Passing the UK Driving Test

I passed my Practical Driving Test and now am fully licensed in the UK! Here are my experiences and resources I found helpful, plus some background. I have had a US driving license since I was sixteen, but after moving to England, the license was no longer valid.

After being a resident of the UK for a year or more, one’s foreign drivers license is invalid for use here. That’s slightly bizarre since you could rent a car the day you walk off the plane – presumably without even knowing that the drivers are on the other side of the road in England. But after living here for a year and being a lot more aware of those things, I suddenly can’t drive. Mind you, we have no intention of owning a car here. It’s just that there are some specific times when it would be really useful to be able to hire a car for a couple of hours. I think I’d use a car either for a big trip to a home improvement store or to drive out of London and into the countryside for a weekend. There looks like some interesting services here that are geared exactly towards my type of wanting a car periodically for short periods of time – one is called ZipCar and another is Street Car. I actually wound up joining the City Car Club because they had a bunch of cars already in my area in Ealing. UPDATE October 2009: We decided to purchase a used car (from Autoquake.com) and bought a 2007 Audi A3. I’ve also made a blog posting on our buying a used car online.

In any case, I decided to get my drivers license here in the UK. Not a big deal, right? Many countries have a reciprocal agreement with the UK, where a valid driver in one country can literally just swap his driving license for a UK driving license. But no such agreement with the USA. Oh well. I’ve been driving since I was 16 and it seems like since that’s been for more than half my life, this would be a breeze. Except that EVERYONE I’ve talked with has terrified me that the driving tests here, especially now after recent reforms, are very difficult. It’s common to fail multiple times. Gulp. But at least it presented a challenge.

You start the process by submitting an application for a provisional license, which basically is just filing paperwork to prove that you are eligible for a UK license. You can pick up an application from major Post Offices and mail it in, or certain people can apply online for the provisional license (primarily if you have a UK Passport). Assuming that’s approved, you then must sit for a driving theory test, which is a randomly selected group of 50 multiple choice questions, from a pool of about 1500 standard questions. The questions on the theory test assess your knowledge of road rules, sign meanings, pavement markings, etc. In addition to the 50 multiple choice questions, the second half of the theory test is a set of 14 video clips about 30 seconds each. Each video clip has one or more emerging hazards and you have to press a button each time you see a hazard emerging. Based on how quickly you see each hazard developing, you get a certain number of points. In both cases, there is a minimum score required, and you must pass both parts at the same sitting in front of the computer. So if you fail one or the other, you fail your theory test.

One you pass your theory test, you are eligible to take your actual practical test, the driving test with an official from the Driving Standards Agency, the group that issues licenses.

My driving theory test was on Monday afternoon near London Bridge. The appointment was at 2:45pm, and my plan was to leave work (near Victoria Station) about noon, get to the area by London Bridge, grab lunch and relax a bit as I reviewed the study material I had. So about 12:15 I head to Victoria Station and jump on the District Line for a whopping two stops to Westminster, where I would switch for the Jubilee Line. We make it one stop to St. James Park, and the train sits there. For a really long time. I’m not too concerned yet, since I have tons of buffer time, and the worst that would happen is that I’d have lunch after my test. But after about 15 minutes, the driver keeps saying the same thing, which is basically that there are signalling problems near Tower Hill and we were being asked to wait at the station. Since it was only one more stop until Westminster, and a short walk, I left the station and walked to Westminster. Finally – I was back in control of my destiny. I board the Jubilee line, we head off towards London Bridge, and we stop at Waterloo. And wait. And wait. And then they announce that much of the tube network has lost communication with the control centre, so the train is being held. And then part of the Jubilee Line becomes suspended with severe delays on the rest of the line. And then the whole line goes suspended. “Please use alternate routes to your final destination.” You think? Thanks for the obvious. I walk outside, now in an area I don’t particularly know well. And it’s raining. And every taxi seems full. So I start walking towards a big street, now quite a bit stressed that I may actually never make it to my theory test, let alone pass it. But a taxi comes along, picks me up, and delivers me there at 2:15pm.

And the end result of this saga? “Congratulations! You have passed the Car driving theory test.. you have two years from today to take and pass your practical driving test.. Your results on the driving theory test: the pass mark for the multiple choice part is 43 correct answers out of 50 questions and for the hazard perception part it is 44 points out of a possible 75. You scored 49 out of 50 for the multiple choice part, and 57 points out of 75 for the hazard perception. You had one incorrect answer in multiple choice in the topic area of Vulnerable Road Users.” I would highly suggest buying the official study books from any bookstore, and buying access to an online test site. I found it very useful to have unlimited practice theory tests online. I basically spent the last weekend just taking online tests again and again – they are the exact questions from the real test, so if you do it enough, you’ll make it through most of the 1500 questions. I used a website called Theory Test and would recommend them for online practice. There are also a few books I would suggest getting to help with passing these tests. They include The Official DSA Theory Test for Car Drivers, or The Complete Official Theory Test Kit. And for the actual practical, it looks like Prepare for Your Practical Driving Test is a good bet.

Before anyone thinks to themselves that this is completely easy – at least without studying – I want to show a few of the signs that you have to be able to identify. Ask yourself what each sign means.. if you’re using Internet Explorer, you can hover over each picture to find out the answer.

