Yikes! An American violinist can’t drive untested on German roads

Yikes! An American violinist can’t drive untested on German roads


norman lebrecht

July 29, 2016

Anthea Kreston, American violinist of the Artemis Quartet, is still adjusting to her new life in Berlin. Latest calamity: they won’t let her drive. Read her latest diary entry below.

john cage car


We finally have a car. I can’t begin to say what a sense of freedom this has brought to our lives. To move from a two-car home (although we did everything we could to go by foot or bike) in rural Oregon to the bustle of a big city has an interesting effect on my psyche. One would think that we are now bombarded by stimuli, but I miss the bombardment of Oregon – the smells of the trees, of fresh rain, of the farmers markets and birds. But – to have a car – this simple pleasure – now the city has opened to us – and I look forward to unpacking our camping gear and delving into my travel book – “Great Drives around Germany”.  Today we went to a lake and jumped in, and after – found an amazing working farm, complete with a hands-on museum and a farm-to-table restaurant and bakery. Reminds me of Gathering Together Farms in Corvallis.

As I have mentioned before, my life is a pinball game of rotating mistakes and triumphs. And, like pinball, I am sometimes fooling myself that I have control, only to make a bee-line to the clown’s mouth, my flippers defenseless against the trajectory of the ball.

The car situation is a perfect example of this.  Before moving, we had a huge list, prioritized (there was no way to get everything done), and on the final day, we ran to AAA to get international driver’s licenses. This is not necessary, but it can come in handy, and better safe than sorry. Our understanding (although, as in almost every case, we find it impossible to get a definitive view of any situation) was that our American drivers licenses were good for one year. Phew – one thing we don’t have to totally stress about. We moved it down the list of “things to get done in Berlin”.

But then, and old friend came to visit, and she sighed and said, “I wish I had known I only had 6 months with my license – now it will be around €2,000 and lots of classes to get a German license”.  Gulp. Whaaaaaat?  Turns out, you can use your American license for 12 months, unless – you are staying longer than a year. If you stay longer than a year, your license only is valid for 6 months. Yes, illogical. Yikes. I quickly looked up the information – each State has its own personal relationship with the German government – for some you have to retake the theory as well as driving, some one or the other, and a couple neither. For Oregon, it is just the theory. Ok – I can do this!  All I have to do is go to the DMV and take the test, right?  Luckily I am still 7 weeks shy of the 6 month deadline.

So – I look it up. You can’t just show up. You have to make an appointment at an office, at which time your application for a test is submitted. You then receive a letter from the government 8 weeks later telling you the time of your test. An appointment for an appointment. So – I make the appointment for the appointment. But – they don’t have any appointments available for 2 months. Wait a minute!  Aaaaa.  I would have had to start this process at least 4 months in advance. My brain can’t handle this.  I make the appointment anyway, hoping that our re-entry in April can be a bluffed start date. But, we have been registered as living here since mid-February. Oh no.

Moving on. How hard can this test be?  I am an experienced driver – I should just be able to brush up, learn some new signs, and take it, right?  Then, my friends tell me the test is totally impossible. How hard can it be, really?  Geeze. 900 questions. That is how hard. And my German is so bad.  So bad. And, you can’t just go to the DMV and pick up the study pamphlet. No siree Bob you can’t. You have to be registered at a driving school in advance of the appointment for the appointment.  And you have to buy their “software” (cd-rom – I don’t even have a computer with a cd option – that went out when we gave up our landline years ago), or you have to sign up for classes – and lots of them. Luckily, I found out we can take the test in English. But, the International Driving School is an hour away by subway (or 20 minutes by car – ha ha). If you buy their books, it comes with 60(!!!!) practice tests, which you apparently have to memorize because many of the questions defy basic logic.

In addition, we have to take a registered eye test (not like those quick ones at the DMV), and safety class, and maybe you can help me here – our “Anmeldebestaetigung”, which, when I enter into my Google Translate, comes up as “Anmeldebestaetigung”. Thanks a lot.

