29 January 2012

A new permis

My last U.S. driver's license expired four years ago. My French driver's license — mon permis de conduire — was issued in 1981. That makes it more than 30 years old. That's the way it's been with French licenses. Once you get one, it's good for life and never has to be renewed.

I got my French permis by exchanging my North Carolina driver's license for it. I had to hand over the N.C. license, but it was worth it. They handed me a French license. I was living in Paris at the time.

When I moved back to the U.S. in 1982, I had to go and take the written test in N.C. to get a new license, and then in Virginia a few months later because that's where I ended up living. Then in 1983, I had to take the written test in the District of Columbia because Walt and I moved into an apartment on Capitol Hill. At least I think I had to take the written test each time. I don't really remember.

Here are two panels of my French permis de conduire.
The picture doesn't look much like me nowadays.

To get my permis de conduire in Paris, I never had to take any test at all. At the time, North Carolina was one of the states from which the French authorities accepted driver's licenses for exchange. That agreement is no longer in effect, though sixteen U.S. states still are on the French exchange list. California is not one of them. Nor is New York. But Arkansas, Kansas, and Delaware are. Go figure*.

Walt had a California license when we moved to Saint-Aignan. To get a French permis, he was required to enroll in a driving school here and pass both the written and the driving test. He had to do it in French, of course. He learned a lot, and it cost him a lot — about 500 euros. If you move to France, your American license is valid for only 12 months, starting on the day you enter the country.

When I got my French permis, nobody in Paris cared that I didn't know what many of the French road signs meant. Actually, driving in France was not that different from driving in the U.S., except that everything seemed to go and happen faster. The cars were smaller. That year, I had bought a tiny 1972 Renault 4 from some French friends for 1,500 francs ($300). I needed a French license before I could get it insured.

Today, my thirty-something permis is just fine in France. It doesn't matter that it has a 31-year-old picture of me on it, and shows my old address in Paris. Nowadays, if the gendarmes stop you, they just punch your driver's license number into a computer and they pull up your driving record.

The only problem I have with my French license comes when I arrive in the U.S. for a visit. I haven't yet had to rent a car, but Walt rented one in Boston a couple of years ago. The rental agent at the airport didn't bat an eye when Walt presented the French license. Of course, Walt's permis shows a fairly recent picture of him and his current address.

I usually go to North Carolina when I fly across the Atlantic. My mother and sister still live there, in a small town. When I visit, I drive my mother's car. On my last two or three trips, I haven't ever needed to show my driver's license to anyone.

But in 2007, when I still had a valid California license, I was driving my mother's car in Beaufort N.C. when I ran into a routine driver's license check set up by the highway patrol. There was no problem, of course, with the California license. My mother was in the car with me, so no questions were asked about why I was driving a car I didn't own.

But what if that happens again, or I have an accident, or commit an infraction? If I present the old French license, which is a huge pink triple-fold document with my Paris address and my 1981 photo on it, is a local policeman or highway patrolman going to believe that the permis is a valid license to drive? The French consulate for N.C. is in Atlanta, 500 miles to the west.

Because of all that, I've decided it would be a good idea to turn in my old French license and get a new one, with a current picture and my current address on it. Lucky for me, the exchange is free. I have to turn in a couple of pictures with the application form — that's all. I'll get them in taken in a supermarket photo booth. I have to provide proof of my current address — a recent electric bill will do that. Then I'll feel safer when I drive in the U.S.

* Here's a list of the 16 U.S. states that have reciprocal driver's licence agreements with France:
  • Arkansas
  • Caroline du Sud
  • Colorado
  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • Floride
  • Illinois
  • Iowa
  • Kansas
  • Kentucky
  • Michigan
  • New Hampshire
  • Ohio
  • Pennsylvanie
  • Texas
  • Virginie
I got the list of state names off a French government web site so they show the French spellings.


  1. Very interesting. Just checked my province and luckily Alberta is on the list with France.
    My husband is lucky,he has an Austrian license, also one of those pink three pagers with a picture from 1982.

  2. I didn't know that you could exchange photos...good to know. For now, I kind of like the photo of young skinny me. But I suppose I'll update it one of these days. Like you said, renting cars in the USA might be easier that way.

  3. As long as you're exchanging it, you might as well ask for 'un permis international' to go with it - they're free, valid for three years and provide a translation of your license into several different languages!


