The road to obtaining a Spanish drivers license has been a rough, frustrating process. It worked out for us in the end, but now that we have our license, I figured it was worthwhile to explain what we did, the process we went through, and my general frustrations with the whole process.
Let me first start out by saying that these are my opinions, and I’m basing this on our own personal experiences. Our experience in the small town of Almuñécar may be vastly different from someone who lives in a large city. That said, I’ve spoken to several other people who have gone through the process, and all have had similar experiences to ours.
Why Bother Getting Our License?
There are a couple of reasons. Namely, it’s the legal thing to do. If you reside in Spain for longer than 6 months, you’re required to get a Spanish license. We’ve been residents for oh, say 4 years, so we’re just a tad over that 6-month window.
The second reason is that we have some friends who were involved in a minor fender bender. They were not at fault, but since they had been in Spain for longer than 6 months without a valid Spanish license, they were given a 500 € fine, and they were not allowed to drive their car from the scene of the accident.
It’s not uncommon to hear of even larger fines, car impoundments, and even jail for not having the proper drivers license. For us just driving around our small town became very stressful, as we were worried about getting pulled over.
The Spanish Drivers License – What’s the Process?
In order to obtain a Spanish drivers license, it turns out to be a fair amount of work. The official process is:
- Find and sign-up with a driving school;
- Take a bunch of online/in-school tests on the computer;
- Take a bunch more tests until the school thinks you’re ready for the written test;
- Get a medical exam;
- Take the Official Written Test;
- Using the school’s car, take a bunch of driving tests;
- Once the school thinks you’re ready for the practical test, sign-up for the test;
- Take the Official Practical Test in the school’s car, and hope you don’t make too many mistakes;
- Get your Spanish drivers license!
- Mount that big “L” plate in your rear window for a year.
Finding A School
A number of our friends had gone through a local driving school (autoescuela) that they liked, Alba, so we signed up with them. I’ve been driving for some 30+ years, and it was a bit galling to me to have to go to a school for them to teach me how to drive. But it needed to be done.
Unlike the U.S., you can’t go straight to the DMV and take a written test. The driving school decides whether you’re ready or not to take the written exam. They are the gatekeepers. This really bugged the crap out of me, but it’s just the nature of things. More on the actual written test later.
It’s necessary for students to go into the school, hop on a computer, and work through a bunch of tests. Our school also offered online tests that we took from the comfort of our couch. Our situation was further complicated by us not being fluent in Spanish, so the online and in-school tests we took were in English. There were 60 online tests, and 90 in-school tests that we worked through over the course of two months.
I wrote that the tests were in English, but it’s as if someone took a Spanish test, used Google Translate to turn it into Chinese, and then translated that to English. There were times the questions and/or answers just made no sense. Sometimes it was possible to figure out what they were asking, but other times it was a matter of just learning that Question 14 on Test 30 is A. That’s no way to actually learn the rules of driving.
It’s so bad, that some of the answers are just plain wrong! For example, there was a question asking the purpose of the air filter? The available answers were:
- A: Used to filter the radiator;
- B: Used to filter the heater;
- C: Used to filter the air/fuel mixture;
For you shade-tree mechanics out there, you can quickly see that they’re all incorrect. But sometimes it’s necessary to take your Common Sense Hat off, and think about the probable answer, and that would be C. Even though it’s completely wrong. After a while, you just get into the flow of things and deal with a bunch of test failures. I will say that in order for us to earn the Spanish drivers license, it would have been much more difficult for us if we were required to take Spanish tests. So we were lucky they offered tests in English!
What The Tests Are Like
Each of the tests (both online and in-class) consisted of 30 questions. You could miss 3 questions and still pass. But if you miss more than three, you were greeted with a nice red message on the screen that said Fallo (failure). As in, “You are a complete fallo!” So we were always striving to get the nice green message that said, Apto (adequate). Early on, we didn’t get much of those.
In the end though, the tests were useful. Our school didn’t track how many tests you passed or failed. As long as you were writing notes on your “test sheet”, it looked like you were doing the work. Also, if you were going to the school frequently, that helped them think you were ready to take the written test.
