I first moved to Spain in the fall of 2018. Despite having driven in Canada since I was 16, Canada and Spain have no bilateral exchange agreement for a direct license swap. That meant that after being a resident for six months (during which I could use my license) here in Spain, my Canadian license would no longer be valid, so I would need to apply for a Spanish driver’s license.
If you read various blogs by other locals and immigrants, you quickly come to the realization that the Spanish driver’s license is less a license to drive, and more a right of passage similar to a brutal hazing. There are many horror stories of people spending months of time, thousands of euros in fees, and multiple degrading failures despite having driven around the world for decades.
The Need For A Car
I live in Valencia, Spain, which has really great access to trains and public transit. I also really enjoy walking and using my bicycle, which means I really don’t have much need for a car in the city. Why I decided I finally wanted my license though is that I really enjoy hiking, and there are many hikes I want to start doing that just aren’t accessible without a car. Plus I want to spend this summer in Europe, and it would be nice to be able to do a few road trips if I can.
The process to obtain a driver’s license is pretty involved. The first part of the process involves getting a medical certificate, proving you are fit to drive. The second involves passing a theoretical exam that has a high failure rate. If you pass that, you then need to sign up with a driving school for a prerequisite amount of lessons. And once that’s done, you can go ahead and attempt the road test.
The Medical Exam
Once you take the medical exam, the clock starts ticking, so only do this step when you are sure you are ready to carry through with it. In Valencia it takes about a month to schedule the theoretical test, so I purposefully obtained the medical certificate to motivate myself a bit to carry through with intense studying.
While the medical test can vary, usually it starts with an interview about your health issues. If you have high blood pressure, for example, they may record your blood pressure and other vitals. For me it was mostly just an interview where they made some notes.
Next up was the eye test. I actually do wear glasses occasionally, but am naturally far-sighted, so I tend to see pretty well at a distance. I do have a slight astigmatism in one eye, so my glasses do make my ability to see at a distance slightly better. But I decided to do the eye test without, just so I didn’t have any flag on my license that would require me to always wear them while driving. I did bring my glasses to the medical exam, but just kept them in my pocket in the odd event they said I couldn’t see well enough (at which point I would have been “silly me! I forgot to put these on!”)
Thankfully the eye exam wasn’t too difficult. In all honesty, the examiner didn’t seem to care all that much about my response to the questions.
Next up is a little video game they make you play. You have two joysticks, one for each hand, and you have to drive two cars on a screen down two different roads at the same time. As someone who spent most of my teenage years playing Nintendo or at the arcade playing Street Fighter II, this wasn’t hard for me at all and I scored 100%. But for some people who maybe didn’t waste their youth trying to help Mario save the princess, it might be a challenge, controlling two cars at the same time going down two different roads.
When that’s done, they take your photo and give you a medical certificate. Keep this safe as it’s needed in a few different spots going forward.
The Theoretical Test
The next step is the theoretical test. Lots of people (and especially locals) tend to use a driving school to prepare for the theoretical test. I didn’t go that route, so I can’t state how helpful that is, but if you’re a person who needs a bit more structure, you may want to consider it. I decided for cost reasons to simply do the test on my own without involving a school. While you can do the theoretical test without a school, you must have a school for the practical test.
I actually fully prepared to write the theoretical test about six months prior, but when I went in to make an appointment to write it, they had nothing available prior to me leaving for summer vacation. So I was unfortunately forced to wait about six months (mostly due to my travel schedule) to try it again.
You actually have the option to write the test in Spanish or English – there are pros and cons to each way. If your Spanish is decent, I’ve been told the Spanish questions are less ambiguous than the English ones, likely because they haven’t been passed through some shoddy translation service. So that’s a positive. The downside is the test bank of questions is significantly larger for the Spanish test, so you likely need to study a bit longer to have seen all the questions.
When I first started studying, I used the Spanish driving rules book you can buy online or you get from a school. This is probably the most boring book on the entire planet, and it was painful to read. I got about half-way, and realized it was a losing strategy, since I felt the book didn’t really do a good job preparing you for the multiple choice test.
