On the Road Again: Getting a Driver’s License in Spain, Part I

It’s my argument that Spain doesn’t want me to grow up. At 27, I’ve never had a Spanish credit card (I’ve been denied three times), paid a mortgage (that’s what the Novio is for) or had to shop around for health coverage (yaaaay Socialism!). I also got away with driving the Novio’s car without an EU-license because he’s got an automatic in a country of manual cars and I figured I could play dumb guiri if I was ever caught.

But then I did get stopped and fined 100€ in a rental car. This sent my mother-in-law into a tailspin, and she told me I could be banned from driving should I get caught again. This also came on the tail of getting a speeding ticket in the Novio’s car, so she promptly announced she’d be floating the cost for a driving course as my Christmas gift.

She always knows just what to get me!

A new law, passed January 19th, 2013, now forces non-EU citizens who have resided in the Euro Zone for more than two full years to get a driving license issued by a member country. This comes from an effort to make everything in Europe more standardized, and to make me shake my finger once more at bureaucracy for making my life more complicated.

Pues, nada. I no longer had any excuse, which for years had been that I didn’t have the time, the necessity or the money to complete a course. Plus, I’d heard that the exam was difficult, particularly for a native English speaker with completely different driving rules. My mother-in-law spoke to a friend of hers who owned a chain of driving schools, and I was signed up.

My experience getting a Spanish license was similar to my first few months in Spain: I felt like I was fumbling around in the darkness, touching and feeling my way around a room, looking for the light switch and my aha! moment.  I received frantic phone calls from the driving school, asking me to bring in photocopies of my residence card, several small pictures of myself for their records, or a medical history.  Since nothing in Spain is ever easy, I had to get a check-up before I even sat in a classroom to take the theoretical course.

My theory: Don’t hit people or other cars. What more did I need to know? As it turns out, I had a lot to learn about how the Spanish system works, not to mention exactly what a clutch is used for.

Driving exams in Spain – and Europe, for that matter – consist of two parts: applicants must first pass a 30-question theory exam with a maximum of three incorrect answers, and then complete a 30-minute driving exam. I was able to do everything within just over a month, though I waited to do both the theory and practice exam due to my master’s program.

Step by Step.

The first thing you need to do when signing up for a driving course at a registered school is do a reconocimiento médico at a medical bureau. Thankfully, my in-laws run one and could get me in for free, though these certificates tend to cost around 20€ in Seville. You’ll be asked to steer two knobs to stay within the lines (think an ancient arcade game), and then have your eyes checked. That certificate is then turned into the autoescuela, who in turns sends it to the Departamento General de Tráfico, the people in charge of the roads and drivers. Have I mentioned how much I love middlemen in Spain?

Miguel, owner of the driving school, gave me a CD-Rom with practice tests to complete at home before the weekend course. Knowing that only three errors are admitted, I completed tests, frantically looking up new words like retrovisor (rear-view mirror), rebasar (to overtake) and remolque (trailer). Time and time again, a crash test dummy flashed on the screen, letting me know I’d failed with a thumbs down. I was disheartened.

On February 1st, I showed up at Autoescuela San Sebastián at 10:30 a.m on a Friday morning. My classmates didn’t show up until 5:30 p.m., so Luisa got me caught up to speed.

Did you know the DGT classifies some highways as good, and some as bad? Or that those with a license to drive a car can also drive a small motorcycle? After three hours with Luisa, my head was spinning, my hand hurt from taking notes.  She assured me that the nearly dozen years I’ve been driving in the US would be of great help with the exam, but I knew my nose would be buried in a book the rest of the weekend.

After a long break for lunch and a siesta, I returned to find that my classmates had come and that Luisa had been replaced with the owner’s daughter, Macarena. She immediately rushed up to me and gave me a hug, despite having never met me. As it turns out, she and the Novio have known each other since they were kids, when they went to sister schools and my mother-in-law would pick them up from school together. As with most things in Spain, I was getting the hook up through the age-old encuhfe that I so dislike.

