The Driving Test – A Complete Guide to Preparing and Passing
A step-by-step guide to applying for a provisional driving license, buying learner insurance, taking the UK car driving test and upgrading to a full license.
Every week thousands of newly qualified drivers venture out onto the road unaccompanied for the first time, joining the millions already enjoying the freedom of driving. If you want to be one of them, then you will need to jump through the following hoops first, to prove that you are safe and legal to drive:
- Apply for a provisional driving license
- Arrange insurance cover
- Pass the theory test
- Pass the practical driving test
- Apply for a full driving license
We show you exactly what to do to complete each step, and provide you with a wealth of links and resources to make the whole process easier.
If you want guidance on choosing a driving school, then check out our in-depth article on the topic:
The Provisional License & Other Basics
Why do I need to pass a test to drive?
Britain has some of the safest roads in the world for two important reasons:
- There are strict rules and regulations governing how people drive and the roadworthiness of their vehicles
- Nobody is allowed to drive on the roads until they have passed a strict driving test, to prove they are safe and competent to drive
The driving test ensures that you possess the basic skills required to drive a vehicle safely and that you do not pose a danger to yourself, your passengers or other road users.
All drivers of light, medium and heavy vehicles, as well as mopeds, quad bikes and motorbikes must hold a license and take a test in order to drive legally.
You need a driving license called a provisional license if you want to learn to drive on public roads. Once you have passed the driving test, your provisional driving license will be upgraded to a full driving license for the category of vehicle you are qualified to drive.
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What does the test involve?
The car driving test involves two separate tests:
- Theory test – made up of multiple-choice questions and a hazard perception test
- Driving test – consisting of an eyesight check, a test of your driving ability, and ‘show me, tell me’ questions
Learner drivers have to pass both tests in order to qualify for a full driving license.
The first step in passing the driving test is applying for a provisional driving license, which allows you to start learning to drive.
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When can I apply for a provisional driving license?
It is illegal for learners to drive on public roads, or on any land that has public access, unless they hold a provisional license. A provisional license is also needed to sit both the theory and driving tests.
All official driving licenses in the UK are issued by the Driver & Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA).
In order to qualify for a provisional driving license you will need to pass the following three checks:
Minimum driving age
You can apply for a provisional car driving license (DVLA category B vehicle), 3 months before your 16th birthday, i.e. at 15 years and 9 months of age. But, you cannot actually learn to drive a car on public roads or take a test until you reach 17 years of age.
There are two exceptions to this rule:
- You can learn to drive a car and take the test at 16 if you qualify for the mobility element of the Personal Independence Payment (PIP), which is given to those with a long-term illness or a disability.
- At 16, you can also ride a light quad bike, as long as you hold a provisional license, take Compulsory Basic Training (CBT) and pass a moped test within two years.
If you have a provisional license to learn to ride a moped, then you don’t need to apply for another one to learn to drive a car – you are covered for both.
Driver eyesight rules
All drivers, regardless of age, must be able to read a number plate from 20 metres away.
If you need glasses or contact lenses to do this, then you must wear them each and every time you get behind the wheel.
If you have a medical condition or disability that could affect your ability to drive safely, then you must declare this to the Driver & Vehicle License Agency (DVLA) when you apply for your provisional license. Common conditions include diabetes, epilepsy and fainting.
You must also inform the DVLA if you develop a health condition later, even if you have passed your test. In Northern Ireland you must contact the DVA instead.
The DVLA publishes an A-Z of medical conditions, which you can use to check if you need to inform them about your particular condition.
Just because your condition is notifiable doesn’t necessarily mean that you won’t be allowed to drive.
However, if you don’t inform the DVLA about your condition and they find out, you could be slammed with a £1,000 fine. Worse, you could be prosecuted if you are involved in an accident because of your undeclared condition. Always be honest and up-front.
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How do I apply for a provisional license?
Online or Post
As already noted, you can apply for a provisional driving license, to learn to drive a car (a DVLA category B vehicle), 3 months before your 16th birthday, i.e. at 15 years and 9 months of age – no earlier.
Applications can be completed online or by post.
To complete your application via the Internet, just visit the official Driver & Vehicle Licensing Agency website:
If you prefer to mail your application form to the DVLA, then you will need to get hold of form D1, either by getting in touch with their form ordering service or by visiting specific Post Office branches.
