Foreign drivers flock to switch licences

South African driving licence
7 Nov, 2012 11:53am Julie Sinclair

More than a million drivers have converted to UK licence with no training

More than one million motorists have converted foreign driving permits to a British licence over the past 15 years, without needing any training on British roads.

The amazing figure was obtained via a Freedom of Information request by insurer, and prompted the cover provider to call for mandatory formal training for these motorists, who could have learned to drive in countries as far flung as Zimbabwe.

Chief claims officer Robin Reames said: “UK roads are very different to those overseas, so it’s vital new motorists learn as much as they can, which could include a few lessons from an instructor.”

But Auto Express has found that not all insurers can judge whether these drivers pose a greater risk on UK roads, as they don’t collect data on where their policyholders obtained their licence – and this includes Plus, the Motor Insurance Bureau admitted this data isn’t currently available on the Motor Insurance Database, which insurers use to share data.

The DVLA explained motorists obtaining their licence in some countries outside the EU can legitimately drive here for up to 12 months, before converting to a UK licence without extra lessons or a retest, as their training is seen to be equivalent to ours. But it admitted the system was open to abuse.

A spokesman said: “We’ve heard of drivers exchanging a licence from a country we don’t recognise, say India, for a Hong Kong licence, then converting this licence to a UK one. We plan to close this loophole with a new law that could come in this year.”

Top licence switchers

Below are the top 10 countries with the highest number of drivers converting to a GB licence in the past 15 years.

Position Country Number
1 South Africa 149,897
2 Poland* 135,079
3 Australia 103,052
4 New Zealand 56,478
5 Hong Kong 46,312
6 Northern Ireland 43,570
7 Zimbabwe 37,839
8 Japan 37,348
9 Lithuania* 32,546
10 Italy 30,890

* Since 2004

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kinda goes with the increase in accidents i suppose....cannot drive properly cause they are not trained accidents rate goes up. makes you wonder if the government has figured this out, probably take a few years and a shed load of tax payers money for them to do that

I hope they close this loop hole and ensure that every British driver who moves abroad, is forced to re-take their test rather than just blatantly swapping their UK license for a local one in their country of destination.

Well wouldn't you just look at all those foreigners from Northern Ireland!! Last time I checked my licence (which I obtained in Northern Ireland by sitting the UK driving test and Theory test) it said United Kingdom. Strange indeed!

Seamus, you are totally correct, last time I checked, NI is part of the UK as " the United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland", I wonder if its a misprint and they meant ROI

This is a poorly researched article. The South African driving test is the same as the UK's test, hence the ability to swap your licence within the first 12 months.

What a stupid article. British people go abroad all the time and drive without retaking their test. More than one million people have come to the UK, this is just inline with immigration. I am an Australian, driven here for 10 years, never had an accident. Whats so different about the British roads? Britain isn't the only country that can teach people to drive.

The author should be ashamed of basically occusing foreign drivers of being sub standard to British taught drivers. I am from South Africa and have driven in the UK for 7 years with never a single point on my licence, and no accidents. Why are UK roads so different? Ridiculous!

What about British drivers driving in Europe on the right hand side of the road? Should people who drive on the left side of the road (for example Britain) be forced to take an exam when driving in Europe or America for that matter? Time to close the loophole, I agree for British people too!

Could not agree any more with you Tony! I am also from South Africa and driven here for over 5 years. Somehow I think the roads in SA are probably worse with broken down Taxis, Goats and Pigs walking across the road. I must admit driving in the UK wasn't a challenge at all, in fact it is easier.

Poland and Italy, listed above are in the European Union, any change to current law would have to be voted by the EU . Thousands of UK citizens who now reside in Spain, exchange their EU driving licence for a Spanish one. In fact at regular control points if you are a UK citizen, resident in Spain and found to have a UK licence you are fined on the spot and given 15 days to change it. UK citizens resident in Spain have a much cheaper insurance premium than in the UK and that is with Direct Line.

I have a house in Florida and needed to get a local licence within a year to keep my car insurance valid, AND this requires you to take a short test , additionally as a no-permanent resident that licence needs to be renewed annually. ...... though when you see the standard of driving there (abysmal) I'm unconvinced many would pass a UK test!!!!

What a pointless, badly researched article! South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Hong Kong, Zimbabwe and Japan all drive on the left as we do in the UK and (aside perhaps from Zimbabwe) have similar driving conditions to the UK in their cities. As has already been pointed out Northern Ireland is part of the UK and drivers there take the same test as everyone else in the UK. As for Poland, Lithuania and Italy, being EU member states nationals of those countries have every right to be treated in the same way UK drivers are in other parts of the EU.

Perhaps you don't realise but Northern Ireland is part of the UK - any "switch" in licence is I would suspect caused when a person relocates from that part of the UK to what is loosely called "mainland GB". The converse will also apply when GB licence holders relocate to NI.

Hi guys,

Thanks for all of your comments.

First thing's first, the Northern Ireland point. We were also a bit sceptical about its inclusion in the report, but we've triple checked and it is correct.

Here's what a spokesman for the DVLA told us: “The DVLA issues licences for Britain – England, Scotland and Wales – and the DVA issues licences for Northern Ireland. It’s a devolved power and because the licences are issued by a different body - they are separate to the ones issued in the rest of Britain. Drivers from Northern Ireland can use their licences in Britain for up to a year, but after that point they should exchange them for one issued by the DVLA. The same applies to European drivers.”