The Dreaded Medical Exam
Before you can take the official written test, it’s necessary to obtain a clearance from the doctor that you’re fit to drive. I was not looking forward to that, but you gotta do what you gotta do, right? On the medical side, it was basically just the doctor signing a piece of paper.
The “difficult” part was this video game test that is part of the clearance. We explain this video game in the video at the bottom of this post. It wasn’t that hard, but I did make Heidi go first so I could see what it was like. We both passed that, so our medical exam was in the bag. Oh, yeah…at the cost of 40 Euros each. Ouch!
The Official Written Test
With all of the computer tests done, the requisite paperwork filled-out, and the fees paid, it was time to take the actual, real test. We were both nervous, and didn’t sleep well the night before. We had no idea what to expect, and that really fueled my uncertainty. The admin at the school drove a bunch of us to the test, and when we got there, there was a bunch of people waiting outside of this very odd building. Everyone is waiting to go in and do their best. The ages range from 14 (taking the moped test) to old. (I guess I’m in that last group.)
Sidenote about the building: I was so keyed-up about the test that I didn’t notice the strange building. After I was done with the test though, I noticed something very strange. The entire building was covered in metal. It wasn’t a metal building. It was a stone building covered in metal panels from the top to the bottom. Even the windows were covered with extreme bars. It’s like a Fort Knox building that houses precious metals or something. But it was just a DMV type of building.
I asked some of my fellow test-takers why the building’s windows were covered and locked with metal grates. One response was so that old people couldn’t commit suicide by jumping out the windows. Oh my goodness what a stupid answer! First off, the building is like 4 stories high, so you’re not going to kill yourself, you’d just break some bones or something. Secondly, it’s a government building which has government employees in it. Sure, their jobs may be bad, but they’ve got a government job. Many people here strive to get a nice secure job working for the government.
Upon further thinking, it dawned on me that the reason they covered the entire building in metal was to create a Faraday Cage. This basically acts like a box where radio (or cellphone!) signals cannot enter or exit. It’s to prevent cheating!
When Heidi was done, we compared notes on some of the questions. There were a couple that I wasn’t sure about. She was fairly confident she did well, but I wasn’t as sure. As with the computer tests, there were 30 questions, and you could miss only 3!
Our results? We passed! We found the good news out a couple of days later, and that was such a relief. Our quest to obtain our Spanish drivers license just got a little shorter. Now on to the next step…
Learning To Drive
While we weren’t actually learning to drive, what we were learning was:
- The behavior of the car;
- The various routes that the Examiners will take you on during the actual test;
Driving the Car
We bought a 10-pack of driving lessons, and split them in half. For the first bullet, I will admit, it was useful. It was useful because the school’s car was the exact car that we would be driving during the test. So we were able to become familiar with its gutlessness and strange clutch, as well as the small size of the car. If we had not practiced in the car a few times, the likelihood of passing the test would have been greatly diminished.
I should also mention that the car we used has pedals in passenger side so the instructor can slam on the brakes, or do whatever. There were a couple of times where I’m driving along, and all of a sudden the car is stopping for no reason. That was because I was about to drive into a one-way road the wrong way, and the instructor stopped me from doing so. Whoops!
For the second bullet, we would drive around the main city close to where we live (Motríl). Here our driving instructors took us to all of those sneaky areas where the roads were poorly designed or marked. There were a bunch of “gotcha” places and we became very familiar with them. All the while, the instructor is writing notes about our mistakes.
The nature of the exam is that you’re given 9 points. If you make a mistake, you can be assessed either a 1, 4, or 5 point penalty. If you go over 9 points, you fail. They also have a category of mistakes that are instant failures, or eliminados. We both got a couple of those during our driving practice.
Heidi and I lucked out, as normally it was just the two of us with the driving instructor. One of us would drive for about 30 minutes, then we’d park, and then the other one would get in the pilot’s seat. It was nerve-wracking, but again, I do think it was worth it. The last driving class we had included a new student driver. New, as in, she’d only driven 8 times ever!
I’m Going To Die!
Oh my god that was stressful! On the one hand, I’m trying to be as quiet as possible to be considerate to the driver, and not increase her stress level, but I truly felt like I was going to die. I was getting so worried that while I was in the back seat having a WhatsApp chat with a friend, I told her that if Heidi and I both died in the fiery car crash that was imminent, we were willing the kids to her. I don’t know how legally binding that would have been, but it was that stressful.
