You have 3 years to exchange your foreign driver's license for a German Führerschein.
Many people moving abroad have fantasies of seamless acculturation: speaking the national language(s) and hanging out purely with locals. However it takes about a day-and-a-half to figure out that expat friends are invaluable. While local friends and partners have plenty of merit and we can praise them another day, they will never quite understand your visa struggles or unquenchable Tex-Mex cravings. Expat friends also have experience and knowledge that a native simply will not have, like the best way to get deal with becoming a licensed driver in Germany.
One evening back in 2014, I sat around a table in beer garden with fellow expats and through random discussion I learned that anyone from the USA, and any country with a license exchange agreement with Germany, has three years from their first registered day in Germany to swap their driver's license to a German driver's license or Führerschein. After this three year window, if you want a license you are required to start from zero get a German driver's license the German way, which is possible - even mostly in english - but it could cost months and anywhere from €2000-€3,500, as opposed to around €100.
On this 2014 evening in the beer garden, I was only three weeks away from my three year anniversary in Germany so I jumped into action.
Why do you need a German driver's license?
Every country has its rules about eligibility to drive with various foreign driver's licenses, so be sure to check the rules for your specific case, but as an American I was only allowed to drive in Germany with my foreign driver's license for six months. After six months of residency in Germany, your foreign driver's license is no longer recognized and you are required to hold a German driver's license (no, not you European citizens). There is a loophole to extend this six months if your stay in Germany is less than one year to a year, but you will still need to get official approval from the local Führerscheinstelle.
If you live in a German city like myself, you probably don't need a car and may not want to undergo the bureaucratic process to swap it out. I still do not own a car, but nevertheless I am glad I made the switch to a German license for the following reasons:
Roadtrips. You will want the option to rent a car to explore Europe, especially the natural wonders which aren't so easily accessible with planes, trains and public transit.
Moving. You will move at some point and will at the very minimum want to use a car sharing service to go to IKEA; it is inevitable.
Thinking ahead. If you end up staying in Germany long-term (never say never), you may need, or at the very least want, to drive. For example, you or your job might move outside of the city.
This process of license exchange is preferable investment than the alternative, in regards to time and money.
I use the word exchange for a reason. You do not acquire an additional German driver's license, rather you must hand over your other driver's license. As an American, this is painful as your driver's license also services as an official identification card, whereas the German driver's license is only that and cannot be used as an ID card.
When you apply for your German Driver's License, the office (Führerscheinstelle) will take and keep your American license, which does feel a bit like losing a piece of your soul (maybe this was just me?). However this will not, from my experience, prevent you from going to the DMV and obtaining another while in the USA. It does get complex here though, because for a US driver's license you typically need a residence in the US, which technically you do not have while living abroad. This certainly not legal advice (none of this blog is), but it is proven possible since at one point I did have both licenses after returning home and getting a new Texas driver's license. Time has passed, my Texas driver's license has expired, and I finally accepted to live without one. When I am back in the US, I drive with my German driver's license, but some states require an International Driving Permit (IDP).
You can drive in the USA as a visitor on your German driver's license, but it's best to pick up an international driver's license just in case as I cannot seem to find anything definitive on this matter.
How to exchange your US driver license for a German one?
1. Check Your Requirements
Depending on your which state you and your driver's license are from, the rules actually vary. Start by determining if your state's level of reciprocity (see list). If your state has full reciprocity, you have exemption from written and practical (driving) exams in Germany. With partial reciprocity, you are exempt from the practical test, but will need to take the written test, which is available in english and costs around €40. If you are from one of the few states without reciprocity, you will have to take both tests which will total around €500.
It is also worth a quick consultation with your Führerscheinstelle. You can call 115 to be connected to the public service number and tell them you'd like to umschreiben your American driver's license for a German one.
Fortunately I held a Texas Driver's License and was therefore exempt from both exams. There are a couple more checks on the foreign license, so that people don't try to beat the system and work around the reciprocity rules: 1) you lived in that state for at least 185 days and 2) the driver's license was issued before your first day of residence in Germany.
Part 2 actually caused problems for me, as Texas Driver's License (at the time?) only had expiration dates, but not dates of issue. Luckily I had scans of all my previous licenses, which turned out to be enough for Germany to issue my license. Otherwise they suggested calling the Texas DPS for an official document stating they issued my first driver's license.
Start by making an appointment with your local Führerscheinstelle to avoid the take-a-number experience.
Next you will need to gather your documents for the appointment, which is again state dependent, but likely consists of:
Proof of Residence (Meldebestätigung/Meldebescheinigung)
Original (not copy) of valid foreign driver's license
Proof of how long you have had the foreign driver's license, in case date of issue is not stated (see note in section 1)
Certified translation of foreign driver's license. This can be acquired from the ADAC (German version of AAA) for €55 (non-member fee) and takes one week to process, but can also be done elsewhere.
Passport photo, 35mm x 45mm
Eye exam (Sehtest). This can be done quickly and easily at almost any glasses store, just be sure to specify that you need a driver's license exam. It took about 15 minutes, including waiting time, and cost about €7.
Proof of written and practical exams, dependent upon reciprocity
To reiterate, it is all varies so is best to speak first with the Führerscheinstelle to ensure you have everything before going there; other documents may be required, particularly if there is only partial reciprocity. For instance, the eye exam is not required for every state, but for most which is why I included it. Some states require a first aid course. And of course some require the exams.
Once all of your documents are successfully submitted, you will receive written confirmation via mail of your application. This will is a Bescheinigung stating that you submitted the required documents, but you are not yet eligible to drive in Germany. Keep this document, as you should bring it along when you pick up your driver's license.
Within 2-3 weeks, you should receive an Abgabensbescheid, a confirmation and invoice for your driver's license fee of €35. This amount should be transferred (Überweisung) to the account info listed at the bottom, including your ticket number (Buchungszeichen BZ). Once this payment is made, you will receive a final letter informing you that your license is ready to pick up.
Be sure to bring the Bescheinigung and your passport, along with any other indicated documents. No appointment is required; simply show up at the listed room during business hours.
You are ready to hit the Autobahn!
Although I loathe any bureaucratic process, converting my Texas driver's license to a German driver's license was not the worst process I have undergone, but easy for me to say being from one of the 27 states (and Puerto Rico) with full reciprocity and cost me in total €102 (already had passport photos lying around because you need them so frequently living abroad). Even if you don't have the reciprocity, you would come up around €600 which is still significant savings in comparison to starting from zero.
My German driver's license is valid for 15 years. Renewing a German driver's license is just a trip back to the Führerscheinstelle before the expiration date.
Other helpful resources:
Live Work Germany: https://liveworkgermany.com/how-to-apply-german-driving-license/
A funny final note: in Germany, the driving test is typically done on manual cars. There is however a restricted license that only authorizes holders to drive automatic vehicles. I only ever learned to drive on automatic cars, but since this was not a restriction on my American license, but I was issued a normal driver's license so I have no restrictions for driving manual cars. I drove a manual car once, but let's just say I decided to stick with the automatic transmission for now - driving on the Autobahn is daunting enough.