Learning to Drive in Spain, Part 2: The Driving Test

So you’ve tackled the first part of getting a driver’s license in Spain by passing the written exam. Enhorabuena! That’s just half the battle: now it’s time to apply everything you’ve learned behind the wheel.

Learning to drive in Spain

Once you pass the written driving test, you’ll be eligible to start signing up for clases prácticas, or driving classes. To do so, you’ll need to get in touch with your autoescuela and let them know you’re ready to start.

Your driving school will then assign you to an instructor. When I was learning to drive back in the US, I had a different instructor for every class (I’m from Ohio; other states may be different), but here in Spain, you’ll be working with the same instructor until you have your license in hand. The driving school will likely set up the first class for you, and from there you’ll work with the instructor directly to schedule the rest of the classes.

You’ll meet the instructor at an agreed-upon place and hit the road from there. For my first class, the instructor took me to an empty parking lot to start out, but others may pick up their student for the first class and have them get behind the wheel on the actual road right away. It all depends on who’s teaching you.

Driving classes in Spain last around 45 minutes, but this can vary depending on the driving school. Mine also required a minimum of 15 classes before signing up for the exam, but some autoescuelas don’t require a minimum. You’ll usually pay by the class, although there may be some schools that offer package deals of five or 10 classes bundled together for a lower per-class price than it would cost to buy the same number of classes individually.

Learning to drive in Spain means becoming familiar with manual transmission cars.
Start getting comfortable with those gears! Photo by Martinus on Pexels

Driving stick shift

Probably the biggest thing about learning to drive in Spain, at least for Americans, is the fact that the vast majority of European cars have manual transmissions. As a result, getting your Spanish license will involve learning your way around a gear shift and the clutch pedal.

If this seems overwhelming, it’s actually much easier than it sounds once you get the hang of it (and I’m speaking as someone with a severe lack of hand-eye-foot coordination). The more challenging part for me was getting used to the unfamiliar traffic laws and strange layout of Spanish roads, but more on that in a bit.

You can also opt to take your driving test in Spain in an automatic, but keep in mind that your license will only allow you to drive automatic cars if that’s the case. If you’re American, it’s obviously easier, but frankly I don’t see much point in doing it this way. Sure, you’ll be able to say you have your Spanish license, but won’t be able to drive 90 percent of the cars in the country. Unless you’re specifically planning on purchasing or leasing an automatic vehicle (which, here in Spain, tend to run a couple grand more than their manual counterparts of the same make and model) and will be driving it regularly, the regular license will be much more useful—yes, even though it involves learning to drive stick.

Oddities of Spanish roads & traffic laws

Learning to drive in Spain will be a different experience for everyone based on what country you’re coming from. These observations are based on my experience as an American, but may not be true for everyone.

  • You can’t turn right on red. It’s painful to sit there in the front of the line of cars waiting to turn right when the light is red and the intersecting road is absolutely devoid of vehicles, but you’ve gotta do it.
  • Roundabouts. So many roundabouts.
  • These indirect left-hand turn setups, which are meant to prevent congestion in high-traffic areas by getting the vehicles that want to turn left a bit out of the way, rather than having a long line in what would usually be the left-turn lane. It makes sense from a traffic standpoint, but is weird to get used to.
indirect left hand turn - learning to drive in Spain
Source: DGT España
  • Speed limits on most roads are slower than they would be in the US. The big main roads here in Córdoba have a limit of 50 km/h (31 mph), but a similar street in the US would be around 45 mph (72 km/h). But that’s just until you get on the highway, at which point you’re free to go at 120 km/h (about 75 mph). (I’m from Ohio, where the speed limit on freeways is 70 mph or 112 km/h.)
  • Some of the painted lines on the road reaaaaaallllyyy need a touchup, at least here in Cordoba, and are therefore extremely hard to make out. Even my instructor commented to me during one my classes that they need to get around to repainting them si o si.
  • That’s if the lines on the road are even there at all. Many Spanish streets may have two or three lanes in one direction, but no markings on the road to denote where the separations are. You just have to guess!
  • Finally, the driving school cars are diesel, which apparently are much easier to drive than standard gas vehicles. Even after I passed the exam, I still took my boyfriend’s car (which uses gas) out on an empty street for a few minutes just to make sure I had the hang of it.
learning to drive in Spain - plaza in Setenil de las Bodegas
My newly gleaned knowledge tells me that all of the cars in this picture have either entered and/or parked in this plaza in Setenil incorrectly.

