Driver's licence exchange in Switzerland : A Smooth Transition

Updated 2009-08-17 14:05

Swiss efficiency never ceases to amaze me, and the ease with which I was able to exchange my U.S. driver's license for a Swiss one is just another example of this phenomenon. I must warn, though, that the process may vary greatly from canton to canton. For example, in cantons with a higher population of foreigners, the process may take longer, including several visits to the

Strassenverkehrsamt. I have had acquaintances in the blogoshere, however, tell me that in their French speaking cantons the process took just one in-and-out visit to the Office des véhicules.

Please note that because I happen to be a U.S. citizens the process is a simple exchange (of sorts), and I am 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 painstaking.

Here is a quick checklist of what I needed to complete and bring with me 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

1. The first important item to complete, of course, is your application. These forms are available at your Gemeinde or you can download them from the cantonal website. Most foreigners in the German speaking part of Switzerland live in Zürich, so I have included a link to that form below.

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 me, 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 body of both forms look almost exactly the same, so I imagine the forms for other cantons will look similar. 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

2. For my passport photo, I visited one of those ubiquitous "Pronto Phot" booths at a nearby shopping center and paid Chf 8 for four photos. The default choice is color photographs, but make sure you don't choose black and white because the DMV does require a color photo.

3. As for the eye test, I went to a nearby "Visilab." The exam costs approximately Chf 10-20, depending on the eyeglass shop you visit. 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.

4. Next, because I had renewed my California driver's license 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, I made sure to pick up a copy of my driver's license history from the California DMV. If you can get these before your move to CH, the better.

5. Finally, I stopped by the DMV to submit all of my documents. Some Gemeinden conveniently accept the forms, which saves you a trip to the DMV, so it's worth finding out. 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 my application and photo, made a copy of my B-permit, kept my original driver's license*, and told me to go home and wait. Wait I did, and just two weeks later I received my new AND old licenses in the mail. I was quite worried the administration would be dissatisfied that I didn't provide German translations of my English documents (especially the copy of my driver's license history), but apparently there were no problems with that!

One last note: One week after receiving my Swiss driver's license, I received a bill for the exchange: Chf 100. (Chf 85.00 in Zürich)

*I highly recommended you avoid driving outside of Switzerland while you wait for your new Swiss license to arrive. My husband 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.

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