Make sure you have the following items handy when you start the application process:
- An identity document (unless you have a valid UK biometric passport)
- Details of all the address you’ve lived at over the last three years
- Your national insurance number
- Colour passport photo (if applying by post)
A provisional driving license currently costs £34 if you apply online, £43 if you do so by post.
Graduated License Planned
With concern over the high accident rate of novice drivers growing, the government plans to pilot graduated licenses in 2019/20. These would place certain restrictions on new and learner drivers during a probationary period lasting up to 6 months. You can read more about the proposal here:
Should I drive a manual or an automatic car?
Deciding whether you want to drive a car with a manual gear box or an automatic is one of the most important decisions you will make when starting out as a learner driver.
Successfully pass your test in an automatic vehicle and you will only ever be allowed to drive an automatic, unless you undergo another driving test to upgrade your license to a full manual one.
Pass your test in a car with manual transmission, on the other hand, and you are free to drive a manual or an automatic without restrictions, giving you much more choice and flexibility. Perhaps this is why tests taken in automatic cars make up less than 10% of all UK driving tests taken each year.
Having said that, the decision is not quite so clear cut, because both types of gearbox have their own advantages and disadvantages. Here are a few of them:
Pros & Cons of an Automatic
+ Easier to learn to drive
+ Easier to drive day-to-day
+ Faster acceleration
+ A blessing in stop-and-go traffic
+ Easier to control on a hill
+ Smoother ride; less risk of stalling
+ Popularity of automatics increasing
– Lessons in an automatic can be more costly
– Automatics complex and costly to repair
– Driving lessons can cost more
– Not quite as fuel efficient
– Require more maintenance
– Cannot be push started
Pros & Cons of a Manual
+ Majority of UK vehicles still manual
+ More engaging/satisfying to drive
+ Less complex, so less costly to repair
+ Driving lessons usually cheaper
+ Can be push started if required
+ Offer more driver control
+ Cheaper to buy
+ More fuel efficient
– More complicated to control
– More difficult to learn to drive
– Changing gears is tedious
– Require more concentration to drive
– More chance of grinding gears or burning clutch
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What is the highway code?
It covers everything from general rules and techniques for drivers, to signals, traffic signs, and road and vehicle markings.
You can also read the Highway Code for free online at the DVLA website.
Although you cannot normally sit the theory part of your driving test or take driving lessons until you reach 17 years of age, you can certainly get a head start by studying the Highway Code and preparing for the hazard perception test as soon as you secure your provisional license. In fact, we recommend you do exactly that, because there is plenty to take in.
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What is the difference between a L and a P plate?
An L plate is used to let other road users know that you are a learner driver.
Both the front and rear of the any vehicle you are learning in must display an L plate. If you are in Wales, you can choose to display a D plate instead.
The plate must feature a red L or D against a white background and be of the correct size.
P plates, used to let other road users know that you have just passed your driving test, are entirely optional and can be displayed for as long as you like. However, if you live in Northern Ireland, then you have to display R plates (restricted driver plates) by law for one year after you have passed.
Plates usually come in three types: tie-on, stick-on, magnetic.
Tie-on plates come with holes pre-punched and you just attach them to your car using string or a tie of some kind.
The stick-on variety are easier to attach, but can sometimes leave glue marks on the paintwork that have to be cleaned off. In some extreme cases, stick-on plates can even burn themselves onto the paintwork causing considerable damage, so beware.
Magnetic plates are the easiest to fit, but many drivers complain they have to stick them down with additional tape, because they sometimes get blown off when the car is being driven at high speed.
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Do I need to take the test if I’m an overseas student?
Overseas students and others from abroad who wish to learn to drive while in the UK will need to apply for a provisional license just like local learners.
The website of the UK Council for International Affairs contains some useful pointers specifically for students from abroad.
Holders of a full driving license issued by a country that does not fall into one of the categories listed below can drive in the UK with their foreign license for 12 months, but will then have to take both the theory and practical tests to get a UK driving license:
- European Union
- Northern Ireland
- Jersey, Guernsey or Isle of Man
- A ‘designated country’ (countries with exchange agreements with the UK)
Foreign license holders can check if they are eligible to drive in Britain using the government’s Driving in Great Britain on a Non-GB License online tool.
More detailed guidance on driving license rules for foreign residents in this country can be found here:
Drivers with special needs
You must inform the Driver & Vehicle License Agency (DVLA) of any notifiable medical condition or disability that may impact your ability to drive when you apply for a provisional or full license.
