Thursday, January 29, 2009

We're Legal Drivers Now, We Think

For the most part, we try to be good, law-abiding, temporary residents of Brasil. We've always made an attempt to be certain that we have all of our paperwork in order and jump through all the hoops necessary to call this fabulous place home for a while. But sometimes it becomes a challenge just figuring out what exactly needs to be done. The most recent case: are we driving here legally?

I would have a hard time quoting all my sources of information, but I do try to do my homework. And this whole driver's license thing was no exception. Before we moved here, I tried to figure out what we needed to do to be legal drivers on these crazy roads. I discovered that there is a reciprocal agreement between Brasil and the USA to recognize each other's driver's licenses. However, we would need an Inter-American Driver's License issued by AAA (which basically just provides a translation of our driver's licenses in Spanish and Portuguese.) So, that's what we did.

After moving here, we were told that what we actually needed was an official translated copy of our driver's license. We were directed to a lady who provided us with these very snazzy sheets of 8 1/2 x 11 paper with a fancy ribbon and seal explaining every bit of writing on our Iowa Driver's Licenses.

For the last 14 months or so, we've kept our Inter-American Driver's License, our fancy translations, and our driver's licenses in the glove box of our car. So if for any reason we should end up needing to prove our legality on the road, we'd be covered.

And as you might recall, we got to test out the legality of it all last March when we had the unique opportunity to spend an afternoon with the PolĂ­cia Militar. (And at that time, there was lots of confusion as to how to enter Eric's documents into the system, but in the end it all worked out and we seemed to have all we needed to satisfy the lovely police of Brasil.)

But over the last few months we've been hearing all sorts of tales about what is really necessary to be driving here legally. It all started with someone mentioning that insurance companies won't cover your claims if you don't have a CNH (Brasilian driver's license.) More than a bit concerned about that, Eric called our car insurance company and they told us that if DETRAN (the Brasilian entity which issues driver's licenses) approved our documents, then it was fine by them. We did a little more research on our own and a lot more talking around and got all kinds of information: if you live here more than 6 months you must have a CNH; there's a gold seal that DETRAN puts on your translation that makes everything legal; if you have a US driver's license then DETRAN will let you bypass all the usual requirements that they have for Brasilian driver's and just issue you a CNH for a fee; etc.

Things were getting more convoluted the more information we received. Everything we read contradicted something else we'd been told. One day last week, Eric decided to ask the attorney in his office for the official word on what we're supposed to do. After a bit of research, the lawyer sent us the actual law outlining the requirements for temporary residents wishing to drive here. Finally!

The not so good news was that it was going to be a bit of work. Besides the translations, which we already had, we needed to pass a physical and psychological examination administered by a DETRAN approved doctor, pay some fees at the DETRAN office, and then we would receive a CNH and everything would be legal.

Earlier this week, Eric called up to the DETRAN office to find out all the details of these requirements. The person he spoke to there told him all he needed to do was bring a translated copy of his driver's license, his passport, and R$100. Hmmm, no mention of any testing of any sort . . . fine by us, I mean, the law we were quoted spelled those things out pretty clearly, but hey, whatever.

So first thing this morning, we went down to the DETRAN office just at opening time. We were a bit concerned when we saw a huge line wrapping out the unopened door and down the sidewalk. But by the time we got parked, the doors had opened and everyone had taken a number and was sitting in chairs in a large waiting room. We spoke to the guy giving out numbers and told him what we needed. He directed us to a small room around the corner where we found three men, who presumably all work there, sitting around talking. We explained that we were temporary residents and wanted to be able to drive legally.

We were told we needed copies of our passport (ID page and visa page), front and back of our driver's license, and of the two fancy pages translating the license. Of course, they couldn't make the copy of our documents - we'd have to go back behind the building to the lanchonette (snack shop) and pay to use their copy machine.

Upon finding the lanchonette, we are told their copy machine isn't working and they direct us to another place down the street where we can get copies. Place number two tells us that their machine isn't functional and directs us yet further down the street. The third place was the charm and we were able to get all of our copies for just R$1.60. (Of course, then when I tried to pay with a R$10 bill, she didn't have change for that. Despite there being a nice line of people making and paying for copies at her place of business. I eventually dug a R$5 bill from my purse which she reluctantly accepted . . . I still for the life of me can't figure out why stores here almost never have money in their drawer! Who opens for the day without enough change to break a ten?!?!?)

