An Expat's Guide to the French Motorcycle Licence
France is beautiful country, the only problem is that way too many french people live there. This will quickly become apparent to you once the novelty of being in a new country has worn off, and/or once you’ve stepped into the 16th pile of dog shit in any given week of being in a major French city.
What better way to flee the locals and the dog shit than to hop onto a motorcycle and hit the road? France has thousands of kilometers of toll-free scenic roads along it’s coastline, an extensive network of relatively well-maintained “departementales” in the seldom-visited but quaint center of the hexagon, plenty of roads in the Alps, the Pyrenees, and easy access to several other European countries in less than a day of highway riding. I can attest personally, it is a beautiful place to ride, and in my six months of drivings, I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface.
So now you want a bike; well, I’m sorry but I lied in my introduction. There are much more problems with France than just it’s inhabitants; the french have invented the central state and perfected bureaucracy to a level that would put Byzantium to shame, so getting in the saddle is going to be slightly harder than just buying a bike. I’ve gone through this process myself, and I’m here to help.
Step 0: Who this is for
I am writing this for holders of VLS (visa long séjour, or long stay visa), although it may apply to the holders of other visas. In practical terms, I am not sure that going through any of this bureaucratic rigamarole is worth it on a stay any shorter than six months, unless you are going to return to France regularly and have some reason to hold an EU permit.
The foremost reasons to go through all this cost and hassle for me is to own a motorcycle in my name (licence plates don’t need to renewed for motorcycles), keep it in the EU and more easily ride around when I will be back (likely a few months a year).
It is assumed that you have at least a functional understanding of reading, writing and speaking french. If you don’t… you’re probably not going to make it.
Step 1: Considering your options
Before you endeavour getting a french licence, consider the other options that you might have that DON’T involve 30+ hours of instruction and a thousand euros; unless you plan on being a regular resident (spent the majority of your time in France), they are many:
1) Get a motorcycle permit and an international licence in your home jurisdiction. In my experience, most of the western licences are easily recognized, and provided that you can provide an international licence or notarized translation, your licence will be recognized without any problem. With my Canadian licence, even putting plates on a vehicle wasn’t a problem. This is by far the easier way to get riding, and saves you the hassle of learning the ropes of a brand new bureaucracy. In hindsight, I really wish I had done this; don’t make the same mistake.
2) Elect to ride a 125cc or smaller bike. More experienced riders will scoff at this idea, but if you’re new to riding, this might legitimately be a good way to get comfortable. At this engine size most people think of scooters, but the regulations around “light motorcycles” in Europe has encouraged the development of an impressive amount of offerings in this segment. I myself rode a chinese partsbin bike based off a Honda CBF125 engine clone, and there are many variations available (Brixton, Archives), but even more established companies have 125cc offerings that are more well established. The Husqvarna Svartpilen 125 is a good example: twin-cam and water-cooled, it makes 15 HP out of it’s tiny thumper, or 150HP/L, an impressive ratio in any internal combustion engine. If I managed to do highway riding with 9 HP, you’ll be able to do it with 15.
You will need a 7-hour class if you have never ridden a motorcycle before, which will supplement your home state’s car licence with a laminated certificate. Cost is around 200 EUR depending on the market.
3) Obtain a french driver’s licence; this is what the rest of this post is about. As with the rest of Europe, motorcycle licences are tiered, so you will apply for an A2 licence, which limits you to just under 50HP for the first two years of riding. To get your full licence, you will need to go through another 7 hour class 2 years after having obtained your A2 licence, at which point you will get your full A permit. Most more powerful bikes can be restricted to A2 power levels at the dealership, which essentially means you can buy nearly anything you want with an A2.
Step 2: Paperwork considerations
To defeat your bureaucracy, you need to think like a bureaucrat. Bureaucrats are by nature creatures of habit, unwilling or unable to manage exceptions, which means that your “irregular” application as an immigrant will likely be rejected a few time unless you make it “look” as regular as you possibly can. This is one of the reasons why you should go through this process in your home country if at all possible. Go above and beyond in providing paperwork, without looking like you are trying too hard. It’s a delicate balance, but your driving school will be able to assist you in filing. Here is what you will need:
1) A proof of address, generally an electricity or other utility bill
2) A proof of immigration status, generally a visa accompanied by a validation or a carte de séjour. As a “PVT” visa holder, you are exempt from receiving a “carte de séjour”… more on this later.
3) ID in the form of a passport, an existing drivers licence.
4) ID photos, preferably in a digital format. Most photo booths can deliver those; they are delivered in the traditional printed format, but a code is also included for easy referencing during your paperwork phases.
