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DRIVING IN SPAIN

Driving in Spain: Getting your driving licence when you already have one

South African in Spain Melissa Booyens, who recently passed her Spanish driving test despite having had a licence from her home country for 14 years, offers her tips to others in the same situation, talks costs and tells us about the pros and cons to expect.

getting your driving licence in Spain when you already drive
Melissa, who lives in Tenerife with her husband, could not exchange her South African licence for a Spanish one and had to resit her driving exam in Spain. Photo: Melissa Booyens

Starting my life in Spain as a non-EU national came with its own set of complications and bureaucracy that EU nationals are fortunate enough to not usually experience. 

With many official processes, I’ve learned that if your home country doesn’t have an “agreement” with Spain on certain matters, it means you have to start from scratch with it.

This is often the case with driving licences. Except for a handful of non-EU countries, most non-EU nationals cannot simply exchange their driver’s licence for a Spanish one but rather need to resit their theory and practical driving exams.

READ ALSO: Who can exchange their licence and who has to resit the exam?

As a South African licence holder, my driver’s licence needed to be changed for a Spanish one after six months of residency in Spain. 

It’s frustrating knowing that no matter how much experience you have driving (I got my licence when I was 18 and have driven regularly ever since), your licence won’t be valid here after a certain period of residency. 

But it’s just one of those things in life where you have to bite the bullet and get on with it. 

After a few months of studying and practical classes, I can now proudly say that I’m a Spanish licence holder. Fortunately, I managed to pass the theory and practical exam the first time round. 

I know there are plenty more foreigners in Spain who are in the same boat as I was, not least the UK licence holders who are now not sure whether they will have to resit their driving exams.

So I’d like to share some tips for foreign drivers who have to get their licences again in Spain, as well as give a breakdown of some of the conclusions I’ve drawn from my experience of doing it and passing.

 

The positives

You familiarise yourself with the road rules and signs of Spain

This may seem unnecessary since a lot of road signs are internationally understood, but there seems to be a few that are different and come with their own sets of rules.

You get to better understand the roads in the place where you live in Spain

It may seem silly, but each country and city even has its own eccentricities in terms of road structures and rules. 

Here in Tenerife, there are certain areas where the roads seem put together randomly and then sprinkled with road signs and warnings. It doesn’t always make sense as to why they chose to do it that way, and as a foreign driver you may misunderstand them (because who wouldn’t?).

 

You improve your Spanish

I chose to do the theory test in Spanish (you can also do it in English) and felt it helped my Spanish improve to a certain extent. 

As a result, I also understood my driving instructor better during practicals as I knew the names of the manoeuvres and actions in Spanish already. 

As you probably know, you have to do your practical driving exam in Spanish, and I felt that thanks to that linguistic prep, I could understand the examiner far better during the exam, even though he was sitting behind me and his voice was slightly muffled as he was wearing a mask.

READ ALSO: The essential Spanish you need to pass your practical test

 

 

The negatives 

You spend a lot of money

Based on my experiences, getting a licence in Spain requires a fairly big financial investment, even if you’re a seasoned driver. 

When you work with a Spanish driving school (which you sort of have to if you want to understand the DGT’s complicated MO), it comes with some extra expenses but the process of getting a driving licence in itself is already expensive.

There’s the matrícula (the registration) which is €50, the tasas de tráfico – €93,12 and the processing fee – €35 which you pay all before taking your first theory test. 

You can use the DGT website to do practice exams, but that login expires after 30 days and from there you have to pay €5 every time to use it for another 30 days.

You have two opportunities to pass the theory exam. If you don’t pass it on the third, you have to pay your tasas again.

When you pass your theory exam, you can start thinking about your practical lessons. On average a driving class costs around €25,50 for 45 minutes. 

Unfortunately, you are forced to book double sessions because the areas where the exams take place are usually on the outskirts of the city, so driving there and back already costs you half an hour of your precious 45 minutes.

All in all, I spent €459 on classes. Admittedly, I probably did more classes than necessary because I didn’t have the correct strategy from the start (I have a tip on how to do fewer classes further down).

That brought me to a total of €647, which did feel like an unnecessarily high expense for something that I already had.

READ MORE: How much does it cost to get your driving licence in Spain?

 

Driving schools want you to do as many classes as possible

How many driving lessons you do is up to you and your instructor but you may they discourage you from taking too few classes. 

