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The Long Road to a German Driver's License
I remember my first solo drive as a teenager from my childhood home. I backed out of the driveway just fine in my hand-me-down grey Oldsmobile and easily made it to the top of Granada Road. This was familiar territory because, to the great amusement of the neighborhood, my parents allowed my twin sister and me to practice driving up and down the street in their boat, a 1984 charcoal grey Lincoln Town Car.
My dad and me with the family boat right before I went off to Boy Scout Camp. That is a story for another day.
As I veered right onto 79th Street, I passed by “Lady Granada,” the statue resting on the small island hoping she’d protect me on my journey. Riding the brakes all the way down 79th, I quickly faced my first lighted intersection. I eased to the line wondering if I could handle driving across Mission Road, the main thoroughfare of Prairie Village, Kansas. My head was spinning with all the variables, and then the light turned green. I rolled across the intersection, hoping the fleet of police cars just a block north would not notice this rookie driver. Up and over a small hill, then a quick left to my best friend’s family home. I made it, a whole 1,400 yards!
Now, with well over twenty years on the road, I have plenty of experience and a decent driving record, albeit with a style I define as aggressive but defensive. I am not necessarily a speed demon, but I tend to assert my position on the road with my foot not far from the brake. Unfortunately, my track record alone would not suffice, for I had to prove myself worthy to gain the privilege of driving in my new home country of Germany. Now don’t take all this as gospel, for the exact order of steps one through four are little fuzzy but they all happened at some point.
Just before moving to Munich I visited the Missouri Department of Motor Vehicles (“MO DMV”) to refresh that driver’s license (“DL”) while I still had some proof of residency. This step was easy, friendly, and found the new DMV office on Emanual Cleaver II Boulevard much more pleasant than the old MO State Building in downtown Kansas City.
Once I landed in Germany, I had a six-month grace period on my MO DL, which I used only once for a drive down to Milan. I actually got a speeding ticket on that trip while driving through a tunnel in Switzerland, so much for that decent driving record.
Step 1: In November 2019 I visited the Kreisverwaltungsreferat (“KVR”), the general administrative office for the city of Munich, to determine what was required for a German DL (“Führerschein”). I learned that having a MO DL meant I only had to take a “theoretical” test and no actual driving test. (Some U.S. States can simply apply and pay the fee.) The gentleman at the information desk was a little gruff with me but eventually I understood that I needed to visit a driving school (“Fahrschule”) to begin the process.
Step 2: Clearly this is a lucrative business because I quickly noticed all the Fahrschulen in each neighborhood. There was a slight language barrier at the Fahrschule I chose, but I registered and the fee machine began. I paid €125 to become a “student” of theirs and gained access to the online program. I was also given a code to go back to the KVR and register there as well.
Step 3: As a task for the KVR I had to get my MO DL translated. I did this at ADAC, the 21-million member German driving association. Twenty minutes and €55 later, I had this step done.
Step 4: On my second trip to the KVR, I had the translated MO DL, my Passport and German residency permit, the Fahrschule code, and fortunately an extra copy of a Passport photo from other registration tasks. I paid €35 to get into the KVR system and they confiscated my MO DL but gave me a short extension to drive in Germany, which I never took advantage of.
Step 5: I launched the online program, which had fourteen sections and almost 1,200 questions! I was not handed any literature on the German rules of the road, just this exhaustive number of multiple-choice questions (in English). I eventually answered them all with about 60% accuracy. All the directions for obtaining a Führerschein were in German and I didn’t take the time to ask or translate what I had to make for passing. I decided to wing-it and called the Fahrschule to register for the test at a cost of €98.
Step 6: In May 2020 I went to TÜV SÜD for the test, which is a privately held, 25,000 employee company that, among other functions, serves the German bureaucracy. I sat down in front of an iPad to answer the thirty-question test. I hit submit and FAILED!
And I wasn’t even close. I now know I needed a 91.5% to pass but landed this first test with a 76%. Ouch. I was totally defeated, ruined my day, and felt like a failure. I really didn’t need to drive because my bike, public transportation, and trains got me around just fine. I decided to forget about the Führerschein for a while.
