Do I Need a Road Test when Converting a Foreign License?

Oh, the driver’s license topic can never be exhausted in a blog about South Africa, or so it seems. Remember my post How to Convert Your Foreign Driver’s License to a South African Driver’s License? I thought I had it all covered there. I talked about what to do if

  • you are a temporary resident
  • your foreign license is not issued in English
  • you are a permanent residence
  • your foreign license expires while you are in South Africa
  • none of all this matters because your licensing office has decided to make its own rules.

However, through continued reader questions and a lively exchange of comments, I have gleaned a little bit more information, which I wanted to share here.

Perhaps a road test in South Africa doesn’t have to be a bad thing, in the right place and the right car (picture taken in Fraenschhoek, August 2012).

How many years of grace period do I get between becoming a permanent resident and needing a South African license?

In aforementioned post, it was established that you had a ONE YEAR grace period from becoming a permanent resident (PR) to needing to convert to a South African driver’s license (if you are only a temporary resident, you do NOT need a SA license, period, no matter how long you live I South Africa – that much we all agree on).

One reader, Kevin, disagreed with the one year timeframe. FIVE (5) YEARS is the correct time period, he says:

I have just spoken to the head of Randburg License Dept. From the time of obtaining permanent residence a person has 5 (five) years to convert the license. They will only convert to the code of license on the foreign license so they have to do an EB. If the person would rather do just code B then the application is as per normal to obtain a learner’s license and then do the test for the code B. The conversion requires just a driving test and no theory test. The application for conversion must be done in Sandton if their residence is in Sandton, Randburg if residing in Randburg etc. Hope that clarifies the matter.

Kevin helpfully adds that the time period USED TO BE 12 months or one year, but that this changed “quite some time ago to 5 years.”

While I was glad to have this time period question cleared, his comment threw up a host of other questions, namely about the classes of license you can apply for, and the need for a road test.

I looked up the classes for an SA license, and in a nutshell, here they are:

  • Class A refers to motorcycles, smaller and bigger ones
  • Class B and EB refers to light vehicles, with or without trailer. B is for no trailer or small trailer, EB is for a bigger trailer
  • Class C and EC are for buses and trucks and generally vehicles that as an expat you won’t have to worry about, unless you are planning to move to South Africa to become a truck driver.

I take Kevin’s comment to mean the following: If your foreign license allows you to drive a truck or vehicle pulling a large trailer, then you have to pass all the hurdles that a South African license would require you to pass for that same class. I.e. you can’t just switch your license to a lesser class if the foreign license gives you a “better” class. Your best case scenario would be that your foreign license is a very regular license for basically just a car and perhaps a small trailer, and all you have to do is take a road test at the licensing office nearest your local residence, and you’ll be on your way.

However, do you actually need a road test?

Debbie, another reader, clarified this further.

Yes you do need to do the road test if it has been MORE THAN 12 MONTHS since getting PR, and because an ID takes so long you probably do need to. I did my license at Randburg. It was a bit of a schlep but it has made my life so much easier.

Aha! So while you get a five year grace period, you get punished by the fact that you now have to do a road test if you go past the original one year period. Seems like the clear advice here is that if you should become a permanent resident in South Africa, and you are lucky enough to get your papers stating such within “only” 12 months of waiting on Home Affairs, then get your butt over to the nearest licensing office pronto to with you new shiny SA ID card to convert your license with the least amount of hassle.

Right?

Well, reader Kelly has this word of warning:

My colleague had his PR for less than 1 year and he still had to do the road test.

Okay, I give up. Seems like my conclusion in the last post still holds true:

“But if I’ve learned anything during three years in South Africa, it is that not all government offices are created equal. Every one of them seems to fly by their own set of rules, and perhaps a yet other sets of rules depending on the day, or the weather.”

From what I’ve gleaned, the Marlboro office seems to be extra tough, Randburg ok but the lines long, Longdale not so strict about having to show your SA ID, and Edenvale has no clue. At least one reader describes Cape Town to actually know what they’re doing. Not that you have a choice as to where to go. Perhaps when house shopping you should factor the location of the “easiest” driver’s license office into the decision making process!

Does converting my license mean I have to give up my home country license?

This is another question worth considering. Debbie claims she got to keep hers because she took the road test (because her PR didn’t come through within the 12 month timeframe), so that’s a bit of a bonus. But Stephanie, who I quoted in the previous blog post, says that she didn’t have to give up her American license either, even though she also didn’t have to perform a road test. She got off easy, you’ll say – but in turn she had a host of other issues dealing with Home Affairs.

Obtaining a driver’s licenses seems to be one of the lesser ordeals of South African bureaucracy, all things considered. But if you think your can apply a simple set of rules to how it’s done, you are sadly mistaken.

A German saying I heard often in my childhood seems to sum it up quite nicely:

“Warum einfach, wenn’s auch kompliziert geht?” (why easy when it can be complicated?)

I’m sure this is not the definitive word on foreign vs SA licenses and road tests. I welcome all your comments and shared experiences!