Not long after I started, I found Practicatest.com, a paid website that has a huge test bank of previous exams. I signed up there for a six month package, and started working through their curriculum. Basically they take all the various sections in the driving book and split them into lesson plans, which you can then tackle individually. Each section has a few pages of information about all the rules and regulations related to that section, followed by all the exam questions that you can likely answer after studying the material. So my strategy was to basically work through each section systematically, answering enough questions correctly in each section to basically achieve a 95% passing result in each section, which the website tracks for you (it tracks your per-curriculum scores and your total scores, useful for gauging your progress in each section and overall).
To achieve 95% in each section took me between three or four hours in an evening. I forget the exact number, but I think there was something like 16 sections. So that’s 16 boring evenings methodically hammering through test questions to try and pound the answers into my brain like nails. Passing the test is really all about mental muscle memory when it comes to regurgitating the correct answers.
After I hit 95% in each of the sections, I started working my way through the practice exams. You can only get three wrong on a full exam, which means you need 90% to pass. It’s notoriously difficult as some of the exam questions are ambiguous, and the English translations (if you choose to do the exam in English) leave a lot to be desired.
I probably failed every second exam for the first few days. Slowly over the next week I got myself to a point where I passed about ten in a row, and figured I was ready. I had scheduled my test right after I obtained my medical certificate, so at this point it was less than a week away. I continued to hammer on the practice exams nightly up until the exam date, and felt I was well prepared when the time came.
On the day of the exam, I took a taxi to the examination centre in El Saler (as an aside, I laughed at some of the blog entries I read from people who had been here five years, needed to get a license, and casually mentioned that they drove themselves to the exam centre for their theoretical test). I was there waiting with about 30 teenagers, and a handful of people similar to my age. They call out names one by one, and when your name is called you walk up, show your identification and your medical certificate, then proceed to sit at a computer for your test.
I blasted through the test pretty quickly, but struggled with a few questions I hadn’t seen before. At the end you have a chance to go back and review them one by one, which I did since I had lots of time to kill. Back in university I used to go back over my tests and quantify in my head the amount I knew for sure I got correct, just to gauge the absolute worst I figured I would do on the test if I screwed up every answer I wasn’t sure of. After working through all 30, I was sure I had 27 correct, good enough for a pass, but had doubts on the last three.
When the test is over, you have to wait until at least 5pm in the evening to check your grades online. I logged in at the exact time I was notified I got 28/30 correct – I passed! While getting two wrong doesn’t seem like a big deal, I don’t think there was any way I could have been more prepared for this test, which speaks to how difficult it can be – that even with perfect preparation, you can expect a few difficult, ambiguous questions to throw you off. It wouldn’t surprise me to hear that some people who studied hard actually fail due to some questions that are purposefully thrown in to be difficult.
I won’t lie, it was a ton of work preparing for the theoretical exam, and I prepared myself fully two separate times. I would say I put in close to 60 hours of studying to get to the point where I felt I had a good chance to pass the exam, and it took nearly a full month of evenings to get myself to that point. So if you’re starting from scratch, you should prepare to put in a lot of time. I absolutely recommend PracticaTest, the paid website I used to help with my studying. I have no affiliation with them, I just think using the official book is mostly pointless, and I was much better prepared by using their test bank.
The Driving Lessons
Like other idiots before me, I assumed the practical test, mainly because I’ve been driving for over 20 years, would be a walk in the park compared to the theoretical test. After reading various horror stories online though, I realized that wasn’t the case at all. In a casual conversation I had with a Spanish friend of mine, she told me that her brother only passed the practical test on his 8th attempt, i.e. he failed 7 times. On a Facebook post I did at some point venting about this process, another local friend of mine told me it took her five tries to eventually pass.
The point is, failing at least once is mostly expected. And in fact, when you pay your original fees, you are automatically given two attempts of at least one of the theoretical or practical tests. For example, if you pass your theoretical test on the first try (like I did), then you are allowed two practical road tests with the original included fees.
