If you're going to France with a valid foreign licence, you should not have any problems driving in the country - provided that you exchange you licence for a French one within the required time period.
Also, cultural differences in driving should not be forgotten - these go beyond the driving-on-the-right/left-side-of-the-road adaption requirement. Before moving, it's also a good idea to read a theory book about driving in France before venturing the French roads. This is especially true if you're moving to a large city.
Exchanging your driver's licence
Anyone living in France for more than one year, regardless of their country of origin, has to exchange their driver's licence for a French one.
However, not everyone exchanging their licence needs to take a driving test. France has agreements with many other States (and not only the EU/EEA but also 15 states in the US, and many other ones) so that the exchange is facilitated and does not require any exams. The MFE website has the complete list of countries that don't require a driving test for the licence exchange.
As with many other countries, the French traffic law has a points-based system. You lose points on your licence each time you are caught committing a traffic infraction.
For the fist three years, people have a restricted licence, which only allows for six points worth of infractions before being suspended. If you need to exchange your licence in France, and you've had it for less than three years, you will be granted a restricted licence. If it's been less than one year since you've passed your driving test, you will need to put a sticker with the red letter 'A' on the back of your car, to show other drivers that you're inexperienced.
The exchange process is fairly easy, and you will need the following documents:
- a copy of your "carte de sejour" (visa/permit of residence)
- a copy of your passport
- your foreign driver's license
- an official translation of the foreign license
- 2 ID photos
- an envelope, which will be used by the French authorities to send your new licence to you
(Re-)Sitting the Driving License Exam
Those who can't exchange their driver's licence will need money and patience in order to be able to drive in France.
Getting a driver's licence from scratch can cost up to 900€, depending on the number of driving lessons necessary. This because you will need to get your licence through a driving school (known in French as auto-école). It is the driving school's job to not only educate you when it comes to driving theory and practice, but they also need to help you with the entire process of getting a driver's licence. This includes making your exam appointments with the local authority (préfecture).
The theory test
You can choose to practice for your theory exam either independently, or with the driving school. There is a wealth of materials both online and in French bookstores, which give you all the information you need to pass. When taking the theory exam, you have 30 seconds to answer each question, and you must get 35 out of the 40 questions right. If your French isn't perfect, you can ask for a translator, who can help you read the theory test. This removes the time constraint for the exam.
The practical test
Before you take the practical test, you will need to take some driving lessons.
These lessons are only available to be purchased on a package basis (of eight or 10 hours with a driving instructor, for example). This can be over what is needed by an experienced driver who is only taking the classes to comply with the French requirement. However, those getting their licence for the first time may find that they need to purchase two or more packages before they are deemed ready to sit the exam.
You can choose an automatic or manual car for your practical test. However, keep in mind that those who take the test with an automatic car will only be allowed to drive automatic vehicles. This is a restriction that will appear on your licence. In addition, if you need to wear glasses or any other special equipment to drive, this will be noted on your licence.
The practical test lasts 20 minutes, and needs to be done wit a car that has two sets of controls, one for you, and the other for the examiner.