Giving Up Driving in Spain

When a Car Is No Longer a Necessity

Ford Escort
My little Ford Escort before I sold it!

I remember the first time I drove a car. I was sixteen years old and had just gotten my driver’s permit (a pass/fail computer exam). I got into the car with my father, eager to learn this essential adult skill. As we made our way onto the main road, I could see him tense up with pure fear; I had no idea how hard to press on the gas, which made for the jerkiest five-minute ride to the local milk farm either of us had ever experienced.

Over the next six months I begged to drive at any opportunity, and, luckily, (despite their fear) my parents usually let me. The day I turned sixteen and a half, the legal age for a driver’s license in Massachusetts, I took my driver’s test. Unfortunately, my first attempt was a failure (the police offer who accompanied me had to slam on the brakes as I almost turned into oncoming traffic!) and I spent the next hour or so bawling my eyes out in shame and disappointment.

The next weekend, accompanied by a much nicer police officer, I carefully took the test again.

Thankfully, I passed!

Having a car was the definition of freedom and maturity where I lived. It was essential for doing just about anything– meeting friends, eating out, having a job, going shopping, etc. My high school parking lot was overcrowded, in fact, as just about every 16.5 year old owned some type of vehicle.

Here in Spain not only do I not have a car, I can’t even drive one!

First of all, I don’t legally have a driver’s license here, as I would have to take both the written and practical exams again if I wanted to get my Spanish license (a very expensive and difficult process in Spain). Also, I don’t know how to drive a stick shift, and virtually all of the cars in Spain are manuals!

Stick shift
I need to learn how to use one of these!

Most of the time, this is fine. Living in a big city like Madrid, a car is not at all necessary. Transportation alternatives include:

  • Walking
  • Bike
  • Metro
  • Bus
  • Taxi
  • Train

Public transportation in Madrid works wonderfully and is clean, fast, and efficient. Despite recent cutbacks on some of the metro’s hours, the system still runs later than the metro in the majority of other cities in the world.

Metro Serrano
Madrid’s metro is fantastic!

For many friends, having a car in Madrid is actually an expensive hassle. They need to find a parking spot every day, or pay high rates for a garage spot or a parking pass for the more central neighborhoods.

And when we really need a car (weekend trips, road trips, big Ikea trips, etc.) there are countless budget car hire companies to choose from. We’ve tried various car rental services and have had good experiences with all. Normally, we just look for a good rate with a mid-sized car, and book whatever company is offering the best deal. Sometimes we find rates of about 20€ a day for a decent car (not a mini car!) and the price ends up being much cheaper than if we had taken the train.

rent a car
One of our rentals in the Cadiz mountains.

Sometimes I think about the fact that I don’t (and really can’t) drive here and it makes me feel like I’ve lost an important part of my freedom. Yet at the same time, I was never the best driver in the world (four or five accidents in five years) and often hated driving when I wasn’t in the mood. I think it’s just the fact that right now, if we ever rented a car and for some reason Ale couldn’t continue driving, I literally can’t continue myself. That makes me feel pretty powerless.

Has anyone else moved to a country where you no longer do something that was once really important to your daily life? And does anyone want to teach me to drive a stick shift?

Photo Credits: johnmarchanpalander


  1. I completely hear you on the stick shift. We recently upgraded our car to a recent model VW but it’s a stick…and my hubby drives it but I have yet to learn! We live in NJ and commute to NYC which is why we can keep a car, but seriously…it’s a bit of a nuisance to learn to drive it no?

  2. I was in your same shoes until I got pregnant and finally sucked it up and went for my license here about 2 years ago. Almost 600 Euros, and two practical tests later, I passed when I was 8 months pregnant! The only reason I didn’t pass my first practical test was because I had just learned how to drive stick and stalled one too many times. That was the hardest part! I used to tell myself that I didn’t need my license here but now that I have a family, I’m so glad I went for it.

    1. Wow Sara! I can’t imagine taking the test 8 months pregnant– good for you! I can imagine that being able to drive makes family life much easier, but I’ll be you don’t have a minivan in Seville (right?)!

  3. You do not need a car in Japan. They have the best transportation system in the world! Their train system is unbelievable and fairly inexpensive.

  4. I have the opposite experience. I never learned to drive until I came to Spain. It was awful, about 100 practical classes, thousands of euros and four failed driving tests with punitive extra classes. But I finally got it! (aged 48!). I´m not the best driver and I should use the car more (I´m a little nervous now after a scary brakes-failing scene at night on a barely lit motorway) but it´s great when I want to pop out and do something quickly. I complain a lot about Spanish drivers … though I´ve never driven anywhere else so I´ve really nothing to compare them with. However, I agree that you can get by perfectly well without a car here if you live in a big city. It´s not so easy if you live out in the countryside though.

  5. I failed my first attempt, too! I haven’t really itched for a car until recently, and it’s mostly for the freedom. Still, I found a decent rate at my suegra’s friend’s autoescuela and am planning on an intensive weekend course. My dad has a stick back home…though it’s a ’57 Chevy that I would hate to wreck!

  6. Ha! I’m an American and I, too, am desperately looking for someone to teach me how to drive a stick!

    Also, more than anything, I’m jealous of your public transportation options. We desperately need to become much more like the Western Europeans in that regard, we really do, though I think something Europeans don’t understand when they criticize that about America is just how much more difficult and expensive it would be to do it here than it was there due to how enormous and spread out our country is in general and our even our cities are.

    If I were you, I’d go to the trouble of getting a driver’s license just so you can have it in case you need it, but I probably wouldn’t buy a car.

    How long is your American driver’s license good for there? I know they have to recognize it for a certain period of time in order to accommodate foreign visitors who are temporarily in the country but as I recall after you’ve been there a certain period of time it’s no longer valid and if you want to drive you have to apply for a local license, that’s how it works in pretty much every Western European country I believe.


    1. Hey Andrew! I think my American license may have been okay for about 6 months (while I was a “tourist”). I’ll bet I could rent a car even so without any difficulty, but I’d just prefer to have everything be legal!

  7. I’m with you on the stick shift. When my ex bf visited me in Spain, He was in charge of all the driving because it was stick. I’m decent but not 100% confident.
    I think the harder part is, if you had to drive, you feel you can’t. As you say, you’re powerless. Hopefully you won’t ever find yourself needing to figure out how to drive stick shift suddenly. If you had to, I know you’d figure it out!

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