driver's license in the czech republic

Getting a driver’s license in the Czech Republic

I usually rush to the defense of Czech people and systems when it comes to a lot of things, because the reality is almost never as bad as people make it out to be. But after spending the better part of four months trying to exchange a valid US driver’s license into a Czech one, I can safely say that getting a driver’s license in the Czech Republic is legitimately worse in every way than people make it out to be. Here is everything you need to know about the experience so you can prepare for it.

Getting a driver’s license for the first time in the Czech Republic

If you’re learning to drive for the first time, driving school is compulsory to get a driver’s license. Driving school requires a minimum of 36 hours of theoretical training and 28 hours of practical driving lessons with an instructor. This typically takes around three months. Your instructor may, of course, recommend additional lessons depending on your performance.

Following successful completion of driving school, your driving school arranges your theoretical and practical exams. These are not held on the same day. You must first pass your theoretical exam before you’re allowed to take the practical exam. You have three attempts to pass each part of the test. If you fail to complete either part of the test, you have to retake that portion of the driving school lessons.

It’s a costly process. School alone can be upwards of 30,000-40,000 czk. They usually make you pay a fee if you’re only learning on automatic transmission. On top of that, you have to pay to take the driving test and pay for a translator for each exam, which may be 2000-4000 czk. To enroll in driving school, you need to get a medical certificate certifying your ability to drive, which is an additional cost. And since the validity of medical certificates is 10 days, you’ll need to get another when you go to apply for the license. Your school and driving test certificates are only valid for 6 months, so you also need to immediately apply for the license, or all that training is wasted.

Exchanging your foreign license to a Czech one

If you’re licensed to drive in another country, you may be under the false assumption that you can just drive here. However, if you’re living in the Czech Republic for more than 185 days or around 6 months, you need to obtain a Czech driving license. Though thousands of expats will tell you they’ve been driving here for years with no problems with a foreign license, you are technically not driving with a valid license as a Czech temporary/permanent resident unless your license is issued here in the Czech Republic.

Luckily, the process is somewhat easier (in theory). If your license is issued by an EU member state or a country that meets the requirements of the 1968 Vienna Convention or the 1949 Geneva Convention on Road Traffic, then you can make an appointment with your documents and apply for a Czech license without further training.

However, if you have a foreign license that does not meet these requirements, like the United States, then you have to go to driving school before you can apply to exchange your license. Up until 2024, this meant you had to also get a minimum of 64 hours of lessons even if you’ve been driving your whole life. This year, they made exchanging the license a little easier (and cheaper) for foreigners who already know how to drive. This includes a shortened training that costs between 10,000-20,000 czk.

The training may prove to be useful if you’re not used to driving in a place with trams, a high volume of pedestrians, and if you’re not familiar with Czech traffic signals. Following completion of this abridged training, you receive a certificate, and you can take your driving exams. For the theoretical test, you can study a list of the exam questions, which although translated very badly, are the same ones you’ll see on the test. Some of the Czech translators during the theoretical exam are known for strongly hinting at correct answers. So that part is almost impossible to fuck up.

The driving test may be a little more difficult, especially if you make one of the simple mistakes that can immediately fail you, like not stopping at a pedestrian crosswalk, or failing to look both ways at an intersection. Nonetheless, your instructor should know exactly what the examiner is looking for and give you a heads up about the things you’re doing wrong before you get in the car for your practical exam.

And you would think this would be the worst of it, but the process of getting driving lessons and even passing the exams is nothing compared to the process of trying to actually get your license issued, which for some reason is an entirely separate process.

What happens after you pass your driving test?

Though your driving school arranges your driving tests as well as the translators for these exams, when you pass the exam, they hand you a package of documents that you need to personally take to apply for the license and send you on your way. They don’t offer any help with this part, and you will need help, because in addition to being extremely difficult, the people at the Drivers Register don’t speak a word of English.