Point number 1 is generally the hard one to acquire. Without a power bill, you are nobody in France… which means that if you are in informal rental arrangements or renting short term through things like AirBnB, you are SOL.
My way around this was to take out a renter’s insurance policy on the place I was renting, which apart from the cost (about 300 euros, paid once for the year) was relatively painless. I took out my policy through MAIF, an insurance mutual with the most helpful staff I’ve ever had the pleasure of dealing with; I highly recommend them. The “attestation d’assurance” document you will get once subscribed is treated as a valid proof of address for all driving-related processes I have gone through.
You can also try to get a sponsor to fill out an “attestation d’hébergement”, although this is a bit intrusive for all parties. I have not heard reports of this method working, but it is supposed to be formally recognized.
Step 3: Enroll in a motorcycle driving school
Finding a good school is of utmost importance, and strongly tied to the last two steps. The french have a online management system called Agence nationale des titres sécurisés (ANTS) that makes obtaining and renewing licences very easy; as an “irregular”, none of these systems will work for you during most of the licensing process; your driving school will essentially be your point of contact for all official communications.
Most schools will charge between 750 and 1000 euros all inclusive for your training. Put aside some money for gear, as you will need to come equipped with:
- An EU-approved helmet
- EU-approved motorcycle gloves
- Shoes or boots that cover the scapula (not necessary but recommended)
- EU-approved motorcycling vest (not legally necessary, but most schools will not let you ride a bike without one)
At the time I am writing this, this is at least 300 euros worth of gear. I spent more than this sum on my helmet alone, so prices will vary wildly.
Step 3.5 : Fight with bureaucrats
The Ministry of Interior is the organization that manages both immigration status and drivers licences, so you would think that they would now about different visa programs and their particularities… but you’d be wrong. Entirely different offices manage immigration and licences. In practice, if you are a “PVT” visa holder, there is a very high likelyhood that your initial request for a permit, something that is filed when you register with your school, will be rejected. This is because they are expecting to get a “carte de séjour” or a validated visa along with the documents that your are required to provide to your driving school.
As a VLS holder, you are exempt from validating your visa, which in turns makes it impossible for you to get a “carte de séjour”, a document usually delivered by local authorities. Your visa, as in the printed page in your passport is your only valid proof of regularity within the country.
You will likely need to fight to get this recognized. If you’ve ever successfully fought your way through a bureaucracy, the same rules apply: be relentless but polite, keep a very detailed record of who you talk to, what is said and when, ask for things to be put in writing whenever possible. You will of course need a good mastery of French to do this, as all public services are only available in this language. Keep your driving school in the know, as they can also push certain buttons on their side.
Step 4 : Theoretical lessons and exam aka “code”
This can usually be done in parallel with step 4. As in many other jurisdictions, you need a learner’s permit to ride on the road accompanied by your driving school; the prerequisites for this is passing a theoretical exam, and the first practical exam.
My school had an e-learning platform called Codes Rousseau (not related in any way to my family), which presented a series of quizzes to get familiar with the type of questions on the exam. You can speedrun a 100% completion with passing grades within 4-5 hours if you have any basic knowledge of french traffic signs and motorcycles. This gets you ready for the exam, but is NOT the exam itself! Knowing that I was a driver of 10+ years, my school did not give me any theory in class; your mileage may vary.
Once you are done with the learning, you or your driving school will need to schedule the “code” exam at a service center or post office. I opted to have my school schedule it, since I did not have the correct documents to register myself.
The exam is a simple, time-limited multiple choice test which you must pass with 80%. There is plenty of time; read the questions carefully and you will be fine. I do not recall seeing an option for going through the test in english!
Step 5: Practical lessons
The law requires you to attend at least 8 hours of on-track practical instruction. In most schools, this means doing the same drills in 2 hours blocks until you are proficient enough to your instructor’s liking. While you could theoretically stack these lessons in a day, most schools will not let you do this, with good reason. Apart from the obvious mental and physical limitations, I do think that you need a bit of time between lessons for the muscle memory and “feel” to set in.
The practice is gear towards getting good enough to complete the “circuit”, a choreography designed to test your bike-handling skills at low and average road-going speeds. Here is a video of what this entails:
Most of the difficulty according to all but the most agile learners are the low-speed sections; none of the other motorcycle programs that I know of have such a high bar for obtaining a licence.
Once you are done, your instructor will put your in a test group and give you a date for testing.
Step 6: Practical test #1 - “Circuit”
Having your “code” exam is a requirement for this part, despite the practical test not being on the road.
You are tested on what you have learned at step 4. The process usually happens on very well paved and well-maintained tracks, which in many cases are slightly larger than your driving school’s practice track. My school didn’t tell me this, which was a quite nice surprise.
