(The Cheapskate’s Guide)
According the Spanish Law, foreign residents may continue to drive with a license from their country of origin for six months, and then must obtain a Spanish license (permiso de conducir). So, naturally, after nearly three years in Spain, I spent some time this summer getting a Spanish Driver’s License.
I don’t recommend following my example and waiting for years. Between all of the other stuff going on in our lives, I allowed getting a Spanish driver’s license to fall a few weeks behind… and then a few months behind… and then a few years behind. I got by with my US license whenever I drove and I was never pulled over. If I had been, especially during the COVID-19 lockdown when it would have been obvious that, as an American, I am also a resident, I would have been the deserving recipient of a fine of over €500.
Why Get a Spanish Driver’s License?
There are a lot of reasons you might consider getting a Spanish driver’s license:
- It’s good for ten years.
- It can be exchanged for a license in any other EU country, which may simplify your life if you make a move within the continent.
- It may be an acceptable proof of driving privilege in places where your US license is not accepted.
- It may help establish your bona fide connection to Spain in connection with an application for permanent residence.
- You will no longer need to maintain an International Driving Permit (IDP), a requirement for driving with your US license in Spain.
- It may help you establish that you are no longer a resident of a high-tax, sticky-residence state (I’m looking at you, California!).
- You’re legally required to get one if you want to go on driving!
Over the past few years, I made all sorts of excuses for not getting a Spanish driver’s license. I was busy. I wasn’t sure about whether we were planning to return to the US. The truth is, more than anything I was intimidated. I’ve been a licensed driver for over 25 years, but driving customs and rules vary from place to place, and there is a general belief among foreigners in Spain that the license exams here are on the whole less forgiving than other places in Europe, which are in turn much more difficult than US driving exams.
Allow me to confirm that despite my age and experience behind the wheel, I found the Spanish license examinations to be substantially more challenging than (my hazy memory of) the ones I took at age 16 in the US. But let me also reassure you that it is also likely not as bad as you are expecting. With a little planning, practice, and persistence you can not only succeed, but do so at far less than the €1000-1200 often mentioned as the “expected” cost to obtain a Spanish license.
My total cost to obtain a Spanish license was €347.20. Part of that was preparation, part of it was luck, and none of it was be being a more naturally gifted driver than anyone else. Once you understand the steps involved getting a Spanish license from the Dirección General de Tráfico (DGT), you can start to pick them off one at a time. Let’s take a brief look at the requirements.
Steps to Get a Spanish Driver’s License
- Pass a Medical Exam. Whereas your home motor vehicle department might test your vision or hearing as a part of their office procedures, this task is carried out by actual physicians in Spain. It can’t be just any old doctor. It has to be done at a Centro de Reconocimiento de Conductores (CRC). These are basically little medical offices that do little more than perform medical exams, day in, day out. Do not stress out. You will pass this exam.
- Pass the Written Exam. The written exam, or examen teórico, is a 30 question, multiple choice exam. A passing score is 90%, so you can afford to miss up to three questions. The exam is available in Castilian Spanish, Catalan, Valencian, Basque, German, French, and English. We’ll talk about the best language to choose in a bit.
- Register with a driving school and complete at least five behind-the-wheel training sessions. Regardless of how much driving experience you have, you must register with an autoescuela and take at least five driving lessons. It’s unavoidable, and it’s the single most expensive component of the journey to getting a Spanish driver’s license. However, this is time extraordinarily well spent, and I’ll tell you why in just a bit.
- Pass the Practical Exam. This is it: getting a Spanish driver’s license all comes down to getting behind the wheel with your instructor and an examiner and showing that you can safely circulate in traffic, Spanish-style.
Now that we’ve looked at the four major components of getting a Spanish driver’s license, let’s dive deeper into each one.
Passing the Medical Exam
Spanish Level: Basic to Intermediate
Translator Allowed: Yes
My Cost: €26
Don’t freak out.
Seriously, don’t freak out. Your medical condition is highly unlikely to disqualify you from getting a license. When I read the words “medical exam,” I recalled my last life insurance exam, when I was extensively poked, prodded, and tested by a scowling, surly intern. That’s not what this is.
