Tuesday, 18 October 2011

The Myth of the ‘International Driving Licence’

I am sure many driving instructors have had calls form prospective clients who say that they have been driving (legally without L plates) on an ‘International Driving Licence’ and now need to obtain a full British car licence to comply with residency conditions? The caller often adds that they are an experienced driver and only need a few lessons to prepare for the test.

Now I don’t pretend to be an expert in the area of driving licence regulations, so this article this article is more about seeking clarification rather than giving advice.

The first thing to say of course, is that there is no such thing as an ‘International Driving Licence’ and what the client is usually referring to is an  International Driving Permit which, as far as I am aware is available for the equivalent of a few pounds and production of a few documents such as a full licence from whatever country it was issued. It is essentially a multiple language translation of the holders existing driving licence. In other words, not an indication of the permit holders driving standard.

The Direct.Gov website does give some useful advice for driving in Great Britain as a visitor or new resident  . However, this only gives basic guidance from the licence holder’s point of view. From the ADI’s point of view it throws up more questions than it answers.

At this stage, I should point out that I have no problems with the worldwide agreements for visitors to foreign countries being able to drive using their full licence. I myself have, over the years, enjoyed the freedom to drive in various European countries.

The main problems seem to centre on drivers who fall into the DVLA’s category of full licence holders from all other countries (those outside the EEC, Northern Ireland etc.) and especially the question of ‘Residency’. Here it states: ‘Provided your full licence remains valid, you can drive any category of small vehicle shown on your licence for up to 12 months from the time you became resident. To ensure continuous driving entitlement a provisional GB licence must be obtained and a driving test past before the 12-month period elapses. If you obtain a provisional licence during this period you are not subject to provisional licence conditions.’

As ADI’s can often be the first port of call for clients in this category looking for advice, it would be useful if DVLA could issue a guide to help us.

How do we establish the validity of foreign licences without a legally authorised translation which includes explanation of any endorsements etc?

Should an international driving permit be taken as verification that the full licence is valid and legal?

Is it easily established when residency starts?

If a client takes a driving test during the 12 months and fails it, can he still legally drive on his full foreign licence until the 12 months expires?

If we assess one of these clients as a danger to other road users who is not fit to drive unaccompanied, apart from advising the client, what procedures should we follow?

One answer for ADI’s is of course to only accept clients with a valid GB provisional driving licence who, whilst they are with us, comply with provisional licence conditions. However, this does not address the underlying problems of allowing a minority of unsafe drivers onto Britain’s roads.

 Could it be an idea that as part of a person’s residency application, a driving assessment is required (which could be carried out by an ADI) to establish minimum safety standards for driving without L-plates until a full GB licence is obtained?

EEC licences, on the face of it, seem much more straightforward. However, this now includes 25 countries and more applying join. Oh, and we mustn’t forget EEA (European Economic Area) countries which includes Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway. As ADI’s sometimes get calls from clients who want a few lessons to get used to the finer points of driving on the left, how are we supposed to check these foreign licences in foreign languages are valid and what any endorsements mean etc? Then there is the more worrying call from parents who are going to let the new Au Pair use their 4x4 to pick up the children from school and could we just assess their driving standard?

Another area, which seems confusing, comes under the heading of ‘Students from a Non-Community Country’. Here it states, in the DVLA’s guidance, that students who hold a non-community licence or an international driving permit may drive here for up to 12 months. Surely that should read and an international driving permit.

Confused yet?  Surely, this is a prime subject for inclusion as module for the DSA’s new continuing professional development programme.

In conclusion, this article boils down to the following main points:
  • To make it clear to driving instructors that there is no such thing as an 'international driving licence'
  • Ask the question about how ADI's are supposed to check the validity of foreign licences?
  • Highlight what seems to be a very big loophole in the law surrounding residency and the 12-month rule for obtaining a full licence. If a candidate fails a British driving test, say after six months of becoming resident, can it be legal to continue driving without provisional licence conditions for another six months when the DSA may have recorded, in some cases, that this is a dangerous driver?
Lastly, let us spare a thought for the poor examiners who are expected to test drivers, driving legally on foreign licences, where in some cases there is no guarantee of even the basic minimum standards and if they are driving their own cars, no dual controls either! I am sure a lot of ADI’s will have stories, whilst waiting to see if their pupil has passed the test, of seeing an unaccompanied driver who has obviously failed, remove their L-plates and drive off. How do we explain this to our pupils?


  1. Interesting article of a similar nature in MSA Newslink November2011 in the letters section. Licence loopholes let bad drivers on to UK roads. Well worth a read!

  2. The usual way to obtain an international driving permit in the UK is through either the RAC or AA and you can obtain details from their websites.