Taxes.  Root canals.  For many, these are dreaded necessities.  For a few, learning to drive or passing a driving exam is just as painful.  For a number of Americans residing in the UK, learning to drive the British way can be equally daunting. 

Some expats have a knack for switching from one side of the road to the other, take to British roads naturally, and seem to effortlessly ace their British driving test.  Still others have reported feeling overwhelmed with the differences, the procedures, and the prospect of facing the three-part exam. 

Having spent time with an American expat group in the UK, and having myself gone through the process, I have seen both extremes, and everything in between. 

Presently, it appears that Americans in the United Kingdom can drive on a valid American drivers license for a period of up to one year, but must obtain a British driving license if they wish to continue.  (Please note:  As the law is subject to change, it is essential to research the most current requirements and time limitations if planning to drive in the UK).   

Coming from the wide-open spaces of the Midwestern United States, I found I had a larger learning curve than some when it came to mastering the maneuvers required to pass the UK driving exam.  As the USA is so varied by region, some may be used to driving along narrow, winding, or hilly roads, heavy traffic, tight parallel parking spaces, or even negotiating roundabouts.  If so, you may be a step ahead.  This article is geared for those who, like me, have found it all too easy for various reasons to either put off getting acclimated to British roads, or preparing for the tests, or both.

My first mistake was allowing myself to develop a near-phobia about getting started, and getting through it.  As a normally confident driver who has held a driver’s license in America for 25 years, in time I ventured out with my husband and drove on my own (U.S.) license for the first few months avoiding anything that gave me anxiety (traffic, cyclists, reverse parking, one way systems, large, double, or atypical roundabouts, and the list goes on).  Eventually, I sought driving instruction and had a series of two hour, expensive driving lessons that stretched out for months.  I still wasn’t mastering everything required for the test, I was lacking confidence, and I seemed no closer to scheduling any exams.  In the end, I did apply for a provisional driving license, studied for and passed the theory and hazard perception test, enrolled in an intensive driving course, and passed the driving test on my first try (Oh, the joy!).    

Looking back, I can see many months of needless worry and wasted time.  This was my experience.  It doesn’t have to be yours.  I believe the best strategy for the anxious is to put the process into perspective, and break it down into manageable components. 

Some people have benefitted from a half day or similarly concentrated driving session with an instructor as their initial introduction to driving in the UK.  Casual driving instruction has its merits and is a good confidence builder.  

The Driving Standards Agency (DSA) has a website that outlines most information needed, explains requirements, fees, has links for booking tests, and is generally a good resource.  Within this site, is a link to the Directgov site, which contains additional vital information and links.

The UK driving tests are two separate exams in a total of three parts.  First is the two-part theory and hazard perception test.  This consists of multiple choice and case study questions based on the Highway Code, followed by a series of driving hazard video simulations on a computer in which you respond to potential and actual hazards by clicking the mouse.  You can read complete descriptions of these tests on the Directgov site referenced above.  Upon passing this exam, a certificate is issued.  The second exam is the actual driving exam, and you will need proof that you passed your theory and hazard perception test before scheduling this. 

The first step in the process of preparing for the exams is to obtain a provisional driving license.  In my case, I obtained an application from the post office, completed it and sent it in along with my passport and residency permit.  Even though I was at the time still legal to drive on my USA license, I was required to obtain the UK provisional license (like a learner’s permit in the States) in order to schedule my theory test.  (Note:  If you are not driving on a valid USA license, it is very important that you acquaint yourself with the restrictions that accompany the provisional license and DO NOT assume that you can drive unaccompanied or on any type of road.  If you are using the provisional license, you must also display an L-plate on your vehicle.  This article is not intended to cover every situation, nor to give any legal advice, it is merely outlining my own experience within the rules in force at the time and attempting to give a few helpful pointers to others in a similar situation to my own). 

Once you have the provisional license, you can then schedule your theory and hazard perception test, which can be booked online.  I found that it was necessary to acquaint myself with the UK Highway Code and to make use of the study materials available through DSA.  You can purchase books, or download applications to aid you in your preparation.  I particularly liked the downloaded applications.  There is also an official DSA DVD you can purchase to help ready you for the hazard perception test. I found the practice DVD very helpful. 

When you get through the theory and hazard perception tests, you are halfway there.  By this stage, you should have a much better understanding of the roads, signs, and rules, so hopefully it is just a matter of perfecting your technique for the practical driving exam.   There is more than one way to do this. 

You can hire a driving instructor for lessons by the hour, at whatever pace your need and finances dictate.  I used my weekly two-hour lessons as a crutch, as they were low-pressure.  However, you should stay aware of your progress (or lack thereof), and be wary of instructors that seem all to happy to stretch these out beyond what you need as a source of steady income. 

Alternatively, you can enroll in an intensive driving course, which can range in duration, most typically two to seven days, depending on how much you need to work on.  If researching these, there are a few things to consider.  Some courses are ‘shared’ (more than one student in the car for the duration), while others are one-to-one instruction.  I personally preferred the individual (and not divided) focus of the instructor.  Be clear on what type of vehicle you are planning to drive (manual versus automatic), to make sure the instructor has the right type of vehicle.  In the UK, if you take and pass the exam in an automatic, your license will only allow you to drive an automatic.  There is more than one city in the UK that offers these types of courses, and some may be more textbook than others in terms of their layout, so a little research might help if this is a concern.  Make sure you understand what is included in the price of the course, and whether accommodation or any meals are included, how you will get around outside of the course hours, and if you are satisfied with what is provided. 

Ultimately, after my weekly driving instruction, I found it more helpful to immerse myself in the intensive course for a few days, and with a good result.  You will have to decide what is right for you. 

While preparing to obtain a British driving license is not to be taken lightly, and while it’s important to invest adequate time in study and practice, there is no need to panic, or to be too hard on yourself.  Take things slow and steady, focusing on each individual step before worrying too much about the next.  Not everyone passes on his or her first attempt, so if this happens to you, learn from the experience and don’t give up.