My group was comprised by several others: Patricia, who had already failed the theory test half a dozen times; Marta, who had studied at another school and failed twice; Nuria, a gypsy who could hardly read and was memorizing the questions and answers; Jonni, a young boy from the barrio whose mechanically-inclined brain was of a lot of help when answering questions; Fátima, a woman from Guinea who had been studying for months and was in no rush to take the exams; and Iván, a mechanic who took more smoke breaks than practice tests.

Macarena herself was a character, as the Novio had already warned me: she compared arriving to intersections like taking a number at the butcher’s and waiting, or entertained us between practice tests with tales of jaleos she’d had in her younger years. She spoke over everyone, jumping in to help us answer questions on the practice tests until she was hoarse. Then, she randomly change her shoes and leave us alone to complete tests while she went out for a run.

Apparently this school functions on enchufe and confianza, trust – the owners would often just leave the keys at the bar next door and allow students to open as they pleased.

After close to 24 hours at the autoescuela that weekend, my head full of numbers as to how many seconds a reaction time multiplies by in the snow to how many centimeters something can stick out of the back of the trunk, I wondered how long I’d actually remember everything. I suddenly became more aware of how the Novio drove, or I’d mumble driving rules under my breath.

A week later, Miguel called me to tell me I’d be taking the theory test at the driving facility on the road to Dos Hermanas. I’d have to bring my NIE and a pen, showing up at 9:30 a.m. to complete it. I arrived by and found Jonni, who pumped me full of confidence. My heart sunk when I saw my name was spelled CTHERINE MAY on the official sign-up sheet, knowing that it would prove to be a huge coñazo when I passed both exams. I immediately told a monitor, who waved me away and told me to let the autoescuela know.

The examination room was stark with close to 30 long tables placed in rows and facing a stage in which five examiners (with novels in hand) sat. Applicants are required to turn off their phones, display their residence cards on the table and complete the 30-question test within 30 minutes. Miguel had warned me that the questions are taken from a pool of nearly 3000, which is why I was required to study the entire manual, which covers not only signage, but also mechanics, maintenance and the effects of alcohol, drugs and fatigue on a motorist.

Of these 30 questions, about twenty are giveaways whereas the other ten can be a bit trickier. I finished, confident, in about 15 minutes, knowing full well I had another chance to pass before I’d have to start paying myself for the exam. I took a deep breath, turned the test over and left out the back door.

The next day, I signed onto the DGT page promptly at 1p.m. The exams are sent immediately to headquarters in Madrid to be marked, and the scores are available at 1p.m. the day after the test. Holding my breath, I punched in my foreigner’s number, birthdate and test date and waited for the page to load.

No result found for this data.

CÓMO!? I tried again and again until it was time to leave for work, chalking it up to a delay in the paperwork once again. I checked again after work and was surprised to see there was, again, no result.

The following day, I marched over to Autoescuela San Sebastián and called Miguel. I had passed with one error, much to my relief. Miguel had even called my father-in-law to let him know to call me and give me the good news, who had then allowed me to suffer for 12 hours.

Spanish bureaucracy – 409, Cat – 1.

I’ve also published a follow-up about the practical exam prep and driving stick shift (spoiler: they just threw me in the car and expected me to know). Have more questions? Direct yourself to my sister page, COMO Consulting Spain for all things Spanish-red-tape!

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About Cat Gaa

As a beef-loving Chicago girl living amongst pigs, bullfighters, and a whole lotta canis, Cat Gaa writes about expat life in Seville, Spain. When not cavorting with adorable Spanish grandpas or struggling with Spanish prepositions, she works in higher education at an American university in Madrid and freelances with other publications, like Rough Guides and The Spain Scoop.


