Passing the UK DSA Driving Test For Americans I: Provisional License


Recently, I went through the protracted ordeal of obtaining a full UK driving license.

In order to gain a full UK driving license, one must pass two examinations in the prescribed order:  the theory test and the practical test. 

The theory test comprises two parts delivered by computer.  Part one is a fifty-question multi-choice test based on the UK Highway Code which you answer via a computer touchscreen.  Part two is the somewhat controversial hazard test which you answer at the same computer screen using the mouse.

For me, there was a great disparity between how, on the one hand, these tests were presented to, and largely feared by, the public at large, and the reality in that they are simply a well designed sequence of tests aimed at emphasizing good practice and safe driving.  Without any formal UK driver training, I was able to ace the theory test (100%) and pass the practical driving test with very few driving faults. 

In this entry, the first in a series of three, I will reflect on my experience from beginning to end in the hope that it will shed light on the process and ease some of the anxiety and heartache for anyone currently embarking on the same journey.  Largely, this is written from the perspective of an individual transitioning from a United States license and driving environment to a UK license, however much of the detail could apply to individuals coming from one of the many other countries which have no reciprocal license arrangement with the UK.

In order to book the UK Driving Theory Test, one must first have a UK provisional license (similar to a US Learner’s Permit).  Unlike the US, where most mid- to large-sized towns have one or more offices authorized for the distribution of licenses (BMV/DMV), in the UK the issuing of all driving licenses is undertaken by a centralised agency, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA), in Swansea.  To get a UK provisional driving license, one must fill out the required form (currently called the D1 application form).  You can get this form from any branch of the UK Post Office.  Once complete,  send it to the DVLA in Swansea with a recent passport photograph, your current passport and payment (currently GBP 50.00) in an appropriate form.  

If sending a passport through the post sounds like a risky undertaking then I agree, it is.  However, the Post Office offer an expedited, registered service for this purpose and I strongly suggest paying the GBP 5.00 and using it.  Likewise, when returning your passport, since the DVLA cannot be held liable for loss in transit, it is a good idea to pay for registered, expedited service for the return (and make a note of the serial number on the return envelope before sending it away).  By default, the DVLA send back your passport as regular first class mail. 

The DVLA are understandably strict when checking the form and will not hesitate to return it as incomplete if there is reason to do so (for example, if your signature is not entirely within the bounds of the box provided).  If time is tight, then you can have the form checked at a local DVLA center for a small fee and they will also send in your form to Swansea.  Some post offices also offer this form checking service for the same small fee.

The DVLA will send back your passport once they have performed the required checks (usually within 10 days) and provided there are no errors or incomplete sections on the D1 form, your provisional license should be with you within three weeks of them receiving your application.

Here are some additional recommendations based on my first hand experience:

  • be sure to double check  your application (or have someone else run their eyes over it) and wherever possible have it checked and received at a local DVLA office.  In my experience, post office staff were able to answer only the more superficial questions related to the process; however, this might not nescessarily be true of all post office staff;
  • be fully aware of the photograph requirements as these have changed in recent times and may be different from current US passport photograph regulations (for example, you must take off your glasses for the photo even if you are unable to see anything without them etc.)
  • hand in your application at a local DVLA office;  the staff will check your form and knowledgeably answer any questions you have related to the process.  Also, depending on the origin of the passport you hold, they might be able to perform certain checks and return your passport on the spot;
  • if sending your passport to the DVLA in Swansea, be sure to include the necessary payment and paperwork to have your passport returned via insured registered mail (note the serial number of the return envelope!);
  • take appropriate funds to pay for your license processing fee, GBP 50.00 at the time of writing;  DVLA local offices will take a GB sterling cheque drawn on a UK bank, cash or banker’s check;  if you are not using a local DVLA office then be sure to send in the fee in an appropriate form;

Once you hand over the forms and payment, you’ll have to wait approximately three weeks before your provisional license arrives.  If you are under time contraints (as was I) then be sure to put this time to good use by beginning to prepare for your UK Driving Theory Test.

I cannot emphasise enough how important it is to get this process started as soon as possible.  If you carry a full US driving license then, at the time of writing, UK law permits you to drive on your US license for a maximum of twelve months commencing the day you enter the UK.  Before entering the UK, you should ensure your US license is valid for a further 12 months since because, depending on your circumstances and situation, it could take anything from 8 weeks to 12 months to get a full UK driving license.  Be aware there are many steps involved in obtaining a UK driving license, each of which can (and quite possibly will!) take a little longer than you anticipate.

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