What you need to know about driving in the UK and how to get a UK license. Whether you’re a British resident who’s never learned to drive or a new resident who needs a UK driving license, these are the steps to take.
- Apply for a Provisional license
- Practice driving with an instructor or UK driving license holder of at least 3 years
- Study and pass a Driving Theory Test at a designated Theory Test Centre
- Book a Driving Test at a Driving Test Center
- Pass a Practical Driving Test within 2 years of passing the Driving Theory test
- Receive your permanent driving license
Can Americans drive in the UK legally?
- You’re only allowed to drive in the UK with a US driving license for up to 12 months. You’ll need to apply for a full UK license once those 12 months are up and start the licensing process as if you were a beginning driver.
I would advise applying for your UK driving license well before the 12 month period is up so you can continue to drive legally and practice while you’re waiting to take a test. You won’t have to surrender your US driving license.
When I first moved to England, I didn’t intend to get a car but then the pandemic happened just as my 12 months was up. It meant I wasn’t able to move forward on getting my UK license for an additional 4 months which meant further delays due to additional lockdowns. It’s been a bit of a nightmare as driving tests have been cancelled due to lockdowns and instructors are backlogged into 2022 because of pent up demand from new drivers.
My advice then is to start as soon as you can – it’s a long involved process and expensive to boot!
How to Get a UK License to Drive
First Step – Apply for Driving on a Provisional License
- Apply for a provisional license first . Check to see if you’re eligible. Think of it as a learners permit.
- While you’re on a provisional license you’ll need a passenger in the car with you at all times who’s had a UK driving license for at least 3 years.
- You can’t drive on the highway (motorway) while on this license and you must always display L plates. These are magnetic signs you stick on the front and rear of your car. (buy at Halfords)
- Most learner drivers in the UK take driving lessons to prepare for the practical driving test at this point. If you don’t own a car, you can take lessons and the test in the instructors car. Lessons average around £30 ($42.) per lesson which is 1-2 hours. Buying a block of lessons may get a better rate. Your chances of passing are better if you get a good driving instructor who teaches you how to pass the test.
First Step – Pass a Theory Test
- The next step is to pass a driving theory test, which is a written test on rules of the road, signage and hazard perception. The part of the test dealing with general rules of the road is in multiple choice format. The hazard perception portion of the test is a series of videos you watch, clicking on the mouse when you perceive a “hazard” situation. You need to correctly answer 43 out of 50 questions on the the theory portion of the test to pass and 44 out of 75 questions on the hazard test to pass. You must pass both portions of the test to get your provisional license.
- The test is taken in a designated Theory test centre and each applicant sits in front of a computer at the designated time you’re given when you book online.
- You can study using Youtube videos and online study materials. This is what I used to study .
- You have two years once you’ve passed the theory test to practice driving and pass your practical driving test. If you don’t pass within that time, you’ll need to take the Theory test again.
- You book the theory test online. The cost is £34. ($48.)
- Once you pass your theory test you’ll be given a letter that shows you passed. Hold onto this and your provisional license as you’ll need your Driving license number when you book a practical driving test.
Next step – Book Driving Test
- Book your practical driving test here. If you’re learning with an instructor and you expect to take the test with them in their car, get their instructors number to add when booking so they don’t get double booked.
- You can choose to take the driving test in a manual or auto transmission car. If you take it with manual you’re legally able to drive either auto or manual. With an auto transmission you’re legally only able to drive auto. If you’re from the US you’ve probably always driving automatic.
- I failed my first test in a manual transmission car. It’s harder to find instructors who offer lessons in automatics but they can be found. I ended up buying an automatic so I could take the test in it. You can buy a car and get insurance with a provisional license.
- You may bring your own car to the driving test, you don’t have to have an instructor but you must have someone with you in the car with a license.
- If you rent a car for the test it has to have dual controls (clutch and brake on passenger side). But your own car doesn’t need these.
- Book a test in advance with enough time to take lessons or practice driving routes near your preferred test center.
- The DVSA doesn’t publish driving routes but you can Google your test center and find a list of possible routes online or your instructor should know which routes the test may take. Youtube may have local videos.
- Because the pandemic interrupted tests and instruction there’s currently a backlog wait to book a driving test of 20 weeks or more and some instructors have told me they are fully booked through to 2022. I used an app to help re-book my tests and I highly recommend it – Driving Test Now
Final Step – Take your Driving test
- The driving test begins at a designated driving test center. The test takes 30-40 minutes and consists of driving with a test examiner while you follow GPS (sat nav) instructions plus an independent driving period where the examiner will tell you where they want you to drive to.
- You’ll also be asked questions related to Show Me Tell Me about how your car operates.
- You may need to wear a mask depending on what rules are in place at the time you take your exam.
- If you don’t pass your test the first time, you need to wait at least 2 weeks before booking another test. The test fee is £62 ($87.)
- The driving test has an average pass rate nationally of 45-50% which tells you that it’s tough to pass!
The best pass rate is among 17 year olds surprisingly and the older you get the harder it is to pass. I think if you’ve driven for many years you learn certain habits which, while safe, may not be what the test instructors are looking for. It’s very helpful to book a few lessons with an instructor to get a real sense of what the test will require of you. Keep looking until you find an instructor you like and trust.
Be assertive about getting an instructor to sign you up for lessons even if you’re not in the market for a large block of lesson time. Search here for UK driving instructors.
The word to remember is “safety”. Everything you do has to be considered “safe driving” from checking your mirrors and blind spots to making sure you don’t create a hazard for another driver. If you have one “serious” fault, you’ll fail the test.
Good luck. I finally passed on my 5th try!