What went wrong
The GPS led us off the toll road and onto a little-traversed secondary highway that snaked through isolated Soria. We happened upon a quaint small town on the river Duero, starting our La Rioja road trip with a glass of red and a stroll around town.
As we hopped into the rental car and headed towards Logroño, I drove straight into a speed trap. Thankfully, I was a few kilometers under the limit, but we were still flagged down and made to pull over. As the Guardia Civil walked towards us, I remembered the words of the car rental agent, “I am legally obliged to tell you that, if you are pulled over, you do not have driving permission in this country.”
After twenty minutes of my friends chatting nervously as I alternated between laughing and throwing up, we were fined 100€ and thoroughly spooked.
Six weeks later, both Hayley and I started driving courses and have been legally driving in Spain ever since.
The Rules of the Road – Driving in Spain Basics
While Spain’s public transportation is, in general, pretty awesome, having a car opens up the possibility of exploring smaller towns on your own timetable or driving to work. When the COMO crew was pulled over and fined for not carrying valid licenses in 2012, it was a rude awakening that it was time to follow the rules.
|The Departamento Generál de Tráfico governs the roads and sets the rules:· You must be 18 to drive in Europe; but at 16 you can drive a small motorbike or scooter.
· Most European cars are manual, so you may have to learn stick shift.
· A European license is valid in each EU country, including the UK (though if you move from one country to another, you’ll have to apply for a new card there).
· Your license is valid for 10 years, but note that it doesn’t constitute a valid photo ID as it does in the US.
· For more information check out the DGT website.
Getting your license requires two exams: theoretical and practical.
Test Drive – the Theoretical Exam
Slow down! Before you can even sign up to take a driving course at a government-recognized autoescuela, you’ll have to gather the following:
- Proof of legal residence in Spain for a minimum of 6 months – show a valid NIE or passport with visa affixed
- At least one foto carnet for your physical license
- Certificate of mental and physical health, called a certificado medico
- The form Obtenación de Permiso de Conducir (available at all driving schools)
- A photocopy of your license from your home country
- 30€ registration fee
The certificado medico tests your vision and reflexes and will run you around 20€ to 25€. Ask at your autoescuela for the nearest testing center.
Once you’re signed up at a school you’ll be given materials to begin preparing for the theoretical exam. While some schools offer traditional classes taught by a professor others opt for a computer lab equipped with videos and virtual tutors. Expect to receive a hefty book to study as well as access to hundreds of practice exams.
If you’re hoping to study for the exam in English, we recommend Practica Test’s Spanish driving exam test bank and downloadable theory book in English. The site is easy to use and regularly updated with the latest DGT exam modifications. Popular Spanish knowledge dictates that you should take no less than 500 practice exams before daring to sign up for the actual thing, but team COMO did far less with excellent results!
The written exam consists of 30 multiple-choice questions, drawn from a pool of around 3000. When you take the test, expect about 20 questions to be dead giveaways (if you’ve studied!), and the other 10 to be a bit more challenging. You’ll want to pay close attention to memorizing stats relating to speed limits, blood alcohol levels, and signage as they always appear! You are allowed a maximum of three mistakes to pass the written exam.
On testing day, make sure to bring a photo ID and show up around 30 minutes early. Some provinces now offer computer-based exams, but the majority continue to be pencil and paper based. You’ll be called by name, shown to a table and given 30 minutes to complete the exam. Cheaters beware – there are usually several versions of the exam, so don’t copy off of your neighbor!
The tests are sent to the DGT in Madrid, and results are available by 1pm the following day via the DGT website.
Hit the Road – the Practical Exam
In Spain there’s no need to give parents or friends gray hairs as you learn how to drive, leave the pain to the professionals! Driving school instructors undergo rigorous training, and school cars are specially labeled with a large blue “L” and equipped with an extra set of brakes for your safety.
Once you’ve passed the theoretical exam, your driving school will begin scheduling practical classes. Some schools offer package deals included in the matriculation fee with a set number of practice hours behind the wheel, others offer a pay-as-you go scheme. Regardless or how your school works, expect to shell out a pretty penny, as the average hourly rate in Spain is 25€.
