Driving in Spain for UK residents: what’s the latest on the licence exchange?

Now that UK has left the EU, the process for being allowed to drive in Spain has become a bit more complicated. Here's what we know so far from British and Spanish authorities.

Driving in Spain
Image: Alex Jumper / Unsplash

UPDATE: On May 27th, the UK Embassy in Madrid announced that British drivers who registered their details to exchange their UK driving licences for Spanish ones before the end of last year will get an extra six months in which to carry out the swap until December 31st 2021.But what does the extension not cover for British drivers? FIND OUT MORE HERE

As things stand, UK nationals who are Spanish residents will be allowed to drive in Spain with a valid UK driving licence until June 30th 2021. 

It’s the same for drivers with licences from other non-EU/EEA nations, who can drive in Spain with their original licences for a period of six months after obtaining residency.

This means that as of June 30th, your UK driving licence will no longer be recognised here and you will not be authorised to drive.

UPDATE: The Spanish government on May 22nd announced it would extend the validity of UK driving licences in Spain post Brexit until October 31st 2021 rather than the previous deadline of June 30th. FIND OUT MORE HERE

If you want to exchange your UK licence for a Spanish one, you need to have registered your intent to do so with the Spanish Traffic Authority (DGT) before December 31st 2020. 

READ ALSO: How residency hold-ups could mean many Brits in Spain need to sit their driving test again

“The UK and Spain are currently in discussion about an exchange process, longer term,” – Regional Consular Policy Adviser at the British Embassy in Madrid Lorna Geddie said during a recent Q&A.

“The UK government is in discussion with the Spanish government on future driving licence exchange without the need for a practical test,” the UK Embassy in Spain also stated in a Facebook post published on April 8th.

So those with UK driving licences might be able to exchange their licences in the future without having to resit the Spanish driving exam. As nothing in place yet though, read on to find out what you should keep in mind for now. 

The British government website states that it has offered EU driving licence holders the possibility of continuing to drive in the UK without the need to exchange their licences for British ones.

“You can drive in Great Britain until you’re 70. If you’re 67 or over when you become resident, you can drive for 3 years. After this time you must exchange your licence. You do not have to retake your test,” reads the British government website.

Whether this will be reciprocal with Spain will likely be decided in the coming weeks or months. 

What if I registered with the DGT before the end of last year, but haven’t been given my new licence yet?  

If you were resident in Spain before January 1st 2021 and registered with the DGT before December 31st 2020, but haven’t yet been given your new Spanish licence or managed to get an appointment to exchange it, then there is still time.

You must, however, request an appointment with the DGT to exchange your UK driving licence by December 31st 2021 (new date following extension), otherwise, it will be too late.

Follow this link to get an appointment and fill out your application form. It will also explain the exchanging process in more detail.

Here are the documents you’ll need to take to your appointment:

  • A completed application form
  • Proof that you are a resident in Spain. This includes the TIE card or the green EU residence certificate
  • Your full UK driving licence
  • A colour photo 32x26mm in size

Once everything has been processed you will receive a temporary driving permit from the DGT, so that you can drive while you’re waiting for the actual licence. The temporary permit is only valid in Spain and will not permit you to drive elsewhere. For this, you will have to wait for your actual licence.

Spanish driving licence. Image: Joaquinceb / Wikimedia Commons

What happens if I don’t register my intent to exchange my licence before December 31st 2020?

If you did not register your intent for a licence exchange with the DGT before December 31st 2020 and want to continue driving in Spain past that deadline, you will need to get a Spanish driving licence.

As Spain and the UK currently don’t have any bilateral agreements on exchanging driving licences, unless you were a resident before Brexit kicked in on January 1st 2021, you will have to take a Spanish driving test in order to continue driving here past June 30th.

You will follow the same process as non-EU nationals. This means taking both the theoretical and practical driving test. The theory test can be taken in English and several other languages, although some people complain that the translations are not done well and that some of the questions don’t make a lot of sense. People who have taken it recommend taking mock tests to get used to the questions.

The practical part of the test unfortunately can’t be taken in English. Your examiner will do the basic commands in Spanish, so you’ll need to have a good enough level of Spanish to be able to understand them.