The medical exam for the Spanish driver’s license bears more in common with your DMV eye exam than it does your last physical. These offices are officially called Centro de Reconocimiento de Conductores (CRCs), but they are more often advertised as offering psicotécnicos, or “psychotechnical” examinations.
I found the nearest authorized CRC from the PDF published on the DGT website. I walked in when they opened one Monday morning and inquired about getting an appointment, but they were not required and I was directed to the waiting room. The order of these tests may differ for you, and you may be subject to some other test based on your medical history, but you will, at a minimum, do everything below.
My first stop at the psicotécnico was the psychologist. This is a very informal interview where I was briefly asked about my psychiatric history. Again, seeking treatment for depression or other psychiatric care is not disqualifying. I was then asked to “play” two “games” designed to test your reflexes and coordination.
The first game involves your ability to independently control your two hands. You will grip two handles, one with each hand. These handles twist independently from right to left. You’ll be watching a screen with two “lanes,” one on either side of the screen. Imagine old video games where you control a plane or spaceship from overhead. That’s what this is. You’ll control two little balls on that appear onscreen, and your job is to turn the handles and keep the balls within their respective lanes. Left hand controls left ball, right hand controls right ball. The screen scrolls relatively slowly and while you will be subjected to a disconcerting buzz when your ball travels outside the lane, the test is enormously forgiving. In order to pass, you must spent between 10-100% of the time within both lanes. This means you literally can be outside of the lanes 90% of the time and still obtain a passing score! Even if you fail, you can perform the test up to three times in a day.
The second game involves your ability to anticipate the speed of objects. You’ll observe a ball moving along a line from left to right on the screen. It will disappear into a white “tunnel” taking up most of the second half of the screen. You will never see the ball appear on the other end of the “tunnel.” Your job is to hit a button when you believe it would appear on the other side. You’ll do this a bunch of times, and that is not an indication of having made a mistake. Rather, they’re testing you at various speeds. Again, it’s hard to fail this test. Your average accuracy can be up to 50% off and you’ll still earn a passing grade.
After visiting the psychologist, it was off to the medical doctor.
The Medical Doctor
I sat in a regular office and was asked some basic medical questions. If you have severe medical issues you may be subject to further investigation, but my case of mildly high blood pressure and a relatively common inherited medical issue didn’t even result in a blood pressure test.
I was asked to read from an eye chart through a mirror. If you at least know your letters in Spanish, you’ll be in good shape. I think I accidentally said Uve (V) instead of “U” (U) once or twice. Still passed.
In theory, you are required to bring a couple of passport-sized photos with you to the DGT when you come to register for the written exam. In practice, nearly all (or perhaps all?) of the CRCs now take your picture and transmit it electronically to the DGT along with a digital version of your medical certificate. I wish I had been prepared for a picture! Oh well.
Before moving forward, it’s important to understand that the Spanish Driver’s License process is a series of time-limited gates. Each document or step has a limited validity during which you must progress to the next step, otherwise you’ll have to either pay another fee or repeat the step. The medical certificate is valid for 90 days. However, if you present your documentation at the DGT and take a written exam, your certificate validity is prolonged, and will continue to be extended for as long as you are moving through the process in a timely manner.
Passing the Written Exam
Spanish Level: None (English), Intermediate/Advanced (Spanish)
Translator Allowed: No
My Cost: €92.20 (exam fees) + €59 (Practicatest)
Once you have passed your medical exam, you will have some decisions to make. The first is about the language in which you will take the written exam, and the second is whether you will self-study or join a class. Finally, you need to decide whether you will test manual or automatic transmission.
The exam is offered in a variety of languages, with Castilian Spanish and English being the most likely options for readers of this blog. I chose to take the exam in English for two reasons. First, I was in a rush as my US license was on the verge of expiration with little hope of getting back for a renewal. I didn’t want to spend significant time learning specialized written-driving-exam vocabulary in Spanish. Second, I learned that while the exam question pool in Spanish is over 35,000 questions, the English question pool is a mere 3,500. Still a lot, but it’s far, far more likely that you will have encountered some of the questions before if you choose English.