  4. Argh. This reminds me that we've got to do the same thing in Spain one of these days. Driving school, written and road tests. I dread it.

  5. I was very relieved that I could swap my Australian license! But as I recall on the one or two occasions I had to display that in the USA (outside of a car rental agency), folks had no clue how to handle an international license, even with an up to date photo.

    I know of friends who have transferred their licenses to friends' houses in eligible states within the USA prior to moving to France.

    I understand Spain only gives you 6 months to exchange or get a new license.

  6. For all others out there with French licenses, as Ksam said, you don't have to get a new license, but you should get a "permis international". They are free, and vaild for 3 years. They have your recent photograph. They do not replace your French license, you have to have that with you, too, but they contain all the pertinent information translated into many languages for the local rental agencies or cops.
    That said, I, too, got a new license a few years ago simply because my old one was falling apart and it's absolutely forbidden to plastify them I learned.

  7. I just swapped my Dutch one fro a French permis and posted about it this week.
    In The Netherlands you have to exchange it for a new one after 10 yrs so that you have an up to date photo. Nowadays you have to renew in your EU country of residence and can no longer renew in your EU country of issue. Had to go to Tours to exchange.

  8. Hi Ellen, my permis de conduire is plastified. Nobody has ever said anything about it, but the last time anybody really looked at it was 6 or 7 years ago.

    Thanks, Ellen and Ksam, for the info about the international license. I guess I'll do that too.

    Mike, I went to the Department of Motor Vehicles office in North Carolina and asked if I could get a new N.C. license. I was told that I'd need to produce an electricity bill with my current name and address on it, or a letter from somebody saying I was a lodger. Seemed complicated. With all the security-consciousness these days, it's dangerous to try to get away with anything.

  9. I'm so glad to have stumbled upon your blog while looking for more information about the Reims cathedral! Glad to have some more reading for the future! :)

    I'm at: http://amerlok.blogspot.com/

  10. It's as well I didn't listen to a lot of the local English expats who maintained that while I wasn't a formal resident that exchange wasn't necessary. I explained to them that even on a long stay visitor visa, I'm "resident" and as such must comply with the 1 year limit just as much as I have to comply with other things that kick in after 3 months in France like health insurance etc.

    @Ken: I think with the cash-strapped administrations of the US states, checking on valid addresses for utility accounts (that aren't in arrears) is beyond their means. I've had to produce so many lodger letters and utility bills (from France and Australia) here in France and to my knowledge not one of those has been checked.

    I've encountered Americans in Australia who couldn't even get their driving records from California and other states because the agencies there can't afford to service these requests.

  11. Your eyes are the same. Even though the rest of the face may change somewhat with "age", the eyes never change.

    WV is nessessi. Nessessi[ty] is mother of invention!

  12. Are you sure this license for life law has not changed? I had a German one in 1974 (because I had a valid Ohio license and had driven in Germany for a year). But years ago one of my German brothers in law told me the system had changed and this was no longer valid for life. Sad.In most European countries that I know about it is very expensive to get a driver's license, but one ends up knowing a lot more about cars.

  13. CHM- I've heard that our eyes never change from the time of our birth.

    I see you in that photo, Ken. That license has been useful, I hope you will get to keep it when you get the redo.

    I got a new license good for ten years recently and am wondering who that white haired old lady is...;) I think we stay young at heart.

  14. Wonder how many people now in
    their nineties are driving
    around with their good-for-life
    licenses and with serious vision
    problems. When our permits are
    renewed in Texas, we have to
    pass a vision test. The older
    the driver, the more frequently
    the checks are required.

  15. Wow, very interesting info. I love learning this kind of cultural info, that I can also pass on to my students :)

    Ken, I certainly recognize you in that 1981 photo! And that address! Blast from the past, eh? :)

  16. Judy, I knew you and CHM would recognize me. I started working with CHM in DC in January '83.

  17. Wow. This post is full of great and important information. Thank you.

  18. Kristi, no, the law hasn't changed in France. The permis is still good for life — unless, of course, you have violations that cause you to lose too many points.

  19. Actually from what I read a few months back, the "permis à vie" rule will change in January of next year, following some EU legislation. They will soon be rolling out a new credit-card size license w/a chip that will have to be renewed every 15 years. The current "papier rose" licenses will supposedly be valid until 2033.

  20. That's what I've heard too, Sam. But somehow these changes seem to take forever. In 2033, I'll be 80-something years old!


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