Driving licences: How does situation for Britons in Spain compare to rest of Europe?

As UK driving licence holders in Spain wait for answers regarding another extension or a long-awaited deal for the mutual exchange of British and Spanish licences post-Brexit, we look at how their situation compares to that of their counterparts across Europe.

uk licence exchange spain europe
The vast majority of EU countries have reached deals with the UK over the exchange of driving licences post-Brexit. Photo: Pexels/Pixabay

In late February 2022, Spanish authorities extended once again the period of validity of UK driving licences in Spain, giving some respite to British licence holders as negotiations over the mutual exchange of licences continued for another two months.

The April 30th deadline is now here and the British Embassy in Madrid is set to make an announcement to confirm whether there will be a fifth extension or an agreement over the mutual exchange of Spanish and British driving licences post-Brexit, or the failure to reach such a deal.

Thinking optimistically, could there be a deal which sees all UK licence holders in Spain – those who registered their intent to exchange, those who didn’t, those who did register intent but haven’t been able to finalise the process, and future UK licence holders who move to Spain – able to continue using their UK licences in Spain or easily exchange them for Spanish ones without having to sit a driving test?

It’s hard to say as so little has been disclosed about negotiations and the reasons for the holdups, but for several months now the UK embassy has been advising those who must drive whatever the outcome to consider sitting their Spanish driving exam in anticipation.

If a deal wasn’t reached then UK licence holders would reportedly only have to sit their driving test again (theory and practical), and the examen práctico is always conducted by a Spanish-speaking examiner, a concern for British resident drivers who aren’t fluent in Spanish. 

“We remain fully committed to reaching a long-term agreement with Spain,” the British Embassy in Madrid wrote on Facebook in late 2021. 

“So that residents can exchange their UK driving licences without taking a test, as Spanish licence holders can in the UK and as UK licence holders can in the vast majority of other EU member states”. 

So is it true that most European nations have reached successful agreements with the UK over reciprocal driving licence recognition and exchange and the ‘Spanish deal’ is lagging behind?

The evidence suggests so.

UK licence exchange agreements across Europe

As things stand, Spain and Italy are the only European countries where licence exchange negotiations are ongoing. 

However, UK driving licences remain valid in Italy until the end of 2022, so drivers who were living in Italy before the start of 2022 have more time to sit their Italian driving test in the event that a deal isn’t reached, or conversely they have more time to wait and see what happens. 

French and British authorities reached a licence exchange agreement in June 2021, considered a generous one for UK licence holders residing in France as those with licences issued before January 1st 2021 can continue using their UK licences in France until either the licence or the photocard nears expiry.

Sweden and the UK reached a deal even earlier in March 2021. British people resident in Sweden can exchange their UK driving licences for an equivalent Swedish one, without needing to take a test, just as they could when the country was a member of the European Union. 

In neighbouring Portugal, resident UK licence holders can continue to use their valid UK licences until December 31st 2022 but they must exchange their licences for Portuguese ones before that date.

Other EU nations which have decided to allow UK licence holders residing in their countries to swap their driving licences without having to take a driving test include Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Switzerland.   

There are slight variations in the conditions between countries, and some say you “can exchange”, others that you “must exchange” and most encourage UK licence holders to swap “as soon as possible”. In Greece, UK licences continue to be valid without any restrictions or deadlines for exchange.

That leaves Spain and Italy as the two EU/EEA countries where a deal on a straightforward exchange or long-term recognition of UK licences among residents is still hanging in the balance.  

The only question that’s left is why. 

Why did Spain have to have a system in place that required UK licence holders to register their intent to exchange a whole year before Brexit came into force? 

Why are the driving rights of all Britons who resided in Spain before December 31st 2020 not part of the other protected rights they enjoy under the Withdrawal agreement? 

And why is it taking so long to reach an exchange deal between two allies with such close economic and social links?

READ ALSO: How much does it cost to get your driving licence in Spain?

