Getting a French Driver’s License: Interview with Californian Expat Author Joe Start

Getting a French Driver’s License: Interview with Californian Expat Author Joe Start

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Joe Start

Joe Start is a California expat who has lived in France since 2003. After earning his journalism degree, Joe moved into the advertising and marketing side of communications.  His day job has been selling media and technology in the US and Europe for more than a dozen years, recently for startups. His first book, French License, is a comical (but true!) description of his 10-year odyssey of achieving what seemed at times to be an impossible dream: his French driver’s license. While it is an amusing and entertaining travel memoir, Joe’s book is also packed with tons of practical information and helpful perspective for Americans moving to or traveling in France, especially those who plan on driving cars while they are here. Joe will be the featured speaker, and will be selling and signing his book at Adrian Leeds’s Après Midi meetup on March 13. He recently took the time to answer Janet Hulstrand’s questions about his wild ride in pursuit of that French license in this exclusive interview for Bonjour Paris.

Janet: First, can you tell readers what brought you to France in the first place, and how long you have been here? And where do you live?

Joe: I have lived in France since 2003. Originally, I came here for work/life balance, and to build an international career. I live in the western suburbs of Paris, at the end of the line to Saint-Nom-la-Bretèche. After us there’s nothing but wheat fields. We are a little village of 5000 souls, just 40 minutes from Paris. The contrast is pretty funny for me, because if you go the same distance from San Francisco you’re in a town with 100,000 people. Here, you can really live the country life within easy commuting distance of the big city.

Janet: Can you explain for our readers how and why you became so, shall we say, interested in, and attuned to, the complexities of driving in France?  I know you answer this question at great length and in great, and often amusing, detail in your book, but can you give us kind of the short version? So our readers will know why they should buy your book, and what helpful perspective they may find within it?

Joe: For an American, driving in France is deceptively similar. Apart from the placement of the traffic lights, it seems familiar and easy. But there are tons of different laws and practices that are invisible to the naked eye. I learned about them going to driving school, and hanging out with members of motorist associations.

But for me that’s not the interesting part. Very few things touch the heart of the everyday expat experience quite as much as driving, especially if you live outside the center of the city. There are vast cultural, attitudinal, and practical differences. This perspective is explored in my book in a series of comical episodes. Each chapter is like a short story that can stand alone, but it also supports the main theme of trying to get a French license.

Janet: What are the general pros and cons of owning a car in France? And, perhaps specifically for Americans contemplating moving over here, what should they know before they decide to be car owners in France?

Joe: With a plethora of startups, there are a ton of new options that are alternatives to car ownership in France. These include renting from your neighbor, grabbing a city car for a couple of hours, hitching a ride with a shared car service, new shuttles, and taxis. If people want to buy a car, they may be surprised at the prices of used cars, which hold their value quite well in France. The exception right now is diesel cars, which are dropping like a rock since the government decided they’re no longer ecological. The new car market is far more diverse than in the States, so expats should expect to do research on brands that they’ve never heard of. There are interesting incentives for purchasing electric cars, but no longer for hybrids.

Janet: What was the most surprising thing you learned as you began the process of applying for a French driver’ license?

Joe: I had heard that it would be difficult, so at first I put it off. I kept looking for some exit, or loophole, or exception. I never found one.

I wasn’t encouraged by my fellow expats’ stories. There was literally no one in my entourage who had done it the hard way, the way the folks who grow up in France do it. Many of my compatriots had held out longer than me, 20 years, 30 years driving on a US state license in France. With reference points like that, I was really tempted to risk living outside the law.

When I began the process, I asked myself if the effort would be worth it. It was like an obstacle course, where at first I would look at the obstacle and say to myself, “They can’t really expect me to do that, can they?” And then I would overcome the obstacle, and collapse exhausted on the other side. Then I would dust myself off and look weary-eyed at the next obstacle, which was even harder than the last one. As I repeated this process several times, I was wondering where I would find the motivation to keep going, especially since there was zero reward at the finish line. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

Janet: What is the most important thing for Americans to know about getting a French license? And what general advice do you have for them?

