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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Liz Truss: What does the new UK PM mean for Brits in Spain?

Following the announcement that Liz Truss will replace Boris Johnson as the UK’s new Prime Minister, political correspondent Conor Faulkner analyses what this could mean for Brexit and the 400,000 UK nationals who reside in Spain.

Liz Truss: What does the new UK PM mean for Brits in Spain?

On Monday September 5th, it was announced that members of UK’s Conservative party had finally elected a new leader and thus a new Prime Minister, after Boris Johnson was forced to resign at the start of the summer.

Beating rival Rishi Sunak with 57 percent of the vote, just 80,000 Conservative party members elected the former Foreign Secretary as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland.

READ ALSO: ‘Iron weathercock’ – Europe reacts to Liz Truss becoming new UK PM

But what, if anything, does her election mean for Brexit and the 400,000 Britons living in Spain? 

Will she be a continuity politician or will she forge a new path (for better or worse) in British-European relations?

Truss the Remainer

During the 2016 EU referendum campaign, Liz Truss campaigned for Remain. “I don’t want my daughters to live in a world where they have to apply for a visa to work in Europe,” she famously said.

Having once been a member of the Liberal Democrats and decidedly more pro-European, Truss’s conversion to Euroscepticism came after she had voted Remain in the EU in the June 2016 referendum.

Did the much hallowed Brexit benefits become clear to her in the aftermath of the result? Possibly. Or, as Brexit became a litmus test of loyalty and Conservatism, did her position shift to fit the intra-party politics of her party?

Although one may hope that her former pro-European positions might mean a softening in UK-EU relations in the post-Johnson era, Truss’s dependence on the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative parliamentary party during her leadership campaign suggests she may be kneecapped in her ability to strike compromises with the EU.

Truss the Foreign Secretary

Owing to Truss’s tendency to be a bit of a political flip-flopper and change her positions at the whim of career progression, it is therefore quite difficult to predict her future behaviour with regards to Spain. We can, however, make some educated guesses based on her time as Foreign Secretary.

Going off her tenure in the Foreign Office, it seems Truss may view relations with Spain more positively than perhaps with other EU member states or the block as a whole.

In December 2021, Truss travelled to Madrid to meet with her then counterpart José Manuel Albares to build “closer economic, tech and security ties” with Spain, and to “support” the 400,000 Britons living in Spain. 

“We’re significant trading partners, with the UK as Spain’s biggest European investor,” she said, “and the UK as the top destination for Spanish investment. By boosting our trading ties even further, both Spain and every region and nation of the UK will benefit.”

Yet, Truss has also strongly hinted that she would be willing to overhaul Article 16 and put the Northern Ireland protocol at risk. If she is willing to jeopardise peace and potentially break international law to appease her political base in England, particularly within her own parliamentary party, one must wonder about the seriousness with which a few hundred thousand Brits up and down Spain’s costas will be taken. 

Reaction in Spain

Spain’s leading newspaper El País believes Truss will continue the populist strategy of Johnson. Truss was, even in her acceptance speech on Monday, loyal to her predecessor. 

She “promises citizens a rose-tinted future, without clarifying how she intends to achieve it”, the paper believes.

Sue Wilson, Chair of Bremain in Spain, told The Local that she expects Truss to “carry on with the policies of Johnson, and be led, presumably, by the same right-wing forces of the Conservative Party.

“I suspect that, as far as what affects British citizens in Spain, that continuity will simply mean we remain invisible and left to our own devices,” Wilson added.

“Britons in Spain have been left in bureaucratic limbo since the Brexit vote six years ago. Whether it be the ongoing confusion over driving licenses or renewing residency or getting new TIE cards, many Britons abroad have felt abandoned by the UK government.”

Wilson and other members of Bremain in Spain will take part in the National Rejoin March in London on Saturday September 10th to “deliver a warning to the new PM about the impact of Brexit on the spiralling cost of living crisis in the UK”,  to express a “clear and loud message” that “Brexit has failed” and to promote “Rejoin the EU” as a “mainstream” call to action.

“For six years now, Brits living in Europe have been dealing with fear, uncertainty and stress, thanks to Brexit. We have already lost important rights, and many are concerned that even those secured could be at risk. Truss plans to proceed with the Protocol Bill which threatens the legally binding international treaty that secured those limited rights. In the process, she seems determined to do further damage to UK/EU relations and our international reputation.”

Anne Hernández, head of Brexpats in Spain, told The Local Spain: “Our problem as Brits in Spain might be if she actually applies Article 16, meaning a no deal Brexit, and she has threatened that. Although I’m not sure how that might affect our rights.”

The overriding feeling among UK nationals in Spain about Truss in No. 10 is the feeling of trepidation that Hernández describes.

With its fourth leader in six years and the third to take the helm of Britain in the post-Brexit world, for Brits abroad Truss’ rise to Downing Street has prolonged that uncertainty. 

With her apparent willingness to simply tear up internationally binding agreements, many will worry if the situation in Spain will be taken back to square one.

One would hope that her previously positive interactions with the Spanish state could mean that she lends a hand in resolving some of these lingering administrative issues affecting Britons in Spain, but the propensity to change her politics when it suits her make this unpredictable, and her reliance on Eurosceptic forces within her party make it unlikely.

How about Gibraltar?

This unpredictability could be of particular concern for UK nationals in Gibraltar. After voting Remain by a whopping 96 percent, the tiny British territory was not included in the main Brexit deal that came into effect from January 2021, and complicated multilateral negotiations between Gibraltar, London, Madrid and Brussels have rumbled on without resolution. 

Truss’ rhetoric on Gibraltar during her tenure as Foreign Secretary was as combative as her anti-EU talking points during the Tory leadership campaign, continuing the us-against-them language: “We will continue to defend the sovereignty of Gibraltar.”