I had read opinions on the internet that the English questions are poorly translated, but I did not find that to be the case. I generally thought the questions were clear, if at times slightly tricky. I only had to memorize one question because of the poor quality of its translation.
Self-study or Take Theory Classes
Most Spanish driving students enroll at an Autoescuela at the very beginning of the process. They all offer both written study materials and in-person (or, in the time of COVID-19, Zoom) exam prep classes. The school will collect all of your paperwork, schedule your written exam when you are ready, and generally prepare you for the test. English-language instruction is extremely rare, however, and is generally only found in Madrid, Barcelona, and places with large English-speaking populations. So if you’re someplace outside of those places and want a classroom environment, you would need to prepare for the exam in Spanish. You’re also subject to the school’s schedule and can’t progress at your own pace.
Alternately, you can choose to free-affiliate until you complete the written exam, presenting your own documents to the DGT and sitting the exam with no school affiliation. This is called taking the test libre. It means seeking out your own instruction or exam prep materials, getting an appointment at the DGT, and turning in your registration documents (and tasa, always a tasa!) yourself.
I chose to self-study. There is no English-language instruction anywhere in Granada, and I was pressed for time. Practicatest, an online DGT exam prep school, has aggregated all of the English-language questions, which are released a few at a time on the internet by the DGT. I paid €59 for a six-month membership that included a written study manual and unlimited access to randomly-generated testing on demand. I opened the written manual once or twice when I had never seen a sign or needed to check some obscure rule regarding the overhang of loads. The written guide is more useful as a reference than it is as a textbook.
Instead, I woke up every morning and took five random exams. I took five more every night before bed. If I failed a practice exam, I made myself take it again until I passed. PracticaTest will always show you which questions you missed at the end of each practice session and explain the correct answer. Just as in the actual teórico, each exam is 30 questions and a passing grade is 27 or better. After about 30 days, during which I blew off the daily exams, I had seen every question Practicatest had to throw at me (or at least it seemed that way).
Manual Versus Automatic
Every autoescuela has manual transmission cars. Very, very few have an automatic. You are virtually forced to learn and test on a manual transmission vehicle. If you have never driven manual or are not comfortable doing so, this may be a big factor in you spending more on lessons. If you use an automatic transmission vehicle to take your driving exam, you will receive a restricted license that only allows you to drive automatic transmission vehicles. Test on manual and you can drive any passenger car. I am comfortable with manual transmission so this wasn’t a factor for me.
Register for the Exam (Self-Study Only)
When I was ready, I made an appointment on the DGT web site for an office visit to present my paperwork. Pick your local DGT office from the list, then choose Trámites de Oficina. Click Continuar. On the resulting page, find the section marked Área: Exámenes permisos de conducir. Click Continuar in that section. Fill out all of your personal information on the resulting page and click Solicitar. You will be able to pick from a list of available appointment times and confirm your appointment.
Arrive at your appointment with the following paperwork.
- Solicitud de Pruebas de Aptitud. This is the application form to register for both the written and behind-the-wheel examinations. You can download it from the DGT web site. You will fill out the Datos del Interesado section with your personal information. The Domicilio del Titular section contains your mailing information. Right under that in the Centro de Reconocimiento box, put the name of the medical clinic you visited, and the center number from the DGT PDF. Finally, assuming you want to test for a regular passenger car license, check Permiso/Licencia de Conducción, clase B. Choose between Manual and Automatic transmission and stop right there. You do not need to fill any further. You just need to sign, date, and locate at the bottom of the form.
- At least two passport-sized photos. Better safe than sorry! I didn’t need these as the CRC had already transmitted my photo electronically.
- A Credit Card to pay the Tasa. The registration and exam fee is, as of this writing, €92.20. It can be paid online or in person, but it cannot be paid in cash. This fee covers both creating your record in the system and up to two attempts at the written exam. Somewhat confusingly, if you fail the written exam once, and then you fail the behind-the-wheel exam once, you will pay this fee again. In essence, this registration covers three exam attempts, of which only two can be used for a single exam type.