According to the law, the simple things needed in addition to your successful completion of your driving training and exam are:

  • Valid proof of ID
  • Original driver’s license
  • Documents proving habitual residence in the territory of the Czech Republic

That last point is where they will bureaucracy foreigners to death to avoid giving them a license. That’s because if you don’t have permanent residence, the person you happen to get at the Drivers Register gets to decide what is or isn’t sufficient proof. Some examples (provided by the City of Prague) include:

  • confirmation of temporary residence in accordance with the Act on the Residence of Foreigners in the Czech Republic,
  • extract from the real estate cadastre confirming ownership rights to the real estate,
  • lease agreement for real estate,
  • employer’s confirmation of employment,
  • extract from the trade register,
  • possibly also other documents that can help prove that you are actually staying in the territory of the Czech Republic.

From others’ experiences, these documents can mean anything from phone bills, utilities in your name, gym memberships, and bank statements to Wolt food delivery receipts or mail delivered to your home. If you manage to convince them that you live here, you submit your application, pay the processing fee, and return in about 20 days to pick up your driver’s license.  But you pretty much want to assume that everything that can go wrong will go wrong and be prepared for the process to not go so smoothly.

Our experience exchanging a US license in the Czech Republic

At the start of the year, when the law changed to simplify the process, my wife registered for the shortened exchange training and exam using her US driver’s license. She took some lessons, which were so helpful that she did an additional one, and subsequently passed both the practical and theoretical exams with flying colors on the first try.

Expecting some push-back at the Vyšehrad Driver Register, she went to apply for the license with our landlord, a Czech national who also submitted and signed a document in his name certifying that she had been living at his property for years. Combined with her health insurance records and Czech work contract, what more proof could they need, right?

Well, apparently that was not enough. They literally told her, “The work contract only proves that you were employed on the day that you signed it.” Our rental confirmation didn’t make a difference – even our Czech-speaking landlord being there in person vouching for her stay didn’t matter. See, despite having all kinds of proof of prolonged residence in Prague, my wife happened to be in the process of renewing her residence permit, so she didn’t have a residence card, only a bridge visa in her passport. So the first time they went, she was told this would not be enough and she needed to get a document from the foreign police confirming her residence. So off we went to the foreign police to obtain said document and try again.

The second time, again accompanied by our landlord, they were once again met with a bored administrator immediately shaking her head without even looking through all the documents. This time, they denied her application because she didn’t have an International Driving Permit (IDP) to accompany her US license. “This license could be for anything. We need international confirmation to prove it’s the same category as the license you’re applying for.” Mind you, at this point, she had completed driving school without an IDP, and she passed the test under the supervision of a government employee without an IDP. But to apply for the physical card, she would need an IDP.

If you want to know more about the process of getting an IDP quickly when you’re already abroad, read more here.

They also told her that she would need her new Czech residence card to be able to apply. This is problematic, because it takes months to renew a residence card, and because the driving exam certificate expires. If you complete the full driving course as a first-time driver, you need to apply for the license within 6 months of passing the exam. However, if you only complete the short-training course for license exchange, you have 30 days to apply for the license after you pass your exam.

At this point, in a panic, my wife went back to the driving school, where they recommended applying for the license at Černošice or outside of Prague because they are more lenient. And since her documents were quickly about to expire, they told her to “force them to accept the application and let you submit the missing documents later.” Imagine forcing the ghouls at the Drivers Register to accept anything.

So we decided to get help from someone who is used to dealing with Czech bureaucracy, the person who handles our immigration paperwork with the Ministry of the Interior. They marched in there without the new residence card and without the IDP (at this point, it was on its way from the US) and with all the same documents as before as proof of residence in the Czech Republic. And after he heatedly yelled at them for a few minutes, they finally accepted my wife’s application, although they told her they wouldn’t issue the license until she had obtained the residence permit. Instead they told her to wait for a letter with further instructions.

