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UK licences: What now for British drivers in Spain?

News that residents’ UK driving licences ceased to be valid on May 1st has left many Brits in Spain wondering what it means for them, if anything. The Local spoke to the UK Embassy in Spain to find out more about the hold-up in negotiations and what the driving test will involve.

UK licences: What now for British drivers in Spain?
Residents in Spain who after 6 months have either not exchanged their licence for a Spanish one or passed their Spanish driving test can be fined €200 by Spanish police if caught behind the wheel. (Photo by MIGUEL RIOPA / AFP)

UK Ambassador to Spain Hugh Elliott posted a last-minute announcement last Friday evening, just hours before the April 30th deadline for UK licence validity, confirming one of the worst case scenarios for British driving licence holders living in Spain.

”If you have been resident in Spain for longer than six months, your UK-issued licence will no longer be valid to drive here from May 1st (2022),” Elliott said in a Facebook video.

“We’re not there just yet. And we will not have reached an agreement in time for the end of the current grace period (April 30th),” he added about the ongoing talks between Spanish and British authorities.

How many UK licence holders resident in Spain cannot drive now?

“The majority of UK licence holders in Spain registered their intent to exchange, as they were advised to, before December 31st 2020,” the UK Embassy in Madrid told The Local Spain. 

“They are therefore unaffected.”

There are no official stats on how many Britons exactly – of the 407,000 UK nationals who are residents in Spain in 2022 – are now unable to drive because their UK licences are no longer valid. This also affects people of other nationalities who are residents in Spain and hold UK driving licences.

The UK Embassy told The Local that this will primarily affect three groups:

  • UK licence holders who are long-term residents in Spain and did not exchange or register their intent to exchange, as advised, before the end of the transition period (December 31st 2020).
  • UK licence holders who did register their intent to exchange before the end of the transition period, but did not complete the exchange process by April 30th.
  • UK licence holders who have arrived as residents in Spain after December 31st 2020 and have been residents in Spain for longer than 6 months.

This also applies to Gibraltar licence holders who are resident in Spain,” embassy sources point out. 

It’s worth remembering also that this announcement does not affect visiting motorists from the UK or Gibraltar or UK licence holders who have just moved to Spain (first six months of residency), or British tourists visiting Spain. 

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

What will UK licence holders living in Spain have to do now?

Negotiations are ongoing so there is a possibility that UK licence holders living in Spain will regain their driving rights without having to sit their driving exam again in Spain.

However, the advice from the Embassy for those most affected is to start preparations to get a Spanish driving licence.

“If you are affected by this change and need to drive, you should not wait for the outcome of the negotiations and should take immediate steps to apply for a Spanish licence – as we have been advising for some time now,” they stated on the Facebook group Brits in Spain.

“Driving a vehicle without a valid licence is illegal in Spain,” the UK Embassy has stressed.

So if residents whose UK licences ceased to be valid in Spain on May 1st 2022 were to still drive and be stopped by Spanish police, they face a €200 fine, according to Spanish road law CON 001 1 5B.

An international driving permit is not a way to get around this problem.

What will the Spanish driving test involve for UK licence holders?

There has been some confusion over whether UK licence holders who couldn’t exchange would have to do only the practical test, or the theory as well, in the increasingly likely event that they will have to sit their Spanish driving test. 

The UK Embassy in Madrid has clarified that the Spanish driving exam includes taking both a theory and practical test, which would be applicable to UK licence holders getting their Spanish licences, as it is for other non-EU licence holders six months after they move to Spain.

“In addition to taking these tests, you will be required to provide a psychophysical aptitude report from an authorised Driver Centre and pay a fee,” the UK Embassy told The Local Spain.

“Most people choose to prepare for the theory and practical tests using the services of an official driving school. However, you are not obliged to do so.”

One of the main concerns for drivers who didn’t manage to exchange their licences, especially those who are not fluent in Spanish, is that the practical test is always carried out with a Spanish-speaking examiner. You may however find driving schools with English-speaking instructors.

The theory test can be done in English.


Why have negotiations taken so long?

The vast majority of EU nations have reached successful agreements with the UK over reciprocal driving licence recognition and mutual exchange of licences. 

But after more than a year of negotiations and four grace periods, there is still no ‘Spanish deal’ and no more extensions to give UK licence holders.

“The UK Government asked the Spanish Government for an extension in early April but unfortunately this has not been possible,” the UK Embassy told The Local. 

“We are continuing negotiations at pace and are asking for interim measures to be put in place by the Spanish, to minimise the disruption on UK licence holders.

Ambassador Hugh Elliott added that UK and Spanish authorities had agreed to “rapidly accelerate talks” during the week of May 2nd to May 8th.

So what’s the reason behind the hold-up?

“Every negotiation is different,” the UK Embassy told The Local.

“In this instance, Spain has asked for data provision to form part of the agreement. 

“This was not requested by other EU Member States and is part of Spain’s nationwide ambition to improve road safety. As such, this has naturally taken more time than all the other agreements which the UK has been able to complete.


Driving licences: How does situation for Britons in Spain compare to rest of Europe?

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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?