It’s GO Time!
After several weeks of online/computer testing, passing the Written Exam, doing the driving lessons, it was time for us to step up, and take the Practical Exam. Once again, we were driven to an area in Motríl, and as there were 9 of us taking the exam. I thought we’d go back to the Fort Knox DMV, but this was a different area. No official looking test area, just a place in the public, and it turns out there were probably 10 or so driving schools there.
It was a lot of people, and the Examiners didn’t really stick out that much. Two by two the test takers went with an Examiner. Here’s the strange part: The examiner was in the back of the car, and the Driving Instructor was in the passenger seat. Technically, he’s unable to help you, but if you run into problems, he can take over the controls. Obviously, if that happens, it’s an instant failure.
Heidi and I were the last two students to take the test. However, when I got into the car, and scooted the seat all the way back, the Examiner looked at the back seat, and the complete lack of room, he told her to wait. At the start of the test, they tell you to drive where you want for the first 15 minutes, and then they will direct you after that.
And Then There’s The Language Barrier
Now all of the tests we’ve taken were in some sort of English (broken or otherwise), but the Examiner speaks only in Spanish. I’ve got the whole “right”, “left”, and “change direction” words down, but I’m a bit worried about understanding what the Examiner says, since the Driving Instructor is not supposed to talk at all.
I did understand it though when my Driving Instructor told the Examiner that I only spoke a little bit of Spanish. So the Examiner allowed my Driving Instructor to speak to me. Whew! With that little bit of discussion, I was allowed to drive. Game on!
I figured the safest thing would be to do as much highway driving as possible. No pedestrians, consistent speed limits, etc. While I’m driving away, the DI and Examiner are just talking about random stuff. The Examiner is impressed that the DI speaks English, and so on. And then my DI told me that from here on out, the Examiner would be speaking to me.
Let’s Do This!
The Examiner was very calm, and basically told me to go into one of the towns, go through a few roundabouts, and through the town where I dutifully stopped for the pedestrians in the crosswalks, and then he told me to head back to where we started.
Once I parked, I let out an audible sigh, and the DI looked at me and gave me the Thumbs-Up. Well that’s a good sign. Now it was Heidi’s turn, so I got out of the car, and made my way back to where the rest of the group was waiting.
How Did Everyone Do?
As I was walking back to the group, I could tell they were watching me, so I put on my “look really depressed” body language. As I got back to the group, the Spanish conversation starts, and they ask me how I did. And in Spanish I told them that I was eliminated because I hit a pedestrian in a crosswalk. Everyone’s eyes opened really wide, and they said, “Oh noo!” (in Spanish). I then started laughing, and told them I think I did OK.
After some discussion on how we all did (two women failed — eliminado), we talked about cars and insurance, and other random stuff. It wasn’t that long before Heidi got back, and she looked pleased. With the group convened, our DI told us who passed and who failed. Luckily, Heidi and I were in the first group. It wasn’t official, but there’s a certain relationship between the Driving Instructors and the Examiners, so we were told that we did well, and that we would be able to check the official results on the web in a couple of days.
Looking online, I found out that Heidi made one small mistake, and I made three. We passed! Now we would need to wait for the interim driver’s license which would be given to us by the Auto School, and then the official license would arrive in the mail a couple of weeks later. We were also given our L-plates. Basically a plastic plate with a big “L” on it that we affix to the back window. Lars and Anya expressed dismay at how embarrassing it is to be a passenger in a car with an L-plate, but with the tint on our back window, you can’t even see it.
Heidi and I agreed that we went through the entire process about as fast, and about as cheaply as possible. It took us two months from start to finish. It also cost us 770 Euros in total. One of our friends spent a bit more than that for just a single person.
It was frustrating at times, but the biggest thing I can recommend if you’re going to have to do this is to keep an open mind, and don’t get frustrated. It is what it is, and no amount of whining or complaining is going to change that.
Now I can drive around, and I no longer have to worry about the prospect of a huge fine, an impounded car, or some jail time when I see the police! It’s good to be L-E-G-A-L! We were successful in our goal to obtain our Spanish drivers license.
This video explains the process, costs and even video diaries of our journey as Americans getting our Spanish Driver’s License.