a number of forms I had to fill out which my friend helped me with and you should do an Istrian wine tour with if you’re in the area. But even if you pay the “expedited” fee, you won’t get either the ID nor the license the same day as you would in say, Spain. They send everything to Zagreb for processing and takes something like two to three weeks. In the meantime you get this little stub of paper that you can’t lose as you need to present it when you go back to pick up your documents.

But eventually, after about 1,500kn (maybe $200 USD max) that’s it, you’ll have a license that you can use to drive anywhere legally in the 28 member block of the EU. Of course if you reside in another country eventually you’re supposed to exchange this license for the license of that country but you have until the current license expires to do it. Again, one of those weird grey spots and few bother doing it.

Myself or others could probably charge for this service and so you might ask why I’ve taken the time to outline all of it for free? The simple reason is that the current system is stupid and people from the US should be able to exchange their licenses for any EU country in which they reside. I asked countless Croatians how to go about this and no one really wanted to help except eventually my friend in Istria who also had to renew his own license otherwise this would have wasted a lot of his time. And don’t think that Americans driving in Europe are going to be some huge danger. Despite the fact that the tests are leagues more difficult in Europe to get the license, much as in the US, people still drive just as shitty regardless.

View Part 2 of this article if you want to learn a bit more.

8 Replies to “Exchanging an American driver’s license for European”

  1. Wow, that was quite an odyssey! Almost like going after the Golden Fleece. So, I guess you have a legal license now? At least it was a lot less than a Spanish one.

  2. Hello, it was really funny and entertaining to read your post. However, the US is not much different. I am an European guy living in the country, and I could not exchange my driver’s license … Although I can use it with an IDL, which is the shitty paper described for one year. I have the same problems as you, which include to start from the beginning to get a driver’s license after 20 years driving. So, if I were you instead of complaining I would advocate for an agreement between countries.

  3. Indeed, there should be an easier exchange but keep in mind that in the US, you can pick up the book for free from the DMV, pay the $50 registration or whatever it is and take the considerably easier test. You can even take it in multiple languages. There isn’t this mafia control of the process like in Europe.

  4. Hello! I have just moved to another country in Europe, but I really want to try the Croatia route…what do i need to do to be residing in Croatia? Is renting an apartment for a few weeks enough? I would love to spend the summer there.

  5. Just like in the US you need proof of residing and have to register as living there. This typically means a rent contract with a landlord or the landlord going to the local foreigner’s office to vouch for you. If you don’t know any Croatian, you might find a good deal of this challenging and if you register as a resident in Croatia it may cancel your residence in your current EU country as you are theoretically only a full resident (ie paying taxes) in one country at a time.

  6. Ho do I get a Certificate or Attestation when enter Usa and Exit Usa for exchanging a Us Driver’s license in France ?
    it’s sounds complicated paperwork in France , for sure they don’t make it easy for Americans exchanging License /

  7. Mr. Hudin… Mafia control? In Spain, as in the US, you can prepare both theory and practice without stepping one foot on a commercial driver education school if you wish me. It is your choice and the ability you have to skip it. Driver’s learning is required though. This is done for the sake of your safety and everyone else’s. However, you can choose a relative to be the authorized person to teach you.

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