- Your Medical Certificate. Bring it along.
- Proof of residence. Your TIE card will work. The residency requirements for a Spanish driver’s license are a little unclear, but it appears that you need to have a residence permit with a term of at least six months- not six months remaining, but that the term of your residency is at least six months. So, you should be able to complete the license process even if you are facing a visa renewal and any nonlucrative visa holder should be entitled to request a Spanish driver’s license.
My appointment was painless. I was directed to the desk marked Exámenes, where I explained that I wanted to register for an examen teórico as libre, and handed over the paperwork as they requested it. They checked the calendar for the next exam date open to unaffiliated students, and let me know when to come back.
Taking the Exam
If you’ve taken a written driving test anywhere, this will be nothing new. On the morning of the exam, I joined a group of driving students in a designated location outside the DGT office. Our names were read off a list and our IDs were checked, then we were allowed into a testing room in the office.
Inside the office, I briefly mentioned to the exam proctor that I was taking the exam in English. I was given an answer sheet and a three-page printout of multiple-choice questions. Each sheet has a unique code that you transcribe onto your answer sheet to allow the examiners to correct it. Then it’s just a matter of answering A, B, or C and returning your answer sheet and test on the way out.
Exam results can be checked online, sometimes late the same day but more commonly on the next business day. As I took the test on a Friday, I wasn’t able to check my results until Monday morning.
Yep, I failed my first written exam with a score of 26 out of 30. I wasn’t totally surprised as there were four questions on the test that I had never seen and I was stumped by… but I was hoping for a lucky guess! It sucked to fail by a single question but life is that way sometimes. This meant that to avoid paying the €92.20 registration fee again, not only did I need to pass the written on the next attempt, but I also needed to pass the behind-the-wheel exam on the first try.
I made another appointment, visited the DGT again, scheduled another exam date (I needed a new copy of the solicitud and all the same paperwork again), and this time passed with a 29 out of 30. Precious time wasted, but no extra costs incurred… yet. I printed off my exam results from the web and headed to my neighborhood autoescuela, RockAuto, to get registered for the required behind-the-wheel lessons.
From the day you pass your teórico, you have two years to take a behind the wheel exam. However, once you have attempted the practical exam, if you fail, you have only six months to pass it, or you will have to sit another written exam!
Enroll at an Autoescuela and Take Lessons
Spanish Level: Basic/Intermediate
Translator Allowed: Not Applicable
My Cost: €170 (5 Lessons, 1 Exam Fee)
I reasoned that a small autoescuela might be able to speed me through the mandatory five lessons with more flexibility and faster than a busy, large one. I visited the school nearest to our home and explained my situation. I knew that there would be things to learn, but I also wanted to try to complete the training and exam as quickly as was reasonable.
In a complete stroke of luck, a fellow student had just canceled an exam scheduled for two weeks later (the average wait at the time was 5-6 weeks to get an exam date) and my teacher asked whether I would like to try to slide into that spot. I replied that I would, so we made a plan to try to complete the five sessions as quickly as possible. My exam was scheduled for the following Friday. Yikes!
Spanish Language Note: You may be able to find a driving teacher who speaks English, but the majority do not. While you can arrange for a translator for the actual exam, the delay introduced by the translator may be more of a hindrance than a help. I recommend simply learning the ten or so commands the examiner may issue and taking the exam in Spanish. The best way to practice that vocabulary is to take your driving lessons in Spanish, too.
Learning the Zones
Unlike in the US, where you might be asked to drive anywhere by the driving examiner, in Spain all tests take place in fixed “zones.” You meet the examiner on a regular city street inside your zone and drive mostly within that zone for the entire test. Two days before their exam, the student (via their autoescuela) is informed of the zone number they have been assigned and time of their test. Ruben, my driving instructor, and I planned to leave the last of my five lessons to the day before my exam so that we could spend the entire time driving in my assigned test zone.
