History of the UK Driving Licence

UK driving licence

Ever since 1903, anyone driving a car in the UK has needed a driving licence. Over the course of more than a century, this humble document has undergone some remarkable changes to reflect the way we use the road. Ready to dive into the history of the driving licence? Buckle up and enjoy the ride!

The early years of motoring

Motor vehicles were an increasingly common sight on Britain’s roads towards the end of the nineteenth century, but they were subject to some incredibly strict rules. Each vehicle needed three crew members on board, and the speed limit was set at just 2 mph in towns. These rules were finally relaxed in 1896, helping to increase adoption of cars as a convenient mode of transport—and a comparatively speedy one, with a new speed limit of 14 mph.

In 1903, the government responded to the car’s newfound popularity by bringing in the Motor Car Act. As well as introducing vehicle registration and increasing the speed limit, the act was most notable for introducing the first British driving licences. There was no need to take a test (at 8am or otherwise)—anyone over the age of 17 could get a licence just by applying to their local council. The first driving licence was available for just five shillings (or 25p—equivalent to roughly £28 today). Unlike today’s licences, you had to renew every year.

Though subsequent acts introduced regulations such as road tax, compulsory insurance, and the Highway Code (as covered in the history of the Highway Code), licences themselves remained largely unchanged for over three decades. This all changed when, in 1934, driving tests were introduced for the first time. Existing drivers were allowed to carry on driving without needing to take the new test, but anyone who started driving from April 1st, 1934 had to pass by June 1935. Whilst testing was temporarily suspended during the Second World War and the Suez Crisis, it’s been with us ever since—unfortunately for nervous learners!

Want to know more about the early years of driving tests? Check out this video for learner drivers from 1935!

A nation of drivers

When the first stretch of motorway was built in the late 50s, it paved the way for modern driving. Driving licences were changing too: from 1957, they were valid for three years rather than one. During the 1960s, car ownership boomed, and major changes were afoot. The first approved driving instructor register was set up in 1964, and a centralised licensing system came in 1965. The new central office was based in Swansea, where it remains to this day.

1969 saw some changes which will be familiar to today’s learners and drivers. The first change was that learners had to bring their licence to their test. If they didn’t, examiners could refuse to conduct the test—a rule which remains in force. Meanwhile, separate licences for automatic and manual cars were introduced. This meant that drivers who’d learned in an automatic could no longer legally drive manual cars. Manual and automatic pass rates differ to this day.

The changes in the 1970s were even more radical. By 1973, there were more than 20 million drivers on Britain’s roads. The old manual system was, therefore, increasingly unfit for purpose. So, in 1973, licensing was computerised. Out were the old red booklets—in were new green paper licences. Then, in 1976, full driving licences became valid until a driver’s 70th birthday, ending the need to renew every three years. The extension also applied to provisional licences from 1982.

Check out the DVSA’s history of road safety for an even more comprehensive look at the way our roads have changed over the decades.

The licence today

UK driving licence
Image source: gov.uk

Today, we’re so used to carrying around our pink photocard licences that it seems like they’ve been around forever. In actual fact, they didn’t exist until 1997. Before this time, drivers in Great Britain only had their green paper licence, which didn’t include a photo. The paper and photocard licences existed side-by-side until June 2015, when paper licences were abolished. The following month, the Union Jack was added to all photocard licences for the first time.

As licences themselves have changed, so too has the process of getting one. A written theory test was introduced in 1996. In 2000, it became a touch-screen test, and a hazard perception section was added in 2002. Some learners still find this change a bit off-putting—if you’re one of them, take a look at our guide to passing the theory test.

Meanwhile, the practical has changed too: “show me, tell me” questions were introduced in 2003, followed by independent driving in 2010. The most recent test changes came in December 2017, as we covered in our guide to the new practical driving test. Major changes included new “show me, tell me” questions, one of which is now while driving, as well as a new manoeuvre involving pulling up on the right. Meanwhile, another key difference is that most driving tests now include sat navs, to reflect the widespread popularity of these handy devices. If you’re thinking of buying your own, visit our article on different types of sat nav.