Unlike in Canada, where you receive a provisional license (where you can drive with any adult who has a license) after doing the theoretical test, there is no such license here in Spain. That means you *must* enrol with a local driving school in order to drive in any capacity.
On one hand, I can see the logic in it – if you want to learn to drive, it might best to learn how to from a professional. But it’s expensive having to pay for an hour of time to get any practice in a car whatsoever. I definitely understand that a driving instructor can help you learn all the rules you’ll need to pass the test. But I don’t really need to pay 55 euros per hour to practice turning the steering wheel a certain way, or to improve my gear shifting (just using those as an example). I would have much preferred some combination of the two – where I could use the school to teach me what I need to pass the final road test, but also go out with a friend and get some more practice, for example, in the uber-scary six-lane roundabouts (more on these later as well).
I decided to sign-up for a popular school here in Valencia called El Cid. It’s the most highly reviewed driving school here for foreigners who want to have an English speaking instructor in the car during the lessons, which is what I opted for. But that convenience also comes at a cost – it was 55 euros per lesson, in addition to the original sign-up costs I paid for at the beginning (which I guess pays for them setting up your file and assembling all the paperwork the government eventually needs). You also physically give your medical certificate to them, which they’ll present to the examiner on the day of the practical test.
The first lesson is mostly an assessment of your driving ability. As a Canadian who has been driving for several decades, I have a lot of bad habits that aren’t compatible with passing the exam (or so I was told). For one, I was driving with one hand at this stage, which isn’t allowed. Second, because I’m not an idiot, I can turn the steering wheel and shift gears at the same time – but I was told not to do this in most scenarios as the examiner thinks you can’t control the vehicle that way. I also tended to do sweeping shoulder checks, which also isn’t allowed here – I was told I can only do a sideways glance out the side window, instead of the more pronounced “looking through the rear window” type of shoulder check I learned when I was 16.
In general though, he thought I was a decent driver, and that I’d need about five lessons to pass. I felt pretty good about that.
Over the next few lessons though, things didn’t go as smoothly. Sure, I was driving now, but it had been four years since I had driven in any capacity, and I was a bit rusty. My Canadian habits were constantly being corrected, which was a bit degrading. I got myself into a few situations that necessitated my driving instructor intervening with his controls (the school cars have a set of pedals in the passenger seat the instructor can use), which feels humiliating (even though it’s normal). And I struggled to make sense of some of the crazy differences between driving in Spain and other places I’ve driven.
Here are a few random examples:
- In Canada you can turn right on a red light. You can’t do that in Spain. It’s a hard habit to break after doing all my life. And if you try to turn right on a red on the exam, it’ll be an instant fail
- Spain is the only country in Europe that uses a flashing amber light as a means to tell a vehicle they can move. This light is extremely tricky, and somewhat dangerous. In some scenarios where you would normally have a green light, the light will start flashing amber. It basically means to proceed forward, but using caution and yielding. Yielding to what though? It’s not always obvious as they use these lights in various places. In one place you can be yielding to a crosswalk. Another situation might be yielding to a bike lane. Another can be yielding to oncoming traffic. It’s tricky in real-time to figure out what you’re supposed to do. You can also get a fault during the exam for hesitating, so you can’t spend too much time figuring this stuff out in real-time. Many pedestrian deaths happen in Spain because of these yellow lights – there are scenarios where pedestrians have a green sign to move across a crosswalk, but cars have a flashing amber light telling them to proceed – while they should be cautious, many drivers just treat it as a green, which is dangerous and kills pedestrians. Every other country in Europe has phased these out.
- Valencia has some of the hardest, craziest roundabouts in all of Spain. Some of them are six lanes wide, and it’s a very intricate dance moving from one side to the other. In addition, many of these roundabouts have lights in the middle that you have to stop at, which during rush hour is difficult
- Roundabouts outside of the city of Valencia have different rules entirely. So the moment you are outside the city, you have to change how you handle a roundabout, which can be confusing
- Spain doesn’t have any concept of a rolling start from a stop sign. If you stop at a stop sign, and then slowly roll forward like we were taught in Canada, it’s an instant fail on the exam. From the examiner’s perspective, if you are slowly rolling forward, you must not be sure if you can see properly. And that means it’s a dangerous manoeuvre. I obviously disagree, as a rolling start is sort of like doing a cautious yield after progressing from a stop, but I can see their logic. The problem is the instant fail nature of the infraction. Once you stop at the stop sign, you need to count to three in your head, then move forward to see better, and then do a full, complete stop again, counting to three. When you finally do move, it has to be deliberate and without hesitation, showing the examiner you had good visibility and were certain of your actions. Failure to do this is an instant failure, and it’s probably the biggest cause of failing during the exam.