Step 7: By October 2020 my bruised driving ego was healed, and I went back to the Fahrschule to see how they can help their student out. This amounted to nothing. They had no materials to offer and because of my pride and hubris I refused to sit through a driving class.
Step 8: I then visited ADAC and talked with a friendly rep to see what the key was for this test. The rep told me I simply must drill the 1,200 online questions. I didn’t want to focus on this yet, so I again pushed it down my priority list. Shortly thereafter though, I travelled to the U.S. without my MO DL, which was sitting somewhere in the KVR.
To get legal during my visit home I went to the MO DMV to see if I could get a new DL since I “accidentally” left it in Germany. The MO DMV staff must have recently undergone a customer service seminar, because they were friendly and tried to find a way around the conundrum of not having any proof of residency, nor a temporary international DL. I was in a DL no-man’s land and was out of luck.
So I risked it and drove for two months without a DL, which included a solo 2,400 mile road trip to Montana. I was a conservative driver those two months (even on the open road of I-90 in the middle of Wyoming) and made it back to Germany in good shape.
I loved getting around Munich on my bike and public transportation, but I began feeling uneasy not having a DL if something came up and I needed to rent a car, or someone visited and we wanted to reach a remote destination. I also prided myself in knowing the roads of Kansas City like the back of my hand, but this was far from the case in Munich. On my bike I became an expert of weaving around the city center, but I had no understanding of the greater street systems of Munich. Also, access to the online program was expiring soon and I didn’t want to pay the renewal fee of €125. So I put aside my German language lessons and bumped the Führerschein way up on my daily to-do list.
Step 9: In February 2021 I visited the Fahrschule and registered again for the test and paid another €98.
Step 10: This time I took the ADAC rep’s advice and drilled the hell out of the online practice exams and got to a point where I was slightly addicted. I was spending way too much time on this per day but there was no way I was going to fail again. Regardless, I was still very nervous leading up to my test day.
Step 11. Now back at TÜV SÜD in March 2021, I sat in front of the iPad and carefully read each question. I held my breath and clicked “Submit”……PASSED! And I even got a 100%. Now where’s my Führerschein darn it?! Not so fast Tommy.
Step 12: Multiple emails later with the Fahrschule, I was told to set up a meeting at the KVR.
Step 13: At last, back in the KVR with proof of my passed exam, I sat down with a friendly rep who spoke good English, which helped because I had to explain no driving exam was required per Step 1 above. Within five minutes she came out with my old MO DL and a sparkling new German Führerschein. And I didn’t have to pay another fee! (Although a mysterious letter from TÜV SÜD recently showed up with €44 of fees listed. I did not spend time figuring out what it says and will see if I get a follow up letter. Ignorance is bliss sometimes as an expat.)
After this eighteen-month ordeal I wanted to put this thing to use right away. That following Saturday morning I downloaded the SHARE NOW app, uploaded my Führerschein, and found a BMW i3 a couple blocks away, which I used my bike to reach. Very multimodal of me.
I zipped around Munich for an hour and all my biking kilometers has given me a good orientation. It was also my first time driving an all-electric car. Pretty slick and convenient with not having to worry about refueling.
My BMW i3 for an hour. I wonder what a BMW and Lincoln will look like in the year 2058?
So here is the moral of my story today. First, having to take the test twice is quite fitting for me. Back in 1998 I failed my first driving test after forgetting which way was left and parking in front of a driveway. What made it worse was my sister had passed it only minutes beforehand. My dad knew I could not walk into our high school later that day with only my sister licensed, so he pleaded with the DMV officer to let me try again. Naturally, I passed that second try. I suppose this is another example of like father, like son, since it took him two tries recently for the Grand Cayman DL. We are a hopeless pair.
But more ideological, the day of my sixteenth birthday and achieving my first DL was filled with the dual excitement of a newly found freedom and owning a car. Now it is not about visiting the local dealer to pick out my next ride but simply having a another option for mobility and the freedom it provides to venture off and see the world.