Getting Your Driver’s License in Spain If You Can’t Validate Your Existing One

Being from the US, we weren’t able to validate our US driver’s licenses here in Spain. So my husband and I each had to go through the long process of studying for the written exam and taking driving lessons. After 8 months of a mix of hard work and waiting, I finally received my license in March of 2009. Nate started studying for his license in January of 2010, and received his in October 2010.

To obtain your license in Spain, what you have to do is enroll in a driving school (autoescuela), since everything is done through it. It’s not like in the US, where you can just show up at the MVA (or DMV) one day and tell them you want to take the written exam. Here, the autoescuela supervises your entire process, and they’re the ones who register you for both your written and driving exams.

As for the cost, you’ll pay for manuals (I bought both English and Spanish manuals), driving lessons (prácticas), and you may even pay for each exam that you take. So, for me, the financial breakdown was this:

– 220 euros to enroll in school
– 40 euros for the English manuals
– 20 euros for the Spanish manuals
– 30 euros to get a psicotécnico exam – an exam that measures your vision and reaction time, among other things
– 20 euros to register for the written exam (teórico)
– 140 euros to have 14 driving lessons (10 euros each práctica)
– 20 euros to take the road test

That made a total of 490 euros from beginning to end. At least I wasn’t a new driver in Austria; our young friend there spent 1400 euros to get her license.

So, enroll in school, go to classes if you can, and really, really study the manuals at home. Read through the entire 400-page Spanish manual and if you want to buy the English manual, you can use it to help you understand the Spanish one. Then take loads of practice written tests. They have decent ones online at Your autoescuela should also have a bunch that you can take in the school or take home with you.

Once you’re ready, you’ll register for the teórico through your autoescuela. In order to register for the teórico, I needed a copy of my NIE, two carnet photos, documentation that I passed my psicotécnico exam, and a 20-euro fee.

The school will tell you which day and at what hour your exam will take place, and if they’re like my driving school, they’ll actually drive you to the exam in a bus with all the other students from your school who are taking the exam. You have 30 minutes to answer 30 questions, and you can only get 3 wrong. I had heard lots of horror stories about the teórico, but I found that all of the practice tests and the actual exam seemed to focus and repeat on a few themes. Because I had taken so many practice exams, I found the actual exam pretty easy.

Once you pass the written exam (some people pass it on the first try, some have to take it a couple of times before they pass), you’ll start taking your driving lessons, called prácticas. The autoescuelas have their own cars in which you’ll have your lessons. These cars are equipped with a clutch and brake pedal on the passenger side so the instructor can take over in case you get into a tight spot while practicing. You’ll also take your actual driving exam in this car, so it’s good to become as comfortable as possible driving it around. Even if you’ve been driving since you were 16, you’ll probably want to take a few lessons just so you can become familiar with the roads in your city. Your instructor will also have lots of tips on how to pass the exam – not how to drive, mind you, but how to pass your exam.

For instance, here in A Coruña, you have to know where the different, exceptional roads are. During the exam, you’re supposed to go straight at all times unless your examiner tells you to turn, so you have to KNOW, for example, which roads have “left-turn only” lanes that sneak up on you. You have to remember where these roads are and anticipate switching lanes in order to keep going straight. Basically, you’re supposed to have mastered the city in which you’ll be taking your exam. It’s such a different mindset – that you’re really being tested on how familiar you are with the roads in your city, as well as on how well you perform technically as you drive.

Once you and your driving instructor feel that you’re ready to tackle the driving exam (the práctico), you’ll sign up for an exam. On the day of the exam, you’ll go with your instructor to meet your examiner, and the road test will take about 10 minutes. The examiner will watch as you adjust your seat and your mirrors, start the car, and shift gears. He’ll tell you when to turn, but for the most part you’re going to drive in a straight direction unless otherwise instructed. My instructor said that very rarely do they have you parallel park during an exam, which is nice. You’re allowed a certain number of light errors, but if you commit any grave errors (like stall, drift over a solid white line, or stop in a crosswalk instead of before it), you fail immediately. If you pass, the examiner will sign a form and tear off a carbon copy to give to your instructor.

Hopefully you’ll pass on your first try, but if you don’t, don’t be discouraged. When I took my driving exam, three students from my school had failed earlier in the morning. One girl had failed for the fourth time, after having had more than 100 prácticas. She was just a self-proclaimed nervous wreck while driving. And now that she had failed again, she had to wait another month – and take more lessons – before she could take the exam again.

The good news of the day for my autoescuela was that immediately before my exam, two other girls passed, and for both of them it was their fifth time taking the exam. The joy on their faces when they found out they’d passed was a sight to behold! And even their driving instructor – normally a gruff, serious man – broke out into huge smiles as he hugged each of them.