  1. This was just great, Cat! Really fun and interesting read. The exam sounds pretty intense though, especially when compared with American driving tests! Looking forward to Part II :)

    About the new EU law: do you have to get a license even if you don’t own a car and exclusively use public transport?
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    • Karen Young says:

      “About the new EU law: do you have to get a license even if you don’t own a car and exclusively use public transport?”
      Trevor, are you serious?!?!?!

    • Sunshine and Siestas says:

      You don’t need a license if you don’t plan on using a car. Plus, you haven’t been in Spain for two years yet, so you’re not in the same situation. I never thought I needed one, either, but when Doña Carmen is paying, you can’t say no!

  2. Great read, Cat! Do you know if those two years count from when you first got empadronado or from when you first got your NIE?
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    • Sunshine and Siestas says:

      That a great question. I would guess it’s from when you first got your NIE, so long as it’s still valid. When I did my taxes last year, they still had my old address on file, even though I had never been empadronada there. Might be worth asking at your nearest autoescuela.

    • My guess is it would be from the empadronado as foreigners will need an NIE number to buy a property (I think) they could have that NIE number for ten years without ever returning to Spain (in theory) – if they return for a week and want to drive they should not require a Spanish driving licence if they have a valid one from elsewhere. (But this is just a guess)

      • Sunshine and Siestas says:

        Great point, Antonio. The law has changed quite a few times since I got my last NIE, so the padrón is now required. I just showed my American DL and my passport rather than my NIE when I got pulled over, and just got a slap on the wrist.

  3. Good to practice with information about on road test and helps a lot about it.

  4. This is great! I didn’t know it was an EU law to obtain one, luckily I have only been an Italian resident for one year, I will wait another year! lol. It must have been funny to manoeuvre two knobs to simulate driving! Oh my, that must have been funny. p.s. did you mean a ‘minimum’: 30-question theory exam with a maximum of three incorrect answers? That seems hard to do actually.
    Tiana Kai recently posted..I was a Berlin HipsterMy Profile

    • Sunshine and Siestas says:

      Unfortunately for us, it is! But with my big news coming up, it may be necessary. Couldn’t just let a paid course and a cheap car pass me up!

  5. Congratulations, chica! You’re a better woman than I. The marido and in-laws always wonder why I don’t get my drivers license here, but honestly, public transport is just fine with me. I just don’t think I would have the energy for the enrollment process. Spanish bureaucracy has beat all of the gumption out of me!! :)
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    • Sunshine and Siestas says:

      I think I got extremely lucky that my suegra loves me enough to do it all for me! Plus, Miguel knew that she’d rage on him if anything got messed up.

  6. I ravenously read this entry as it’s one of the only things I’ve come across on guiris obtaining a license in Spain. I must admit, though, that I haven’t been actively been looking; just like Nicole, public transportation is fine and dandy in Madrid. However, the freedom to move about, especially driving to other places, would be exhilarating. I’m ready for part II !
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    • Sunshine and Siestas says:

      I feel like I am the first to write about it, too, and I’ve had my carnet for nearly a month already! I never felt the need to do it, but when the opportunity came along, I just couldn’t pass it up.

  7. Great article!!! It really inspires me to go out and get mine…but seriously, either you’re a “crack” or most of the Sevillanos I’ve met don’t have the same kind of luck as you did…I’ve never met anyone here to pass both on the first try!!! Remember I pulled out of mine after I heard stories that they tried to rip off the guy from Senegal? I recently saw signs saying that they will give you a free bike if you sign up at their school…sounds cool, but sketchy. By the way, speaking of Spain and how they like to complicate things, did you know that it takes 3 visits to take out blood and get the results? Yes…first, to personally ask your doctor for the blood analysis appointment, second time…to take out blood and the third time to get the results…the latter 2 visits I understand, but the first??? Really???!!

