Driving Bureaucracy

I believe a bureaucrat at the Institute for Mobility and Transport (IMT) here – elsewhere known as the Department of Motor Vehicles – just did me a favor. An uber one, at that!

DMVs anywhere aren’t anyone’s favorite government agency, but the bureaucracies residents must deal with in Spain and Portugal – IMT (driver licenses and motor vehicles), Finanças (Taxes), SEF (Immigration), and EDP (the utility company), especially – have been attributed as being challenging > frustrating > irritating > next-to-impossible.

That wasn’t the case for us here in Castelo Branco. Staff at these offices have been considerate, cooperative, and pleasant. Anyway, here’s the story:

We’ve been very careful about observing all of Portugal’s requirements — particularly for non-EU nationals residing here – in terms of documentation and deadlines. Especially regarding the IMT. This is a country that only recently changed its rules about transferring one’s driver’s license from your country of origin to a Portuguese one … without adequately announcing the changes and spreading the word.

Formerly, new residents of specific non-EU nationalities had six months from the date they received official residency to trade in their existing licenses issued elsewhere for new ones from Portugal. The new law now limits that time to just 90 days, with serious consequences if you miss that deadline: driving school lessons followed by written and driving tests dealing with laws, practices, competencies, and the mechanics of how vehicles operate.

To exchange an American driver’s license for a Portuguese one, you must meet all of the “regular” requirements – a completed application form, proof of residency, your current driving license, passport, NIF, and a fee – along with an apostilled driving record from your last state of residence, plus a physician’s certificate that you are fit to drive.

We provided everything required by the Instituto da Mobilidade e dos Transportes (IMT) and, within two weeks, received our official license cards in the mail. In the interim, since our USA driver licenses had to be surrendered, we were given paper documentation to certify our legality to drive here.

All was well, we assumed … until I tried to rent a car.

“I am sorry,” the car rental agent apologized. “But I cannot rent you a car. You haven’t been driving long enough—only since last year.”

What? I’d obtained my driver’s license on my 17th birthday in New York and, by now, had now driven continuously for about 50 years … with licenses from New York, Maryland, Virginia, Florida, and Wisconsin!

“Please forgive me,” I responded. “But I don’t understand.”

The amiable chap pointed to a line on the rear side of my new driver license which indicated that my license was first issued last year.“How is that possible?” I asked.

He shrugged off the mistake and suggested I take it up with the IMT … someone, somewhere, at IMT had erred when copying the information I’d presented into the computer.

Fortunately, I had retained a copy of my official Wisconsin driving record in PDF format and peered at it on my computer screen before printing it out. There it was, in black and white: I began driving in Wisconsin on March 9, 2008. Maybe not 50 years of driving experience, but certainly at least ten!

I revisited IMT to point out the error and ask for my license to be corrected. And, while there, I also asked about renewing my driver license before March 9, the day before my 70th birthday, when Portugal required new evidence of my fitness to continue driving.

Older drivers in Portugal need to undergo medical and psychological examinations when renewing their driver licenses at ages 50, 60, 65, and 70 … drivers older than 70 are subject to a revalidation test. My doctor told me not to worry: there was no need for him to provide the medical certification until January, just two months before my 70th birthday. But I was concerned; I wanted IMT’s confirmation of that.

By law, one’s Portuguese driving license expires at 70 years of age; so, when you reach 70, you need to renew it if you want to continue driving. You then need to renew it every two years. Renewal can be done up to six months prior to the license expiring.

I took a Portuguese friend with me to speak on my behalf, as it was early into our residency in the country and I had a ways to go with my language proficiency. The lady who waited on us was flustered but friendly. While I feared the copy of my Wisconsin driving license showing the date I began driving there wouldn’t be accepted because it didn’t have an apostille (my only apostilled copy was turned in, along with my license, during my initial visit to the IMT), it wasn’t a problem.

The only problem was the printer, which refused to cooperate. Spending half an hour checking for paper jams, removing and shaking the laser cartridge a number of times, turning the machine off and on again, my IMT representative was getting impatient. The office manager was summoned. He, too, couldn’t get the printer to work; but, he called for a replacement … which arrived within half an hour.

Meanwhile, my Portuguese-speaking friend explained my concerns about renewing my license within the required time frame to the IMT lady. She looked at the expiration date and did some mental calculations: No problem, she said. We were within the six-month window and she could renew my license then and there, on the spot, without me having to return to IMT later. And, based on the documents I’d already supplied about four months earlier, she’d renew it for two more years without any new certifications—medical or otherwise.

Moral of the story: It’s easy to groan and bemoan the system.

Likewise, we need to give credit where, when, and to whom due.

So, thank you, my Portuguese guardian angels!

Shared here are personal observations, experiences, and happenstance that actually occurred to us as we moved from the USA to begin a new life in Portugal and Spain. Collected and compiled in EXPAT: Leaving the USA for Good, the book is available in hardcover, paperback, and eBook editions from Amazon and most online booksellers.

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