Getting an Italian Driver's Licence in Rome

[Editor's note: CCR Member Neeya Jacob gives us her practical guide to the bewildering Italian licensing system in this article from her personal blog. See the original at: World Citizen in Rome]

Getting an Italian driving licence is about as straightforward as the roads. In this post I will tell you exactly what I went through to get my Italian driving licence in Rome.

When I first came to Italy I thought the driving behaviour and traffic were pure madness. There aren't clear lane divisions, few seem to follow the rules and on many occasions I have seen people run red lights.

It is a bit disconcerting to have to put to use all the defensive driving taught to me by Young Drivers of Canada over 12 years ago. I have never had to use it before. Well just once, but I was fighting black ice and not 5 other cars and 10 scooters. OK - maybe also when driving in Montreal, which to me is a bit rougher than Toronto but still nowhere nearly as bad as Rome.

Getting my licence was an interesting experience. By the end I felt like I had been through a right of passage one needs to go through to survive here!

I first attempted to do things on my own. I went to the Motorizzazione, the vehicle licencing bureau here. There were several long lines and many different notices on pieces of paper stuck all over the place. I waited in one line for an hour only to be bounced to another. When I finally got to the person behind the counter, all he said was - go sign up at an autoscuola. Driving School. Someone told me there were strong lobbyists for the autoscuola making getting your licence without signing up at one next to impossible. No wonder I wasn't even given a choice at attempting to do things on my own. All I wanted to do was sign up for the tests since I already know how to drive. No dice. Its is also no wonder that there is a driving school on almost every block!

Unfortunately the Canadian driver's licence is not one that can be converted, unless you have diplomatic status. A list of nations for which licences can be converted can be found on their website

Through my newly found expat network I signed up with a group of Americans and a fellow Canadian at Autoscuola Clemente on Via Moncenigo. The teacher spoke a bit of English and so we believed it would be easier for us since he could help explain words and terminology given that we had to take the theory test in Italian. We had missed the boat by just a bit because, as of January 1, 2011, you cannot take the test in English. The test has 40 questions and you are allowed 30 minutes and 4 errors.

I have to say that I initially developed a bit of a mental block when I began to try my hand at some mock tests. My Italian was quite intermediate and I found it challenging to understand the language AND the question. I was able to develop my Italian vocabulary with constant repetition but the questions were still tricky and very frustrating, some seemed to defy logic. It seemed as though the questions were designed to test your language interpreting skills rather than the rules of the road. I have my husband to thank for trying to get me over that mental block. He told me that in order to conquer this test I had to memorize and not rely on logic. Some questions are designed to be strange just to trick you. If you question the question, you're not going to get anywhere. Study, memorize, accept that it is what it is and it will get much easier.

It did.

I started to build a vocabulary list. The more I practiced the more I got used to the words and what they meant in the context of the questions. Also, the more I practiced the more I would see similar questions and similar tricks. When I first started doing the mock tests it took me an hour per test just because of the unfamiliar language and rules. But by the end I was able to finish it in 10-15 minutes.

I started to gain confidence and do well in the mock tests. Available here: go to 'esegui una simulazione esame'. If you sign up on the site (for free) you can even do mock tests that will concentrate on particular subjects like intersections, insurance or road signs, so you can practice further what you feel most weak in.

One of the things I found very different to Canada was that you have to know first aid, how to provide it and...provide it! In Italy you can be put in jail if you do not stop to offer first aid. You are supposed to know the symptoms of shock, concussion, and how to move the person into the "posizione di sicurezza di anti-shock" - anti-shock position (pictured left).

Which is different from the "posizione laterale di sicurezza" - recovery position (pictured right). The recovery position is to be used when someone has a detectable pulse, is unconscious and if you are sure they do not have a broken back. If they are unconscious I would think it would be seriously challenging to determine whether there is a problem with the spine or not. This is where you need to just memorize what is in the book and answer accordingly taking note of the wording and not the logic.

