By Lorna Kralik
When it comes to getting a license in Hungary, drivers from most European countries may avail of oodles of treaties. Provided there’s a clear driving record, they should be able to walk into most any district office and trade their license in for a local Hungarian version.
As for almost everyone else, such as Africans, Asians, and Americans, the general understanding is this: you may drive for a year on your home-country license, as long as it is accompanied by a piece of folded cardboard with a stamp. This is the international driver’s license. Then, you must get a Hungarian license after one year, which has a medical exam. That’s the limit of most everyone’s knowledge on the subject. In practice, the above means –at least based on anecdotal evidence— that many foreigners who have been here more than a year are simply driving on their old license, and hoping they can get away with it until, well, whenever. The process of getting your Hungarian license can seem so time consuming, expensive and mysterious that most people would rather chance it, and do.
So why bother?
First off, since you live here it might be nice to find out how you are supposed to be driving. There’s no messing with bus lane access, not to mention right-hand rules like you’ve never seen.
Also, you might want to save yourself the judicial hassle. While the address card takes top honors in being the must-have ID, a driver’s license isn’t far behind. If you do get in a crash, the license alone goes a long way in showing that you’re familiar with the rules of the road. Otherwise, have fun explaining to the police exactly why you haven’t applied.
If the potential legal consequences aren’t enough, consider what you’re up against if you lose your license. How much of your free time do you really want to spend struggling with DMV from abroad? Misplacing a passport, yes, is a problem…but then again, there’s the embassy. Having your license lost or stolen, however, can leave you struggling with a long-distance phone tree to nowhere in Rochester, not to mention having to brown-nose the people who rent your old home to forward your mail…that is if you can convince your former post office to stop returning such mail to the sender. Up for renewal just about the time you lost it? Enjoy the trip home.
Where to start
Each district in Budapest has a local government office, whose addresses can be found here. Among other things, this is where you go for official matters concerning IDs or housing. (Keep in mind that immigration issues are separate, and cannot be dealt with at the district office.) It’s unlikely that anyone behind the counter will speak English, so it’s suggested that you bring someone to help translate. You’ll be asked to present your license. Unless the clerk goofs and gives you a Hungarian license on the spot (rumored to occasionally happen), you’ll be given a list of tasks. Provided your license is recognized and valid, and that you are legally residing in Hungary, the likelihood is that you’ll have to jump through the following hoops:
1. Officially translate the foreign license (Bajza utca 53, District VI).
2. Pass a medical exam (either with a public or private doctor).
3. Pay all necessary registration fees to the district office.
4. Submit an application to take the exams at the local office of the National Transport Authority (Nemzeti Közlekedési Hatóság, or NKH). There’s an application fee that will have to be paid at this time.
5. Pass an oral driving exam (same as above), and possibly a practical exam.
6. Return to the district office to submit results, along with your foreign license.
And = És
There’s only one place, so getting the official translation done shouldn’t be too confusing. Bring your license to Bajza Utca 53 in District VI. Don’t question why it takes a week and 10,000 HUF to translate 18 words from English into Hungarian. You won’t win, and this is merely the first step. Once you’ve returned to pick up your translation with the seal, dangly ropes, and tassels, you’re ready for the medical.
The medical exam
Presuming you already have a doctor, this one’s also easy. (Thank your stars it’s not like the official sports physical, where you have to go to an official sports hospital after waiting three unofficial months for an appointment.) Public or private will do, but make sure to tell them in advance exactly what the appointment’s for, so they can have the paperwork on hand. It’s a good idea to bring the forms that you received at the district office just in case.
Prepare yourself. Americans in particular will find that the exam is more akin to passing the Bar than it is to the ten-question, no-brainer that some of us sat in high school; no series of driver’s-ed shock films will be enough. The exam covers everything from non-basic mechanics to first aid to obscure calculations. How does the shaft load of the car change at the top of a steep elevation?
Before you start worrying about the details, however, you’ve got to apply to take the test at the National Transport Authority (NHK). Bring ID, as well as enough cash to pay the application fees. The cost of the theoretical exam is 4600 HUF. For a category “B ” license, there are three themes, but all are included in the one price. Testing for foreigners who do not speak Hungarian is oral; there won’t be any written elements.
There are two NHK offices in or near Budapest where you can register and take the driving exam:
Two examiners will administer the oral test, and the whole procedure will be voice-recorded to exclude the possibility of getting any assistance from a translator. Anyone who needs a translator for the exam will have to foot the bill themselves. Translators have to be drawn from the official translator list of the NHK, which is available at the customer service room of the transportation authority. Driving schools should also have a copy of the list, or at the very least use the services of an authorized translator.
The cost of the practical is 11000 HUF, which has to be paid at the time of the application for the exam. Not everyone has to take every part of the exam, which is why it’s important to stop by the district office first to present your foreign license and ask about your particular situation. The majority of foreign applicants who present a valid driving license from abroad will not have to take the practical test. The one significant exception is where an individual would rather hang on to their foreign license in addition to obtaining a Hungarian one. In this case, the applicant will essentially be taking all parts of the test from scratch, as if they did not already have a license.
The practical test is comprised of two parts: an initial test on a course that is not open to the public, and another on the open road. The translator fee for the closed-course test is 10,000 HUF. A translator is not required for the open-road test, as the directions are simple: “Left here,” “Stop,” and so on and so forth.
There are classes available throughout Budapest to help you prepare (Csiga and Autóiskola, among others), and consist mainly of sitting through a series of lectures with a very expensive translator at your side. If you are taking the practical, the instruction will consist of slowly inching around Budapest with a humongous “T” sign on the top of a small car, also with a very expensive translator at your side. There is no official training material in English –only in Hungarian. The larger schools make up for this with a series of English-language handouts, which are invaluable for the theoretical exam. Translators, by the way, typically double the cost of the course. This means that foreigners who are also required to pass the practical exam (meaning as much as 30 supervised hours on the road) are looking at a bill of around 600 euro or more.
Back to the district office
Once you have passed the exam, the last step is to return to your district office with all of your paperwork in hand. In other words, don’t assume that any results will be automatically forwarded. If you only took the theory and not the practical exam, you will have to submit your foreign license in exchange for the Hungarian one. You can get the original back when or if you relocate. The resulting Hungarian license is indefinitely valid, assuming you renew it as required.
Good question. The success rate for the theory test for “B” licenses (plain-vanilla, car-driving) is 65%, but that’s for all of Hungary. The NHK doesn’t track data regarding foreign applicants.
Changes not to worry about
As of January 1, 2011, the government authority that regulates the exams will undergo some reorganization. According to the NKH, this should not affect applicants, other than a new department name on the window where you submit the application. The name, for now, is unknown.
Sok sikert kívánunk!
Many thanks to the staff at the National Transportation Authority for verifying the process described here.
Originally published on the Expat Echo blog.