Monday 1 August 2011

British Driving Licence Matters

A few weeks ago I wrote about the nice man at the National car rental desk who told me I should have relinquished my old paper British driving licence (license, if you're in the States) years ago and on no account was I to show it to the police should I be stopped. I must admit it gave me quite a shock and I immediately logged on to the DVLA (Driving and Vehicle Licensing Agency) web site for clarity. Alas, as it pertains to Brits abroad, it wasn't all that clear. I therefore e-mailed the help people and this morning received a reply.

So here, for Brits abroad who may be wondering about their status, and for the few remaining Brits who still have a paper licence, is the low down:

For Brits resident in the UK:

  • the old pink paper licences are still legal. Having no photo, you are therefore not required to update them every so often. 
  • Your eligibility to drive ends when you are 70, whether you have the paper or plastic type of licence, and you will need to reapply for entitlement. This is usually given for three years.
  • If you have a plastic licence, you will need to renew it every ten years as the photo will no longer be valid (There is an expiration date on the front of your licence.)
  • If you move, you need to give your change of address to the DVLA 
  • Although old paper licences are still valid, the DVLA encourages you to update to a plastic one.
  • In addition, the European Union requires member states to issue driving licences in card format so if you're popping over to the Continent, you should have the plastic type of licence.

For Brits abroad:

  • If you move to another country, you don't need to inform the DVLA of your change of address.
  • Although the DVLA web site states that you must be a resident of the UK to apply for a driving licence, it has little information on what happens if you obtained your licence legally and then moved abroad. It doesn't state anywhere that your licence is no longer valid, nor does it require you to relinquish it
  • Furthermore, the nice DVLA person tells me - "As a visitor you may drive vehicles up to 3.5 tonnes and with up to 8 passenger seats, provided your full USA licence remains valid for up to 12 months from the date of entering the United Kingdom. However, if you were to return to Great Britain as a resident in the future an application can be made to reissue your British licence if it has expired.  As there is no exchange agreement between America and Great Britain you are not required to return your driving licence."
  • So, it appears the car rental guy was wrong. My British licence is fine, although my current US license is actually all I need to drive in the UK for up to 12 months. (Which reminds me, mine expires this September - Sigh..) And I don't need to hand it in to anyone. 
Good job I didn't throw it away.

Hope this has helped at least one other person.


  1. Really useful info! I never realised the photo expired in 10years

  2. Great info! I have been using the old UK paper licence to rent cars in the UK up until recently without any bother. But I got a new card licence for when I came to the USA, as I thought it wise to update it, and can also use it for ID.

    Out of interest, can I drive in the USA for 12 months on my British licence? My wife has been doing all the driving but at some point, I will have to get driving again?

  3. When I first moved to the States 16 years ago, I was told that I could drive for 6 months using my UK licence and that 6 months would restart every time I re-entered the States. Not sure if that rule still exists or not.
    After reading your last post about this, I decided that I had better get a new plastic licence. So I've accidentally 'lost' my paper one as I'd like to keep it for it's historical value. Your info has been really helpful. Thank you. x

  4. Glad to be of service folks!
    Paul - the laws differ from state to state regarding licenses. Here's a link which will explain the basics then will give you a link to your state. You have to be a resident in a specific state to take a test, (and usually you need a Social Security number) but the license will allow you to drive in every other state.
    The test itself isn't as difficult as the British one, and if you've been driving for a while, you should be able to pass it having just read the "Highway Code" equivalent.

  5. Thanks for this, some really useful info there! I am going to have to do a test in the US at some point when we move, and I know you said it's easier, but the thought of doing any kind of driving test again is filling me with dread! :( Emma :)

  6. Thanks for this, I think my Uk one has expired and wondered whether it was worthwhile to renew but sounds like a should...

  7. Emma - really, don't worry. The written part is usually a multiple choice thing and you're allowed to get several wrong. When I did it in Chicago it was on a computer thing - so no one quizzing you. The driving part is shockingly minimal too.
    ALW - the thing that's ambiguous is what happens if you live abroad and your license expires? The DVLA web site says you have to be resident to get or renew a license so you might have to wait until you live in the UK again. They replied to my e-mail in less than one business day however, so you can always e-mail them.

