Get your Israeli driver's license!!

Getting my Israeli citizenship? Easy. Opening Israeli bank accounts? Piece of cake. Signing up for Israeli health care? Easier than getting a doctor's appointment in the US.

Getting my Israeli drivers license? The most traumatic experience of my aliyah.

This story starts way back in August, when my husband and I bought a used Hyundai Getz. We found it using the Israeli buy/sell website www.yad2.co.il, and to save a few thousand shekels, we bought a manual transmission car. I knew how to drive stick, but my husband didn't, so test driving was all me. I was TERRIFIED to drive on the Israeli streets... I stalled twice when I tried to start the car, then crawled around the block once at about 10 kilometers per hour and finally said, "Great! We'll take it!" Worst test-drive ever, but the car has turned out to be fine... despite the fact that my husband regularly curses the day I convinced him to buy manual. (He's learned, though!)

Flash forward to January. We'd both been comfortably driving all around northern and southern Israel in our little Getz (affectionately named "the Munchkin"). My husband and I were seated in the "Misrad haRishui," our local branch of the Dept. of Transportation, to start the process for my husband's Israeli license. We knew that I could drive in Israel for up to a year after aliyah on my American license, but my husband's license had expired. As we waited for some forms, my husband suggested we check the expiration date on my license. Oops. It had expired in August. We decided not to mention this to the Misrad HaRishui, as there we were with our car parked in the lot outside... and no other way to get home. But after that point, I didn't drive the Munchkin.

Luckily, because my license had expired so recently, I could skip the written test. While this test is the bane of many Israelis' existence, I actually think it's easier for olim. To pass, picture how Israelis drive and then answer the opposite. Sample question:

What should you do when a car cuts you off on the highway?
(A) Honk repeatedly.
(B) Accelerate to pass the car.
(C) Tailgate and flash your lights until the car moves out of your lane.
(D) Reduce speed so that you are following behind at a safe distance.

Israelis would engage in choices (A)-(C), possibly simultaneously, so the correct answer is (D).

I was still required to take lessons with an instructor and then a road test. In March, I finally started my lessons with "Avi," an instructor who talked incessantly on his cell phone while students were driving and whose basic motivational technique involved lecturing when students did something wrong and telling them the secret to good driving was doing exactly what he said. As long as he wasn't actually talking on the cell phone to someone else at the time. In other words, he was very Israeli. In retrospect, I think I would have done better with a different teacher-- I tend to like a softer, dare-I-say "American" touch. (My husband worked very well with Avi, and passed his test on the first try after just a few lessons. Men.) But Avi excelled at working the system, and after pushing me through a few weeks of lessons, he took me down to the Misrad haRishui to argue for a test "chutz mehamisgeret," which would allow me to avoid the waiting period of about a month for a normal test.

Now, let me interrupt this to say that taking a driving test in Israel is not as easy as in the US. For one thing, we must know how to navigate traffic circles (or "roundabouts"), and we must identify the difference between what IS a traffic circle (meaning that whoever enters first has the right of way) and what looks like a traffic circle (meaning that you sometimes have to stop and yield in the middle). To make things extra fun, just before every roundabout and at random spots along the road, we have pedestrian crosswalks, and you can fail your test for not stopping when an old lady nears the edge of the crosswalk as you sail through. Then you have a random spattering of yield signs and stop signs, often with no logic telling you that this should be "yield" and this should be "stop." You also must deal with the Israeli penchant for lanes ending randomly or for the "straight ahead" lane to switch from the left to the right side of the road twenty times in a row. And you regularly come to intersections like this (my own picture):

Oh, and did I mention that because we own a stick shift car, I have to take the TEST on my instructor's stick shift car? And that I can fail the test if I don't shift smoothly enough (or use the clutch too much, or stall, or brake too sharply, or slow down in neutral, etc.) And I HATE driving lessons. I hate the passivity of only turning when the instructor tells you to, I hate trying to relearn skills that are automated, and I hate having every little part of my driving criticized. And it's extra stressful to me to not understand my instructor when he tells me (in Hebrew) to parallel park after the pile of brush in front of the yellow trash can, near the cat. And driving tests are far worse than lessons. I'm good at paper tests... not so good at driving tests when I can't go back to change an answer, and I might accidentally kill someone in the process. Plus, it's way more embarassing and frustrating to fail a driving test after driving for nine years.

To top it all off, I had already driven in Israel for months, so I'd internalized a lot of bad Israeli driving habits-- for the test, I had to learn how to drive not like an Israeli but like a promotional video for road safety.

Finally, getting a license in Israel is EXPENSIVE. Every lesson cost me 80 shekels. The test cost 350, plus a fee of about 100 shekels payable to the government. Plus probably other fees that are slipping my mind right now, like a fee to pay when I actually get my license. (New drivers have to take a minimum of something like 24 lessons, so Israeli parents can do the math-- not everyone gets a license at 17 here!)

My test was April 1st, which I should immediately have seen as a bad omen. I did everything perfectly... except for one little detail. I, er, didn't see a red light.

The examiner slammed on the breaks on his side of the car.

With our thudding halt I realized that I'd failed my first test. Another "chutz mehamisgeret" test was out of the question, so I had to wait... until "achrei haChagim," after the holidays, a catch-phrase signaling that nothing will get done either during the High Holidays in September or the string of holidays starting with Passover in the spring.

After Passover, I called Avi again... and was told to call back after Yom Haatzmaut. After Shavuot, Avi informed me that his car had burnt up. (Really.) Finally, two months after my first test, he called me back with my next test date: June 10. The morning after my sister was supposed to arrive in Israel in the middle of the night. And we were only able to schedule three quick review lessons before that, and after not driving for two months, I needed them. Something about a stick shift reveals every bit of driving discomfort.

