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Posted by Sean Cooper
March 3rd, 2021 at 1:02 pm

There’s been a huge amount of hyperbole spouted about how Brexit will affect things over the years since the UK voted to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum, and the validity or otherwise of our UK driving licenses has been one of many subjects discussed.

Of course, the first thing to establish is what anyone actually means by “after Brexit,” as when that moment really occurs is open to interpretation.

When might things change?

As things stand, there are two dates that matter, and how things will turn out could be very different, depending on which Brexit date you’re actually talking about. The first date of January 31st 2020 has been and gone, and in the immortal words of the former Prime Minister, “nothing has changed.”

Until the end of 2020, the UK remains in what’s been termed a transition period, which means all the rules and agreements that were in place when the UK was a full member of the European Union still apply. Therefore, the current UK driving license is fully recognised throughout the European Economic Area, which means all the EU member states as well as Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway.

So, until the end of 2020, nobody has to worry about filling in any forms, applying for a different license or meeting some type different standards if they want to drive on the continent with their UK driving license.

Of course, the elephant in the room is what happens from January 1st 2021, which is when the transition period is no longer in force. There is an option in the Withdrawal Agreement the UK agreed with the EU for the transition period to be extended beyond the 31st December 2020, but any further extension to the transition period would have to be agreed by the middle of this year. If there was to be a further extension implemented, everything would continue to remain the same until the end of that additional period.

However, when the government put the Withdrawal Agreement legislation through parliament for it to become law, it stated in legislation that no further extension would be sought beyond the current 31st December 2020 deadline.

This then raises the spectre of what happens from January 1st 2021, and the simple answer is we do not know. In fact, nobody can say what the situation will be with any certainty whatsoever after the end of the year.

How might things change?

What we do know is there are currently two possibilities. One is that the UK government and the EU agree to an overarching trade deal that will include the mutual recognition of driving licenses. The other possibility is that there won’t be time to come to an agreement, and everything would then be up in the air.

At this point I’ll make a prediction, which is just my opinion, so don’t take it for anything other than that. Regardless of whether a trade deal is agreed or not by the end of the year, I cannot see us needing anything other than our current driving licenses to be able to drive completely legally in the EEA from 2021 onwards. In the 21st century, it’s pretty hard to imagine bureaucratic barriers to being able to drive on the continent being implemented. Although there may be some involved in commercial driving and logistics who would like to make it harder for UK drivers to operate freely in Europe after Brexit, it seems likely that the negative impact it would have on tourism for a lot of European countries would be totally unacceptable.

It’s always best to be prepared for the worst though, so let’s have a look at how things work outside the EU and how things could operate after the transition period comes to an end.

Even if the UK and EU don’t come to an overall agreement on trade, there’s a strong possibility that issues such as driving licenses, medical cover and flying could be addressed with a number smaller individual agreements. Because obtaining a driving license here in the UK is a reasonably rigorous process with a strong testing element, it’s hard to see a good reason why other countries wouldn’t agree to a reciprocal agreement of recognizing each other’s standards.

Even if there isn’t agreement at EEA or even EU level, most individual countries would probably be only too happy to make their own agreements with the UK over driving license equivalence.

The off-the-shelf solution

If the worst comes to the worst though, and the EU or some countries don’t want to accept our driving license, there’s already an option available on the shelf. The already-available option is something called the International Driving Permit (IDP), and it’s readily available and very inexpensive.

You can buy an IDP from the Post Office and it only costs £5.50. Some countries might also require you to carry your UK driving license, so it would be wise to always take that along with you with your IDP, just in case.

There is a caveat that needs pointing out at this point though, and it’s the fact some countries might have stricter rules if you only have a paper license and not a photocard. The DVLA says there are still around 3 million drivers in the UK who only have a paper license and no photocard, so if you think you might want to drive abroad at some point in the future it would be wise to sort yourself out with a photocard license sooner, rather than later.

Just to complicate things a little further, there are two different types of IDP that could be required in European countries in the future. The two different IDPs are the 1949 and the 1968, and those numbers refer to the dates of the road traffic act conventions that established them.

The earlier of the two, the 1949 IDP, was brought in to cover you for driving during a visit to Cyprus and Andorra and for longer visits to Iceland, Malta, Spain and Ireland. The 1968 IDP was brought in 19 years later and covers all the other countries that are part of what was an expanding EU at the time, as well as Norway and Switzerland that are part of the EEA.

While most countries wouldn’t require UK drivers to have an IDP if they were only there for a short time, such as a holiday, there are a few exceptions where an IDP could be needed in all cases. As things stand, the only countries that might require an IDP in all cases would be France, Italy, and Cyprus. In most European countries, like Spain and Germany, an IDP would only be required for longer set periods such as three, six, or 12 months.

Even if the worst came to the worst and no agreements on driving license equivalence were agreed, you still wouldn’t have to have anything other than a UK license to drive in Switzerland or the Netherlands.

UK residents living abroad

If you are a UK citizen who lives in an EU or EEA country who currently relies on their UK driving license, it’s possible you might have to get a license issued by an EU member state, and that could mean passing a new test in that country. However, it’s already been stated that EU and EEA licenses will continue to be acceptable in the UK for visitors and residents after the end of the transition period, regardless of whether there are reciprocal arrangements in place.

Don’t panic

Most of the driving I’ve done abroad in my life has been in the USA, and I’ve never had an issue with my UK license. It’s had some use over there too. As well as being essential for hiring a car at the airport, it’s also been used extensively by numerous Sheriff and Highway Patrol agencies to show I’m legal to drive, but perhaps not at the speed I was doing before I was pulled over by them.

Although there’s every chance UK licenses will be valid in all EEA territories beyond the end of the transition period, the government will continually keep its website updated to reflect any potential changes.

However, a related area where there could be big changes is insurance. Your UK insurance will still cover you until the end of 2020, but after that, it’s anyone’s guess what the situation will be. Once again, equivalence might be negotiated, but if it isn’t you might have to carry a Green Card from your insurer to prove you are insured to drive inside the EU and EEA.

The Green Card is only proof of third-party insurance coverage though, so you would have to make sure you’ve confirmed with your insurer at the time that you have the level of cover you require. If you are driving your own car, and not hiring one, you may also need to carry your V5c logbook with you to prove you have permission to take the car out of the UK.

For the moment then, there’s no need for concern if you’re planning on driving in Europe in 2020 as the same rules apply. They’ll probably remain the same after we exit the transition period too, but keep listening out for any potential changes nearer the time.