The advantage to the Spanish system is that if you are already a proficient driver, you can concentrate your efforts on learning the test zones, as well as the tricks and gotchas a particularly tough examiner might employ. We set to work driving the six test zones of Granada.
To be perfectly honest, as someone who considers themselves a competent driver, there is no way I would have passed the exam without the mandatory behind-the-wheel training sessions. For an experienced driver, this time is less about learning to drive “correctly” than it is about learning to drive to suit the whims of the examiners. Anyone who has been in Spain for a while knows that the average driver here has only a passing acquaintance with the rules of the road, but the DGT examiners are a different breed. They will pick your test route to ensure that you are able to operate both according to their orders and autonomously. They will put you in situations that allow them to confirm that you know how to handle pedestrian traffic, other vehicles, and sudden changes of plan. I needed every minute of the five driving lessons to change a lifetime of habits– not because they were necessarily wrong, but because they could have arbitrarily resulted in my failing the exam.
Some examples of things that I needed to drill, both behind the wheel and between lessons:
- If there is a pedestrian anywhere even remotely close to a pedestrian crossing, even if they are expressing no clear intent to cross, it is far better to slow down and even to stop to ensure that they don’t intend to cross. If you pass through a crossing and that pedestrian decides to cross a few seconds after you do so (or if they were walking towards to intersection from 10+ feet away), you’ve just failed your exam.
- You must “double stop” at stop signs where you don’t have complete 180-degree visibility from the stop line. That is, you have to stop at the stop sign, then creep forward and stop (with authority) at an imaginary point a few feet after the line where you can see traffic from both directions. Forget to do this and you’re immediately eliminated.
- Travel in the left lane for any purpose other than turning or passing? Good luck on your second test!
- You must indicate all changes of direction, regardless of how silly it feels. If you are entering traffic from the side of the road and there is absolutely nobody around, you must signal or you are eliminated. Likewise, you must signal when pulling to the side of the road, parallel parking, or any other start/stop maneuver.
- There are a mystifying number of protected lane types in which you cannot travel– bus lanes, taxi lanes, temporary scooter lanes (seriously!)… travel in any of them and you are out. Plus, these lanes are always protected by solid lines and that means that in many cases you must actually turn right from the left lane in a truly terrifying maneuver that requires you to block traffic while you make sure that there is no traffic approaching behind you in the right lane.
Taking the Exam
The day before my exam, I received good news from Ruben: I had drawn Zone Three, one of the more straightforward zones of the city. Even better, I had been assigned the 1:30PM test slot, which is the last exam time before the examiners take lunch. This virtually guaranteed that the exam would be a simple point-to-point drive between Zone Three and the DGT office, where all the examiners return to eat lunch. We went out and practiced a few of the possible routes and I headed home to get some rest before exam day. Ruben chose the last lesson to let me know that I should expect to be quizzed on the operation of the lighting equipment of the car. This raised my anxiety level not because I couldn’t manage it, but because I had never heard most of the vocabulary! So, I went home and studied the names for the various lights and signals.
On exam day, Ruben and I drove from the autoescuela out to the starting point for the exam. On the way, he showed me a little buzzer that would be plugged into a port in the car that would alert the examiner if Ruben provided me any assistance on the pedals. Naturally, any touching of the passenger-side pedals by my instructor would be an immediate failure. We parked on a street and I joined a group of very young and nervous looking Spaniards while Ruben went to meet the examiner.
A few minutes later, Ruben returned with my stern-looking examiner, who muttered a polite, but terse, greeting. We got into the car, the examiner in back, and the exam began.
Rather than ask me about lighting equipment, the examiner asked Ruben to hand me the permiso de circulación (registration paperwork) for the vehicle. He asked me to tell him when the vehicle had received its first inspection. I kid you not when I say that the paperwork I was holding contained nothing even remotely resembling descriptive labels. Have a look. Could you have done it under pressure? Well, I couldn’t. I picked one of the dates listed on the form, but the awkward silence told me that I had officially received my first deduction, and I hadn’t even placed my hands on the wheel yet. Not a great start. Worse, I had no idea whether this was a basic error, a grave error, or altogether disqualifying. As an aside, Ruben later told me that in hundreds of exams, this was the first time an examiner had ever asked one of his students to decipher paperwork.
