1. Make sure you have a valid Australian driver’s license. As a foreigner you are legally allowed to drive in Australia on the license from your home country for a short-term, but after the first six months you are required to obtain a local license, and probably best not to wait four years, like I did. Like in America, each state and territory issues their own licenses. If you already have an American license, the process is pretty straightforward- visit your local Roads & Maritime Services (RMS, also referred to as Service Centres, are the equivalent of America’s DMV/MVA). A reciprocal agreement allows you to obtain a full NSW license by showing your state license, taking an eye test, and paying the license fee.
If you don’t have a license, the Australian process seems to take years, involving several learners licenses referred to as ‘green P’s’ and ‘red P’s, logbooks and countless hours of practicing. Start now, or by the time you can finally legally drive, everyone will have driverless cars and you’ve missed the boat completely.
2. Find a car for sale. If you want to go the second-hand option (good choice, new cars are much more expensive here than at home), best options are from a dealer or a private seller. Caresales.com.au, gumtree.com.au and carsguide.com.au are all popular sites. Once you’ve found one of interest, make contact with the seller, arrange an inspection and test drive, and note that most people are willing to negotiate on the sales price.
3. Check it out. Perhaps you’ve found your dream car, owned only by a little old lady who only drove to church on Sundays, low mileage and immaculately maintained. Or, is it all a ruse, a cover-up for bikies who used to run meth and drag race it through the mean streets of your neighbourhood?
In NSW, you can get around this by checking the car’s registration and history, to make sure it isn’t stolen or previously reported as written off- worth the $21.00 for the peace of mind, and can be done online here- https://www.service.nsw.gov.au/transaction/check-vehicle-registration. The NRMA, or National Roads and Motorists’ Association, can also send a mechanic to give a comprehensive overview to the potential new ride, for a reasonable fee, and can be arranged here – http://www.mynrma.com.au/motoring-services/motorserve/car-services/vehicle-inspection.htm
Once it all looks legitimate and you and the seller are both happy, the seller will lodge a ‘notice of dismissal’, via the RMS, and will transfer the car from their name to yours. You will then need to go to the RMS and pay a stamp tax (about 3% of the vehicle purchase price) and a small fee to transfer the title into your name. Fortuitously, staff at the RMS seem to be much friendlier and helpful than the American DMV experience of a real-life Patty and Selma, and also offer free wi-fi (because waiting times are still impossible to escape, even abroad).
On a completely unrelated note, if you also wish to buy a new car –and- become a beekeeper, you are in luck, since NSW requires beekeepers to obtain a license, and this is also done at RMS, as are boating licensing and registrations.
4. Insurance and ‘rego’. Car registration, or ‘rego’ is done yearly, and transfers with the car when it sells. So, if you purchase a car with rego until April, you are covered until April, when you then need to re-register. Comprehensive third-party, or CTP, insurance, is a legal requirement and covers bodily injury, should you injure another in an accident. It also transfers with the car, rather than the individual (which is really odd), and therefore your CTP would also be up-to-date until April, when you then need to re-purchase. Older cars may also require a roadworthy inspection from a mechanic before they can be re-registered. CTP is also referred to as the ‘green-slip’.
In addition to CTP, most people would choose to also purchase either third party or comprehensive coverage, to have additional protection. Like at home, it is worth shopping around, and most companies offer discounts for booking online. Well-known companies include AAMI, NRMA, QBE, and Budget Direct, to name a few.
5. Parking. You will never find a parking spot on the street when you’re in a hurry, at Bondi or Manly on a sunny day, or anywhere within 5km of the city. But, traffic is so heavy you will constantly feel like your car is parked, since you won’t go anywhere at any speed. Grocery shopping at midnight will become a valid option in your mind. You have been warned.
6. Tolls. You’ll need a toll pass, since every toll road, bridge, and tunnel around Sydney is cash free and electronic only, because outsourcing. Line up a toll pass before you burn rubber to pavement – http://www.rms.nsw.gov.au/sydney-motorways/toll-charges/index.html
It goes without saying that Australia drives on the opposite side of the road from the states. You’ll get used it fairly quickly, but give it extra caution, don’t turn right on red, and take note of the differences. If you’re like me, you’ll probably try to indicate and accidentally turn on your windshield wipers instead, due to opposite positioning. This will no doubt cause awkward embarrassment, but 15 years of habit are hard to break.
If it all seems very cumbersome and overly complicated, that’s probably because it is. The above is based on my experience, hours of frustrating research online, and constantly annoying friends with dumb questions. I am located in the state of NSW, but all other states and territories would operate similarly, and have their own respective agencies. I am sure I haven’t covered everything completely, but hopefully the above is a good starting point for any expats who are as confused as I was by the whole process.
Is it worth it? Growing up in America, I think most Americans associate turning 16 and the thrill of the open road with freedom and independence, adventure and adulthood. For me, the vast expanse of the Australian countryside is too good to be left to public transport, and the thrill of a Sunday drive with the top down makes it all worthwhile.
(Header photo courtesy of visitnsw.com: Sea Cliff Bridge, NSW)