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Driving Legally in Thailand

Earning a driving license is a rite of passage. Back in the ‘80s (when I earned mine), one would attend a driver education class as a sophomore in high school, and at age 15 (and-a-half), he or she would take a written test at the Department of Motor Vehicles to acquire a “learning permit.” This gave the new driver six months to practice, as long as there was a fully licensed driver in the car to die with him or her, in the event of a fiery accident. Then at 16, the learner could take the test for a full-blown license, which included passing a practical exam. Parallel parking was a common nemesis among many, and would send some dejected teenagers back into the learning permit stage. Finally receiving that coveted, laminated card felt like a major step toward adulthood, and freedom. It was a once-in-a lifetime feeling – or so I thought …

To drive in Thailand, at least for the first three months, one needs an international driving license. This is a translation of your state license, and can be picked up at “Triple A” for 20 bucks. After the three months has passed, an actual Thailand license is required, both to drive a car and a motorbike. My Texas license was only for cars, so considering I was driving a scooter, it did me absolutely no good. I would occasionally be stopped at a police checkpoint, given a 200-baht fine ($6) for driving without a license, and then continue on my way.

After mentioning my predicament to a friend, she said she knew someone who could help me get a license. In my naïve state, I assumed it was some sort of agent who would walk me through the process of getting a real Thai license. The “agent” showed up with an application and a camera, and two days later reappeared with a “10-year international driving license”, which in reality doesn’t exist. I went with the flow, and at the next police checkpoint, I whipped out my unusual documentation, and lo and behold, it worked just fine. Over the next three years, I used the license with impunity, and was never questioned about its validity.

Recently in Thailand, some laws have changed regarding driving without a proper Thai license, which includes a fine and up to one month in jail. The government is making an effort to remove Thailand from its position as the most deadly country in the world for road deaths. This sparked a new interest in me to acquire official licenses.

The first part of the process of obtaining a valid Thai driving license was to gather some documentation. I needed a “certificate of residence”, which proves one has an address and is living in Thailand. For this, I filled out an application, had a couple of photos taken, took these, a copy of my rental lease, passport, and TM-30 receipt to the immigration office, where I paid 500 baht ($15) to receive the certificate the following day.

The next document I needed was a medical certificate. I went to the Bangkok Hospital branch near my house, and had my blood pressure taken to prove I was alive, and then assured the doctor I didn’t have elephantiasis or tuberculosis, nor was I in the third stage of syphilis. This was another 500 baht.

Beyond that, I needed copies of my passport, my current license, and an application. I decided since I’d had such great luck with my 10-year international license, I’d use it as a “trade-in” for the official Thai license. If one has a valid license from their home country, or a valid international license, it’s not necessary to take the written or practical exam.

It turns out, the agent at the Department of Land Transport, was more savvy than the many police officers I’d come across. She immediately let me know my 10-year international license may as well have come out of a cereal box, and I’d have to test for the motorcycle license. Luckily, my Texas license was still valid, so I didn’t need to test for a car license. She told me to come back the next day at 8 a.m.

I showed up at 7:30 a.m., and it was already busy. I turned in my paperwork, and waited with a large group of applicants, both Thai and foreign. About 9 a.m., we were called as a group to take a color-blindness test. An agent pointed at several tiny, colored dots and we, each in turn, had to call out the color. I was told it was best to say the colors in Thai, which I did (red=daeng, green=kiao, yellow=luang). I passed and went back to my seat. My understanding was I would also have to take a test for depth perception and reflexes. I didn’t have to do this. I’m not sure why.

The next event was to watch an hour-long video about Thai driving laws. In the recent past, everyone had to sit through a five-hour training video in the Thai language. Needless to say, I had no problem with the one-hour video in English. It also provided many answers for the upcoming written test. Upon completion of the video, I was allowed to pay 205 baht and pick up my car license. The quest for the motorbike license continued.

By this time, it was about 10:30 a.m.; I was told to come back at 1 p.m. for the written test. Luckily, I had prepared for the test the night before. I did a web search for “Thailand driving license test” and it came back with several sites, including an online, interactive site. It provided 90 questions, and allowed me to choose answers to questions, giving me a score at the end. I took the 90-question quiz several times, until I answered all the questions correctly a couple of times in a row.

At 1 p.m., our group was shuffled into a room with several computers, and given a plastic card. The card is inserted into the computer to begin the test. The test consisted of 50 questions, and it’s allowable to answer five incorrectly, and still pass. I missed two. It turned out the questions I studied were nearly the same. I finished the test in about 10 minutes, although test-takers are allotted one hour.

The next step was the practical driving test. I drove my scooter to the testing site, and turned in my paperwork. There, I had to wait a little more than an hour until the test began. A fellow applicant, also from Texas, said she had failed the written test, but was allowed a second opportunity to take it. The correct answers to missed questions are provided, so those who are quick studies should be fine.

There were eight people taking the practical motorbike test with me, and we all lined up as the instructor explained in Thai, and exaggerated hand gestures and body language, how to complete the course. It was a game of follow the leader, and he had a Thai person go first, who understood the instructions.

We drove about 50 feet (15 meters), made a right turn. Then we stopped at a stop sign, waited three seconds, and made a left. We went over a hill, stopped again, and made another left. We made one more left, and then weaved in-and-out of some orange traffic cones. They were spaced fairly far apart, so nothing to worry about. We then had to traverse over a green-painted strip of concrete, two-inches higher than the ground, and about a foot in width. It was about 10 yards (or nine meters) in length. After the green strip, we stopped at a stop sign and the course was complete. The whole thing took between five and 10 minutes. This completed our tasks, and the final step was to go back to the office, pay 105 baht, have our picture taken, and collect our new motorcycle licenses. I was almost as giddy as a 16-year-old kid, getting his first license.

The licenses I received are both considered “temporary” licenses, and are good for two years. This is a recent change from one-year temporary licenses. Up to three months before expiration, I may upgrade to a five-year license, without having to take the written or practical exams.

I hope this answers any questions about getting a driving license in Thailand. The process isn’t difficult, but it is a bit long and tedious, much less so, I’d imagine, than a month in a Thai jail. Don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any questions or comments!