They seem to always say that the roads are tricky, that you have to be ready for the exam, that you have to do at least a certain number of classes, even though you already know how to drive.

There is no minimum amount of classes that you have to do. And ultimately you can decide on how many classes you want and ask to do your exam.

 

You have to put the L square in your car

Your driving school will tell you after you pass your practical exam that you have to put the “L” sign in the back window of your car for a year to indicate that you are a new driver. This doesn’t seem fair or to make sense considering your driving experience, but there you have it.

 

My tips for passing your Spanish driving test

  • Instead of studying the DGT rule book, start practising exams directly on the DGT website. You can look up doubts in the book from there, but ultimately it is a big waste of time to study the theory first, and the theory exam is based on the questions in the practice exams anyway.

  • If your Spanish is reasonably good, do the theory in Spanish. It will help you understand your instructor and examiner better and overall give you more confidence in the practical test. I’ve also read that the translation into English of the theory exam isn’t always clear.

  • Don’t make the same mistake that I did and take a few classes a month in an unorganised fashion. Take one or two classes to familiarise yourself with your instructor and the roads. Then, ask for an exam date a month in advance. From there you can plan to have some intensive classes in the weeks right before the exam to learn the exact routes and areas where the exam takes place. It will also be fresher in your mind right before the practical exam.

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For members

MOVING TO SPAIN

Six hard facts Americans should be aware of before moving to Spain 

There are 40,000 US nationals living in Spain but the road to residency and integration isn’t always straightforward for them. Here are six practical points Americans should factor in before embarking on a move to 'España', from work, to tax and healthcare.

Six hard facts Americans should be aware of before moving to Spain 

If you’re a US national who is considering making a move to Spain, you’ve no doubt already been captivated by all the country has to offer: the food, the people, the rhythm of life, the culture, the wine (of course), the scenery, the festivals, and so on. 

There’s a long list of quality-of-life positives that come with a move to Spain which could indeed make you happier than you are in the US. 

But before you start considering a permanent or long-term move to the country of your dreams, you should first think of the practicalities and potential downsides of such a big life change. 

MAP: Where in Spain do all the Americans live?

Above all is the fact that despite the United States’s reputation as a world leader in many regards, for the Spanish government you’re a third-country national with the same rights (or lack thereof) as any other non-EU national, from a Chinese person, to an Australian or an Indian citizen.

This is the crux of the matter, and a factor which will influence most of the important points to be aware of that we will now list.

Finding work or building a career isn’t easy

You’ll no doubt already know that Spain is renowned for its high unemployment rate, unstable work market and relatively low wages, but as a non-EU national there is an added set of obstacles to consider.

Firstly, applying for residency through a contract job is near impossible. Spanish employers would have to first demonstrate that they have been unable to find a suitable EU candidate for the position before being able to sponsor/hire you. 

Alternatively, you’d have to have the skills and experience which are included in Spain’s shortage occupation list, but this is made up almost entirely of jobs in the maritime and shipping industry.

It is true that Spain is set to make it easier to recruit non-EU foreigners to cover some of its most pressing labour shortages, but these are mainly in the tourism, hospitality and agricultural sectors.

Then there’s the nightmare non-EU foreigners in regulated professions are currently enduring – think doctors, dentists, engineers, lawyers and so on – as the validation of their qualifications (known as homologación) is a pricy and convoluted process which takes at least three years. Others who need to have their qualifications verified for non-regulated professions (known as equivalencia) will have to wait two years on average.

With that in mind, setting up your own business might be one of the best bets to make a living for yourself and gain Spanish residency. This self-employed work visa is also a bit arduous as you’ll need proof of financial means and a business plan among other requirements, but on the whole it’s probably one of the most feasible residency options.

The Spanish government did announce an upcoming Startups Law and digital nomad visa in 2021, legislation which could indeed make it easier for Americans to remote work from Spain, but it isn’t clear yet when this will be approved.

A final option is that of becoming an English-language assistant at a Spanish school. It’s an easy way to get into Spain, it offers decent pay for the few hours you’re required to work and it can be a stepping stone to other work goals from within Spain.  

You need a lot of money to ‘buy’ Spanish residency

If you’re retired or don’t plan to work in Spain, then you’ll need to show you have the financial means to cover your costs. 

This can best be done through Spain’s non-lucrative visa or the so-called golden visa. 