If your condition develops after your license has been issued, then you must inform the DVLA as soon as you are aware. In Northern Ireland you must contact the DVA instead.
Failure to inform the DVLA could result in severe penalties, especially if you are involved in an accident as a result of your undeclared condition.
You may be able to secure an exemption certificate if you cannot wear a seatbelt because of a medical condition or disability.
If you are pregnant, have a disability, health condition or learning difficulty and are planning to take the driving test, you should make this clear when you book your driving test, so the examiner can make adjustments for your situation by allowing you extra time or a sign language interpreter, for example. Click on the following link for more on this topic:
What does the Theory Test Involve?
Do I need to complete the theory test first?
Yes, you do. You cannot take the practical test unless you have passed the theory test first.
The theory test, which takes place at your local theory test centre, is in two parts:
- Multiple-choice questions
- Hazard perception
The DVSA tweaked the test in Dec 2017. Click the link for more information on what changes were made.
You will be required to answer 50 multiple-choice questions in 57 minutes or less. The test is computer-based and the pass mark is 43/50.
Learners who’ve got a Safe Road User Award can sit an ‘abridged theory test’ that asks just 35 questions, instead of the usual 50.
The multiple-choice questions in the theory test are based on 3 books:
It’s useful to note that many libraries around the country subscribe to the online Theory Test Pro service, giving library members free access to tutorials in 40+ languages, hazard perception videos, practise tests and more.
Alternatively, learners who don’t mind paying can sign-up to the DVSA’s Learning Zone to access online revision guides, mock tests, interactive quizzes, videos and tips.
There are also several websites that let you take a mock theory test online for free, to check if you’re ready for the real thing, including:
Hazard perception test
During this part of the theory test you’ll need to identify the 1 or 2 developing hazards featured in each of the 14 clips you’ll be shown. The faster you answer, the higher your score. The pass mark is 44/75.
Instructions will be given at the start of the multiple-choice test and the hazard perception test. There is also a brief gap between the two tests, to give you a break.
Results are given immediately after the test has been completed. Pass and you’ll be handed a pass certificate number, which you will need when you come to book your practical test.
Fail and you’ll receive a letter detailing where you fell short. You’ll need to retake the test in full, after a minimum 3 day wait, even if you failed just one part of it.
It costs £23 to sit the theory test. You can book online or over the phone, as long as you know your license number. You will need to take your provisional license with you on the day of the test.
For more information about the theory test, or to book, change, check or cancel your test, please visit the official website:
What Does the Practical Driving Test Involve?
How will I know if I’m ready for the driving test?
The best person to assess your readiness for the test is your driving instructor.
If you are able to do everything set out in the national driving standard for cars independently and without instruction, then discuss with your instructor if it’s time to book a test.
To be sure, and to prepare, it is highly recommended that you take a mock test with your instructor before booking the real thing. Another mock shortly before test day also a good idea. Mock tests should follow the driving test format as closely as possible.
Taking a test when you’re not ready not only wastes money, but could also knock your confidence.
Remember, you cannot take the driving test until you have passed the theory test first.
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Booking your driving test
Practical driving tests can be booked online or over the phone. Make sure you have your driving license number and a payment card to hand. You have the option to check your instructor’s availability for the test at the time of booking. To do so, you will need to know their personal reference number.
You can book any test centre in the country you wish, though most people choose their nearest one.
Northern Ireland follows a different procedure.
Driving tests held on weekdays cost £62, while evening, weekend and bank holiday slots cost £75.
You can only take the test if you have lived in England, Scotland or Wales for at least 185 days up to the day before your test. Northern Ireland also has strict residency requirements.
Which driving test centres have the highest pass rates?
Click the following link if you want to pore over official pass rates for all driving test centres, to find the ‘best’ and ‘worst’ centres around the country:
Generally speaking, and as you’d expect, driving test centres situated in congested cities have the lowest pass rates and those in rural areas the highest.
Men are slightly better than women at passing the driving test, but women outperform men on the theory test:
What to take with you for the test
Thousands of learners have their driving test cancelled on the day and lose their money simply because they have failed to take the following essentials with them:
- UK photocard driving license (paper counterpart abolished in 2015, except N. Ireland)
- Theory test pass certificate
- Suitable car
- Glasses/contact lenses (if required)
- Seat belt exemption certificate (issued on medical/disability grounds)
You can take the test in your own car if you wish, or even borrow one, but it must meet DVSA standards and not be on their list of banned models. Whichever, vehicle you choose, you must be insured to drive it. Most learners opt to use their instructor’s car.