Anyway, yesterday I took my second test, attempting every zen relaxation and focus technique possible during the test. I didn't do anything as horribly wrong as I had on my first test, but I also know plenty of people who have failed three or four times for far littler offenses. I took the test at 9 AM, and then I had to wait until 4:15 to find out if I had passed.

Finally, the call came. Avi: "Mazel tov, avart!" I passed. No more thousands of shekels spent, no more trips in my instructor's car. Now I just need to wait for my paper temporary license to arrive, pay a few more fees, and finally... I'll be just another Israeli driver. Unleashed onto the Israeli streets.


  1. It's hard enough for an average Israeli, so I can't imagine how hard it is for a new oleh! I applaud you for your courage, it really is a jungle out there..

    By the way, the public transportation is really good, so you can take the bus and get virtually anywhere (unlike America, which is made for cars instead of humans).

  2. haha... so true about the public transportation! (And America being made for cars rather than humans!) Honestly, there was a part of me that felt comfortable enough without a driver's license (and with a husband to chauffeur me on the weekends!) that I wasn't sure I wanted to go through the stress of getting my license. But the thought of, well, going through the rest of my life not being able to drive... not so great. Thanks!

  3. Well done! I must say, I have loved driving in Israel as a visitor, but wouldn't like to go through a driving test there, even though I've been driving for thirty years and have Advanced Drivers skills (something you can do in the UK).
    I reckon that deserves a nice night out to celebrate together - or at least a box of chocolates to munch in the munchkin!

  4. Comparing Israeli traffic with my native German (and surrounding European countries), even with average US large agglomerations, thimngs are just "normal"... and the process of obtaining a Drivers Licence: Try for a "carte d'Identitée" in France or a Drivers Licence in Italy (also with expiration date...), and you'll have comparable situations.
    Mazal tov!

  5. Congratulations!
    I had to take the driving test in Germany 4 times to pass it, the system is pretty much like in Israel, especially the really freaky questions in the theory test. It's the same here: answer the opposite of what an average driver would do.

  6. "To pass, picture how Israelis drive and then answer the opposite. "

    Maya, that seems to be a universal situation -- even in Illinois (home of all things politically corrupt) one reads the question, thinks about what he/she had seen on the highway that day, and answers the opposite!

    Most drivers here seem to drive with a cell phone to their ear (has anyone heard of bluetooth??), ignore stop signs and completely forget about turn signals.

    Just in the past few years we've had 2 university students killed while walking in front of a bus (iPod or cell phones were involved) and one bicyclist killed by a teen driver downloading ringtones while she was driving -- she and the cyclist were both headed the same direction and she drifted so far off the road that she hit him with her left front fender!! He was a talented master student who died because an 18 year high school senior felt she needed the latest and coolest ringtone...

    (Does it sound like I'm approaching 50... I am)


  7. The state of driving in the world in general is really scary. I've actually seen multiple accidents right in front of my apartment, mostly because drivers try to pass other drivers who are turning left while cutting off oncoming traffic.

    However, note to my parents (who I tried very hard to convince to rent a car when they visited)-- driving in Israel is fun, really!

  8. i am US law a student doing research on foreign licenses and driving privileges in the US. Do Isreali Licenses have photo id on them? or are they just a paper document that looks like a permit?

  9. Yes, our licenses contain a photo and in general look and feel a lot like American licenses. The only main difference is that we get our picture taken when we go in for an appointment with a certified eye doctor to make sure our vision is good enough, and then this picture is stored in a database and attached to a paper "permit" (permits don't work the same way) and finally to our license itself, which arrives in the mail a few weeks after we pass our test. For those few weeks, we use a paper saying we passed our test and are allowed to drive.

  10. It seems as though the term "right of way" is not in Israel and the turn signals are not used at all. The Israelis regularly stop wherever they choose, even on a main road.

    When I am on a main straight street and there are side streets with stop signs, it is typical that someone will see that I see them, and cut me off. This is very aggravating, since they do it even when there is rain and bad weather, and is not only illegal, but is rude. The chance of an accident by this behavior is increased so greatly.
    It seems that even the driving teachers, do not use turn signals and teach the students that they are unnecessary. So sometimes I am sitting at a traffic circle and waiting forever, with everyone going right and me trying to give right of way to those on my left.
    Reading the laws on traffic circles is a joke, it depends on who is first? Sounds like children, not adults trying to work out good driving laws.
    Now that I understand that right of way, at circles is not given to the left, there will be many more accidents, since I will stop giving right of way and even the tiniest space between cars, I will push my way in, like they do.
    I really love it when I come to a circle, am going straight and the car to my right, puts his car in front of mine, causing me to put the breaks on, rather than he wait a second.

  11. this is funny!

    i am in the process of taking lessons now, so i can identify with what you are saying.. i too hate to be given yamina/smolah commands 20 feet beforehand. and my instructor's accent (or is it my accent?) makes lessons confusing too.

    wish me luck!

  12. Good luck, Roxanne! :)

    Anonymous, right-of-way in traffic circles is always given to the left (and to drivers already in the traffic circle, of course). It's actually a really simple system. Yes, cars may cut in front of you if you leave too much room, but the traffic circles work ok for me. Maybe you need to be a bit more aggressive and jump in when you have enough space?

  13. I took my first driving lesson today. I clearly told the guy I'm paying him to teach me to pass the test, not how to drive. Of course, he claims that if I drive correctly, I will pass the test.... though I really do not understand why it matters if I slow down in neutral... do they actually fail people for that??!

  14. be very careful about the driving teachers the one i took was verbally abusive and was a real theif


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