Across Northern Europe: The Elusive Dutch Drivers License

I met Ella, Hilde and Amber in a Stockholm hostel two years ago this summer just after they went to the Roskilde music festival. They were roadtripping from their home in Rotterdam, Holland and we got along famously. So famously, in fact, they invited me to drive south to Denmark with them in Hilde’s sister’s tiny car. It was an act of generosity, yes, but also one of convenience: I could drive.

Though all three were well into their 20’s, only Hilde had her license. Driving in Holland just isn’t so simple.

To be fair, Ella knew her way around a steering wheel, having taken several dozen lessons as part of Holland’s rigorous, expensive divers-license gauntlet.

“I was taking lessons two to four hours a week,” Ella said today, license now in hand after completing an eight-month process that took her sister three years.

But back in 2005 in a Swedish parking lot, a perfect metaphor played out for the difference between American and Dutch driver certification: It was the Dutch learner teaching the American licensee how to drive.

Though I’d been driving for nearly a decade my mastery of the stick shift was non existent and since that July afternoon I’ve often credited Ella with giving me the direction my various amateur instructors hadn’t: basically encouraging me to ride the clutch as I started in first gear. She had plenty of chances to offer advice as I stalled and sputtered and the giggling Dutch girls asked if I was sure I had my license.

Amber would like to drive too but she’s held back by a common complaint: It’s just too expensive. Before you can spend several hundred euros taking the theoretical and in-car exams you need the green light from your instructor. Typically that comes after 40 or so lessons (though Hilde’s mom had more than 60 when she finally attempted to get her license in middle age). Each lesson is roughly 30 euros, bringing the total cost over $2000.

The various hurdles are paired with a general sense that driving just isn’t necessary. Holland is biker-friendly and covered with train tracks. But still, today, it was nice to have the driving option as they headed to another music festival, Holland’s own Lowlands festival.

“When you have your license you get the feeling that you need it,” Ella said. “But really there’s very good transportation without it.”

An old van pulled up to Ella’s apartment and the Dutch girls piled in with some other friends. Though two-thirds of the trio are now street legal, they were still bumming a ride.

“Even when you have your license,” Hilde pointed out. “You still need a car.”


Previously on Across Northern Europe:

  1. Shining a Light on Iceland
  2. Lonely Love on Iceland
  3. Iceland Gone Wild
  4. A Trip to the Airport
  5. Why Bother Going to Berlin?
  6. A Perishable Feast
  7. Globians Film Festival

Brook Silva-Braga is traveling northern Europe for the month of August and reuniting with some of the people he met on the yearlong trip which was the basis of his travel documentary, A Map for Saturday. You can follow his adventure in the series, Across Northern Europe.