I first got my driving permit when I was 15, which became a full driver’s license when I was 16, according to the rules of my home state of South Carolina. Thus, I have been driving for over half my life. When I first left America in 2005 I was issued a NATO driver’s license since I was part of the American military stationed in Europe. This was given automatically without any extra tests or even documentation. When I left the army I lost my NATO license, but continued to drive when necessary using my normal American license as a tourist would. I have driven in most countries in Europe, in a variety of cars and rental cars, and on both sides of the road. So when I first started to consider the process of getting an Italian license, I was not worried. This was my first mistake.
When I officially took up residence in Italy with a state-issued permesso di soggiorno (residence and work permit), I learned that I would be able to drive with my American license for the first year, and then I would have to get the Italian license. For reasons still unclear to me, the USA and Italy have no convention of mutually converting driver’s licenses. This is despite the fact that the two countries have a close relationship, and the USA even has several military bases and several thousand American soldiers stationed in Italy–the only country that can say that. Obviously, every country in the European Union can use their own national license to drive freely throughout the continent, and Italy has conventions with at least 20 other countries around the world, including Taiwan, Sri Lanka, Moldova, Ecuador, Guatemala, and many others, but not America. This is the first problem. Just as I am against visas and passport controls that limit people’s freedom of movement, I also think that international driving conventions could be streamlined, especially between such ostensibly close allies as Italy and the USA.
So the matter of doing a bit of paperwork to convert my license was out of the question. After pondering and postponing for months (and years), I finally decided my only recourse was to go through the full process of getting an Italian license. I had held out hope there was some option I had not discovered or some person who could give me the golden ticket (as much in Italy depends on who you know just as much as the letter of the law), but it was not to be. It was all uphill from here. I have some experience with Italian bureaucracy and was prepared for the worst, but I was sadly overly optimistic. Hitherto my worst experience in Italian bureaucracy involved the last step of getting my permesso di soggiorno at the Questura (the police station). This was an unpleasant affair in which I lucked out by getting a kindly officer who smoothed over some of the irregularities that are bound to occur in the mound of unrealistic paperwork. If you encounter one of those functionaries who is rude or having a bad day, it can literally change the course of your life plans. My experience getting the driver’s license made the Questura look like a vacation.
I first called the Ufficio Motorizzazione Civile, the Italian DMV (henceforth referred to as the UMC) to get information on how to go about getting the license. I was able to speak to an actual human and things seemed rather straightforward. I was to go to the office and submit an application, then I would have to pass the written theoretical test followed by the practical driving test. I proceeded to the office one morning in early October. It was a large gray building in the middle of a field near the highway, with a too-small parking lot and a long row of dirty windows. There were no less than 20 people crowded outside the main door smoking so that I had to cross a tangible cloud of smoke to get into the door. There was a disorganized gaggle of humans variously coming and going, but mostly waiting. I located the all-important box that issues numbers and maneuvered in front of the next person who would have to wait at least until after my turn. My number was 854. I looked to the left and saw an empty waiting room with a photocopier. To the right was an active waiting room with 9 sportelli (counters or windows), of which no more than 5 had a real-life person in front of them. Upon examining the labels, I discovered that only one of the windows was responsible for driving licenses–sportello 8. The number currently being served at sportello 8 was 836. 18 people in front of me. To recap, at an office whose primary function involves the issuing of driver’s licenses, only one window out of 9 was open for driver’s license related applications. I waited for one hour exactly until my turn came up. I had obviously had time to observe the lady at sportello 8 for some time and thought I knew what to expect. When the man in front of me was finally finishing and slowly stepping away from the desk, the lady in charge abruptly left to go take an apparent coffee break. This was to be a recurrent theme of the UMC. When she finally came back I said that I would like to apply for a driver’s license, and she looked at me rather skeptically, then handed me a stack of papers whilst explaining everything I had to do before coming back. The whole transaction took less than a minute, and I was off, a bit sore from waiting but hopeful that this could get knocked out within the next month.