Taking the driving exam in Spain

Between the written and driving exams, you get one “free” failure. That means that the first time you fail one of the exams, you get one more attempt at taking it without having to pay the hefty exam fee again. If you fail the written test, though, and have to take it again, that means you only have one shot to pass the driving test before you have to pay up.

I passed the written test on my first try, which ended up being a good thing because I wasn’t as lucky when it came to the driving exam.

In any given city, there are a handful of different meeting points for the driving exam, some of which may correspond with satellite offices for the DGT (Spain’s answer to the DMV). The morning I took my first exam, four of us piled into the car with our instructor and headed out to our assigned meeting point. Once there, two of the other students went first, while the third girl and I stayed behind at the DMV.

The driving exam in Spain lasts for up to half an hour and consists of three parts.

  • First, the examiner may ask you questions about the vehicle. This can be anything from functions of buttons on the dashboard, to pointing out various car parts under the hood, to digging in the glove compartment for the correct insurance papers.
  • Next up is something called “independent driving.” This means you’re free to circulate as you wish, and is meant to demonstrate that you are comfortable and confident making your way around town. Some examiners may ask you to provide a destination, but others will simply let you go wherever.
  • The final part of the exam is called “directed driving.” This is where the examiner will tell you things like “make a left here,” “take the third exit at this roundabout,” and so on.
    • At some point during this phase, they will also have you park, either by backing into a spot or by parallel parking along a curb, also by positioning the vehicle in front of the available spot and backing up into it, rather than swerving into the spot from behind. When I asked my instructor during class why we couldn’t just park by pulling into a spot as normal, he said it was because this is the only opportunity the examiners have to grade your ability to use the Reverse gear, which is fair enough.

When it was our turn, the other girl and I got into the car. She went first, while I sat in the backseat next to the examiner. Our instructor rode shotgun (yep, the instructor actually accompanies you during the exam, another quirk that wasn’t the case for me in the US).

When my turn came, I thought I drove well, but unfortunately it wasn’t enough. Spain’s driving test allows for two “major errors” and up to 10 “minor errors.” There’s also something called “eliminatory errors,” which are automatic failures—usually if you make one of these during the exam, the instructor will step on the brakes on their side of the car, causing a device that’s hooked up to their pedals to make an unpleasant beeping noise.

Two of my three “major errors” that were cited involved driving slightly over one of the solid white lines that I didn’t even know had been there (remember when I said that Córdoba really needs to touch up the paint on its roads?), and the third was because I had driven in the right-hand lane when there were cars parallel parked along the curb. (To be fair, I remembered having read in the manual that the right-hand lane was always ideal, and genuinely though I was doing the correct thing.)

My first reaction when I saw the results online was one of annoyance. Seriously? I’d been driving in the US for nearly a decade with an excellent record, but was considered unfit to operate a motor vehicle here in Spain because I’d driven an inch or two over a line that I couldn’t even see because the paint was so faded? (I did take full responsibility for misunderstanding the situation with the cars-along-the-right-curb thing.)

As it turns out, there’s a lot more involved in the driving exam here in Spain than just the ability to drive. Sure, that’s part of it, but a lot of other things can affect your score: the weather, the route and area you’re assigned, nerves, and the examiner. In some wonderful stroke of luck, I had gotten the strictest of all of them (as confirmed by my instructor and the girl working the desk at the driving school when I went to buy more classes: “He failed me on my first try, too”). My instructor mentioned that most examiners try to keep in mind that we’re new to driving (at least in Spain, in my case) and give us the benefit of the doubt in that area, but that this guy and a select few others expect perfection, even from brand-new drivers. (He also said that he’d thought “oh, crap” when we pulled up to our assigned meeting point and saw this examiner waiting for us outside, but didn’t say anything at the time because he didn’t want to freak us out.)

So if you don’t pass on your first try, it’s okay. Unless you committed some grave error that blatantly endangered people’s lives, chances are the odds were just against you. Shake it off, take more classes if you need to, and try again.

The driving exam in Spain: take 2

I actually thought I did much worse on my second driving exam. I was assigned the very first time slot of the day—7:40 a.m.—and a busy commercial area full of tight one-way streets, other cars, and pedestrians. Morning rush hour in one of Córdoba’s busiest districts didn’t seem very promising, especially considering that the comparatively easy circumstances of my first exam (in an area with wider, more open roads at 11 a.m., when fewer people were out driving) didn’t even fare well for me.