Once your instructor deems you ready for the practical exam, you’ll be assigned a day and hour. Keep in mind that you could be tested with up to two other candidates, who will also ride in the car. Your instructor will sit shotgun and the examiner behind him or her, next to the other candidates.
There are three parts to the practical exam: mechanical, autonomous driving and directed driving. You are allowed to make up to ten small errors and still pass, though one grave error will cost you the entire test! If your instructor touches the brake, it’s an automatic fail.
In the mechanical part of the exam, the examiner will ask you to step out of the car, pop the hood and point out things like the engine or check the oil or tires. You could also be asked to get back in the car and put on lights, wipers or the A/C. You’ll also need to be prepared to show documentation to the examiner such as the car’s insurance or permiso de circulación.
The examiner will then allow you to drive on your own for around ten to fifteen minutes before asking you to complete a series of tasks, like parking or highway driving. If you are taking the exam with multiple candidates, as soon as one candidate finishes, the other picks up.
When you pass the practical exam, you’ll be asked to sign a waiver that serves as a temporary license. Your card should arrive in one to two weeks, and then you’re ready to hit the road (though you’ll have to display that obnoxious green “L” in your back window for a whole year)!
On the Road Again – Driving and FAQs
Can I drive with an international driving permit?
If you wish to drive in Spain as a tourist, be sure to get an International Driving Permit from AAA and carry that along with your valid license. Note that this document is only valid for one year, and cannot be used for more than 90 consecutive days in the same country.
According to the US Embassy, the IDP is not for residents of Spain. If you wish to drive, you’ll need to get an EU license.
And on that note, you cannot validate your US license.
What is the average cost of auto school?
According to data released by the DGT in 2013, the average cost of driving school (including fees, an average of 20 hours of practical classes and certificates) was 740€ in Spain. The highest fees were found in Logroño, coming in at a whopping 1,156€, while the cheapest was located in Jaén and cost just 435€. Expect to pay more in larger cities and in the north of Spain and significantly less in smaller towns and in southern Spain.
Also keep in mind that cheaper is not always better when it comes to choosing your school. You may see unbelievable offers on websites such as Groupon, but it’s always best to do a bit of research first. Take into account your learning style as some schools will offer traditional classes while others might be 100% virtual.
Are there theory tests in English or other languages?
Yes, you can take both your theory and practical exams in other languages. Be sure to specify which language at the driving school so that they can get you the proper materials.
That being said, know that the translations are often less-than-perfect, so we suggest taking the exam in Spanish if you’re able.
How many practical classes do I have to take?
This depends entirely on your auto school and also what your instructor feels is sufficient. The law states a minimum of 6 hours behind the wheel, but some schools might require more than that. For 100% new drivers, expect a minimum of around 20, which is on-par with the Spanish national average.
What happens if I get fined or have an accident?
Yikes, bad luck of course!
Spain operates on a points system like many European countries. Should you have an accident or get a fine, you may lose points depending on the severity of the crime. New drivers are given 15 points; this number is raised to 21 after two years of clean driving. If you lose all of your points, your driving permission is revoked.
If you are fined, you are required to pay. If done before 20 natural days are up, fines are reduced by 50%, and can be paid at any post office or Santander bank branch, as well as over the phone or online.
In the event of an accident, call your insurance company immediately. You are also required by law to fill out a form called the declaración amistosa de accidente. The form, which your insurance company will provide to you, includes contact information and details of the accident and must be signed by both drivers.
Can I buy a car in Spain?
Absolutely! Remember – the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and there are hidden costs everywhere, it seems.
As a car owner, you’ll have to pay the following:
- Car Insurance
- Permiso de Circulación – paid to the Jefatura Provincial de Trafico (prices range depending on where your car is registered and prices increase based on population and local traffic statistics. Expect to pay 50€ to 100€)
- General Vehicle Inspection, called the ITV or Inspección Técnica de Vehículos (done yearly, biyearly or every four years, depending on the age of your car)
- Cost of changing the title of the vehicle (a one-time fee, around 200€)
And then there’s gas and repairs, of which we’ve both forked over plenty. We’ll follow up with info on buying, selling and paying for a car in the near future.
Until then, happy trails!