Then there is the infamous 'rotatoria' - round-about or traffic circle. A rare sighting in Canada and therefore something I wanted to understand well especially when you come upon a multi-lane rotatoria. When we were in class it was explained to us to treat the rotatoria as though it was just a normal road straight on. Imagine there is no circle and that you are just coming into an intersection that happens to have a bend in the road in the shape of a circle. So in this case you would have to give way to the cars coming from the right as is the rule here with all intersections unless there are specific yield or stop signs. If there are none, those on the right have the right of way. So once you are in the round-about, technically you would have to give way to others coming into the round-about since it's always from the right. Well, how is anyone supposed to move or exit the round-about in heavy traffic if you are supposed to let everyone in? Also, you are supposed to keep right unless overtaking, as you would on a normal street. If that's the case then this could be tricky in a multi-lane round-about for those on the inner lane wanting to get out. But thankfully the test does not deal with multi-lane round-abouts. So memorize as is for the test.

When I got into the car with the driving instructor, I asked him about this and the way he explained it to me, or at least the way I understood it, was completely the opposite of how we had to learn it for the theory test. The practical way was actually practical. If you are inside the rotatoria you generally have the right of way.

Supposedly all lanes entering a round about have a yield sign on them (as shown left), thereby giving the right of way to those already in the circle. However if they do not then technically those inside the circle have to give the right of way to those coming in (as shown right).

Either way, for the theory test, those on the right have the right of way. But in my practical driving experience nobody ever gives way any which way, so just be careful anyway.

After having passed the theory test my advice to other English speakers is to definitely study the book. Don't assume the rules are logical or similar to in other countries and do loads of mock tests. Doing several mock tests and building a little cheat sheet of vocabulary for yourself will help you understand the questions and the tricks.

There is always at least one question on assicurazione (insurance), primo soccorso (first-aid), speed limits, and several on different road signs.

I worked on this test like I did for the GMAT. Test after test after test to understand the tester trying to trick the testee. Thankfully unlike the GMAT the more you get right does not mean the harder the test will get.

I passed! Phew!

Next came the road test.

It is mandatory in Italy to do the test on a manual car that has a set of brakes/clutch and accelerator on the passenger side as well. This of course means that you have to take a driving school car (another way to get you to go to a driving school). I had learned on a manual in Canada so it was just like riding a bike. After more than a decade of driving I had a couple of bad habits to clean up which the instructor was quick to correct; example: no putting your hands on the inner side of the steering wheel while driving or turning. But it's a lot simpler than the theory test, especially if you already know how to drive. The instructor didn't speak any English but was most patient and ready to answer any questions. He told me how to enter and exit the car, where to look in a three point turn, how to parallel park, etc. All of which was second nature to me after many years of driving, but they look for nitty gritty things like where your hands are, where your eyes are and if you drive safely.

The test was in the area of Villaggio Olimpico (there is a Via Canada there!). Great area with little traffic and slightly wider roads. You will notice many other scuola guida cars wandering around like shy puppies. It's somewhat comforting.

I was told to either come to the autoscuola at 8:20am or I could meet them at Villaggio Olimpico at 9am. I chose to meet them there. They arrived at 9:30am. There were about 6 of us being tested and I was told I would go last since I was a better, more experienced driver and might set the bar too high for the others. It was 10:30am by the time I had my test.

I got into the car and buckled up. The invigilator sits in the back and a person from your autoscuola sits next to you. Always adjust your mirrors even if they are set to your liking. They want to see that you check. My two passengers were busy chatting away as I waited for instructions. The previous student was a very anxious 70 year-old lady who made the sign of the cross before entering the car and after stalling 5 meters after she departed. Finally I was asked to go straight for about 100 meters, turn right and pull up beside a car to parallel park. There were no cars at all behind that car so it was pretty easy. I have been told by others though that they will let you try a couple of more times if you don't get it right on the first go. I was then asked to back up a bit and perform a 3 point turn after which I drove around for about 2 minutes and came to a final stop on the side of the street. She then said she would like to see how I exit the car, but not to actually exit it just yet. She wanted to see where I looked before I exited. The exam came to an end after a total of around 10 minutes. I stalled once at an intersection, I just started back up and continued.

The invigilator was very calm and patient. They just want to see that you are a safe driver and look where you need to look and indicate accordingly when turning. I thought that the lady before me had failed because she was crying, but then I saw her make the sign of the cross again and get her licence. She passed.

The road test is a walk in the park compared to the theory test. As I got my licence I felt a sense of relief. Another part of Italian bureaucracy checked off the list. I can finally be unleashed onto the roads of Italy.

As I get on the roads I might have to unlearn some of what I learned in order to survive without a scratch. Scratches scar most vehicles here like war wounds.

I don't intend on going to war, I'd just like to keep the a true Canadian :).

See Neeya Jacob's original blog entry at: World Citizen in Rome