Member comments

  1. Can’t understand why British resident s living in Spain find it so hard to comply with doing what they have been given enough notice to complete.
    I have been in Spain now for 4 years changed my licence no problem applied for the new residency card when told it was available to apply for no problem filled on simple form when to police station 4 weeks later went back and picked up new residency card.
    It seems to me that a lot of Brits living over here can’t be botherd to comply to the rules and most of the should have changed there driving licence years ago but as usual they bury their head in the sand and now complain that they have to now take a driving test.

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Anger grows as no solution found yet for in limbo UK drivers in Spain 

British drivers living in Spain are becoming increasingly disgruntled at the lack of solutions two weeks after they were told their UK licences were no longer valid, with the latest update from the UK Embassy suggesting it could still take "weeks" to reach a deal. 

Anger grows as no solution found yet for in limbo UK drivers in Spain 

There is growing discontent among UK licence holders residing in Spain who are currently in limbo, unable to drive in Spain until they either get a Spanish driving licence or a deal is finally reached between Spanish and UK authorities for the mutual exchange of licences post-Brexit.

Since May 1st 2022, drivers who’ve been residents in Spain for more than six months and who weren’t able to exchange their UK licences for Spanish ones cannot drive in Spain.

There are no official stats on how many Britons of the 407,000 UK nationals who are residents in Spain in 2022 are affected; according to the UK Embassy the “majority exchanged” as advised.

But judging by the amount of negative comments the last two updates from the British Embassy in Madrid have received, hundreds if not thousands are stuck without being able to drive in Spain.  

May 12th’s video message by Ambassador Hugh Elliott left many unhappy with the fact that the forecast for a possible licence exchange agreement will be in the “coming weeks”, when two weeks earlier Elliott had spoken of “rapidly accelerating talks”. 

Dozens of angry responses spoke of the “shocking” and “absolutely ridiculous” holdup in negotiations that have been ongoing for more than at least a year and a half, and which the UK Embassy has put down to the fact that Spain is asking the British government to give them access to DVLA driver data such as road offences, something “not requested by other EU Member States”.

Numerous Britons have explained the setbacks not being able to drive in Spain are causing them, from losing their independence to struggling to go to work, the hospital or the supermarket, especially those in rural areas with little public transport.  

“I know personally from all the messages you’ve sent in, just how incredibly disruptive all of this is for many of you,” Elliott said in response. 

“If you are struggling to get around you may find additional advice or support from your local town hall, or charities or community groups in your area and the Support in Spain website is another very useful source of organisations that can provide general support to residents.

“And if your inability to drive is putting you in a very vulnerable situation, you can always contact your nearest consulate for advice.”

There continue to be disparaging opinions in the British community in Spain over whether any pity should be felt for UK licence holders stuck without driving, as many argue they had enough time to register intent to exchange their licences, whilst others clarify that their particular set of circumstances, such as arriving after the December 2020 ‘intent to exchange’ deadline, made this impossible. 

OPINION: Not all Brits in Spain who didn’t exchange UK driving licences are at fault

So is there any light at the end of the tunnel for drivers whose UK licences aren’t valid anymore in Spain or soon won’t be?

“The agreement we’re working towards now will enable UK licence holders, whenever they arrived in Spain or arrive in the future, to exchange their UK licence for a Spanish one without needing to take a practical or a theory test,” Elliott said on Thursday May 12th of the deal they are “fully committed” to achieve.

READ ALSO: How much does it cost to get a Spanish driving licence?

And yet it’s hard for anyone to rest their hopes on this necessarily happening – sooner or later or ever – in part because the embassy advice for those with UK licences for whom it’s imperative to continue driving in Spain is that they should take steps to get their Spanish licence now, while acknowledging that in some places there are “long delays for lessons” and getting your Spanish licence “doesn’t happen overnight”.

READ ALSO: What now for UK licence holders in Spain?