Facts and figures

  • The first person ever to pass a UK driving test was Mr R. E. L. Beere. He got his licence on March 16th, 1935, and his test cost seven shillings and sixpence. It’s not quite as cheap as it sounds—equivalent to around £25 in 2017—but it’s still much cheaper than today’s tests!
    (Hint: want to keep costs down when learning to drive? Block-booking lessons through an intensive course could save you money in the long run.)
  • In the 1970s, the driving licence gender gap was huge. In 1975/76, only 29% of women had a licence, compared to 69% of men. There are still more men on the road today, but the gap is much narrower now. In 2010, 66% of women had a licence, whereas 80% of men did.
  • Amongst most age groups, the percentage of licence holders has remained fairly steady since the 1970s. However, numbers have dropped somewhat amongst 17-30 year olds since the highs of the 1990s. Meanwhile, the percentage of licence holders over 70 has skyrocketed from 38% to 57% since the 1990s. In fact, it was revealed in July 2017 that, for the first time, there are now over 100,000 drivers over 90 years old. It goes to show that you’re never too old to get on the road!
  • In 1935, the test pass rate was 63%. In recent years, however, it’s dropped: current driving test pass rates stand at around 47%.
  • As we mentioned above, the first driving licences in 1903 cost five shillings. When taking into account the changing value of the pound, that’s worth around £28 in 2017. Interestingly, the price isn’t much higher now: it costs £34 to apply for your first licence. Prices were dramatically reduced in 2014 from a previous high of £50.
  • The only person who doesn’t need a driving licence is the Queen. For most public events, of course, she’s driven around by a chauffeur. However, she’s certainly not shy about getting behind the wheel, having trained as a driver and mechanic as a teenager during the Second World War. She’s even believed to have taught her own children to drive, and loves getting back in the driver’s seat whenever she can.

We know that the Queen occasionally drives her Jag, what do you have in mind for your own first set of wheels?

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Now that you know all about driving licences, why not join our top pupils and get one of your own? Book a course with PassMeFast and get a full UK driving licence in just a few weeks! You’ll need your provisional licence to get started, so keep it safe! If it’s too late and you can’t find it, check out how to get a replacement provisional licence.

Or, maybe you fancy a bit of driving test-related entertainment? This Emergency Stop Game blog post is certain to satisfy your need for diversion!

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By Andy Boardman

Andy has been part of the PassMeFast Blog team from the very beginning. He'll provide you with plenty of useful motoring advice, helping you to get the most out of every trip. When he's not writing here, you're most likely to find Andy on the way to his next destination.


  1. Reply


    I’m sure I had a full licence at 17. I was born in 1960. Would this be correct please? My husband seems to think. It wasn’t possible at that age. Please settle an argument cheers janet

    1. Reply

      Andy Boardman

      Hi Janet,

      The age at which you can hold a full licence has been set at 17 since 1930. So yes, you definitely could have held a full licence at 17!


  2. Reply

    clive sawyer

    Hello i passed my motorcycle test in 1969 (had a red licence then) but it appears not to show on my licence that I am allowed to drive one, never really noticed that before until now since purchased a vintage bike. Can you advise what I can do about this? thanks Clive

    1. Reply

      Andy Boardman

      Hi Clive,

      My best advice here would be to get in contact with the DVLA. If you have any of your previous licences to hand, it could be worth sending these over. Any licences from before 1990 should show category D, while any issued since 1990 should show category A.

      Hope this helps,


  3. Reply


    I would give a word of warning about sending an existing licence back to be corrected. My friend who passed his motorcyce test many years ago noticed that his new photocard licence didn’t show a category to drive a motorcycle, so he sent his old licence and the new licence back to DVLA. They lost both licences and the upshot was after a year of communication he had to retake his test. He had photocopies but he was told that these should have been authenticaed at the time of copying by a Solicitor. Even a leading motorcycle magazine got involved to help him but it was like talking to a brick wall. The computer says “NO.”

    1. Reply

      Andy Boardman

      Hi Nik,

      Sorry to hear about that! Keeping authenticated copies of any documents is definitely a good tip.


  4. Reply

    Royston Watkins

    Not sure if you are still answering questions ? but here goes ;

    I have an original red paper UK driving licence which last renewal pair Seot 1974 brought the two years up to the 1976 no longer required to pay. I was still using this when at the age of 66 moved to France. Arranged to change UK licence for a French one, on arrival at Prefecture was informed UK licences were not needed to be changed . So retained red licence and have used it for the past 20 years. I did appproach Swansea for a change but informed I didn’t have a UK address so not able to upgrade. So continued using same. Have been stilled several times ( just as a check ) by French Police , no problem !! Once on returning to England at the French Ferry Port realized I had left passport at the house. French customs cotscted English customs to see if there was any other option, suggested I use my UK lick ce . On arrival at UK customs, whilst the customs officer raised his eyes when I presented my red license, I was let through and again on board when returning to France. I now have to change as is the new rule in France but not sure how I Srand with my red licence ? Any suggestions ?

