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Q&A: Navigating the Germany driver's license confusion

German police officer David Giesler instructs a motorist to pull into a parking lot for inspection during a random traffic checkt on the east side of Kaiserslautern, Germany, on Jan. 28, 2014.

JOSHUA L. DEMOTTS/STARS AND STRIPES

By STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 4, 2015

Germany’s reinterpretation of the German Supplement to the Status of Forces Agreement regarding what documentation is required to legally drive in Germany has raised myriad questions. Stars and Stripes has compiled available information in a Q&A format below. As we get additional information, we will update it here.

If my USAREUR license is valid, but my stateside license is expired, am I allowed to drive while the issue is being resolved?

USAREUR recommends that personnel without a valid stateside license not drive on public roads in Germany until they can obtain a valid stateside license. However, a current stateside license is not required to drive on U.S. military installations in Germany.

Are there penalties if the German police catch me driving with an expired stateside license?

Drivers could face steep fines, upwards of 600 euros, and potential towing costs. German police in Rheinland-Pfalz say they will immediately take the car keys of drivers unable to show a valid stateside license unless there is someone else with a valid license able to drive the car. A car left on the side of the autobahn would have to be towed at the driver’s expense. If the driver is a civilian, the case would be handled as an offense and referred to the local German prosectutor’s office. For active duty personnel, the case would be turned over to the U.S. military, according to the Kaiserslautern police.

If I’m driving with an expired stateside license and I get in an accident, will I still be covered by insurance?

It appears most insurance companies that extend coverage to U.S. personnel in Germany are not changing coverage policies in the wake of the new German regulations. Employees at two auto insurance companies in Germany said that a valid USAREUR driver’s license continues to be sufficient to secure insurance coverage.

Does this affect all drivers in Germany without a current U.S. license?

Not necessarily. So far, only Rheinland-Pfalz has enforced the policy. In Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg, both states with large military communities, German law-enforcement officials have said they are not enforcing the policy. However, a servicemember based in Grafenwöhr or Stuttgart would still be at risk while traveling in other parts of Germany that enforce the rule.

What are my options?

1. Renewal — online, by mail or in person — depending on when a license expired and/or whether a person still has proof of residency in the issuing state. Some states have lenient extension policies, giving automatic renewal/extension to military members — and some to dependents and civilians as well — while they remain out of state and on active duty. Some states note this policy directly on the license with a stamp. If not, the U.S. military suggests getting a letter from the state or printing the state’s regulations and translating those into German to show to police if stopped. USAREUR recently posted a link with more information on state driver’s license policies. It’s unclear, however, whether German states will recognize any form of automatic extension.

2. Obtain a letter from USAREUR authorizing you to get a German license. So far, however, this doesn’t appear to be a viable option for most. Most city driver’s license offices say they’ll consider such a transfer only if the driver is no longer under SOFA. (see below)

Can I get a German license, and if so, how?

According to the SOFA supplement, you should be able to apply for a German license if you have authorization from USAREUR. But several license issuing offices in German states where U.S. personnel are stationed say they no longer issue German licenses on the basis of a USAREUR letter of authorization. They say a German license can be issued only to those who are registered in Germany and do not fall under the SOFA.

Some German driving schools have accelerated courses for those who already know how to drive. However, the courses are still quite expensive, from 500 euros to 1,500 euros or more, and there is no guarantee that you would be issued a German license for the reasons listed above. It is better to check with the local licensing bureau before spending the money for a driving school. You also have to pass a test. Taking the course is no guarantee you’ll pass the test the first time, or ever.

Can I get an international license?

In Germany, if you are under SOFA, an international license cannot be used in lieu of a USAREUR license. Only foreigners who are not under the SOFA and do not have permanent residence in Germany may use an international license to drive in Germany. However, you can acquire an international license in Germany if you have a valid stateside license and you will need one if you plan to drive in other European countries.

What if I have lived in Germany all my adult life, never have had a stateside license or stateside residency and was issued a USAREUR license as my primary driver’s license before 1998, when USAREUR still had its own driving instructors and administered a licensing test?

Legal experts say you should be able to get a German license if you got a USAREUR license under those circumstances. But most German licensing authorities say they will not issue German licenses under any circumstances to someone who is under SOFA and not registered in Germany. U.S. officials advise individuals to check with their local German licensing office to see what the current policy there is.

So, what am I to do in the meantime if my stateside license is expired and I need to get to work?

USAREUR has recommended that anyone with an expired stateside license try to get it renewed as soon as possible and to be aware that driving without a valid license is now considered a violation of German law. In the meantime, officials recommend finding alternate means of transportation, such as public bus, car pool or a ride with a friend or spouse with a valid license.

What if I have been overseas so long that I cannot establish stateside residency in order to get a driver’s license?

There is no clear solution. Some people are asking a relative to add them to a bank account or other bills so they can show proof of residency.

Will the criteria for obtaining a USAREUR license change?

That is not clear. Until now, to obtain a USAREUR certificate of license, a military member, dependent or DOD civilian had to provide a VALID stateside license. However, one was not required to produce a stateside license when renewing the USAREUR license. USAREUR says it will now start keeping a record of when stateside licenses are due to expire, though for the time being that will be for record-keeping purposes only. The USAREUR driver’s handbook, issued in 2010, recommends that drivers maintain a current stateside license.

When will this situation be resolved?

U.S. officials say they are negotiating with the Germans over the reinterpretation of the SOFA. The German Transportation Ministry says authorities are working on finding a solution and clarification of the issue. However, it is not clear if that means German authorities would be willing to drop the new regulations.

news@stripes.com

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