An Odyssey in Pursuit of A German Driver's License

Miles of red tape block on-ramp to the autobahn for foreigners.

Now the story can be told: I finally have my German driver's license.

This may sound mundane. But a change in German law a few years ago has made it much harder for Americans - or citizens of any country outside the European Union (EU) - to get a license to drive on the autobahn.

Obtaining the license wasn't cheap. The fees added up to more than 300 marks (around $175), plus the hassle and expense of visiting several government and other offices.

My odyssey included:

* Two visits to the license bureau at City Hall.

* A visit to the Auslnderamt, or Office for Foreigners, where I had to have an official certify that I am legally "registered" to live in Bonn. Never mind that I have a residence permit stamped in my passport, along with a copy of my municipal registration certificate.

* Several outings in search of a driving school where I could buy study materials for the written test (which, mercifully, I could take in English).

* Two trips to the Cologne office of the German auto club, for an official translation of my US license.

Once there I tried to beat the system, asking, "Is there any way I could just wait here while your translator does my license? It's just a two-minute job."

The woman behind the counter was briefly struck speechless.

"That would be impossible!" she sputtered. "We have to do translations for all over [the state of] North Rhine-Westphalia!"

"But each one is still just a two-minute job!" I couldn't resist countering. I bit my tongue before I could say "how about customer satisfaction?"

The whole process took about two months. This was partly because all driver's license applications are shipped to the northern city of Flensburg for processing, which takes about four weeks. (Imagine if all driver's license applications in the United States were processed in, say, Lewiston, Maine.)

By contrast, when I needed to obtain a North Carolina license, I walked into a license bureau with my Massachusetts license, a certificate of insurance, and $20. After a quick written test, an even quicker eye test, and a fast photo, I was on the road again. Total elapsed time: 23 minutes.

But I got a German license about as fast as anyone can.

In 1993, Germany started requiring non-EU citizens to pass written and driving tests before granting licenses.

While some US states have managed to negotiate waivers, many of the most populous states, including California, Texas, New York, and Florida, are among the 33 without an accord. Drivers from these areas would have to spend several hundred dollars more and probably need a few extra weeks to prepare for the road test.

And whatever the red tape imposed on foreigners, it pales in comparison with what Germany requires of its own citizens. Driving school tuition alone typically runs $1,400 to $2,000, according to the federation of driving schools. Additional fees can bring the total to about $2,250. This in a country where a university education is free.

Over the years, the complex system has driven many Germans to get licenses elsewhere in the EU and then exchange them at home.

To discourage "driver's license tourism," as it is called, new EU rules require that countries grant licenses only to permanent residents.

The new rules also require EU countries to recognize one another's licenses, as an aspect of the "single market" of European economic integration.

"More and more people are changing their country of residence because of their job," says an official in Brussels.

"If someone gets a new job and needs to be able to drive the company car," adds the official, "it's very important to be able to get their license recognized. It's a question of the free movement of people."

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