The girl who had taken her exam with me the first time accompanied me once again. She went first (I insisted, secretly hoping that the morning rush hour traffic would clear up a bit by the time it was my turn), and had been driving for about 15 minutes when our instructor suddenly slammed on the brakes, emitting the beeeeeeep that signifies an automatic failure. The poor girl was so nervous that she’d started to go the wrong way down a one-way street, having completely missed the Do Not Enter sign.

Without warning, it was my turn, and I was suddenly on edge. That beeeeeeep—the one noise nobody wants to hear during their exam—had shaken me up, and as we were switching places in the car, I could see that the other girl was visibly upset and on the verge of tears. Even though I barely knew her and this was neither the time nor the place, I wanted to give her a hug and be like “oh my god are you okay??!!” But we were on a tight schedule, so into the driver’s seat I went.

We had already finished Part 1 of the exam—questions about the vehicle—back at the DMV before setting off, so I started right away with the independent driving potion.

“¿Adónde vamos, Lindsey?” the examiner asked me.

I was to choose a destination and take us there whichever way I saw fit. Suddenly my mind became a blank slate. I was familiar with the area, but all of a sudden could not name one thing that was relatively close by that I could drive to.

“Ummmm.” I attempted to stall while furiously racking my brain for specific places nearby. “Ciudad Jardín?”

It was the next neighborhood over, one I would have been able to get to on foot easily. But with Spain’s maze of one-way and pedestrian-only streets, trying to figure out how to get there by car would be a whole different story.

Pues vamos,” the examiner replied, and off we went.

I don’t think I drove horribly, but objectively speaking, I think I drove much better during my first exam than the second. The route was difficult, it was first thing in the morning, and there were two or three times when a pedestrian snuck up on me as I was approaching a crosswalk and I had to brake somewhat suddenly.

My saving grace came after I’d been driving for a while when I was directed to pull onto a street lined with cars along one curb. “Please find an available space and parallel park using the reverse gear,” the examiner told me.

I hadn’t parked during my first exam. When I’d commented this to my instructor in our first class following that (“at least he didn’t make me park!”), he admitted that the examiner had likely already marked me down with three major errors by that point, and had already decided I hadn’t passed. The second time around, I could have gotten out of the car and hugged the examiner when he told me what to do—obviously there was still some hope left. I never thought I’d be so happy about having to parallel park.

Once the car was situated in its spot, the examiner thanked me and told me that the instructor would be driving us back to the DGT. I glanced at the clock on the dash and noticed that I’d driven for the maximum 30 minutes allowed for the exam—another good sign.

The next morning, a breath I hadn’t even realized I was holding escaped as a sigh of relief when I saw my apto result online. Despite the nerves and the difficult route, I’d passed.

Learning to drive in Spain - Spanish drivers license
Best piece of mail I got this year.

What happens after passing your driving exam in Spain?

Back in Ohio in 2010, the examiner told 16-year-old me the results of my driving exam right when we arrived back at the DMV. From there, I was able to walk right back into the building and walk out with my shiny new license in hand.

That’s not the case here in Spain, where the infamous bureaucracy slows things down. First of all, I didn’t find out the exam results (either time) until the morning after. Apparently it used to be a thing in the past where the examiner would speak to the instructor privately right after the exam and then the instructor would be the one to deliver the news to the students who took it, but this is rarely practiced nowadays.

Even from there, it was a waiting game. About a week and a half after I passed, my driving school got in touch to let me know that my resguardo had arrived from the DGT. That’s essentially a piece of paper that serves as your temporary license for up to 3 months while the real thing is being processed. I dropped by to pick up the paper and the bright green L decal that all new drivers must place on the back windshield for the first year their license is valid, they verified my address, and told me to expect the real thing in the mail within a month.

Finally, about three and a half weeks to the day after I passed the exam, the envelope arrived from the DGT with a congratulatory letter and my brand-new Spanish license.

Things to know before driving in Spain

Even once you have your Spanish license, new drivers in Spain are more heavily scrutinized for the first few years. The lovely L decal is necessary for the first year, and additionally, drivers who have had their licenses for less than two years have a lower permitted blood-alcohol content than more experienced drivers. Don’t drink and drive, friends!

Spanish licenses are valid 10 years and renewals require another “medical” examination. I say “medical” loosely because it’s really just a vision test and a game-like thing with a joystick to test your hand-eye coordination and reflexes.

If you’ve made it this far (not just in this long blog post, but in the process of getting your Spanish license), congrats yet again. It’s not the easiest thing to do, but the ability to drive legally on a whole new continent is something to be proud of.

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Ready to learn how to drive in Spain? Learn everything you need to know about the driving exam with this guide.
Photo by Dmitry Zvolskiy on Pexels

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