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Are you allowed to take someone with you?
Yes, anyone over 16 can accompany you in the car during the test, as long as they follow the rules about observing tests and are not acting as an interpreter.
Many people ask their instructor to sit in on the test. This is useful, because they can note your performance and provide valuable feedback, especially if you fail.
If you only want your instructor, family member or friend present when you’re given your result and not during the test itself, or vice versa, then let the examiner know at the outset.
What happens during the driving test?
Standard driving tests normally last 40 minutes in total. The examiner will usually start with the following two checks:
- Eyesight check (fail and you cannot take the test)
- ‘Tell me’ vehicle safety question
S/he will then ask you to drive around for 20 minutes, either by following a sat-nav, which they supply, or in 20% of tests by following traffic signs. During this time, the examiner will observe and grade your driving skills, focusing on the following key areas:
- General driving ability
- ‘Show me’ vehicle safety question
- Reversing your vehicle
- Independent driving
The DVSA has stopped releasing test centre routes, so you can only view old information on unofficial sites like Driving Test Tips.
However, the government does still publish the DL25 marking sheet used by examiners, complete with an explanation of each check. It also makes available the official ‘show me, tell me’ vehicle safety questions for you to view, as does the DVA in Northern Ireland.
It is vitally important that you stay focused and positive, and don’t get distracted or dwell on your mistakes during the test, as this will simply be counter-productive.
Once the test ends, the examiner will advise you if you have passed or failed. S/he will then ask you if you want to receive feedback and if you want your companion or instructor present when it is given. It is your choice entirely on both counts. We strongly recommend you listen to any feedback that you are offered.
During the test, examiners look for 3 types of faults:
- Dangerous fault (major) – a mistake that endangers you, or others, or property
- Serious fault (major) – a potentially dangerous mistake
- Driving fault (minor) – not potentially dangerous, but if you keep making the same error it could become a serious fault
You can make up to 15 driving faults and still pass, but make a single dangerous or serious fault and you fail.
For more information about the practical test visit DVSA: Driving Test. If you wish to view the marking guidance given to examiners, then go to:
I passed my practical test, now what?
On average, only 47% of all practical driving tests that are taken result in a pass, and just 21% in a first time pass, so give yourself a pat on the back.
Once they have given you the good news, the examiner will hand you a DSA10 certificate of competence.
Automatic Driving License Issue
Normal ADLI procedure is for your examiner to forward your provisional license and driving test pass certificate to the Driver & Vehicle Licensing Agency, so they can issue your full driving license.
New licenses are usually dispatched within 3 weeks.
Whichever method you use to apply, make sure you note down the driver number on your provisional, as well as the pass certificate number, in case your documentation gets lost.
Driving Home Immediately
You can drive out of the test centre straight away if you wish – no need to wait for your full license to arrive – but you must be properly insured. In most cases, your learner driver insurance stops the moment you pass your test, so you’ll need to make sure you have full car insurance in place to drive the car you are in.
Please visit our section on insurance for more on this topic.
In most cases, pupils are too elated to drive themselves anyway, so are driven home by their instructor or companion.
Make sure you apply for a full license within 2 years of passing, otherwise you’ll have to repeat the test!
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I failed my practical test, what do I do?
If you failed, then your examiner will give you a certificate DL25C/D, as well as a form to apply for another test. Don’t be too disappointed, because 53% of all tests end in this way.
The examiner will also offer to provide feedback on your performance. It is up to you if you want to hear it, and if you want your instructor or companion present when it’s given. We highly recommend you listen to what s/he has to say, so you can do better next time.
You have to pay for a retest and the slot you book has to be at least 10 working days after the last test.
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Top 10 reasons for failing the practical test
According to the DVSA, the top ten reasons people fail their driving test in the UK are:
- Junctions (observation)
- Mirrors (change direction)
- Control (steering)
- Junctions (turning right)
- Move off (safely)
- Positioning (normal driving)
- Move off (control)
- Response to signals (traffic lights)
- Reverse park (control)
- Response to signals (traffic signs)
Can I appeal the result of my theory/driving test?
You cannot appeal against the result of a theory or a driving test, you can only complain about the quality of the service, especially if the examiner didn’t follow procedures. You may get a free retest if your appeal is successful.
Appeals must be lodged within just 21 days in Scotland, and within 6 months in England and Wales.