About a week later, however, someone from the Drivers Register emailed her and told her to come in to take a picture and pay the processing fee. I guess they decided she had suffered enough and didn’t need to wait for the residence permit. So after 20 days of processing, she successfully exchanged her US license (which she had to surrender along with the IDP that cost about $200 to get and overnight here) for a shiny new Czech license.

driver's license in the czech republic

If all of this seems incredibly stressful, overwhelming, and disorganized, that’s because it is! Everyone seems to have a different experience, but the general consensus is that the whole thing is a nightmare. Everyone just gets a different-flavored nightmare depending on who they get.

Some tips on getting or exchanging your driver’s license in the Czech Republic

  • Carefully consider how bad you need to.

We decided to spend all that money and my wife’s time and effort because we got a dog, and it’s significantly easier to travel around with him than to take the train. But if you live in Prague and you only travel outside of it to occasionally to go to Berlin or Vienna, you probably don’t need a license. Use our wonderful and affordable public transportation and train system.

  • Try to avoid starting the process when you are in the process of renewing your residence permit.

It’s very possible that our particular situation was much worse because the only “legal” proof she had that she lived here was a temporary sticker on her passport with 3 months of validity. I would recommend avoiding this hurdle by ensuring that your residence permit was issued more than 185 days ago but still has at least a few months of validity.

  • Avoid having to obtain an IDP at the last minute by getting one ahead of time.

If you suspect that at some point you might decide to get a Czech license, I recommend you apply for an IDP in person the next time you visit your home country (which is the only one that can issue an IDP for your license). This will save you a ton of money and stress in trying to get that at the last minute. Not everyone is asked for an IDP, but it’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.

People will have you believe that Vyšehrad is the only place where you can apply for the license. But you can also apply at the Podskalská 19, Prague 2 office of Černošice. This office is slightly less contentious, so you may have easier success. You might even have better luck if you leave Prague altogether. As long as you speak Czech or have a Czech speaker, a small office outside of Prague probably isn’t going to care enough (or know enough) about what is needed to give you a hard time.

  • Bring more documents than you think you need.

To save yourself additional trips to the Drivers Register, I recommend taking every shred of proof you have that you have lived in the Czech Republic. Print out your health and social security statements, take bank statements showing income from your job, bring any bills that have your name and address, bring a job contract, bring pay stubs, bring your housing lease or your mortgage contract. Drown them in paperwork.

  • Be prepared to still need further proof.

There are two documents they may request that will take you some time to obtain. One is confirmation of residence from the Foreign Police, which you can get anytime without an appointment at the Foreign Police office where you registered when you first moved to the Czech Republic. The other document comes from MOI and it’s a History of Residence, which includes information about all periods of residence in the Czech Republic. The problem with this document is that it takes 30 days to obtain after you request it.

  • Force them to accept your application.

Though it sounds like foolhardy advice, in the event that you don’t have the proof they want and it will take some time to get those documents, refuse to leave until they accept the ones you have so they don’t expire. It works! They will probably send you a letter in the mail stating that you are missing documents and buy you time to get everything else. Though as we experienced, my wife was allowed to get her license just a few days after they accepted the initial documents.

The alternative is to say fuck it…

If we’re being honest… and this isn’t legal advice of course, but if you absolutely have to drive, chances are you will probably be fine with your foreign license. In theory, it could be considered as driving without a valid license. You could also invalidate a rental car agreement/insurance in the event of an accident. But many, many people have been driving in the Czech Republic and around the EU for years with a license issued abroad and not been arrested or gotten deported.

This also comes down to the police officer who might be stopping you. But if you’re driving with a foreign license, accompanying IDP, a driving test certificate, and a letter from the Czech Drivers Register that your proof of residence is insufficient, then I think you could successfully argue that the Czech Republic doesn’t believe you’re a resident, so the 185 day requirement to exchange your license doesn’t apply to you. I’m fairly certain that people have gotten away with way less sturdy excuses.

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