    1. Reply

      Andy Boardman

      Hi Royston,

      I haven’t been able to find any information specifically relating to the old style British licence. However, it is possible to exchange expired EU-issued licences, and having read through the rules, it appears as though UK licences would fall under the same category, provided that they were issued prior to 31st December 2020, and that you started living in France before this date. With this in mind, I think you should be fine to exchange your licence.

      You would need to provide the following:

      • CERFA form n°14879*01
      • CERFA form n°14948*01
      • Your original driving licence
      • Proof of identity
      • Proof of address
      • Proof that you are staying in France legally (e.g., a residence permit)
      • Proof of residence in the UK at the time you obtained your licence, unless you only have British nationality
      • A certificate from the UK authorities verifying that you have the right to drive
      • An official translation of the licence into French from an authorised translator
      • 4 photos, including one on each of the CERFA forms

      Full details can be found here, in French.

      Hope this helps!


  5. Reply

    Jayne Atkinson

    Hi Andy. I have a friend who passed his driving test on his 17th birthday having had lessons on public roads beforehand. This would have been about 30 years ago. I thought you had to be 17 before you were allowed on a public road but he disputes that – has age 17 always been the case? Thanks

    1. Reply

      Andy Boardman

      Hi Jayne,

      You’re right on this one – to my knowledge, the driving age for public roads has been set at 17 since 1903.

      Hope this helps!


  6. Reply

    Anne Thornton

    I passed my UK driving test in 1976 when I was 17. When my first full licence was issued it was valid until 12/06/2029. Obviously I have changed my name (marriage) and had about 6 changes of address since then BUT why do I now find myself having to pay nearly £60 to renew my licence when i am only 61 ?

    1. Reply

      Andy Boardman

      Hi Anne

      Renewing your licence should only cost £14 online, £17 by post, or £21.50 in person at a Post Office. I’m not quite sure where the additional fees would have come from in this case – if you have any more info about what you’re being charged, it could be useful.


  7. Reply


    Hi Andy
    Could a 16 year old be allowed to drive a car in the UK in 1985 or 1986?

    1. Reply

      Sam Plant

      Hi Steve,

      I don’t think so. 16 year olds can start learning to drive in the UK if they receive Personal Independence Payment (PIP), but PIP was introduced around 2013 and I’m not too sure if there was anything similar in 1985–86.



  8. Reply

    J Cooper

    Slight problem. I’ve lost my driving licence and the replacement is stuck in the dvla backlog and unlikely to be processed until after a driving holiday booked to go to France this august. I’ve tried getting an International driver’s permit as an alternative at the Post office using my paper counterpart but it was issued around 1974 and only specifies catagories A and GH, which according to the counter staff only allow me to drive a motor bike, a steam roller or tracked vehicle. The PO staff will not budge in their interpretation of the catagories. I am assuming that 1974driving catagories were different to those of today. Can you caste any light on this conundrum? Much appreciated.

    1. Reply

      Sam Plant

      Hi Jerry,

      That certainly is a conundrum and one I’ve not come across before, unfortunately!

      Have you contacted the DVLA to see what they advise? Or perhaps the French equivalent of the DVLA?



  9. Reply


    Hi Andy , i started driving in the early 60’s . i dont recall who the PM was but it was said that the licence that all motorist’s had was valid for life . and we would never have to pay again in the future . when i gave up my red paper licence to change for a photo card i had to pay why ?

    1. Reply

      Sam Plant

      Hi Nick,

      We’re not too sure about that — a little bit before our times and I can’t find much info online, I’m afraid!

      Not at all surprised to hear about a government going back on their words, though…

      Hopefully no more payments from now on!


  10. Reply

    Ruhul ahmed

    I have a driving license since 1974 and it has validity 2024, has no photo in the Licence. So legally can I drive till 2024 when I will be 69.please let me know.
    Ruhul Ahmed

    1. Reply

      Sam Plant

      Hi Ruhul,

      Yeah, I believe you can still use your paper licence until 2024, providing all the information (address, name, etc.) is still correct.



  11. Reply

    Liz Needham

    When did the law come out that you have to to take another test when you reach 70 and is it an actual test.

    1. Reply

      Sam Plant

      Hi Liz,

      Over 70s don’t need to sit another driving test, they just need to renew their licence at 70 and every 3 years after. This is just to declare that they’re fit to drive.



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