The biggest obstacle from the first set of challenges was the doctor’s visit. I learned that I was to visit my normal doctor, who would ask me some questions and give me permission to see a specialized doctor at another office. I scheduled the first visit immediately and answered some generic questions about my physical health and habits, which he checked off a list. He did not examine me in any other way, and the visit was free although normally doctors charge a fee for this service. The public health office was the next step. To schedule an appointment one had to call between 8-10 a.m., so I did this and fixed the appointment for the next week. I had to bring passport-sized photos (which I had made at an eyeglasses shop for 5 euro), and a receipt showing I had paid the required fees for this visit, which was 32 euro. I waited a bit in an empty room and then was invited in the office by a sour-looking doctor. I think he may have been called in on his day off (of which there are many for the Italian public sector), but anyway he invited me to sit down and then conducted a cursory eye exam in which I had to identify which letter he was pointing to. Then he checked a lot of boxes, stapled my picture to the document, put a large stamp carefully over the corner of the picture, and sent me on my way.
Along with the doctor’s fee, I needed to pay two other taxes or fees of some type that were necessary for the completion of the paperwork. There were two fees of 16 euro each, which must have been for the application itself, and these had to be paid at the post office. At the post office one cannot wait less than 20 minutes for any transaction on a good day, and so this was paid and the receipts were brought along with the completed paperwork (including, lest I forgot how important this is, two copies of everything as well as the original copy–you see, that photocopier I had seen earlier could not be counted on to work when you needed it) back to the UMC. Now familiar with the process, I walked swiftly indoors to secure my number as soon as possible (833 this time), and actually found an available chair in the corner. I was in luck because there were only 10 people ahead of me this time. I watched the other customers and employees with interest, trying to interpret what was happening at each desk. There was one desk just for license plates, apparently, and another which seemed to be for truck drivers or other large vehicles. There was one ominously named autoscuole (driving schools) which was occupied by one woman for almost a full 40 minutes, much to the displeasure of the other waiting driving school customers. I could not understand if they were signing up for driving schools or what exactly happened at that desk. Anyway, my number came up after 45 minutes, a bit shorter than before despite many fewer customers ahead of me, but the employee left to go take a coffee or bathroom break as soon as it was my turn. I stood suspended in space for around 15 minutes until he returned, and he took my application, scanned the documents, putting them in his own order, gave me back some copies he did not need, and typed in some lines into his computer. After no more than two minutes, he told me everything was in order and that I could come back no earlier than one month and one day later to schedule the exam. I did not understand the reason for this but I took his word for it and left, having spent another full hour for the visit.
One month and a week later, it was mid-November and I returned to the UMC to schedule my theory test. Apparently the wait in between the application was for the police and other offices to check the paperwork and make sure I was not an international fugitive or some such other problem. Taking my number and finding a chair in the other corner, I made myself comfortable and got out my book (I had learned the hard way that waiting in these offices is soul-sucking, especially when it becomes as routine as it was becoming for me). There were 27 people ahead of me. I read around 10-15 pages of my book (I am guessing), and 30 minutes passed. I looked up and only 8 people had been served at sportello 8 since I had arrived. I did not have time to risk waiting another hour so I left. I came back after the weekend on a Monday morning, when I predicted the line would be more manageable. I took my number with only 15 people ahead of me, and after exactly one hour it was my turn. I understood that one hour was the preordained wait time no matter how many numbers are ahead of me. I reached the window with the same man as before, who stayed seated and did not leave for his coffee/cigarette/bathroom break. He looked through a folder of papers, found my name, and gave me a new paper which told me that I was scheduled to take the theory exam in three weeks, on December 11th at 2:30 p.m. This was exactly during my work schedule so I asked my boss for permission to be absent at that time, and luckily one of my colleagues was free.