When we hit the end of the fifth lesson, I had expected my instructor to start talking about taking the exam. But instead he suggested we needed more lessons to practice and improve things. As foreigners in Spain know, sometimes we are subject to a bit of a ‘gringo tax’. That is, because the local economy isn’t doing amazingly well, sometimes foreigners are given higher quotations or higher prices in an effort to extract a few more dineros out of us. Not everyone does of course, and most of the interactions I’ve had in Spain have been great and honest. But I’ve had enough inflated quotations during the course of all my apartment renovations here in Spain that I tend to be a bit cautious now.
So at first I was a bit disappointed that suddenly I needed more lessons. In addition to it being a bit expensive (at least compared to lessons I had when I was younger or taking the lessons purely in Spanish), the lessons are stressful and time consuming. So the thought of several more weeks of lessons was pretty deflating. It was the end of February at this point, and I felt like I had been putting in considerable time and effort since November on working my way through the system. So I was getting tired of thinking about driving every day, and making time each week for the lessons.
Unlike the theoretical test, which can be done in English, the practical road test can only be done in Spanish. Which means some of the last lessons you’ll have with the school will be learning enough vocabulary to handle basic driving commands in Spanish.
Despite my misgivings about more lessons, I decided to trust my instructor’s assessment and schedule a few more. In retrospect, his assessment of me was right, as I still needed more time to learn how to pass the test and to ‘correct’ some of my bad habits. With each additional lesson I felt myself getting more and more comfortable behind the wheel and starting to wrap my head around the criteria for the actual road test. At around the 8th or 9th lesson, we decided to schedule my practical road test for the next week.
The next lesson we decided to do a mock run of an actual exam, where my instructor would only speak Spanish and he would grade me like they would. How did I do? I failed four times! He said that was normal though, and why we do the mock exam. But it’s not that uplifting for the ego, especially when the exam is only a week away.
The Practical (Road) Test
48 hours before the examination, the driving school will be informed about which area in the city the test will be conducted in. That meant we had a chance to go drive around the area to get a bit of experience. Unlike my other lessons, which were one-on-one with my instructor, to save time and effort I guess, the normal one hour lesson was expanded into a two hour lesson but with another student (also having the exam on the same day) coming along for the ride. I spent the first hour driving, and the other student spent the second hour driving. The other student’s name was James, and he was from the UK. He asked how I was feeling, and I told him I failed my mock exam four times the other night. He looked at me and nodded knowingly, “yah me too” he said. Misery loves company, so I was happy to hear that.
There are three scenarios you might find yourself in at this point. All examiners usually start their day close to the DGT offices. The first examinations of the day therefore start very close to the DGT offices, and the examiners walk over to greet you first thing the morning and find the school cars they are assigned to. From there, that first group drives to each examination area for the day’s tests. The second group starts and ends where the first group ends up. So while the first group only spends half the time in the actual exam area (the other half is spent getting to the exam area), the second group spends the entire time in the exam area. The last group is basically the reverse of the first group – they spend half their time driving around the exam area, then basically drive the examiners back to their offices.
I picked the short straw I guess, and out of six students taking exams from my school that day, I was selected to go first and be in the first group. The benefit, I guess, is that I could spend half my exam driving to the examination area (and not having to do weird driving manoeuvres along the way). The downside was that I had to be ready to drive at 7:30am, and I’m most decidedly not a morning person. So my exam that day was during peak morning rush-hour traffic, and I was running on fumes from a sleep perspective.