But – no need to worry!  The driving school has written to me – “dont worry because of your license, let me explain. You have to stop driving here in germany after 6 month, but if your license is already valid you have time to make that transscription, for the time the license is valid.”. Crystal clear.  So we just bought a car to be able to drive our daughter to first grade, and we won’t be able to drive it. So – here is what we will do – if we get stopped we will just say we are staying only for a year!  That way our license is still valid.

I know what you are saying – “another disaster brilliantly avoided!”.

In case you’re wondering, that’s John Cage in the car.


  • May says:

    Anthea, welcome to Germany, home of the hardest driving test in the world. However once you’re on the road, you are going to appreciate how well everyone drives and wish that the rest of the world followed the same rules.
    There are lots of free apps for your phone to help you with learning the test material. And they use the same graphics that you’ll encounter in the real test. Don’t forget to set aside a Saturday or Sunday for the 6 hour first aid test that you need to have taken in order to get your license.

  • Gerhard says:

    I feel for you, but every German who wants a driver’s license has to jump through the same hoops. And the bureaucracy is no better for German citizens either. So you are not singled out as a foreigner in any respect. Welcome!

  • Pianofortissimo says:

    “…if we get stopped we will just say we are staying only for a year!”

    Dear Anthea, did you not know that every German police officer checks SD at least three times a day? All germans love Classical Music!

  • Anthea Kreston says:

    Yes – people are fantastic drivers here – I have noticed that. And the roads are marvelously maintained! Thanks for the tips – I will look for the apps to help me with my test today.

    • David Osborne says:

      The roads are well maintained? I’m guessing you haven’t done much cycling in the south-east of Berlin then Anthea.

  • Allie says:

    Hi, Anthea, you can get an external CD/DVD drive for your laptop; they’re very inexpensive. Unless your only computer is an iPad?

  • Peter says:

    Annoying as hell, but it’s hardly the fault of the German side, that it depends on the US state of origin, which procedure applies. The way the story goes, the Germans wanted to find mutual agreement with Washington, and Washington pleaded not responsible and referred to the individual states. forcing Germany to enter negotiations with all individual US states separately. It’s a US made calamity, the nightmare is all theirs. And don’t get us started on the things non US-citizens have to deal with when trying to establish residency in the US.

  • Scott Fields says:

    As soon as I moved to Germany, Americans advised me to start the process of obtaining a German driver’s license. Luck was with me; my American license at the time was issued by Wisconsin. All I had to do was pay ADAC 50 euros or so to print out Wisconsin’s regulations for my license, pay another 50 euros or so to the German drivers license authority, and fill out a form. After two months I was summoned to an appointment where I handed over my Wisconsin license in exchange for a German license. The only loss was ( to the relief of my family) that my permission to operate a motorcycle had been removed.

    The system for the states that qualify for a no-test, no-course trade is that the application must be made in the first six months of residency, when the applicant probably knows little about Germany, its road rules, and the language. If you wait until you know a bit of what’s going on, it’s too late.

  • Anthea Kreston says:

    This is all great information! Thank you everyone – I feel like we have a grip on it and all will be well. We are enjoying our new car-freedom. External cd drive ordered and on its way. Going through these minor aches and pains gives me more perspective on all others entering new countries. All of the people we have spoken to have been extremely helpful and warm.

    • Ray Richardson says:

      “We are enjoying our new car-freedom.”

      Don’t now go and leave your violin in the car though!

  • Meal says:

    Anthea, you should not bother by your language skills. The theory test can also be done in English (cf. http://www.tuev-sued.de/fuehrerschein_pruefung/die_fuehrerscheinpruefung/die_theoretische_pruefung_vorbereiten. Sorry the page is in German.) You should check with your drivers school and/or where you have made your appointment that the have the rigth language version for you. Just run through all the questions three times and you will have the right answers in your head. Anyhow, it will steel some time …