If your appeal fails or you are unhappy about the handling of your complaint, you can escalate the matter to the Independent Complaints Assessor for free.
Are advanced driving tests worth it?
If your primary motivation is to take your driving skills to the next level or gain a qualification, then yes.
Drivers can choose from a number of officially recognised advanced driving courses, all of which are entirely voluntary:
Other options worth considering include:
Diamond Advanced Motorists (government accredited; run by the Driving Instructors Association)
BSM Refresher Lessons (tailored course)
Be warned, though, that if you are taking an advanced test purely to cut your insurance premium, then you may be left disappointed, because passing an advanced driving test doesn’t automatically lead to cheaper car insurance.
Some firms do quote lower premiums to advanced drivers, but many do not. Pass Plus holders, in particular, may only qualify for a discount if they’ve held their license for under a year, any longer and it may not make a difference.
Also, advanced courses are not cheap, they typically cost between £150 and £200, so consider carefully if you will really recoup your investment through cheaper insurance, and how quickly you will do so, if that’s your main motivation for signing-up for one.
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Insurance cover for learner drivers
Car insurance is a legal requirement for all drivers in the UK – even learner drivers.
If you learn to drive in your instructor’s car, then you’ll automatically be insured. However, if you want to practise or learn in a family member’s or friend’s car, then you’ll need to arrange separate cover.
You have two options:
Learner Car Insurance
This type of policy insures you to drive either your own car or a borrowed car. The policy will be in your name. You need to be at least 17 and hold a provisional license to buy learner insurance.
When practising your driving, you will still need to be supervised by a full license holder who is age 21 or more (some insurers specify 25 years), and has a minimum of 3 years driving experience.
If you have an accident in a borrowed car and you have learner insurance, you will not impact the owner’s insurance premium or their no claims bonus (the NCB reduces the cost of car insurance each year).
Cover can be arranged for short periods ranging from 2 hours to 5 months, or annually. Learners normally estimate how long they will take to pass their test and then buy cover for that period. How much you’ll pay depends on a range of factors, but do shop around, as rates range from £1-5 per day.
Learner driver insurance normally stops the moment you pass your test, therefore make sure you cancel your learner cover and buy qualified driver car insurance in good time.
Having said that, there are some learner policies on the market that cover you for a few hours immediately after you have passed your test, allowing you to legally drive yourself home from the test centre. Bear this in mind when shopping for cover.
The second way to get cover as a learner is to ask a relative or friend who is already a qualified driver to add you to their insurance policy, so you can legally practise in their vehicle.
This sounds straightforward enough, but there are a some notable drawbacks to arranging insurance as a learner using this method:
- Insurers often apply a big excess if inexperienced drivers are added to a policy
- It pushes up the cost of your family member’s/friend’s car insurance policy
- Damage your family member’s/friend’s car and they may lose their NCB
- As a named driver, you will not build up your own NCB
Day Insure (backed by Aviva)
Veygo (by Admiral)
New or Young Drivers
Drive Like a Girl (not just for females)
Insurance Comparison Websites
You can either use a specialist car insurance comparison website like Mustard or one of the generalists, to find a good deal:
Books, DVDs & Learner Plates
Amazon – the online giant offers a huge selection of books and PC/DVD discs and other material for learner drivers; it also stocks a selection of learner plates
Colour Academy – Colour Academy markets a theory test educational colouring book, to help those who learn best using visual cues
Driving Test Success – a leading brand that sells an array of apps, online courses, PC/DVD, e-books, downloads and revision guides to help car, bike and other learners
DVSA Shop – the DVSA’s e-commerce site stocks all its official products for learners, drivers, riders, instructors and professionals
Halfords – order online or visit any outlet of this specialist retail chain for learner plates and all your other motoring gear
Department for Transport
Driver & Vehicle Standards Agency
Free Theory Test Training
Theory Test Pro (offered free by many libraries)
Safe Driving for Life (information resource from the DVSA)
For detailed information on picking a suitable driving school or instructor, and tips on getting the most out of them, please read the following article:
The UK has an enviable road safety record. This is in large part due to the restrictions placed on learner drivers and the requirement for them to prove that they can handle a vehicle safely before they are allowed to drive on their own.
The driving test is certainly challenging, but almost half of the learners who take the exam pass. There are numerous resources available to help you prepare, particularly for the theory test, and many of them are available for free. If you make effective use of them and combine your study with enough practise behind the wheel, there is no reason why you can’t be one of the success stories.
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