We met the examiner at the morning meeting spot, at which point he checked over my medical certificate and looked over my identification. At that point the lesson instructor gets in the front passenger seat, and the examiner gets in the back. The car is equipped with a tattletale device that makes a horrific sound if the instructor has to intervene at all. If you hear that sound, you know you’ve failed.
My examiner didn’t seem to care that I didn’t speak Spanish that well, and proceeded to speak to me at full-speed Spanish with a very difficult accent for me to understand. While I don’t think the examiners are antagonistic towards people who don’t speak fluent Spanish, I didn’t get the sense they wanted to do me too many favours either. In some scenarios your instructor can help translate if you get stuck – my examiner told my instructor not to say a word until the end, which meant I was on my own.
The start of every test includes 10 minutes of self-guided driving. Since I already knew my destination (the exam area), I proceeded to drive in that direction. Unfortunately about three minutes after I started, I got myself into a bad situation. I had a green light to proceed forward, which I did, but the cars up ahead all got clogged up due to rush-hour traffic, which left me stuck in the middle of the intersection. I still had the light in my favour, but I knew as soon as it changed to red that the opposing side would change to green, and I’d be blocking two lanes of traffic (which I imagine would sound the proverbial gong, thus ending my dreams of a driver’s license in the immediate future). So I decided to execute a pretty bold move, and did a sharp turn away from my position and into a small merge lane that was on the side, just to get out of the way. While I was no longer blocking traffic, I figured if I didn’t fail outright from that move, I was about 80% of the way there based on how it all unfolded.
That first mess-up left me a bit rattled, since I figured I may have already failed. But the rest of the test went pretty well I thought. Eventually I found myself, thanks to the examiner’s turn-by-turn directions, at the end point for the test. After parking and shutting off the car, I waited to hear how it went. Examiners aren’t obligated to tell you how you did, as the results are delayed until the next day and you’re meant to retrieve them online – previously they would tell you on the spot, but there were lots of cases of violence against examiners from students who were told they failed (which often is for seemingly trivial things like a rolling stop), so they officially started deferring these results until a day later.
My examiner rattled some fast Spanish off to my instructor, and I didn’t understand what he said. When I got out of the car my instructor said something about missing a critical stop sign, which meant I likely failed. He unfortunately had to immediately get in the car for another exam, so I didn’t get more information than that brief “you probably failed.” So I spent the entire day sulking, being pretty sure I failed but not knowing for sure.
That evening, after my instructor had finished adjudicating all six exams he had to do that day, he gave me a call and told me that I did fail. Strangely, it wasn’t from the screw up I had in the beginning (and in fact, he said the examiner was really impressed with how I got out of that mess, as he said no person without extensive driving experience would have attempted what I did). But I had missed one of those hard-to-see internal lights in a six-lane roundabout, effectively running a red light. So it was an immediate fail that he couldn’t overlook. I guess I had been so stressed about having to cross six lanes of traffic in rush-hour that I had failed to see the stop line in the middle of the roundabout.
I won’t lie, I was pretty disappointed. I had mentally and emotionally prepared myself to pass, and sort of put all my internal eggs in that basket. So when I failed, I needed to mentally and emotionally regroup for a bit. I decided to go to Sevilla for a few days and not think about driving at all. I was going to wait a month or so before taking another test, as I was absolutely sick of thinking about driving. But after a few days of eating and drinking in the sunshine in Sevilla, I decided just to push ahead and get it over with as soon as possible. So I scheduled two more lessons – one to review the issues with the first exam, and the second to go over the test area for the second exam (which of course, changes, meaning all the time and effort I spent learning the first exam area was useless for the second). I also scheduled the next exam, two weeks to the day from the first exam (which I think is the minimum time allowed between two attempts).
Back in my university days, everyone in my peer group had a specialty. My friend Jeff, for example, always did way better on homework assignments than I did. But I was the one who always did the best on tests under pressure. I had some classes where I’d get 80% on most of my homework assignments (which was a low grade in our keener group), and pull off a 97% on the final exam, just because I went into OCD mode when it came to preparation and studying.
