On The Road Again (Cultural Differences XII)

Got my new driver’s licence this week. It was quite the process.

I knew before moving to Germany that I would need a German driver’s licence, that foreigners were only permitted six months grace before they had to be local. What I didn’t realize was the difference in the procedure for obtaining a licence compared with Ontario.


No, I’m not going to put a copy of my licence here – I look like a criminal! I found this one online.

There is a reciprocal agreement between Ontario and Baden-Württemberg state, for which I am very thankful. Otherwise I would have had to take a first aid course and a driver’s test and I forget what else before being judged safe for German roads. I have no doubts about passing the test, but I’m at least a year away from being able to handle the German of the first-aid course. But thanks to the agreement, all I had to do was paperwork. A lot of it.

First there was the translation, a bureaucratic scam if there ever was one. One licence is just like another and the information categories are the same though things like height and birthdate may differ. Nevertheless, we had to pay two separate fees for both my wife and I to have our Ontario licenses translated by a licensed agency. I could have done it myself with a dictionary, but that wasn’t good enough. Given that the two licenses were together, translating the second one probably took 30 seconds. The first one too – the translator probably has an Ontario driver’s licence templates on file. No discount for volume – it was almost $100 Canadian for each one.


The back of the licence shows which types of vehicles you are permitted to drive.  besides a car, mine lets me operate a moped and a small tractor. 

In Ontario I go to provincial service centre to deal with automobile licensing and the like. Here city hall handles that sort of thing (passports too). Once we had our translations we dropped them off, paid a small fee and waited.

The city sent the translations to the state office in Freiburg, who then set us a letter asking for payment, about $40 each. At least I could do that online. Then they sent us another letter telling us when we could pick up our new licences at City Hall (and surrender our Ontario ones – they don’t let you have two).

In Canada, and I think in the US also, the driver’s licence is the primary form of identification for adults. I don’t have a national ID card, and I don’t carry my passport everywhere. My driver’s licence has my birthdate, eye colour, height and current address and photo. The photo gets updated every five years, the other information as required.

My new German licence has my birthdate and birth city, but not my home address. It does have my picture at least. As a form of identification, it strikes me as being rather limited. And it is “only” valid for 15 years.

That is a recent change in the system. My neighbours have shown me their driver’s licences, and they have no expiry date. That makes them even more useless as an identification document. They have each had their licence for more than 30 years; the photos bear only a passing resemblance to the way they look today.

I was hoping for something that would become my go-to document for identification while living in Europe, just like my driver’s licence is for me in Canada. Still, it is nice to have something that says I belong here, should there ever be any question. Or I should say it will be nice. Even though I picked up the licence on Wednesday, I have to send it back.

My guess is that whomever was entering the information into the state computers processed my wife’s first didn’t and clear the form completely before processing mine. According to our licences, we have the same birthday. Given the two month process to get the licence in the first place, I can only imagine how long it will take to change a birthdate.

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