So far, so good, anyhow. Despite the long waits, and the long waiting period, I had a date to do the first exam and I dedicated myself to studying for it. I found a website with simulated exams just like the real one where I practiced and learned the ins and outs of the rules of the road. Since I have been driving for 18 years, including 7 years in Italy and Europe, many of the questions were a matter of applying my experience and common sense. Other questions were not so easy. There was a language barrier which I had to overcome by learning many of the technical and driving related vocabulary, and there were many obscure rules which no amount of deduction could have helped me intuit correctly. There was a wide variety of questions about particular speed limits during different conditions with different vehicles, questions about different types of licenses which I was not getting but needed to know about, and about various nomenclature of the types of signals and rules themselves. It was in fact rather confusing but I got to a point in which I typically missed no more than 3 or 4 out of each 40-question simulation (which is the threshold to pass this exam). Here is the website I used to study if any of the readers find themselves in position to follow in my footsteps: http://www.rmastri.it/webpatente/index.html
The day to take the test finally came, and I arrived 15 minutes early to be on the safe side. The normal waiting room I was accustomed to was empty and locked, since those windows are never open in the afternoon. I found the hitherto empty left-side waiting room overflowing with young people and their parents. In Italy you have to be 18 to get a driver’s license, and all of the apparent candidates today seemed to be taking their earliest opportunity. Their parents and driving instructors were there to cheer them on. Somehow I found a seat cramped in beside the photocopier and watched the scene unfold. After 10 minutes someone came out of a room and started calling names, the bearers of which formed a line and entered the mysterious hallway beyond. My name was not called. After another 10 minutes a different person came to call the names and I was once again uninvolved. Finally, after a further 5 minutes a disheveled woman in extremely high heels appeared and turned on a screen above the door which showed four different exam rooms full of computers. She called mine and several other names, and we followed her into one of the now-televised computer rooms. She took her queenly place at the head of a large empty table at the front of the room and called each person forth to check their documents. One rebellious youth ahead of me did not have his photograph included on the doctor’s form, and he claimed the doctor had not asked for it. After a brief argument the woman left the room to presumably go check with a supervisor. The wait was more than 10 minutes, after which she returned and made it clear to the youth that he could take the exam but it would be provisional until he had the correct documentation. Everyone else proceeded through her station without incident (except for the fact that she had never seen an American passport, or perhaps any passport, and took a long time to find the page with my name on it; she finally had to ask and I told her it was in the front), and we were instructed on how to use the computer program to take the test. It was exactly like the website I had used. It was 20 minutes long, and if anyone finished early they were to stay seated and silent. I took the test, confident that the questions were all quite obvious and known to me except one or two which I was only slightly unsure. After the 20 minutes expired the woman took a few minutes to process the results and then called each person up to the desk individually to receive back their paperwork and be told pass or fail. The guy in front of me failed with 5 errors. I had passed, but was not told my exact score. It was not important, as now I was moving on to the final step. Everything should be coming to a relatively easy close now.
All of this time the theory exam was my biggest worry, not to say I was particularly worried about it but that it presented the biggest barrier due to language and arcane rules. I had always assumed that once I got to the practical exam it would be no problem. After all, I knew how to drive and had done so for years. It was just a formality. During all my visits to the UMC and research on the internet I had never actually heard anything about how the next phase worked. I thought that the woman would tell me what to do next after I finished the theory exam. Instead, no one said anything and I went home. I called the office later and found out that I had to return the next day to pick up the official results and a new paper called the foglio rosa. I asked why it had not been ready immediately after the exam so that I could save another trip and another hour’s wait, and I was told that there was a large flow of paperwork that had to come from Rome and nothing had arrived yet. I was busy the next morning, and since the UMC is not open in the afternoon I waited until Monday. I took my number, waited the usual 60 minutes in the original waiting room, reading my book, and then was called forth to pick up my all-important foglio rosa. This paper says that I am practicing to get my driver’s license and allows me to drive with another person in the car who has had a license for at least 10 years. I was still not told anything about the practical test so I asked the employee when I could schedule it. The woman (the one from the first visit) told me that I needed to go register with a driving school to do it. Once again I was confused but these windows are not the place to debate or ask complicated questions, so I assumed there had been a misunderstanding.
When I got home I did some research again and discovered that it is impossible to do the practical test as an individual. It was necessary to register with and use a private driving school. This was according to a new law enacted two years earlier in 2012. Before that it had been possible to walk in to the UMC and sign up for the driving test, just as I had done at the DMV in America years before. Something did not seem right. Italy has a huge public sector with plenty of bureaucracy and public options for everything. How is it possible that I could not sign up for the practical test in the same office where I had done the theory test and all the other paperwork? It turns out that the new law was the product of one of the ministers in a short-lived technocratic (read: unelected) government. The minister’s name was Passera, and he had a history of shady dealings, even as far as Italian politicians (or any politicians) are concerned. My best guess is that somewhere or another this guy has a friend or a cousin who is involved in the autoscuola (driving school) business. because the only people this law would help are the autoscuole owners; for everyone else it is a huge extra and often unnecessary investment in time and money. The new law mandates that everyone must do at least 6 certified hours of driving lessons before taking the driving test. There is no exception or stipulation for anyone who has previous driving experience. If someone were a professional driver in neighboring Croatia for 25 years, for example, he would still have to do 6 hours of driving lessons with a private instructor.