The examiner told me to begin driving when I was ready. I made a big show of checking all of the mirrors, seat position, confirming that everyone was wearing their safety belt, and signaling my intent to enter traffic before we moved an inch.
As expected, the examiner directed me generally towards the DGT office. There were a few curveballs, though. First, he sent me into a series of backstreets and then went utterly silent. I quickly realized that he was testing whether I was able to read the directional signs that forced me down one-way streets and through stops, turns, and places where I needed to yield to cross traffic. This was easily the most stressful part of my exam. Old city streets in Granada are not well marked and often the only clue you have as to the direction of a one-way street is the direction in which the cars are parked. Luckily, I managed to scrape by without turning the wrong way or speeding through an implied yield at an intersection. As we exited the neighborhood, the examiner instructed me to turn right at the next intersection. We stopped to wait for the light to turn green, hugging the right side of the lane.
Then, he said: “On second thought, it’s better to go left. Let’s go left instead.” I honestly felt that I was being messed with. Would it be better to confidently state that I was signaling a right turn and pulled far to the right, and that I should not now make a left? Or would it be better to simply follow the instructions? In the end, I clicked my blinker over the left, turned the wheel, and did as I was instructed.
The rest of the test passed without incident. I was overly cautious at pedestrian crossings and the rest of our route was exactly as we had practiced it the day before. When we arrived at the DGT, the instructor told me to parallel park anywhere I liked. Thankfully, parallel parking is my jam. I still picked the largest spot I could find– better safe than sorry! Then, the examiner turned to me and asked me to get out of the car.
Nobody had ever mentioned this! I looked awkwardly back at him, then at Ruben, who gestured at me to get out. I dutifully got out of the car and spent the next ten minutes or so in the sun pacing around while Ruben and the examiner spoke. Was this a terrible sign? After they finished speaking, the examiner got out of the car, and without a word to me, he walked away.
Ruben got out of the card, walked up to me, and with a big smile, gave me a high five. “Felicidades!“
I didn’t realize until that moment just how anxious this test had made me. I wanted to collapse. I had done it. Ruben explained that the examiner and the instructor customarily discuss the exam at the end so that they can provide the student with feedback to make them a better driver. That all sounds great, but I wish someone had told me first! Despite the anxious moments, I was now an officially licensed driver in Spain, with my very own pink Spanish driver’s license!
Spanish driving exams have three classes of faults: minor, grave, and suspensions. You can have make up to ten minor errors, two grave errors, of a mix of the two (for example, five minor errors and one grave error). I later learned that I had made three minor errors. One was misinterpreting the car’s paperwork, one was exceeding the speed limit, and I have no idea what the third was. It was called, opaquely, “attention.”
Knowing that I was in no condition to drive back to the school, Ruben took the wheel and we zipped back up to RockAuto, where I was presented with my big green L placard, which all new drivers must display in their rear window for the first year of being licensed.
Ironically, I was in the end able to renew my US license via the internet, despite being due for an in-office visit, as a result of the pandemic. I managed to get my Spanish Driver’s License just nine days after my US license would have originally expired.
There are certain things I would have done slightly differently if I had it all to do over. First, I would have started studying the written exam before I did a single piece of paperwork. Once I took my psicotécnico, the clock was running. It would have been better to be completely prepared for the written exam with no time pressure whatsoever. I could then move directly from the medical to the written without delay. Second, I would have started the entire process much sooner. It wasn’t comfortable to be racing the clock trying to pass my exams before my US license expired, and getting my Spanish driver’s license wasn’t as impossible or intimidating as I always believed.
Getting my shiny new license was at times stressful, frequently confusing, and ultimately a rewarding experience. It’s a tremendous relief to know that I can confidently drive here without bending or breaking the rules, and it serves as one more tiny step in building our new, incredible life here.
Have you gone for a Spanish license? If so, share your story! If not, feel free to ask for help, advice, or just share your fears below in the comments.