You have to complete the full “circuit” to satisfactory standards, within two tries, and having put a maximum of two feet on the ground during any given try.
There is an intimidation factor since most testing days have many schools attending, and chances are that you will see lots of people failing before you have your turn. Chill out, trust your skills and you will be fine. If you do fail, you will have to wait until you can reschedule another test, and you driving school will likely charge you a supplement.
Be aware that not having the correct mandatory gear is grounds for instant disqualification from this and any other exams; your driving school should have stressed this. This includes not having reflectors on your helmet.
Step 7: On-road driving practice
Once you have your exam results for the “circuit”, your instructor will take you out, most of the times in groups of 3 or 4, to ride on local roads and practice your riding skills in a more realistic environment. You will have to do 12 hours of this.
If you have passed the two previous steps, it’s unlikely that you will have any problems with this step. Most issues that foreign drivers have in France are:
- Priority rules, which are completely the opposite of any civilized country. In most urban environments, any vehicle coming from your right has priority, meaning that if you are on a 70kmph road and somebody turns right from an intersecting street in front of you, YOU have to yeild. This may sound absolutely crazy, but it’s how things work… to make things worse, sometimes the priority is explicit, but many times it is implicit. I recommend that you tell your instructor that you are unfamiliar with this system in practice, and that you request additional instructions in this regard during your outings.
- Navigating roundabouts, which takes a bit of getting used to but makes perfect sense.
Otherwise, the usual rules apply.
Step 8: On-road driving test
Once your 12 hours are up, you can apply to pass the test. The starting points are usually the same track that you did your circuit exam on. The evaluator and your instructor will follow you around in regular street driving for about 20 to 30 minutes in a variety of different conditions. There is a point threshold, but in my experience the evaluation is actually pretty subjective.
You will be judged on your behaviour and technical skills, and ability to read signage; however, there are no points deducted if you misunderstand directions, take a wrong turn or exit, etc. In most places, your instructors will take you on the roads most frequently traveled for testing, and it is a good idea to get familiar with the roads nonetheless; missing an exit will likely have a toll on your mentally even if points aren’t docked.
My evaluator was looking for a few things that you would normally not expect in a formal evaluation, namely “lively” accelerations (within the limits of reason) and a speed on or slightly above the posted limit. This might be more out of practical concern for getting more types of road covered during our limited time; I would still advise you play it safe and stay a bit under the posted limit, without being too ginger with the throttle when taking off.
As a general tip, exaggerate all your head movements, while checking mirrors or your blind spots: this is something they are very particular about.
You will get a pass or fail grade only after having completed your examination, and your evaluator cannot give you any feedback.
Here again, if you can negotiate a bit of clemency with the evaluator on the grounds of not knowing the local roads, all the better. They likely won’t be too accommodating, but having advanced warning of directions, or being more explicit about where to turn will let you concentrate on the road.
Step 9 : Request your licence to be printed
You would think that this would be a bit redundant, but once you have successfully passed the practical exam, you need to ask for your licence to be produced, as in a physical copy printed and sent to you. This is done through the ANTS portal, where you will need to provided all your paperwork, in addition to a new, fresh set of pictures.
Luckily, you can still use your exam report as a provisional licence for a couple months.
My licence took two months to get printed and sent, apparently due to a malfunction at the national facility that does the printing. According to the internet, the more “normal” delay is 2 to 4 weeks. Be sure that you can receive mail at the address that you have registered with, because there is no way of changing the address to which the licence is going to be delivered to.
Step 10 : Enjoy!
End to end, getting my A2 motorcycle licence in France took the better part of 3 months, including the licence delivery it was more like 5 months. I had the blessing of having a flexible employment arrangement, and not failing any of the exams… any given failure could have set me back a month or more, as exam schedules are not extremely regular, or at least were not where I went.
The TL:DR on all of this is that if you want to ride a motorcycle in France on a one year visa, you need to get to work on your licence as soon as you land, the process is not simple, and can be long.
It only made sense to me of a particular set of circumstances, namely being a resident of a jurisdiction where getting a motorcycle permit is incredibly hard, long, and seasonally restricted, and that I am going to go back to France and/or Europe quite a lot in the foreseeable future.
Having a driver’s licence that is permanent and recognized everywhere in the EU will likely be a time-saver in the long run, as it greatly facilitates buying a vehicle, getting insurance, and avoids having to getting an international drivers licence and/or a translated and notarized copy for certain jurisdictions.
If it makes sense for you also and if you need help, please send me an email. If you’re that desperate, I’m sure you’ll find it despite it not being posted. I also welcome any suggestions for amendments.