After spending a few days to calm down and think of possible alternatives, I was left with no recourse but to start getting quotes from nearby driving schools. They were all the same. It was 150 euro to register with the school (I can’t think of any other situation in which you have to pay just to sign up, rather than for the actual lessons themselves), it was 34 euro per hour for lessons, which meant 204 euro, and then it would be 150 euro to take the actual test. Over 500 euro and lots of time that I did not have. One more thing, since I had done the theory exam myself, I had been issued a code on my foglio rosa signifying that I took the exam independently, as an individual. This code had to be changed since I needed to take the driving test under the authority of a driving school. No one bothered to tell me that it would have been impossible to take the driving test as an individual, and thus the code that they issued would have been useless according to new Italian laws. I had to pay an extra 9 euros in fees to change the code, which required waiting another 30 minutes in the post office to do so.
I walked into a school closest to my house and started to explain the situation. My best hope was that someone would understand that I knew how to drive and would be happy to help me go through the motions, either waiving the six hours or at least limiting it to one or two after they saw that there was nothing else to teach me. This is Italy, after all, and everything can be negotiated based on the person you are dealing with. The woman took my papers and started to sign me up. I asked when I could start and she said it was a busy time and it would not be until after the Christmas holidays. This was unacceptable, obviously. I had started this process in early October and had planned to be finished already. I called another school nearby my workplace. They said they would be happy to expedite the process and I could do all of the lessons in one week if I wanted. That’s more like it.
I went in to talk in person to understand how much they would facilitate the process for me. I was made to understand in an unspoken way that maybe I would not need to do all the actual lessons. The employee at the school welcomed me and listened to my rant about the injustice and stupidity of such laws and how good it must be for their business to have an entire population required to take private driving lessons, and he shrugged his shoulders and laughed it off in a typically southern Italian way, knowing full-well that he held all the cards. He told me how much I needed to pay, but it turns out that they only took cash. In a school in which the minimum payment amount is 500 euro total (what I would be expected to pay), and many people pay much more for the theory lessons, theory exam, and extra driving lessons for teenagers who need to learn how to shift gears, etc, there was no way to pay with credit card. I did not have cash so I said I would come back the next morning, a Saturday. He agreed and made a special note on the paper for the secretary about my visit the next day. I went early the next day before work but it turns out they were not open on Saturdays, and the man had conveniently forgotten to tell me this fact. It was a long weekend with Monday being a national holiday, so I returned Tuesday to pay, in cash, and accepted their apology. The receipt I was given was one of the fake variety that has no fiscal meaning. So all of this cash payment is “black” money as they say in Italy, “under the table” as we say in English. This is a sign that they do not keep records of this money and do not pay taxes. Good business, indeed.
I scheduled my first two lessons for Thursday and Friday morning. Thursday I was greeted by a kind and understanding guy named Salvatore who quickly realized that I did not need much instruction, but continued to give me helpful advice for the exam anyhow. The first lesson I mostly smoothed out some things that were necessary for passing the official exam, but, which I pointed out to him (and which he agreed about), no one actually does while driving: things like using the turning signal when exiting a traffic circle even if you just go straight, or like downshifting to second gear for all traffic circles and speed bumps (especially because, as Salvatore told me, there was one particular driving examiner who had a back problem and would penalize those who drove too fast over speed bumps). Other useful advice was to watch the speed limits, which can be deceptively low in some areas, to watch the lines when changing lanes as sometimes the continuous line continues longer than expected, and to use two hands to open the door and check for cars behind before exiting. He said people had failed in the past for such offenses. Otherwise, we passed the time talking about other things like life, family, job, and tax problems. Apparently, even though the school runs on cash which is unreported and untaxed, he felt confident enough to complain about his high tax burden. Nevermind the fact that the government created plenty of extra business for schools such as his with the new legally mandated driving lessons.