So with regards to the test, despite knowing it’s notoriously hard and that many people fail multiple times, it is difficult to accept that no matter how much preparation a person puts into it, a big part of passing just involves luck on the day of the test. Will you get into a scenario you’ve never seen before? Will the instructor trick you into going down a road you shouldn’t (this actually happens – instructors will tell you to turn down a wrong-way street just to see what you do – instant fail if you go through with it)? Will the examiner be in a bad mood that day? Will traffic be horrific when it’s your turn to drive? Will you get confused in a large roundabout and take the wrong exit? Will some kid run out into the street and cause you to lock the brakes?
So much can go wrong during the exam, and a huge chunk of it is completely out of your control. I heard one guy failed an exam because a stop sign had been covered up due to some construction works going on – in any normal world, a student wouldn’t fail because they couldn’t see a stop sign that had been effectively removed, but here in Spain it’s up to the student to apparently see the invisible stop sign and stop.
During one of my practice runs, my instructor pointed out a weird intersection that had lights and a stop sign. During the studying for the theoretical test, you learn that if there is ever a conflict between a street sign and a street light, the street light will always have preference. But the instructor said if I’m ever at a light like that, to stop there, even if the light is green, because he’d had some examiners fail students for not stopping. Situations like that are plenty, and it’s mentally taxing keeping track of all those corner cases in your head while preparing.
I absolutely understand that any situation that puts your car or another car in danger of an accident should result in a failure, but there are a lot of scenarios or accidental movements that aren’t proper but don’t put anyone in danger. For example, I agree that not stopping deliberately enough at a stop sign should be some type of minor fault, but I disagree completely that it should result in an immediate failure, especially when there is zero traffic in the intersection. If you watch real drivers here in Spain at stop signs, almost every one of them does a rolling stop. I’m not saying it’s right, because on the exam you should do the right thing, but I think the exam needs to also be realistic and not immediately fail people when their actions aren’t demonstrably dangerous.
But those are just my thoughts and complaints, and none of that changes the nature of the test or the effort required to pass it. That’s just a bit of well-earned venting from my side – and since I’m a guest here, I realize I have to do what is required and just keep pushing forward.
The Second Exam
The day before my second exam, I met with my instructor and the other student again. As expected, the exam area had been changed to a new area, Paiporta. Paiporta is a little tiny town outside of Valencia, which meant the nature of the exam itself would likely change. Instead of brutal city traffic and six lane roundabouts, I’d likely spend some time on the highways and navigating the slightly more sane small-town roundabouts.
Unlike the first exam though, where each student went with the instructor and examiner separately, this time we were told that we would all be in the car together. The other student would go first, driving from the start point to some random location only the examiner knew, after which we would switch and I would drive back.
The other student was just starting university and obviously much younger than me. He had been driving a motorcycle in Spain for years, so he knew the city much better than I did. But it was clear that I was the better driver, at least in terms of actually knowing the rules for cars and having more experience driving in cars. Of course I wanted him to pass too, and I tried to encourage and reassure him as much as I could (especially since I failed my first test). But I was a bit relieved that I would spend the first 30 minutes of the exam in the back seat next to the examiner while he drove, and I suspected, as long as I didn’t screw up too bad, that my driving would look good in comparison to his.
During my first exam, the examiner was this older, curmudgeonly gentlemen who was all business. He had one of those small-town accents as well which I’m sure locals understand fine, but that I struggle with. When I saw the new examiner for my second test was a middle-aged female, and whose Spanish seemed a bit easier to understand for me, I felt somewhat relieved. Later I would learn she’s one of the hardest examiners to pass with, and that she’s failed a lot of my instructor’s students recently.
After getting in the vehicle, she told the other student to proceed. I was in the back seat next to the examiner. The other student had made a couple bad mistakes the night before the exam on our practice run that would have resulted in immediate failures, but thankfully he didn’t do those same ones during the test. He did struggle a lot with the gears and occasionally revved the engine way higher than he should have while starting (he’s used to motorcycle gears, not cars), but he mostly did alright I think. At the end of his exam, the examiner told him to park the car, but we were on a street with literally zero parking (I struggle to understand how someone can be judged/graded for not being able to park on a street with no parking, which is what happened). The examiner was clearly upset that he was driving around looking and not finding, eventually causing him to pick a really horrible parking spot next to a large garbage can that left the back of the car half-way into the street. At that point we switched places, and I gave him an encouraging pat on the back and a congratulatory “good job” as we swapped places.