  8. Glad you are on the right side of the law!

    I have an old, pink paper licence that will be in need of updating to the photo kind next year. However, I don't think I am going to bother as I haven't driven for some years!
    Maggie X

    Nuts in May

  9. You certainly made me wonder where my UK licence is (and when it expires) ;-)

    In New York, you are only allowed to drive for 3 months on a British licence. Then you have to take the test (which annoyingly involves sitting through a very tedious 5 hour educational course as well as the driving part, which is easy).

  10. From all I know about the subject of pink paper licenses, I can honestly say I find no fault in what you've presented here. :)

  11. LOL Max. I have tried to present the facts as stated on the DVLA or in their e-mails, and nothing but the facts. I must admit, I feel like contacting the car rental guy and putting him right but I don't think many long-term US residents with an old pink paper licence rent cars at Newcastle airport somehow!

  12. I have the new plastic one with a picture, but the expiry date is when I'm 70 so I don't have to renew it until then regardless of the picture. Perhaps the 10 year expiry is a new thing they've done on new plastic licences since I got mine. Still confusing!

  13. WM - you might want to check that again. The DVLA web site shows a picture of the new plastic licenses and says that they all have expiry dates (not the 70 year old one, which is basically when your entitlement to drive ends). The picture shows that one of the very small numbers on the front, next to the photo, is the date at which you should get the photo renewed. Apparently many people have been driving with invalid licences because of this misunderstanding.

  14. Good post! Thanks Have been able to help some of our expats with their questions on this.
    Common problem I always see is British license being used more than 6 months in a EU country. Expats should really check the laws of the country because in Spain it has to be exchanged after 6 months and in the Netherlands it doesn't. Could get really confusing if you travel around!!

  15. Great advice above guys but I have a different problem.

    I have an old pink UK paper license which I obtained at the age of 17.

    Now I am the grand old age of 40, the thing is falling apart at the seams as am I so need a replacement.

    I am a resident in Dubai and have tried without success to obtain a replacement. Just brick walls encountered so far.

    Any ideas?

  16. Hi I live in the Middle East.

    I have my old green licence and did have the pink photo Id card.

    The photo id now needs to be changed but DVLC will not give me a new one because I am no longer a resident in the UK.

    The country I live in will not except my UK licence because the photo is out of date.

    Nor will America and lots of other countries.

    Now this bit is really weir, you can legally drive in britain on your old green licence, but because you have no valid photo Id (as a driving licence) you could be fined £1,000 id stopped.

    Nor will you be able to rent a car.

    So effectively my UK green licence is no good anymore.

    I got all this information after a
    call with DVLA.

    They suggest the only way forward is to get a driving licence from the country you reside in and it will be valid for a 12 month stay in the UK.


  17. I've lived in the US since 2003 and have my green UK licence. I exchanged it for a photocard without any problems online - just gave my parent's UK address, NI # and passport number and it was sent to them in 2 weeks. Doesn't appear to be that much of a hassle. They grabbed the photo from my UK passport.

  18. Just catching up here. Thanks everyone for the additional info. I think the best thing with problems and vagueness is to contact the DVLA direct via e-mail. In my experience, they were very helpful.
    One thing about putting your license under someone else's address - mine is under my mother's and when the car rental guy looked me up, I wasn't even in the system. That could have been because I've been out of the country so long though.

  19. If you are legal or permanent resident and country does not issue the international driving license you should be aware of the following: Consumers cannot legally drive in most countries without obtaining a temporary or permanent driver's license from the country in which he or she plans to drive; and Our unofficial international translation of driver's license does not confer any driving privileges on consumers whose home countries do not issue International Driving Permits.

  20. A question with a slightly different twist...... I live in the USA but still have my UK license. Rather than rent I have always borrowed my father's car when visiting UK and he has had me added to his insurance no problem. However, this year the insurance companies (he has tried several)say that my UK license is invalid because I am not a UK resident and they refuse to add me as an additional driver. Apparently some new law took effect in 2013. Does anyone know anything about this? it is crazy to have to rent a car when there are two cars sitting in the driveway that I can use.

  21. @Andrew - I haven't heard of this but I must say, I haven't done any more research since I wrote this. I would recommend you e-mail the DVLA like I did. They are very responsive and then you can be sure you get the correct answer.


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