We returned to the little office with our copies. We handed them to one of the guys and he began slowly entering our information into his computer (typing only with his right index finger - which was rather unbearable to watch and wait for). Meanwhile, one of the other men in the office was trying to entertain us with some story about stomach problems and the doctor, and the third guy clipped, and then proceeded to file, his fingernails over his small wooden desk.

After a few minutes, our information was entered and printed out on a dinosaur dot-matrix printer. The guy stamped the top of the paper with a blue seal, signed over the top of it, and handed it to us. He told us it was valid for one year (after which time we'd need to come in and repeat the process) and should be kept with our passport (or RNE card), Iowa driver's license, and the translation whenever we drive. He then sent us on our way. Without ever collecting the R$100 each.

It was easy enough. It was cheap enough (free?!?). And I suppose it looks official enough. But, I still can't figure out if we're completely legal or not. Nobody around these parts seems to know either though (which we find is pretty typical when trying to figure out the legality of a situation), so I guess we'll just go with it. I'm just glad I didn't have to take a psychological exam in Portuguese. Would misunderstanding a word and answering wrong label me psychotic for life? Or are you required to be a little crazy to drive around here? Those are the kind of questions that I'd really just rather go unanswered.


Bruno said...

Brazilian bureocracy at its best!

Aline said...

This is Brazil!!! If you have any problem with a police just pretend that you don't speak Portuguese and you are a tourist. That should work just fine.
Plus there are a lot of people in Brazil that drive with their license expired or don't even have one.
So you are good :)

Corinne said...

I can't remember taking a psych test or physical either. Basically, I had to do what you did and pay a fee to get a temporary license good for a year, which is the same license the people who get a license for the first time. Then, if you have a clean record by the end of the year, you trade up for a 5 year license. I remember reading somewhere that you could drive on the US license for a limited time, so that part makes sense. But, never heard about not paying the fee!!

Bruno said...

Maybe some officers got confused because brazilians do have to take a psych and physical test when they take or renovate their drive license.

I had to renovate mine some months ago, and a paid a 30-something reais tax and then 40-something for the tests. They just asked me to read the letters in a sign, then the doctor asked if everything was fine, if I'm happy... And that's it.

Justin said...

Sounds pretty familiar, Em. I hope you're a legal driver now.

Breaking bills was one of the most frustrating things about Brazil. $50 bills are practically worthless down there. I finally learned that when I went to a caixa, I should always take out, say, $190 instead of $200, so I would at least have four tens to carry around.

lovelydharma said...

Whew! Glad you got it sorted out. When we moved back my husband (Brazilian citizen) transferred his American license to a Brazilian one. He actually never had a Brazilian license because he moved to the States when he was 18. He had to pay a fee and take the psyc test (twice - apparently no one passes the first time.) But no written test or physical. He also got to keep his American license. So if you end up being here more than a year, or if there are plans to come back for any extended periods, you could always go that route. Me... I have yet to transfer mine. Frankly I'm terrified to get behind the wheel here!

lovelydharma said...

oh, and so strange... I've heard many people mention the bill breaking thing. I've never had a problem with this (aside from buying from something like say the corner popcorn vendor). This morning I bought groceries at the tiny market on the corner and broke a $50 and as usual no one bats an eye. Maybe my city is an anomaly.

Anonymous said...

I once made the mistake of having only R$100 bills in my wallet so as I walked down a main street I went into every bank to get change. One bank had a huge line, one bank did not give out cash....and at each bank I had to go through the security of course, put my metal objects in the hinged door, go through the security revolving door. I gave up and went shopping anyway, took my chances. The first stop was a dollar store equivalent, the cashier did not give the large bill a second look and gave me change.

AcesHigh said...

hmmm... funny... as far as I know, few people pass the PRACTICAL test the first time.

but Ive never heard actually of anyone I know not passing the psych test.

Ray Adkins said...


Maybe Sao Paulo was different, we took advantage of the reciprocity law and always presented our American driver's license when asked and that always worked.