How to Get a German Driver’s License, der Führerschein
What do you have to do to get one of these? When is one of these required?
License Requirements for Canadians and US Citizens
Living in Germany
Life isn’t fair, especially when it comes to driving legally in Germany.
An American tourist — who likely knows no German beyond Gesundheit, and even less about German traffic laws — can rent a car and drive in Germany with his or her US driver’s license. But a non-EU resident has to get a German license after six months in order to drive in Germany without breaking the law. Yes, that’s the same German Führerschein that can cost 1,500 euros or more, and requires 20 to 40 hours of instruction at a Fahrschule!
Driver’s License Reciprocity
The lucky American expats are those who come from one of the 27 US states (plus Puerto Rico) that have full reciprocity with Germany. They can walk into their local Führerscheinstelle with their US driver’s license and a few other documents and get a German license without any tests at all. But there is another group of Americans almost as fortunate: those who come from the 10 states (and D.C.) with partial reciprocity. They will only have to take the written test for a German license. (Note: The German written test is far more difficult than the typical US written test.) All the Canadian provinces and territories have full-exchange agreements with Germany. (See the full list below.)
Just be glad that you’re not trying to do this in France, where only 13 US states have any reciprocity, or Spain which has no US reciprocity at all for driver’s licenses. On the other hand, EU members Austria and Belgium allow you to automatically convert your US driver’s license without any test at all. As in most of the EU countries, those two countries also allow non-EU citizens to use their own license for 12 months, rather than only six months in Germany. (Expats staying in Germany for less than a year can apply for an exception to the six-month rule.)
NOTE: The information in the tables below is subject to change. It is current as of July 2013. *Maryland added in October 2011.
US States with Full Driver’s License Reciprocity
GERMANY – No test required
There is a third license waiver category that applies only to US citizens living in the German states of Hamburg, Hesse, Saarland, Saxony-Anhalt, and Schleswig-Holstein. Those Bundesländer have eliminated all barriers for the conversion of a US driver’s license! Unfortunately, in Hesse and Schleswig-Holstein this only applies to Americans who own or are employed by a US firm in that Land.
US military personnel stationed in Germany fall under USAFE rules and regulations. There is a traffic and driving guidebook for US Armed Forces in Europe (USAFE) and information online for persons working in or for the miltary. (See the next page for Web links.)
The 3-Year Limit
An important warning: If you plan on getting a German license (with or without reciprocity), do so within three years of establishing residency in Germany. If you wait longer, you’ll have to start from scratch and take the same number of behind-the-wheel and theory lessons as a first-time applicant in order to obtain a German license. Reciprocity no longer applies in this case.
By the way, Germany has already out-foxed any clever plan you may have to get a license from a US state with full reciprocity and use that to get your German license. You must have held your US license for a period that varies from 185 days to five years in order to convert it to a German one (die Umschreibung einer Fahrerlaubnis). For more licensing details, see our step-by-step guide to applying for a German driver’s license.
Applying for a German Driver’s License (Führerschein)
Even if you have now happily discovered that you come from a state with reciprocity, that does not mean you don’t have some work to do. On the next page we’ll tell you how the application process works and which documents you must present before you get your new German license — usually four to six weeks later. (Welcome to Germany!)
You used to have to be 18 years old to get a driver’s license in Germany, but now you can get a preliminary license at 17. (You can start taking lessons at 16-and-a-half.) A 17-year-old driver is required to have an older licensed driver in the car (begleitetes Fahren ab 17). But… if you’re driving with a US or other non-German license, you must be at least 18 years of age! That applies even if the US state requirement is only 16 or 17!
Some brief words about the International Driving Permit (IDP)… Although it is a good idea to get one before you go to Germany, either as a tourist or a resident, an IDP is not required. Importantly, you need to know that an IDP, despite its name, is not a driver’s license. It is only a translation document that goes with your US or other license, and it is only valid with the original license. It must be obtained in your home country (from AAA in the US) before you leave. Your US (or other) license must also be valid for the entire time you will be driving in Germany (up to six months). Tourists should note that rental car agencies in Germany will only want to see your valid US driver’s license, not an IDP.
One last bit of good news: It’s very easy to get around in Germany’s big cities using public transportation (S-Bahn, U-Bahn, tram, bus). Even people with a driver’s license and a car use public transport to avoid urban parking problems (and save the planet)!