Driving in France after Brexit has been a bit of a challenge for most people, especially expats. Since Brexit officially came into effect and into our lives at the end of the transition period in 2021, so much has changed in our daily lives. This is particularly true for expats travelling back and forth between the EU and the UK. Whether we are a Brit residing in France or a French citizen living in the UK, we are all affected. Sadly, even though it is now over one year down the line, most people are still unclear about some rules. Here we are going to try and explain the rules regarding driving licences.
Must I exchange my British driving licence for a French one and vice versa?
Among the confusing rules we just mentioned, top of the list is the one concerning driving licences. For example, if you’re a French expat living in the UK, you’ve most likely heard rumours telling you to swap your French driving licence for a British one and vice-versa. Well, good news: this is no longer the case. Since 28 June last year, after France and the UK finally reached an agreement, it has not been necessary to exchange driving licences for the majority of people. Those who obtained their driving licence before 1 January 2021 are now allowed to keep their French driving licence if living in the UK.
You will be pleased to hear that equally, if you’re a British expat living in France (which is probably why you are reading this article right now!) and your UK driving licence was first issued before 1 January 2021. your licence is recognised in France for as long as it is valid. No need for an international driving licence. Phew!
However, for British expats living in France who have only obtained their driving licence after January 2021 or if their document is lost or stolen, they need to exchange it for a French licence (this is a free service but requires a lot of documentation, which has to be translated into French if originally issued in English). The same goes for French citizens in the UK: they need to apply for a British driving licence through the British authorities at a cost of £50.
On the plus side, there is no need to take a new driving test when applying for a driving licence in this situation, whether you’re British in France or French in the UK.
Insuring your French car in the UK
Here is another (hopefully) useful bit of info. This one concerns car insurance. Many British expats living in France own a French registered car and choose to bring it with them on the ferry to the UK when they travel home. My husband and I regularly cross the Channel with Brittany Ferries and we are always amazed at the amount of French registered cars driven by Brits. Obviously, it is no surprise to any of us to know that just as in France, it is compulsory to hold valid car insurance in the UK.
For a holiday or short visit, a simple valid French car insurance certificate is enough. Your usual green sticker must be displayed visibly on the windscreen, just like in France, and, in the event of a check, the accompanying insurance certificate (or “carte verte”) must be presented. However, if you decide to remain on British soil for longer than 6 months, it is mandatory to register your vehicle and pay the corresponding taxes, such as road tax for example.
If you subscribe to a new insurance policy in England, you can still benefit from the no claims bonus that you have acquired in France. However, not all British insurers honour the data given by a non-British company, so you might find you have a battle on your hands.
Another snippet of information which some may find useful and may not be aware of: travelling with food.
Since Brexit, the rules have certainly changed: it is now strictly forbidden to import any food or drink containing meat or dairy, plants and plant products into the EU from the UK. For instance, forget your cheese or ham sandwich: they are strictly forbidden.
We were also stunned to learn that even pet food is limited. Our (now sadly deceased) little dog was elderly and on a gastro-intestinal low-fat diet that cannot be bought in supermarkets. As this was medical food, we were allowed 2kgs per person travelling with the pet (with a signed vet’s certificate to testify it was for medical reasons) and as there are only 2 of us, it meant 4kgs of food to last him 3 weeks (which is our usual stay length). Impossible, he would have starved!
Another example that left us wondering happened on our last trip: we were surprised to find out that even a 2-in-1 coffee stick was not allowed as it contains powdered milk, an animal-derived product. Having said that, nobody checked at either end, English or French. But who knows what would have happened if they had come across the two contraband coffee sticks I had smuggled in my handbag?
Travelling the other way is certainly much easier. So long as it is for your own consumption, you are allowed to bring meat, dairy, fish, pretty much anything you want from the EU into the UK so long as you respect the quantities allowed and which are fairly generous. But how long for?
Update in May 2023
Since this post was written, we have frequently travelled between the UK and France. As one inevitably does on a ferry crossing, we have been chatting with other passengers who also regularly travel on that route. Well, we were surprised to find out that many of them had been able to take some food items to France without being penalised. Nothing much or outrageous, obviously, but apparently customs just don’t seem to be interested. A couple was stopped on a few occasions at Portsmouth Harbour on the way out for a random check, but it seems the officers were really looking for something else. Nobody could tell what they were searching for, but perhaps items such as drugs, explosives or weapons? One officer even checked the back of their car, where the coolbox was well in evidence behind the driver’s seat, and didn’t even register! We think that perhaps they were simply lucky. We haven’t tried yet, to be honest, and are uncomfortable with tempting fate by carrying food items with us. It’s a shame, though, as each time we have to bin (or freeze, if we can) the contents of our fridge before we set off. Still not feeling brave enough to take a chance. But then, what’s the worst that can happen? A fine? Seeing our items confiscated?
We would really love to read about other travellers’ experiences. If any readers out there have been through an experience they would like to share, we would love to hear about it. Please feel free to leave a comment below.