During my exam, the examiner was very quiet, but did tell me to make a u-turn at an upcoming circle, turn right at an upcoming road, and then merge onto our local 80-km/h carretera. I know I made at least one mistake – at one point I made the car jump when I downshifted into second gear when I should have stayed in third. Apparently it was just a light error since he didn’t fail me right away. After about 10 minutes he had me return to the testing base. He gave the carbon copy of the form to my instructor, and then got out of the car. The copy said, “Aprobado” – a wonderful, magic word that means, “Approved”!

So I had passed on my first try! My euphoria was tempered a bit, though, when we returned to the driving school and they informed me that I had to wait a few days to receive my provisional license. Whereas in the US you can drive immediately after passing your driving exam, here I had to wait a week just to receive my provisional license. And then, it took a month for the Jefatura de tráfico to send me my actual, plastic driver’s license.

Technically, if you’ve just obtained your Spanish driver’s license you’re supposed to hang the “L” placard in the back window of your car for a year, and you’re not allowed to drive over 80 km/h. I heard from a friend that if you have a license from another country, you don’t need to hang the “L”; instead, you just need to carry your other license with you when you’re driving. If you get pulled over within the first year of obtaining your Spanish license, you need to show your Spain license as well as your other license, and you’ll be exempt from the “L” rules. I never saw this exception in the manual – nor did I look too hard – but I took down my “L” and resumed driving 120 km/h on the autopistas.

All in all, the entire process took me eight months. I had spent a small fortune, studied the manuals for months, taken around 100 practice written exams, driven during 14 lessons, and struggled through butterflies in my stomach before the driving exam – the first time I’d been that nervous for something in ages! I was so relieved when I finally had my driver’s license in hand. The license is good for 10 years, and it’s nice to know that I never, ever have to go through that whole process again.

Please let me know if you have any questions – I’d be happy to clarify any of the above. Leave a comment below or email me at faith (at) thesweetroad (dot) com.

Happy driving!


This entry was posted in Cultures, European Living, Life in La Coruña, Spain, This Immigrant Life. Bookmark the permalink.
  • Iga-Maria

    Lots of great information:-) Thanks! I have a question though, were you a spanish resident when you did the drivers license? Do you have to be a resident, or are there possibilities without? I’m a student from abroad moving to Spain in a few months to study, and I’d gladly do my license there, as the ordinary cost in Norway is at least 3000 EURO! believe it or not!

  • TheSweetRoad

    Hi Iga-Maria! Thanks for the comment. Yes, we were Spanish residents when we tested for the driver’s licenses. So I don’t know if you *have* to be a Spanish resident, especially if you’re already from the EU and here for a legitimate reason (to study). I would ask at an autoescuela right when you arrive to find out if you can apply for a Spanish license as an EU citizen. How’s your Spanish, though? It’s much better to take the written and driving test in Spanish so it might take a while to pass everything – how long will you be in Spain studying?

  • Hillary

    Do you NEED to take the lessons? Or is it optional?

    • Hi Hillary! I don’t know if the driving lessons are optional – the driving instructor is the one who determined whether or not we were ready to take the driving exam (they were like the gatekeepers) so we just had to go through the driving-lesson process. You could pop into your local driving school, though, and see if they’ll sign you up for the driving exam without you having to go through lessons. Let us know what you find out!

    • Pepe

      lessons are mandatory

    • TheSweetRoad

      Hi Hillary, So sorry I didn’t respond until now! You may have already gone through the entire process by now, but from what I understand, your driving school is the one that registers you for the exams. So unfortunately, getting their stamp of approval that you’re ready for the exams is mandatory. Which then means that their lessons are mandatory, because I’ve never heard of a driving school that will register their students for exams without going through at least a few with them to ascertain that they’re ready. I could be wrong, though, and am definitely open to enlightenment!

  • Arthur

    Great advice and well put together. Thanks.

    • Thank you for the kind words, Arthur! Are you in the process now? If so, all the best!

    • TheSweetRoad

      Thanks so much, Arthur!

  • Elizabeth

    Did you already know how to drive stick before going? Also which school did you do it through in Coruña?

    • TheSweetRoad

      Hi Elizabeth! I’d taken only a 2-hour crash course in driving stick before we moved here. But we drove our Spanish car (stick shift) for months before we actually started the driving school/ license process, so by the time I took driving lessons with the driving school here I was pretty comfortable with stick and with the Spanish roads. In Coruña, our driving school was called Autoescuela Marte.

      Let me know if you have any other questions!

  • michael

    I have a question? Can you take the written exam in english and are there english teaching schools (autoescuela) in spain?

    • TheSweetRoad

      Hi Michael,
      Thanks for writing. I’m not sure on this one, since I took the exam in Spanish. But I believe you can ask for an English exam depending on availability. It may actually depend on the region you’re in as to whether or not they provide foreign-language exams (for example, in Madrid and Barcelona they may be more common). But all this is speculation on my part. As for whether there exist English autoescuelas, I don’t know at all. If you find out, please write again and let us know. Sorry I can’t be more helpful. Where are you in Spain? Hopefully an autoescuela there can give you some good answers. Take care!