Joe: I would say that getting a French driver’s license should be at the top of their list of things to do, before getting a job and getting a place to live. This sounds extreme, but literally every other administrative thing they will do will be easier and take less time. Plus, the clock starts ticking the minute they get official documents from the OFII. Unless they get ahead of the game, that hourglass will run out of sand, and by then their lives will be so inextricably entwined with their new home, they’ll have to do it the hard way.

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My advice to Americans is to swap their US license for one from one of the 18 states with an exchange state agreement with France. And do it before you arrive in France. Even if you do this, it may still take more than a year to have the French administration provide you with a French license. If you don’t do this, it will definitely take more than a year, especially in Paris, and you’ll be forced into disobeying the law involuntarily. But hey, you might get a funny travel memoir out of the experience…

Janet: After reading your book, it seems to me that the process of getting a French drivers’ license for Americans presents yet another set of interesting cultural differences between France and the US. Would you agree with this, and if so, can you describe what some of those differences are, and how they are manifested in this particular area of life?

Joe: I touch on the difference in attitudes in Chapter 7, “Car Culture,” and Chapter 16, “Lifer,” but I think the most flagrant difference is that the French consider the car to be a weapon. Most Europeans share this view, whereas Americans consider driving to be a right.

Janet: I think it’s important to congratulate you on not only your persistence and determination, but also your success! What are you doing with all that extra time (and money!) now that you are no longer deeply engaged in the process of getting a French driving license? 

Joe: I just finished my second book! It’s called The Chairfather, and it’s a photo book with humorous images and funny captions. The theme is, I’m enjoying lunch and interviews with yesterday’s stars. It’s a companion book to a set of tours I’m producing covering the personalities in the Père Lachaise cemetery. Tour 1 just came out, and Tours 2 and 3 will be released shortly. Check them out, and feel free to drop me a line. I want folks to start going places with me!

Purchase the book “French License” on Amazon below:

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Janet Hulstrand is a freelance writer, editor and teacher who divides her time between France and the U.S. She is the author of "Demystifying the French: How to Love Them, and Make Them Love You," and she writes frequently on France for a variety of publications, including her blog, Writing from the Heart, Reading for the Road. She teaches “Paris: A Literary Adventure” for the education abroad program of Queens College of the City University of New York; classes at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington D.C.; and Writing from the Heart workshop/retreats in Essoyes, a beautiful little village in the Champagne region (l’Aube).

2 COMMENTS

  1. Interesting account. I am also a Californian, having moved here in 2008. My California licence expired one year later so I enrolled in the Auto Ecole, cost about 160 euros for unlimited classtime and 3 hours of driving instruction. At 60 years old I didn’t think I needed to be taught how to drive but I said nothing. I took 3 classes/week of 1.5 hours each for three months plus studied at home. Classes were superbly organized and it was a good French lesson for me. I took my test when I decided I was ready and my instructor signed me up. I scored 100% on the Code de la Route portion and got a pass on the driving portion but was required to be a “jeune conducteur” (beginner) for 3 years with reduced points and reduced speeds. At the end of 3 years my permit became automatically an adult permit, for life. It was not hard nor stressful not expensive and I learned a lot not only for French roads but all of the EU since the laws are the same. No need to play the dangerous game of exchanging licenses with another state, just buck up and take the lessons. I am a much better driver now; in California you drive however you feel like, everyone speeds. It was a scary experience when I returned in 2012 to drive on the freeways and city center streets; the aggression and competition for space convinced me I made the right choice to leave. By the way, I live in the countryside and need a car which of course has been the key to travel all over this marvelous country on superbly maintained autoroutes and country roads that reveal interesting discoveries every few kilometers.

    • That’s encouraging! I’m curious: did you read/speak French pretty fluently when you passed the Code de la Route exam? Or are there provisions to go through the test in English? Asking for my American husband who, at this point, is far from fluent…

  2. This should help anyone trying to get a drivers license in France, especially people moving to France from the US or other places.

  3. I am a California resident. California is not one of those 18 states. How to exchange my California driver license for one of those states with without be a resident of One of those states. Florida is one of those, someone told me I would have to move there for a while. The next years I’m planning to move to France I own a house there…

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