The second lesson on Friday did not go as planned. I arrived on time and was informed that there was a delay due to traffic jams. After 30 minutes of waiting, I was then informed that it was impossible today because there was a national strike going on and the roads in which we were to circulate were totally blocked by protestors and parades. I went home, one day older but not necessarily wiser.
I had so far done only one hour out of six, and for some reason they were not cooperating in my plan of skipping out on the rest of these lessons due to lack of need and too much real-world experience. I did not mention that two of the required hours are supposed to be done at night and two hours are supposed to be on the highway. I scheduled five hours over the course of the next week and waited in eager anticipation for the next things I would learn about the road. Wednesday arrived and I took my second lesson, in which I gleaned no new useful information but at least we took a nice scenic road up in the hills. Wednesday night, when I was at work, the secretary called and told me they had made a mistake scheduling the other lessons and needed to change them. We went back and forth for five minutes finding times that would work. We planned for two hours the next day and an hour on Friday, but were still an hour short. They told me I could do it the following week, to which I replied that I was leaving for holiday this Saturday and could do it in January instead. Suddenly, another problem presented itself–I had to finish the lessons by December 29th in order to take the exam on the first possible date in January, they told me. I have no idea why this is or why this should be, so I persisted and was able to squeeze in an extra hour Friday night when they had previously told me they were fully booked.
The remainder of the lessons went without incident, literally and metaphorically. I had a second instructor for the last three hours who was much jumpier on the brakes. He slammed on the passenger side brake that these cars are equipped with when I started to inch out onto a non-busy road when there was a car approaching 50 meters away. Anyway, after cramming in these lessons mostly in one week I was good to go, both on my holiday and then later for the exam.
Several weeks later I called to know about when the exam would be and they told me it was on January 17th, a Saturday, and were surprised that I was surprised that they scheduled the exam without telling me or confirming with me the date and time. I normally work on Saturday mornings so I asked if it could be moved to the next week one morning when I was free. They explained that if I cancelled this exam it would be at least another month until I could take the next one, in mid-February. Obviously this thing was already dragging on months longer than expected so that was not an option. I asked if they at least knew the time on Saturday. It was impossible to say, they said, since everything depends on the examiner and how many other driving schools there happen to be, but it could take place as early as 7 a.m. or as late as 9 a.m. That’s fine, I thought. My work does not start until after 9 anyway, so even if it’s a bit late I can find a substitute before I come back.
Later in the week they had not confirmed what time so I called back and they said they would let me know on Friday, either in the morning or in the afternoon. That’s good, I thought, because Saturday morning would be too late to be informed. Friday, at 5 p.m., they called and said that I would meet at the driving school at 10 a.m. the next morning for the exam. This was much later than expected and threw a wrench into my work schedule. There was one more thing they had neglected to mention: there were 3 other candidates taking the exam tomorrow and we would all go together. Not only was it late but I would probably have to wait on these others to finish before I could come back. The cost of the exam alone is 150 euro, but that does not even buy an individual exam or foreknowledge of what time it is being held. I was able to arrange a substitute for my entire day of work on Saturday since it was unsure of when I would be back but it would not be soon enough to be worthwhile. The same colleague who covered me for the theory exam helped me out again, though it meant coming in on Saturday morning for three hours.
Saturday arrived and it was raining. I arrived on time and the driving school car showed up a few minutes later with my second instructor and another candidate behind the wheel. We left and drove around aimlessly for 30 minutes or so until we came to a parking lot of an old shopping center I had never seen (though I had lived in this city for years) in which most of the shops were closed, and I noticed many other driving school cars parked around us. This was not the UMC, which was closed on Saturday, but a random parking lot in which it was apparently agreed to start and finish all the Saturday driving exams. We received an update at 10:45 that it would be at least another hour until it was our turn because all the exams were running late. I protested lightly saying that I had intended to return to work. It was to no avail, as the instructor paid no mind. He knew what everyone else knows: there is no way to make an Italian bureaucrat move faster. Anyway, my complaint allowed everyone to know that I would not stand-by silently during such a ridiculous situation, and also guaranteed that I would be the first one tested when the time came, though as we will see that made little difference in the end.
