to drive (or not) in Europe
October 29, 2012 12:57 PM   Subscribe

I am relocating to the UK. I do not have a driver's license. Should I get one?

I had a license in Australia and the US throughout my teens, but I let it lapse at age 20 when I moved to The Big City and didn't have a car. Since then I've happily maintained my car free lifestyle and never really had a need to re-learn how to drive in the last 12 years.

However, next year I am relocating to England for work. I will be commuting between Ipswich and London several times a week, living in either far east London or Colchester. Most of my work commuting will be via train but occasionally I may get called into either location after hours. I will also be traveling to western Europe frequently for work (flying, obviously - NL/FR/CH/DE mostly). My job functions do not require traveling during the course of the day - it's just getting out to various offices, most of which are in major cities. Except for Ipswich, where, of course, I'll be spending the majority of my time.

In the US, I have had to build my adult life around the lack of driving - I live within a walkable distance to work or on a transit line, in neighborhoods that have ultra-high walk scores and supermarkets a few blocks away, that sort of thing. I have always been under the impression that being car free is easier in the UK and Europe than it is in the US and the part of (Western) Australia where I lived. If I were relocating for pleasure or whatever, I wouldn't worry at all about this, I'd just wait until I got there and decide if it were necessary. But because I'm going there to work, I worry that I'll end up in a situation where I can't do my job or get to my job because I can't find a train or bus to get me to where I need to be.

Should I get a license? If so, would it be better to learn in the US before I leave, or in the UK after I arrive? If the latter, are there any special considerations I need to keep in mind, being a foreign national?
posted by par court to Travel & Transportation (13 answers total)
Is the question about getting a driver's license or getting a car? I don't see any downside to getting a driver's license. Being able to drive -- in an emergency or if necessary -- is a very very good thing. It sounds like you already know how to drive -- you won't have forgotten too much, just do some refresher driving. It will probably cost you some time and some money but presumably you will need some UK form of ID anyway so it's probably not too different from whatever that is.

If the question is about whether or not you will need/should get a car, that's a different question with completely different pros and cons, but if you're just asking about a license, then I say yes, absolutely, why wouldn't you?
posted by brainmouse at 1:01 PM on October 29, 2012

Best answer: If you have a US license, you'll be able to use it in England for up to a year. You should do this, because getting a UK license is cost and time intensive. If you get the US one, that'll be your buffer while you work on the UK one.

I only know this because I did it all entirely wrong.
posted by iamkimiam at 1:02 PM on October 29, 2012 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Sorry, to clarify: I am just asking if it makes sense to get a license and if so, where I should get it (US or UK). Thanks!
posted by par court at 1:03 PM on October 29, 2012

If you move to east London, there are great transport links from Stratford, which is on the London Underground (Central and Jubilee Lines), DLR and numerous train lines, including direct fast trains to Colchester and Ipswich. If you lived in or near Stratford, particularly along the Central Line (Bethnal Green, Leytonstone, Snaresbrook, South Woodord, Wanstead, for example), you wouldn't need to drive if you didn't want to.
posted by essexjan at 1:21 PM on October 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

I do not drive. My husband, who is British, has both a British and a California driver's license. The UK process was very difficult compared to the California test, which he called (and I quote) "a piece of piss."
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 1:57 PM on October 29, 2012 [4 favorites]

> flying, obviously

Not always obviously - my brother lives in Worcester, frequently travels to the same European countries as you listed, and does it all by train. He says the time is a bout the same.

Anyway, get your licence updated in the US before travelling.
posted by scruss at 2:06 PM on October 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Here is an official link to confirm iamimiam.

Here is a journey-planner (a reasonably reliable one) so you can plan some sample journeys you might have to make (e.g. leaving the main/alternate office to go home at 8/10/11pm), with boxes to tick for public transport or car methods. You just need to know the postcode of the addresses you are travelling between (or at least the nearest station).
posted by K.P. at 2:10 PM on October 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

nthing get a US license before you move and use it for the year you're permitted; by comparison, American driving tests are indeed a piece of piss. You'll have to take the various UK tests eventually, but if you're in a situation where public transport isn't sufficient (say, a trip to the Thurrock IKEA for a sofa) you'll be very glad of it.
posted by holgate at 2:39 PM on October 29, 2012

There are great rail links between Colchester or Romford and London and Ipswich and I have commuted between Colchester and London in the past without driving - it is not only possible but much easier. I would not recommend driving in London - the public transport is quicker and generally a better option. That said, you might want to consider what else you want to do. Colchester is a great starting point to explore the Essex and Suffolk countryside which isn't so well connected by public transport.
posted by Laura_J at 3:07 PM on October 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

The UK process was very difficult compared to the California test, which he called (and I quote) "a piece of piss."


In addition to the answers above: while the UK is not as car-centric a culture as the US, there is still a basic expectation that most adults will be capable of driving. You'll get by OK without a car, particularly if most of your activities are in large towns/cities; but being an adult non-driver will be viewed as a mild eccentricity.

(I was that mild eccentric until my early 30s, FWIW.)

Is it possible to discreetly ask your employer? They might be assuming that you can drive a rental car on some trips, for example.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 3:56 PM on October 29, 2012

Best answer: So I have been in the same situation as you. In my case I had an Australian licence and moved to the UK.

I did as iamkimiam suggested and switched to a UK licence after the year. In my case I was fortunate, Australian licences can be swapped for UK licences without the need for a test.

Having said that, I have hardly used it. I don't own a car, and use public transport to get around. I can't speak to the situation in the US, but Australia has comparably terrible public transport and is a very car-centric society.

If you live in any reasonably sized town in the UK you can probably expect it to be well served by public transport, and you won't need to invest much time in locating yourself in a transport-hub. If you live in London, owning a car is prohibitively expensive thanks to congestion and parking fees and public transport is, by far, the best option.

So you're right. It is much easier to be car-free in the UK. I have done it for 5 years and have no regrets about not owning a car.
posted by TheOtherGuy at 2:28 AM on October 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

You will not need a license or a car, but being able to rent one at a moments notice would be very useful at times. I say definitely get a US license and learn to dive a bit using your US license. Get a provisional UK license after a couple of months, and start lessons. The British test is very picky and you have to do stupid things like feed the steering wheel through your hands, and not cross over your arms or drive one handed even very temporarily. You also have to use the protocol of mirror-signal-maneuver instead of what I always learned and how I drive of signal mirror maneuver. A good driving instructor should be able to tell that you know how to drive and will just concentrate on getting you enough lessons so that you will be able to pass their silly test.

The best thing about a UK license is that it doesn't expire so once you have ti you have it for life, except you do have to update your picture every 10 years.
posted by koolkat at 3:47 AM on October 30, 2012

koolkat, I'd describe that list of requirements you call picky as "you have to remain in control of the vehicle at all times" and I suspect that what you call the UK's silly test has quite a lot to do with the UK's roads having the world's second lowest death rate.

That said, there are a lot of people including driving instructors who think that not crossing hands means keeping the right hand between 1 o'clock and 3 o'clock and the left between 9 o'clock and 11 o'clock. All it means is keeping each hand on its own side of the centre line of the steering wheel.

My feeling is that being able to pass a UK driving test is a good skill to have, if par court wants that
posted by ambrosen at 11:49 AM on October 30, 2012

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