I had to start from the crappy position he left the car in (which was 100% not his fault, he didn’t have many good options), but eventually managed to merge into traffic. I didn’t get much sleep the night before because I had all these weird driving scenarios going through my head. But one of my main worries when I woke up in the morning was that if I failed again, I would probably put myself into some weird self-fulfilling purgatory where my failures in each exam meant the likelihood of failing in the next one would go up since I would be so nervous and stressed about failing. So I spent the 30 minutes in the back of the car trying hard to calm my nerves and to get my head into the proper mental space to be fully focused on my exam. One of the best pieces of advice I read on a blog prior to the exam was someone who said she passed by just pretending the examiner in the back seat was one of her drunk friends telling her how to get home. That is, try not to think of it like a test, and instead like just a leisurely drive with a few friends. Easier said than done, I know, but it helped me a bit thinking like that.
Unlike the first exam, where I knew where to go during my 10 minute self-guided tour at the beginning, I was starting from an area I had never been in before, with no real idea in which direction to go. The examiner had also told my instructor that she didn’t want him talking at all during my test, which I imagine indicates that she doesn’t speak English in any capacity and wanted to ensure he wasn’t helping me with his ‘translations’. He told me before the test it might be best to just admit to her that I don’t know the location I was starting from, at which point she might be able to help me move around using commands. That was my plan when I was sitting in the back seat getting prepared, but when I got into the front seat and started adjusting my mirrors, I realized that immediately asking for help before I even started my test might make me look like I’m not a good driver. So I made a last minute decision to just randomly drive and hope it all worked out.
The examiner during the test of the other student had taken us from the Paiporta, outside of Valencia, back into the city of Valencia, and it was clear her goal was to reverse that with me. Which meant I had to navigate a few of those crazy city roundabouts on my way out again. On one of them she told me to go ‘recto’, meaning straight, but I had a bus blocking my entire view on the left, which meant I couldn’t see the entire second half of the roundabout. I could see an exit ahead of me, which I assumed was the one she meant, but I also know some roundabouts in Valencia have five or six exits, and ‘recto’ might mean the next one in her head. So I decided to ask her if that was the right one. She seemed slightly annoyed, but her answer was basically “si, recto, alli”, basically yes, straight ahead, that one. I figured it was better that she thought I was dumb rather than she thought I was a bad driver or that I had purposefully ignored her directions.
On the way back to the town I hit another scenario that was new to me, but I knew what was supposed to be done. I was on an interurban road going 80 km/hr, and there was a bicycle rider in the right hand lane. Officially the law says you are supposed to give all bicycles 1.5m of space when you go by them. I could see most of the other drivers weren’t doing that, but I decided to do a lane change out of the lane the biker was in, into the next lane, pass the biker with lots of room, and then return to that lane after I passed him. While examiners pass or fail you based on faults, they also develop an overall impression of each driver which can influence the decision if it’s close. I think this move was the one that probably nudged me closer to a pass than to a failure in her mind.
A normal exam is 25-30 minutes, and I took note of my start time on the clock in the car when we started. After barrelling down various highways and roundabouts for a while, we eventually ended up on a road where she said “derecha”, meaning turn right. I was a bit confused as the only place to turn right was into some industrial parking lot, and it wasn’t where we started (which was where I was told we would end). As I was about to go past it, she said “aqui, derecha” (I’m sure in her head she followed it with “dumbass”), which confirmed it was where I was meant to go. At that point she told me to park, and I looked down at the clock – only 20 minutes had elapsed. Fuck, I thought. Normally when they end early it’s a bad sign as it likely means you failed and there’s no point in continuing. She also said to stop the car, not to park it, which also was worrying as normally parking (i.e. parallel parking) is part of the exam, and I hadn’t done it. Stopping, in examiner language, means “I want out, and I don’t care where you put the car or how you do it,” which can be a bad sign.