We drove around a couple neighborhoods for another 20 minutes and met the other school instructor at a strange covered pavilion near the highway which was the motorcycle testing site as far as I could tell. There was a group of people milling about with safety vests in the rain. We waited there for a quarter hour or so then returned to the abandoned strip mall with a third candidate in tow. Luckily, there was a bar with a bathroom nearby, but otherwise we stood silently and morosely outside the center in the cold for 45 minutes, occasionally seeing another driving school car come and go. Our examiner showed up with the other instructor, but due to reasons I did not understand and will never know, they left again for another 30 minutes. When they returned the whole group of two examiners and two instructors happily strolled into the bar for a long coffee break while we waited outside. They eventually emerged and the time had come which I had waited months for.
I climbed into the driver’s seat and smiled conspicuously at the kindly woman who was to be my examiner. She checked all the documents carefully and slowly, and then asked me the first theory question which I had been told to expect before doing the actual driving. I would have been prepared for almost any question about cars, rules, signals, speed limits–anything except this one. She asked something very technical about tires (I did not understand at first that it was about tires because of a strange word she used), which my instructor helped me to understand involved the safety of using old worn tires. I gradually realized that I was to give some precise number of the width of a tire tread that is deemed to be unsafe. I had no idea as I had never encountered such information throughout the whole process of passing the theory exam and doing six hours of actual driving lessons. I said “4 or 5” without specifying units, but this was too high, she prompted me. I came down to “1 or 2”, when she impatiently helped out that it was “1-point-something” and waited for my answer. I said, oh yes, now I remember, it’s 1.5, but she frowned and informed me that it was 1.6 (millimeters, by the way). Instead of asking me another question to see if I knew anything else she scolded my nervous instructor for not teaching me this and told me to start driving. She merely observed while the instructor gave commands for where to turn and which maneuvers to do. It was exactly the neighborhood and route we had just driven through that morning in our wanderings. I drove no more than 10 minutes and, after successfully executing a parallel parking (“parking in S”, as they say in Italian), I was told to turn off the car and get out. I used two hands to open the door and checked behind for cars before opening, and that was the signal for her. I did not really have to get out yet–it was just the final test. I was then given a flimsy little plastic card which was an Italian driver’s license and asked to sign two papers. It was one of the shortest and easiest tests out of many I’ve taken in my life (despite the absurd token theory question that I had completely blown off).
I descended from the car and went to the second driving school car behind us, which had been following. The second of the candidates went forward to take his exam and I was thoroughly debriefed by the first instructor on what she had asked and said during the exam. The second guy finished in 15 minutes, after which we were driven back to the driving school, shook hands, and went home. It was 1 p.m., so it had taken over three hours to take a 10-minute test. At least it was finished, though I am still angrier about the experience than relieved that it’s over.
I wrote this true account in case it is useful for any Americans or other peoples who must go through this process in Italy, since I had known nothing of what I was getting into when I started. Despite everything, I think I actually completed the entire process as quickly and cheaply as possible. It took three months and two weeks from the time I first started the application to the time I received my license. It cost around 600 euro, mostly for the mandatory private school, but also for the various taxes and visits. This is cheaper than most people would have to pay since they would probably not do the whole theory part on the own, which means extra driving school lessons and fees. I spent at least 12 hours of my life traveling to and from and waiting at the UMC, the two doctor’s visits, and the theory test. I spent another 12 hours or more on the actual driving lessons, waiting on lessons, and the three hours for the driving exam I mentioned. This does not include the countless hours of research, phone calls, and studying for the theory test. 24 hours of my time over three and a half months and 600 euro was what it cost me to get a license to drive in Italy. A diplomatic solution would make things easier since converting my original American license would have probably taken no more than a couple hours and 50 euro. Since Italy hosts thousands of American soldiers and several military bases, I would have thought it would be no problem to make such an easy arrangement that over 20 other countries outside the E.U. have with Italy. It may have been possible to find a cheaper or quicker solution by getting the license in a neighboring country like Austria or Slovenia, but the language barrier and travel costs would have made it just as difficult even if it were otherwise possible (but I never really looked into it so I don’t know). Now it’s over, and I don’t feel like celebrating; I feel like finding another country to live in. Fortunately, the Italian driver’s license is valid for 10 years and works in every country in the European Union.