As the name suggests, the non-lucrative visa (NLV) is a residency permit which doesn’t allow you to work in Spain or technically carry out professional activities you have abroad from Spain.

A US national wanting to apply for the NLV for the first time in 2022 will need to prove they have €27,792 ($31,390) for one year, an amount which rises if you include other family members. You’ll have to show proof of financial means when you renew the NLV again.

You can find more in-detail information on the NLV’s financial requirements as well as a breakdown of the pros and cons in the articles linked directly below:

As for the other main option for those who won’t work in Spain – the golden visa – the main options are buying a property (or more) worth €500,000+ (the option most applicants choose) or investing €1 million in a Spanish company or having €1 million in a Spanish bank account.

READ MORE: What foreigners should be aware of before applying for Spain’s golden visa

So all in all, applying for Spanish residency as a US citizen who can’t or doesn’t want to work in Spain involves having a lot of money saved up.

Public healthcare is the standard in Spain, but access to it as an American is subject to conditions

As you hail from a country where healthcare is notoriously not available to all, you may have assumed that here in Spain, where the approach is starkly different, anyone can walk into a public hospital and receive treatment. 

And there would be nothing wrong in thinking that initially, but the truth is that access to Spain’s sanidad pública is based on social security contributions, which are paid through your taxes as a contract employee or self-employed worker.

What this means is that if you’re a US national residing in Spain you won’t automatically get access to Spain’s public healthcare system. 

In fact, if you’re applying for the NLV or golden visa, you will have to take out comprehensive private health insurance for your application to be accepted, something which can be difficult and costly if you have pre-existing conditions.

You should also keep in mind that there’s a scheme called the “convenio especial” (special agreement) which allows foreigners who have been registered as residents in Spain for a year to pay a monthly sum into the country’s public health system to have access to it.

Under 65s pay a fixed monthly fee of €60 per month and over 65s pay €157 per month to obtain full cover through Spain’s public health system.

You’ll have to resit your driving exam again

The US is for the most part a nation of drivers. In Spain, if you live in a town or city you will be able to move around easily on foot or by using the country’s efficient public transport network.

However, if your intention is to buy a car and continue driving in Spain, keep in mind that after six months of residency in the country you will need to resit your driving exam again in Spain and get a Spanish driving licence.

Unfortunately, Spain and the United States have no mutual licence exchange agreement or recognition scheme.

READ MORE: How much does it cost to get your driving licence in Spain?

It’s certainly frustrating to think that you will have to cough up a considerable amount of money for something that you already know how to do, but on the plus side you’ll get to understand Spanish roads and driving, and possibly learn how to use a stick (gearbox) as most cars are manual in Spain.

You have to commit to living in Spain

Keep in mind that when you obtain Spanish residency, it won’t necessarily entitle you to enter and leave the country for the rest of your life, especially if you spend extended periods of time outside of Spain. Permits have to be renewed and their conditions respected.

At first you will be given temporary residency (which lasts five years) and with this permit you risk losing residency when you leave Spain for more than six months in a period of one year.

In the case of sporadic absences from Spain, the sum of these periods outside of the country during those five years of temporary residence must not exceed ten months if you intend to apply for permanent residency. 

Permanent residency is valid for ten years (you can then renew it or apply for Spanish citizenship), but you can lose your residency if you’re outside of Spain for more than 12 months continuously, or for more than 30 months during the last five years.

Only the golden visa offers more lenient rules in terms of time spent outside of Spain. 

None of this means that you can’t spend several months at a time back home in the States – in fact extenuating circumstances such as caring for a sick family member, work or study allow for a bit more time outside Spain – just keep in mind that you have keep tabs on long absences outside of Spain as a non-EU citizen.

You have to pay taxes in Spain even if you’re not working here

As a Spanish resident (someone who spends more than 183 days in a calendar year in Spain), you have to pay taxes here.

Foreign residents in Spain pay tax on their worldwide income at personal tax rates which are progressive, from 19 percent to 45 percent.

Fortunately, there is a treaty between Spain and the US which helps determine which country to pay taxes to and the tax deadlines.

Equally, if you live in Spain and own assets abroad worth more than €50,000, you have to declare all this to the Spanish taxman, through the Modelo 720.

There are plenty more tax matters to keep in mind if you have assets and/or income sources on both sides of the Atlantic (it may be worth consulting a tax expert), so just keep in mind that if you move to Spain you will have to deal with all of this complex scenario.

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