She told me and the other student to get out, and then she talked to our instructor inside the car a bit. They both then got out and she starting talking to him in front of me about my exam. Apparently there was some yield sign that she thought I could have done a little better at, but for the most part she thought I had driven like a good student, which I took to be a good sign. The other student had more issues, mainly the park job he was forced to do, his inconsistent use of the clutch and gears, and a few weird driving decisions he took.
My instructor seemed pretty confident I had passed, as did the other student (who could see what the examiner was writing while I was driving, and he thought she had marked I passed), but unfortunately since the results are delayed 24 hours and the examiner didn’t outright say it, you never know for sure until the next day. While he said just to go home and relax, and it was almost a sure thing, I couldn’t really relax entirely since I didn’t know for sure.
So I spent the entire next day clicking ‘search’ on the official website to find out if I passed or failed. It’s obviously a bit stressful having to wait all day to discover your fate, but it is what it is.
At around 4pm my results finally showed up, and I receive the beautiful “APTO”, which means that you passed. There are three categories of faults you can receive: minor (1 point each), intermediate (5 points each), or elimination (10 points each) – if you go over 9 points total, you fail. So you can have 10 minor faults on their own, 1 intermediate fault with 4 minor faults, and 0 elimination faults. My first failure was because I had 1 elimination fault.
So anyways, despite having a trigger-happy examiner, I finally passed!
The next day after getting my results, I walked down to the driving school to get my temporary license (the real one comes in the mail later) and my fancy “L” that needs to be placed in the rear window. I also started moving some money around with the expectation that I would buy a car rather quickly. I don’t really have any plans for driving anywhere, but I figure I may as well get one so that when I want to head up to the mountains and do some hiking, I finally can.
If you’re in the Valencia area, I highly recommend El Cid driving school in Russafa. I’m not sure if it was Stockholm Syndrome, or the fact that we spent so much time together driving around in that car. But after being scolded seemingly endlessly for eight weeks or so, and sitting in that car a few nights a week driving around the city, I ended up with a fun, friendly rapport with Tino, one of the co-owners of El Cid. At the beginning he was talking all the time correcting every little thing I was doing wrong, but on the last few lessons he mostly just sat in peace, occasional correcting a minor fault or making some suggestions. We even told the odd joke. Thanks to his help, and the help of the other people that run the school, I eventually passed.
In terms of the cost, here’s a rough breakdown:
- 1 x €50 – medical test
- 1 x €94 – for the theory and practical test DGT fees
- 1 x €75 – sign-up/paperwork fee for the driving school
- 10 x €55 – ten lessons in English
- 2 x €40 – use of the car during the practical road exam
- 1 x €45 – PracticaTest online test
Total cost was roughly €905 from start to finish.
Despite the emotional and time commitments this process required, I’m thankful I managed to pass it relatively pain-free (I say relatively, but it was still pretty horribly painful). During the process of preparing for my road test, I came across a few blog entries of people who had done up to 80 lessons and still hadn’t passed the test. In terms of cost, that’s almost an entire car’s worth of money that they have spent so far. I’m told the average number of lessons for a new driver is around twenty-five or so. In terms of foreigners with driving experience, I’ve seen anything from four to about fifteen.
During this process I vented a lot to my friends, and everyone pretty much agreed that there’s no point in quitting because it’s just lost time and money. Unlike the fallacy of sunken costs, where there is a point when you should just walk away, once you’ve started this process you really need to see it through. If you take too long passing the practical test, there comes a point when you have to start over at the very beginning, which is a pretty scary prospect.
If you’ve come across this post, and are now scared as hell (as I once was), don’t be. Everyone who starts this process eventually finishes it, you just have to have patience, some humility, and look at it more like a right of passage than re-learning how to drive. It’s painful and often seems totally superfluous, but once it’s done it’s be a huge relief, and you’ll not get to explore areas in Spain that you never were able to before.
So for all of you about to set out on this – best of luck! See you on the autovia!