After passing my theory test, I decided to enroll in a Driving School to really get confident and familiar with driving here in the UK. I enrolled through the AA Driving School. As an aside, if you live in the W5 area, I would suggest calling my instructor, Andrew Folly, and seeing if he’s available. He is an instructor through AA and was very patient and helpful as I took lessons. His number is (0)7747530531.

The actual practical test lasts about 40 minutes, and starts with a vision test and basic car safety and mechanical questions. Once the examiner is happy with your answers, you go out for a 30 minute drive. During the drive, the examiner notes anything that you do that’s less than perfect. You’re allowed to make up to 15 minor faults and no major faults. Something like momentarily touching the road lane divider is a minor fault; not yielding at a roundabout is a major fault. Killing a pedestrian is a minor fault (just kidding). In addition to those, you have to perform 2 or 3 out of the 4 maneuvers. You need to know how to do a “reversing around a corner” (backing up around a corner), “turning in the road” (3 point turn), “reverse parking” (parallel parking), and “emergency stop” (he throws up his hand and you slam on your brakes without skidding – simulate a child running out in the street or something). For my test, they asked me to reverse around a corner, and to do a 3 point turn in the road. There’s a good overview of the Practical Car Test on DirectGov’s site. When you complete the practical exam, the examiner takes a few moments to compute your score, and then tells you immediately if you pass or fail. If you pass, they offer you to process the real licence on your behalf, or you can choose to send in the paperwork in the mail. In either case, you must surrender your physical provisional license when the paperwork is submitted. This is not a problem, because if you pass, they issue you a pass certificate that is valid for driving immediately, even before your real license arrives.

And people have asked about and searched for some various additional pieces of info, so here is a consolidated list of questions people have asked:

  • Who can sign your driving license photo during the provisonal license application process? See Signing your photograph for the official requirements, but it basically has to be someone who has known you personally for at least two years, lives in the UK and is not a relative. The DVLA office staff can assist if you do not have anyone who meets these criteria.
  • How long after passing the theory test do you have to pass the practical test? The letter I received after passing the driving theory test said that I had two years to pass my practical test.
  • How long do provisional licenses last / are valid for? The provisional driving license is valid for 10 years. Within this 10 years, presumably you have to pass the theory test and then within 2 years of passing it, pass the practical test.
  • Can I take my driving theory test when I am 16 years old? You must be 17 to drive cars, and 16 for smaller mopeds. See the Vehicles you can drive and how old you must be to drive them detailed page. It appears that you may apply and receive your provisional license before you turn 17, but the starting date of the provisional license’s validity period will be on your 17th birthday. So you cannot legally practice driving or take the theory or practical tests before you turn 17. But apply when you’re 16.5 and you’ll be ready to start on the 17th birthday!
  • Driving after passing the practical test but before receiving your license is fine. As long as you have passed the theory and practical tests, you are given a Practical Driving Test Pass Certificate that you must carry as proof of license. See the Driving before your licence is returned information.
  • Driving before you have passed the theory test: This is fine, as long as you have a valid provisional driving license and place the required “L”s on the car. You can apply and receive your provisional driving license without taking either the theory or practical test. You must be 17 years old for the provisional license to be valid.
  • Do you have to own a car to take the provisional or practical test? The answer is NO to both questions. For the provisional test, you do not need a car at all, since the entire test is performed on the computer inside the offices. For the practical test, you need to PROVIDE a car for the test, but this can be a car from a friend, or if you take driving lessons, the driving school will provide the car for you. You must show that the car you are taking your test in has appropriate insurance, a valid registration, etc.
  • Do they take your provisional license when you pass the practical? Yes, if you ask them to process the paperwork on your behalf for the real license. Even if you decide to send in the paperwork yourself, you still need to send in your provisional license. However, you are issued a Pass Certificate if you pass, and it is valid for driving immediately, even before your real license arrives.
  • I lost my license OR I want a new picture on my drivers license! You can have a new picture issued for your license at any time. You MUST renew the picture every 10 years, but you may do at any time for a small fee. It takes about 15 working days. The same thing is true for replacing lost licenses. See the page Replace Your License or Renew Your Photo.
  • Can you hire a car with a Provisional License? The answer in reality is NO. In theory, with a provisional license, you can drive any car that properly displays the L plates and with an approved licensed driver as your passenger. The problem will be that you must also drive a car that is properly insured – and when you only have a provisional license, no rental car company is going to hire you a car. If a friend hires the car, you still may not drive it because you would not be covered by the rental company’s insurance policy. So the technical answer is yes if you can find a company to hire the car from legitimately; but the reality answer is no.
  • How many points can I get on a provisional license or as a new driver? If you get six points within the first two years of being licensed (with a full license), you automatically lose your license and must reapply for a provisional license, take the theory and hazard tests again, and re-take the practical driving test all from scratch again. Once you have held a full license for more than 2 years, the limit is a total of 12 points in any 3 year period. See the Penalty Points page for more info. You may also be interested in the list of How Many Points Do I get for…
  • Replace a lost license: You can do this online (based on your nationality) or send in paperwork to replace it. There are details on the DVLA site for Replacing a Lost License.
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