Upgrading From an Automatic to Manual Licence

Pink driving licence cartoon

When learning to drive, some people find that having lessons and taking the practical test in an automatic car is much easier. This makes sense—you don’t have to learn about clutch control or changing gear, so it takes less time and effort to become test-ready. It’s kind of a no-brainer… right? Well, not necessarily.

While learning in an automatic car often speeds up the process of obtaining a licence, that licence comes with restrictions. As long as you’re committed to only driving automatic vehicles for the rest of your life, it’s absolutely fine. If not, you’ll need to upgrade to a manual licence.

Thankfully, nothing is final. If you change your mind down the line and want to drive a manual vehicle, you can make the switch. It just requires a little hard work (it’s called an upgrade for a reason!) and another test. Fancy swapping your automatic licence for a manual one? Join us as we explain what you need to do!

Manual vs automatic driving

Close up manual gear stick
Image source: Alok Sharma

For those who don’t know, the main difference between manual and automatic cars is the type of transmission they use. A transmission controls how power from the engine is sent to a vehicle’s wheels.

In a manual car, the driver controls this process by using the clutch to put the car in gear. Selecting the correct gear (which varies depending on driving conditions) is vital to ensuring that the distribution of speed and power is enough to keep the engine running. Choosing the wrong one or bringing the clutch up too quickly can cause the car to stall.

Automatic cars, on the other hand, are fitted with something called a torque converter to aid transmission. This handy machinery takes care of the entire process for you. No clutch, no gears, no fuss!

What is the difference between a manual licence and an automatic licence?

Yellow car with magnifying glass

Those who pass their driving test in a manual car will receive a licence to drive category B vehicles. In essence, this means that they are legally permitted to drive both manual and automatic cars. The logic here is that because driving a manual car requires more skill, people with this qualification should have no trouble mastering the controls of an automatic car.

It does not work the other way around. If you pass in an automatic car, you’ll instead earn a category B auto licence. This enables you to drive any automatic car, but not a manual one. When you consider how tricky it can be to get to grips with clutch control, this makes a lot of sense. It would be incredibly dangerous to allow automatic drivers to simply figure out the different controls on the go!

When it comes to semi-automatic cars, things get a little murkier. These kinds of vehicles come in a range of different forms. Generally speaking, if they still have a clutch, those with an automatic licence will not be allowed to drive them. If you find yourself in doubt about whether your licence permits you to drive a certain vehicle, you should consult the DVSA before getting behind the wheel.

Why would you make the switch?

Desert road disappearing into horizon
Image source: Johannes Plenio

More freedom and choice

A manual licence provides a much wider range of options than an automatic licence. Start thinking beyond what you’re allowed to drive and consider how it actually applies to real life scenarios…

  • You’ve just got your licence and it’s time to buy a car. Many new drivers opt to purchase a used car to save money. If you’re in the UK, you’ll find that most used cars are manual. As you can drive both types of transmission, you have a lot more to choose from when hunting for your perfect ride.
  • You’re going on holiday and want to rent a car for the trip. No need to limit your choices to automatics or be forced to go for a more expensive option. The rental site is your oyster!
  • You get a new job that requires you to transport goods from one location to another. Most commercial vehicles and vans are fitted with manual gearboxes. While some will still require you to take further tests before you can drive them, the process should be much easier if you can drive a stick shift.

Financial necessity

Jar full of coins tipped over
Image source: Michael Longmire

Although price levels are beginning to even out, automatic cars tend to be more expensive than manual cars. Those who find themselves needing to pinch the pennies, therefore, might find a manual licence to be a thriftier long-term investment.

Even if you manage to find a used automatic car at a good price, the older models are often more expensive to run. While it’s becoming less of an issue as manufacturers work on fuel efficiency, some automatics still use up more fuel per mile than their manual counterparts.

And, as we’ve previously alluded to, you may find yourself having to drive for a new job that only provides manual cars. This is certainly not uncommon. Automatic cars may be increasingly popular, but manual cars still dominate in many countries (including the UK).

How to upgrade to a manual licence

Mortarboard and scroll cartoon

We’ll kick things off with the good news. When upgrading to a manual licence you do not have to apply for another provisional licence or take a theory test. The slight downside is that it’s not just a case of filling out some paperwork. You will have to take another driving test—this time in a manual car.

Don’t despair! If you can drive an automatic car, you already possess most of the skills needed to earn a pass. It’s just a case of learning about the gears and that all-important clutch control.

Lessons

As you’re far from being a complete beginner, it’s likely you will only need to complete a refresher course before your test. We’re talking around 10-20 hours with a qualified instructor. During these lessons, you must follow all of the other rules that apply to learner drivers. That includes displaying L-plates on the car, having the right insurance, and only taking practice lessons with someone who is eligible to supervise a learner.

It can feel funny going back to these conditions when you’ve been driving independently for a while, but it’s unlikely to last long!

The test

Cartoon woman driving red car with file of documents in foreground

When it comes to taking the test in a manual car, you may be a bit nervous as this is slightly more complex than your previous test in an automatic. The examiner will also be observing which gear you choose and how well you use the clutch.

It may come as a surprise, then, to learn that automatic pass rates are actually consistently lower than manual pass rates! The stats are on your side so just take a deep breath and believe in yourself.

As for booking your test, you will have to do this over the phone rather than online. This is because the DVSA’s system will flag that you already have a licence. Make the call armed with your financial information and chosen test centre and simply explain that you want to upgrade your licence.

Note: If you’re taking a PassMeFast course, our fast-tracked tests are not available in this scenario. Your booking agent will still do everything they can to simplify the process, however, including making the call on your behalf. Please be aware, though, that the DVSA may request to speak to you directly.

It is worth it?

Even though it might seem like a lot of work and it’s tempting to stick with what you have, upgrading to a manual licence could be a good investment for your future. The ability to drive both kinds of car certainly makes life easier—you never know when you’ll have to put it into practice!

Plus, in the interim period, you are still free to pootle about in your automatic car. This means that there’s no real loss apart from the cost of lessons and the test. You may even find that you come to enjoy the extra level of control a driver gains in a manual car.

Then again, automatic cars are rapidly on the rise (40% of new cars registered in 2017 were automatic). Being limited to driving this type of vehicle is not actually a massive restriction on your life. At the end of the day, it all depends on your situation. If you see the money, time and effort as being worth it then go for it!

Top tips for switching from an automatic to manual licence

Certificate

  • Go for plenty of practice drives with friends and family to save on the amount of manual lessons you need to purchase.
  • Don’t get too worked up about stalling. Everyone who drives a manual car does it once in a while and it doesn’t necessarily lead to an instant fail on the test.
  • Take the pressure off test day by reminding yourself that you can still fall back on driving an automatic car if you don’t manage to pass. Plus, you’ve succeeded in this test scenario before!
  • Unless you can easily afford it, seriously weigh the pros and cons before making the decision to upgrade your licence. Plenty of people get by their whole lives on an automatic one.
  • As you’re already a competent driver, there’s no need to drag out the process of learning a few new skills. Taking an intensive course is the best approach if you want to upgrade your licence as quickly as possible.

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