A Smooth Transition: The Acquisition of a Swiss Driver's License

I am not the first to write about this topic, but I thought I'd share with readers the steps Isaiah and I took to exchange our foreign (U.S.) driver's licenses for Swiss ones. It was a surprisingly smooth transition, thanks to all of the helpful information on Swisstory Blog as well as Google translate.

Please note that because we happen to be U.S. citizens, the process is a simple exchange (of sorts), and we are exempt from any written or behind-the-wheel examinations (just so long as the exchange happens within one year of arriving in Switzerland). This is also true for the following countries: EU/EFTA countries, Australia, Israel, Japan, Canada, Korea (Republic), Croatia, Morocco, Monaco, New Zealand, San Marino, Singapore, and Tunisia.

For all other countries, I am afraid the process is much more of a hassle.

Here is a quick checklist of what we EACH needed to complete and bring with us to the Department of Motor Vehicles (Strassenverkehrsamt):
  • Application form (Gesuchsformular)
  • Original foreign driver's license (Ausländischer Führerausweis)
  • Alien card, such as a B-permit (Ausländerausweis)
  • One recent passport photo in color (35 x 45 mm)
  • Eye Test (Sehtest)
  • Optional -- Record of Driver's License History
Just as Jessica of Swisstory points out, the first thing you need is an application form. Because I don't read German or live in Zurich, I had to do a little more investigating to find the appropriate form for my canton.

If you live in canton Zurich, you can visit this page and click on the form that states "Gesuch um Umtausch eines ausländischen Führerausweises."

If you live in canton St. Gallen, like us, visit this page, scroll down to the section titled "Verkehrszulassung Führer," and download the form "Gesuch um Umtausch eines ausländischen Führerausweises."

As you can see, for both cantons the forms have the same title. Also, I noticed the forms look almost exactly the same. For all other cantons, visit this page to find your DMV and click around until you find the following terms:

"Umschreibung ausländischer Führerausweise" -- I have no exact translation for this, but it's the section on the DMV site that leads you to information about the exchange.
"Forumulare" = forms
"Gesuch" = application
"Umtausch" = exchange or replacement
"ausl./ausländisch-" = foreign
"Führerausweis" = driver's license

For our passport photos, we just sat in one of those Pronto Phot booths at a nearby shopping center. (Of course, I used up all three of my attempts before I chose a "pose" I wanted to print, and Isaiah just picked the first one.) The default choice is color, but make sure you don't choose black and white because the DMV does require a color photo.

As for the eye test, we went to the nearby Visilab, and for both tests we paid a total of CHF 18 -- not bad! Be sure to bring with you the application form you downloaded and printed because the eye examiner will make notes directly on that form and complete the transaction with an official stamp.

Next, because we renewed our California driver's licenses only within the last two years, and I heard from at least two sources that you must prove you have been a licensed driver for at least three years, Isaiah and I made sure to pick up copies of our driver's license history from the California DMV. If you can get these before your move to CH, the better.

Finally, we attempted to turn in all our documents for the exchange to our Gemeinde, but the clerk instructed us to go in person to the DMV in St. Gallen. (You can also send the forms by post, but I feel more comfortable doing these things in person.) At the DMV information desk, a clerk collected our applications and photos, made copies of our B-permits, kept our original driver's licenses*, and told us to go home and wait. Wait we did, and just two weeks later we received our new AND old licenses in the mail. I was quite worried the administration would be dissatisfied that we didn't provide German translations of our English documents (especially the copies of our driver's license history), but apparently there were no problems with that!

*I highly recommended you avoid driving outside of Switzerland while you wait for your new Swiss license to arrive. Isaiah and I learned the hard way. Just one week after turning in our applications and California licenses, we drove to Munich to visit friends for the weekend. As we were on our way back to Switzerland on Sunday evening, we were pulled over by the German authorities, complete with blue flashing sirens! Five police officers proceeded to step out of a van and interrogate us. Of course, they wanted to see our driver's licenses! After some explaining (and pleading), they let us go! Phew! Although we didn't receive a fine for driving without a license, I would not recommend such an experience to my worst enemy...


  1. I had a similar experience getting my driver’s license. I had been told to ask for my US license back and they gave it back to me with a sticker indicating it was not valid for driving in Switzerland. I also received my Swiss license before leaving the DMV.

  2. Hey Patrick - I didn't know I should ask for my US license back, they just mailed it back with my new Swiss one (thank goodness). So let me get this straight - you walked into the DMV and walked out with your new Swiss license during the same visit?

  3. That is correct. I walked into the DMV and walked out with my new Swiss license during the same visit.

  4. Wow, Patrick, now that's Swiss efficiency! In which canton was that, might I ask? I certainly won't complain about my experience since, compared to other delays I've heard about from friends, mine was a pretty smooth one. BUT, the DMV in canton St. Gallen said it would take one week and it took TWO. Not that one more week is a whole lot longer, but it was 7 days of wondering if we did something wrong!

  5. We live in the canton of Vaud.

  6. Hey! Thanks for the shout out. I am glad that it went so smoothly and that the blog was helpful. I would have been freaked out to have been stopped by the cops! Wow. Good thing we dont even drive. Ho hum. :)

  7. I got my license in lausanne on the same day as well!!! 5 minutes even....
    My first dose of swiss efficiency in 1 whole year..they didnt even ask me to pay anything...I am still shocked!!!


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