This article goes into the subject in more detail and also includes information from several of Spain’s English-speaking driving schools.

According to the British Embassy in Spain, the UK government is currently in discussion with the Spanish government on setting up a bilateral agreement, so that in the future Brits will be able to exchange their licence without having to re-sit their driving exam.

Can I still drive back in the UK with my Spanish licence?

Yes, if you are going back to the UK for short visits or for holidays, then you can use your Spanish licence to drive in the UK. You won’t need to exchange it back to a UK one, unless you move back there.

If you move back to the UK will be able to drive there on your Spanish licence for up to three years, after which you’ll have to change it back to a UK one. This means just filling out a form and paying a fee, but you will not have to re-sit your test.

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Anger grows as no solution found yet for in limbo UK drivers in Spain 

British drivers living in Spain are becoming increasingly disgruntled at the lack of solutions two weeks after they were told their UK licences were no longer valid, with the latest update from the UK Embassy suggesting it could still take "weeks" to reach a deal. 

Anger grows as no solution found yet for in limbo UK drivers in Spain 

There is growing discontent among UK licence holders residing in Spain who are currently in limbo, unable to drive in Spain until they either get a Spanish driving licence or a deal is finally reached between Spanish and UK authorities for the mutual exchange of licences post-Brexit.

Since May 1st 2022, drivers who’ve been residents in Spain for more than six months and who weren’t able to exchange their UK licences for Spanish ones cannot drive in Spain.

There are no official stats on how many Britons of the 407,000 UK nationals who are residents in Spain in 2022 are affected; according to the UK Embassy the “majority exchanged” as advised.

But judging by the amount of negative comments the last two updates from the British Embassy in Madrid have received, hundreds if not thousands are stuck without being able to drive in Spain.  

May 12th’s video message by Ambassador Hugh Elliott left many unhappy with the fact that the forecast for a possible licence exchange agreement will be in the “coming weeks”, when two weeks earlier Elliott had spoken of “rapidly accelerating talks”. 

Dozens of angry responses spoke of the “shocking” and “absolutely ridiculous” holdup in negotiations that have been ongoing for more than at least a year and a half, and which the UK Embassy has put down to the fact that Spain is asking the British government to give them access to DVLA driver data such as road offences, something “not requested by other EU Member States”.

Numerous Britons have explained the setbacks not being able to drive in Spain are causing them, from losing their independence to struggling to go to work, the hospital or the supermarket, especially those in rural areas with little public transport.  

“I know personally from all the messages you’ve sent in, just how incredibly disruptive all of this is for many of you,” Elliott said in response. 

“If you are struggling to get around you may find additional advice or support from your local town hall, or charities or community groups in your area and the Support in Spain website is another very useful source of organisations that can provide general support to residents.

“And if your inability to drive is putting you in a very vulnerable situation, you can always contact your nearest consulate for advice.”

There continue to be disparaging opinions in the British community in Spain over whether any pity should be felt for UK licence holders stuck without driving, as many argue they had enough time to register intent to exchange their licences, whilst others clarify that their particular set of circumstances, such as arriving after the December 2020 ‘intent to exchange’ deadline, made this impossible. 

OPINION: Not all Brits in Spain who didn’t exchange UK driving licences are at fault

So is there any light at the end of the tunnel for drivers whose UK licences aren’t valid anymore in Spain or soon won’t be?

“The agreement we’re working towards now will enable UK licence holders, whenever they arrived in Spain or arrive in the future, to exchange their UK licence for a Spanish one without needing to take a practical or a theory test,” Elliott said on Thursday May 12th of the deal they are “fully committed” to achieve.

READ ALSO: How much does it cost to get a Spanish driving licence?

And yet it’s hard for anyone to rest their hopes on this necessarily happening – sooner or later or ever – in part because the embassy advice for those with UK licences for whom it’s imperative to continue driving in Spain is that they should take steps to get their Spanish licence now, while acknowledging that in some places there are “long delays for lessons” and getting your Spanish licence “doesn’t happen overnight”.

READ ALSO: What now for UK licence holders in Spain?