And secondly, we chose the words for this article very carefully so as not to imply that foreign drivers are in some way "sub standard" - that's not what we're saying. The point of this news story was to share the statistics and to raise awareness about the need for better checks. And if extra training will improve road safety, then it's of benefit to everyone.

Thanks again,
Auto Express

And as for the suggestion of swapping an Indian licence for a Hong Kong licence - the Hong Kong authorities were wise to this problem years ago and it just can't be done. You can easily use your UK licence to get a Hong Kong licence but they have a list of countries whose licences will not be recognised.

IMHO the basis of the research should investigate the correlation between the increase in accidents caused by nationals from foreign countries who obtained their licenses outside the UK. I sincerely cannot see the point of this article and must agree that driving on the right side as opposed to the left has a far greater risk compared to drivers from countries that also drive on the left, and in those countries listen exposed to inferior road conditions in rural areas. This, in fact, makes for a better driver who is more alert and aware of potential road hazards. Requiring a driver to retake a test will not reduce the risk of accidents.

Just checked, my licence also says UK, even if the issuing party is listed as DVLNI and not DVLA. Slightly more accurate (ignoring politics) than the somewhat incorrect 'GB' identifiers they make us put on our cars when driving continental.

Could've sworn I've sat a theory, practical, and read a highway code which was mostly verbatim of the GB highway code. Use roads daily which use UK standard signage, road markings etc. and managed to drive across GB plenty of times without writing my car off!

The plastic licence itself caused some confusion as a young adult at uni in Scotland, when the bouncer at a club refused it as ID, claiming it was fake, as it was slightly less flimsy and has a slightly different fontface from the Swansea versions.

When I visited Spain, I met a fair few ex-pats who were driving around in UK-reg'd cars, tax up, no doubt MOT up, not sure what their insurance status was, and probably with the old "home" address.

Similarly, our cars use an ancient vehicle registration system that hides the age behind plates such as "CXZ 1234", "JIG 4321" etc., I bought a car in England previously and had to 'import' it in NI. Not a full SVA import, but a bit more form filling than a regular V5 transfer.

I used my NI car in Scotland when I was over studying. People thought my name was MAZ with a personalised plate.

Have known it to cause issues with personalised plates, someone bought a GB plate but it had to be registered on a car in GB, transferred to NI, then registered on his NI car. Of course, the numberplate agents took a healthy cut for all of this admin...

Driving standards in NI are appalling, even compared to those of central Scotland. Hard hitting graphic local road safety adverts are shown regularly, but people still take too many chances.

Thanks - I now also know which insurer to boycott when my cars' policies come up for renewal...

I have to agree with Mountkeen and an Australian living and working in UK for ten years
there is precious little difference in the road systems (even roads in
Melb and Syd have got A and M designations!) The ability to exchange one's licence for a UK is a nod of recognition to those systems that are equivalent to the UK but also a last link to the Commonwealth (the profile of which seems to have vanished in the last 10 or so years...look what happened to the Commonwealth Institute!) The real problem is with
the article's implication that us 'foreign' drivers would have
difficulty over here and tacitly we could potentially be dangerous
drivers due to 'inferior' standards: "UK roads are very different to
those overseas..." This overlooks how long drivers had been previously driving in their home country, not to mention systems in countries like AUS, NZ, et al
are all of UK origin (what can one expect now that we are 'foreigners'
over here!)...If things in OZ are so 'different' then maybe Vauxhall
should stop selling the VXR8 over here!

What's the problem here. Driving licences are issued by individual countries after some sort of test, I presume. If someone from a different country wants a licence to drive in that country then surely a test is not inappropriate. Even within, say, EU, NI etc there are legal and procedure differences. Similarly, most, if not all US drivers will only have automatic experience, but can rent a manual car. Alongside any test would be the opportunity to make the driver aware of these differences, and check they are safe. Any driver that,s goog enough - re comments from SA etc drivers won,t have a problem. Annual road deaths in India are around 100,000, in US about 35,000. In SA the latest annual figures show total road deaths as 13,800 (UK 2,200), 208 road deaths per 100,000 vehicles (UK 7), so comments in respect of SA contributors are surely correct, but certainly not representative or typical of the safety record in SA. While we,re at it, if we had retesting for all drivers anyway - every 5 or 10 years, then drivers from overseas or uk would be treated the same.

LOL. It's Brits that have to learn how to drive oversee as well as in UK. UK Has the larger % of accidents in EU?? and has the larger number of speed cameras to, strict and rude police force, humps bumps and other no sense road slowing down invention. How can this be? Also why in the continent when it;s green light at traffic lights people just go while in UK (with the yellow light in between) it takes an extra 5 to 30 sec just to put the car on gear for a Brit cross that junction? freak me out. I have been living in London 20 years and still can get used to drivers. Perhaps I feel privileged not to have start driving here. Where I from there is no age discrimination insurance wise, Therefore all youngster can afford an insurance. Wile here you start at age of 30 (unless you can afford 2k insurance pa) me at 30 I had 12 years of continuously driving experience. When I go on holidays first think I do it's rent a car. A Brit get to know the very nearest PUB. I get to see the all island the Brit get to see the all village. I love this country and I really love Brits and still believe that you are the best people in the planet. BUT YOU CAN'T DRIVE.