getting a UK license coming from CA/NY

As a licensed American driver, you are given one year of ‘grace’ before having to get a valid UK license. In my case, the year came and went all too quickly once I moved to Norwich (in the east of England) as the first 6 months were spent gleefully exploring with our car-share, and last six somewhat waylaid by COVID and not worrying about driving too much. I will spare you the sob-story, as we all went through the same tough stuff. The bottom line is, it’s July 2021 and I finally got my license. It was a challenge, but not so difficult, and here’s how I did it in case you’re in the same boat as me (I am a researcher doing a postdoc abroad):

step 1: use the first year (grace period) to get lots of time behind the wheel to learn about driving on the ‘wrong side’ of the road and to get comfortable with the stick shift on the opposite hand

I used a car share service called co-wheels, which was simple to set up. My wife and I, along with our dog Rosco, could go all over Norfolk and Suffolk doing day trips (£45 per day for the car) or quick trips (£5 per hour more or less). So we did — I drove a lot. That taught me loads that would not have been possible by simply driving a few hours with an instructor. We also took overnight long-haul trips to visit family in the Midlands, and then took a weeklong trip to Wales. The narrow hedgerows, blindspots, soft verges, stone walls, herds of sheep, and single track roads all seemed daunting at the beginning, and then you just… get used to it. It makes sense getting a license here requires jumping through some hoops — it’s more challenging to drive here!

step 2: get a provisional license and the DVSA book on driving, read through the book then take some practice theory tests on your phone via an app (pick an app, they’re all similar)

To get a provisional license, you simply request one through the government website and pay about £40. It doesn’t matter that you already have a license from the US. You are basically a teenager again. The ID then shows up at your door, and is practically useless (except when you really need it: to take your theory test, to do lessons, and take your driving test). The driving manual from DVSA was helpful to prepare for the theory test, which in my opinion required more prep time than the actual driving test. It’s over 300 pages, but it’s a quick read — there’s also an index, so you can just dive into the practice theory tests then flip to the relevant pages for things you can’t reason out and/or the ones that make no sense, like the difference between a zebra, pelican, toucan, and whatever the heck else kind of cross walk.

step 3: pass your theory test

just take the tests on your phone until you get only a one or two incorrect each test, then you are ready! When I took the test, there was also a section called hazard perception, which I had no preparation for whatsoever, but was able to pass by teeth-skin. So… perhaps look into trying a few hazard perception questions before you go; I suspect you can get demo ones from the same companies as supply the mock test apps.

step 4: schedule your driving test and get an instructor to do some lessons with

Once you know where your test will take place, a knowledgable instructor should be able to show you some of the possible routes that you will drive during the test. This is really valuable, as having seen the physical environment in advance you will be a lot more relaxed out on test day. Also, if you’re doing some little weird things like not checking your mirrors enough (or, obviously enough for the examiner to notice), the instructor will tell you this. 15 “minor faults” is all it takes to fail, so it’s best to just get the instructor to tell you what your problems are before the day comes. I watched some youtube videos on how to properly sequence the mirror check, turn signal, maneuver… which sounds absurd maybe but for me, just seeing someone doing it sort of reinforced it and helped in the long run.

step 5: day of test

get a bit of driving and maneuvering in before you sit for the test. My instructor was really good the day of test and gave me about an hour to reaquaint myself with the car (a Vauxhall Mokka) before the exam. Afterward, we had a quick look under the bonnet (hood) in case one of the “show me” questions involved this, and then just waited for the instructors to appear at the test center and call my name. The tell me questions are some basic ones you just have to memorize (compared to the theory test they’re very easy, and they’re only 14 of them and all are clearly listed on the DVSA gov. website).

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