American in Spain

The Day I Forgot How To Drive

November 16, 2006

Yesterday, I was legally allowed to drive a car in Spain. Today, I am not. Why? Because Spain does not have an agreement with the United States to accept US driver's licenses as valid. They do for the rest of Europe, but not for the US. This, by itself, does not bother me. Frankly, I am appalled at how simple it was to get licensed in the US. My in-car driving test consisted of stopping at one stop sign, and returning to the DMV parking lot.

The problem with such a policy, of course, is that the American businessmen and tourists that travel to Spain and need to rent cars are very good for Spain's economy. So they put a loophole in the law specifying that you can legally drive if you're "just visiting". But they had to place a cutoff point somewhere, for when tourists become immigrants can no longer drive without a Spanish license. This cutoff point is "one year after officially obtaining your residency". That day, for me, is today.

So yesterday, I was a fully-capable, safe driver. And today, I've forgotten how and need to take a test to prove that I still can. It's all to get a little money out of me.

The driving schools in Spain, "autoescuelas", are intimately involved with the process of becoming licensed. You have to take your in-car driving test with a special car from the autoescuela, not in your own car, like in the US. And the autoescuelas manage all the government paperwork for you. But you have to be enrolled with an autoescuela to get these services, and enrollment costs about 300€ ($385). I asked the lady at the local autoescuela if I could still get licensed if I didn't enroll. She said that I could, but that I would have to do all the paperwork myself. Since I already had the didactic materials that this same woman gave me for free several months earlier, and I didn't think I needed any actual driving instruction, I opted for the non-enrollment option. She actually helped me fill out most of the paperwork, which was quite nice of her, considering that I wasn't paying her anything. When I took the paperwork in to the Jefatura de Tráfico, the equivalent of the DMV, in Santander, they made me wait a long time while the people that were from autoescuelas, and are there every week doing paperwork for their enrolled students, and therefore on a first name basis with the government drone behind the glass, got preferential treatment. I also have to take the theory exam in a town farther away than the students at the local autoescuela, because of my non-enrollment.

So anyway, I am scheduled to take the theory exam, which is infamously hard (most Spaniards don't pass it the first time), next Wednesday. I'm studying and taking the exam in Spanish. I'm going to have to drive illegally to the exam location, because I have no other way to get there.

I figure that there isn't any real danger in being caught without a valid license, because the validity depends on me sharing the information of the date of my residency. It would only be a problem if I was in an accident and the insurance companies went digging through paperwork, but I'm just going to have to take that risk.