    • Sunshine and Siestas says:

      Mickey, I’m getting my car this weekend, so we need to plan a weekend to all get away somewhere! I think that having some enchufe (my suegros work with DGT) certainly helped, but it’s a relief to have it done! And, for real…the reason I haven’t gotten a check up recently is because I don’t feel like going to my cabecera and then back two more times. Seriously, Spain.

  8. Good post! I recently passed my driving test in Barcelona … aged 53!!!! … a lot of this rings a bell but it wasn’t quite as eccentric!
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  9. This process sounds way more intense than the driving test in the US. I liked the descriptions f the others in the class. It was as if I could picture all of them in class with you. I’m looking forward to Part II. Also, I have no clue how to drive stick!

  10. Jesús de María Zamarriego says:

    Hi Cat!
    some time that I follow your blog, your comments are always good, but in this you have gone through. In Spain has always been complicated “sacarse el carnet de conducir” well done, you are a brave girl! I hope with real curiosity to know how it is going with the “clutch/embrage”
    It seems that Doña Carmen is… “una señora de armas tomar” I am glad that you have good relationship.

    • Sunshine and Siestas says:

      Hola, Jesús! Thanks for your kind words. It seems that sacaring the carnet was easy…driving a new car back from Madrid had me más nerviosa…! And Doña Carmen es la mejor que hay! Un abrazo.

  11. Sorry for the repeat
    Jesús de María Zamarriego recently posted..Castilla nació en estas tierras.My Profile

  12. I am impressed that you are going for your drivers license in Spain. It is a pain that you are forced to do it, but so cool nonetheless. It looks like a real experience!!

    • Sunshine and Siestas says:

      If having a driving instructor squeak at you for turning into the wrong lane because you’re used to driving like an American, it definitely was!

  13. Ugh, that sounds so complicated. I’d heard it was really hard, tedious, and expensive to get a driver’s license here, but I didn’t know it was this bad. Can’t say I’m really surprised though…

    Congrats on passing!
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    • Sunshine and Siestas says:

      I think it was easier and less complicated than I was told, actually! Plus, I didn’t pay!

  14. Interesting to read a genuine first hand experience – and well done for sticking with it!

  15. oh my! you can do it! well, you did!
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  16. Good for you! I’ve only been in Spain a month, and I have to say I’m impressed whenever someone comes up victorious against the bureaucracy. :)
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  17. I would like to know is there a school here in sevilla that teaches in English? If so can you send me the name of the school and where it is located I can not afford another 500 euro ticket. .lol

    • Hi Billy – bad luck!! I definitely have been caught and fined, too, and that prompted me to get my license.

      Schools are required to offer the option of materials in their native language, but you’ll need to give a bit of advance to have them delivered. I looked at a bit of one manual, and the language blunders were TERRIBLE – just a fair warning! I did mine in Spanish in the end, but try the big schools like Leonesa or Nervión. The latter seems to have a course in English!

  18. Hola Cat!

    As always, thanks for the info!

    I’ll be doing the theoretical exam por libre.

    Do you know if the DGT sent some official paper at your school after you passed the test? I’m asking because my situation is a bit complicated. My permanent address is in Barcelona, but I’m currently living near Cadiz for a couple of months and I want to get my driver’s licence there. I’m wondering if I have to convince the DGT to send some papers at my actual address or not since I’m not yet registered with an autoescuela.

    Thanks a lot!

    • Hi Eve,

      I didn’t get anything for the teórico in the mail (results are available online and your autoscuela is informed), and I think the actual license came in the mail, as well. If you’re signing up with an autoescuela, I’d ask them for advice, as you do need to present a NIE when signing up. Good luck!

  19. I used to have so much brain fog about how and where to do with obtaining my driving license. I took a course from an english driving school in Barcelona. They prepared me for both theory and practical driving exams and helped with documents.

    All their classes are taught in english, they have english speaking instructors. http://www.driving-school-barcelona.com


  1. […] Miss the first part of how I fought bureaucracy and came out semi-victorious? Read Part One of On the Road Again here. […]

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