[Last updated March 2023]
Hiring a car when abroad
When travelling abroad, you can easily walk into a car hire office and drive off in minutes. All you need is a current driving licence from your home country and a credit card. There’s no need to pass any theory tests, prove that you understand the local traffic laws or even have done any driving recently. But any restrictions on your current licence will apply, for example if you passed your test on an automatic then you can’t legally drive a car with a “stick shift” or manual gearbox.
This arrangement has been in place for many years and is commonly used, with no public outrage at the safety risks to date. Perhaps tourists and those on foreign business trips drive cautiously to allow for their lack of experience in those countries.
Hiring a plane when abroad in the US
It’s not quite as easy for PPL pilots though. It’s perfectly valid to fly a UK registered aircraft almost anywhere you want – although flying a single engined small plane across the Atlantic might not be to everyone’s taste. Equally you can rent or fly a foreign registered aircraft here in the UK using a UK licence. But if you want to rent a plane when abroad in the US, you will need to have a current US Private Pilot Certificate (they don’t call them licences there).
Fortunately, there is a fairly straightforward way to get one. It involves:
- A bit of online form filling in advance
- A visit to a FSDO (or a flying school with a designated foreign pilot examiner)
- Taking an hour of groundschool and an hour of dual instruction to activate it
Unlike those training for a full PPL or additional ratings, you won’t need TSA approval or a student visa. You can continue to enter the US on the Visa Waiver program like any other tourist by registering online and getting approval to travel a few days before you go (using the ESTA website). Once you’ve been through these hoops, this means that you can take advantage of any short notice business or tourist trips to drop by any airfield and ask to rent a plane. You might be asked for a quick checkride by whoever is renting you their aircraft, or you may prefer to fly with an instructor familiar with the area and procedures, but there’s no legal requirement for any further training or test.
Equivalent ratings are transferred
The standard UK PPL excludes the right to fly at night whereas the standard US Private Pilot includes this privilege. If you have completed the Night Rating, then your equivalent US certificate will include this rating – if not, then you are limited to daytime VFR. This applies even though the US night training syllabus is different from the UK one, and includes a longer cross country leg.
The UK IR(R) rating won’t grant you any additional benefits in the US because it is a UK only rating. A full Instrument Rating can be included in the conversion subject only to one additional multiple-choice theory test.
The highest licence privilege you can get this way is a PPL – there is no such thing as a piggyback CPL or ATPL.
This can no longer be done in the UK. There are two FAA DPE’s based in the UK who will handle the paperwork for a fee. In no particular order: Adam House (based somewhere in Derbyshire) and Tom Hughston (based in Norfolk). In June 2022, the FAA withdrew all DPE privileges for non-US citizens from DPE’s located outside the USA., so you have to arrange this with someone physically located in the USA.
How to apply
1) Select a DPE or FSDO office to issue the certificate
Since writing this article, it has become much more difficult to schedule an appointment at a FSDO office. Instead you will be encouraged to use a DPE (Deputised Pilot Examiner) and pay a fee, several of which advertise online. If you are planning to hire from a flight school, then they may be able to recommend someone locally. The DPE will advise which FAA regional office he/she is registered with.
In either case, decide which FSDO (FAA Standards District Office, pronounced “Fizz-Doh”) regional office you want to process your licence application. It can be difficult to change later in the process. Select your region to view a list of offices on this FAA webpage.
2) Apply to the FAA
Register for an account on the FAA Airman certificate/rating portal (IACRA), and then fill in the online form to start the verification process. You’ll have to upload a scan of your licence and medical and provide a few other personal details. The documents don’t have to be certified or authenticated by anybody. This is the preferred method, should be quicker and will make your life easier in the future.
This is free of charge.
3) Apply to the UK CAA for a licence validation
The FAA will ask the UK CAA to verify that they did indeed issue you with your pilot licence.
At the same time as applying to the FAA, you should apply to the UK CAA so they will honour that request.
This is now quite straightforward, involves filling in online form SRG1160 and paying a fee online here.
It’s hard to say how long the CAA or FAA may take to process your application, but allow a three to four weeks as a minimum.
Out of the blue you will receive your validation letter by email.
This letter of verification states that you should then book an appointment through the FSDO office stated in your original application within six months.
4) Complete the validation in person and get a “Temporary Airman’s Certificate”
You can do this in one of two ways:
a) Visit a FSDO. This is now discouraged in favour of (b) below. These can have strange opening hours and are not always easy to find. You are recommended to book any appointment at least two weeks ahead. Clearly this can be difficult in the case of short notice trips. In practice you may find a FSDO to be more accommodating, especially if they realise you have come a long way and are limited on the time for an appointment.
It should take somewhere between ten minutes and an hour to be issued with a temporary airman’s certificate. You’ll need to show your pilot’s licence, current medical and logbook as well as the letter of verification plus TWO forms of government issued photo id (e.g. passport and driving licence), and proof of address. There is no charge for the airman certificate issue by the FAA.
I’ve heard it has become more difficult to arrange appointments for this at FSDOs in recent years – they very much prefer that you do this through a DPE instead.
b) Visit a flying school with a DPE (designated pilot examiner) who is also authorised for foreign pilots. I couldn’t find any online directory or list of schools with this capability, so you may have to enquire more widely. These examiners are empowered to issue a temporary airman’s certificate in the same way as the local FSDO office. You just need to present them with the same documentation on arrival. You will be charged a fee for this, but it will save you time. They will use the online IACRA system to do this, so it helps a lot if you can give them your FTN number (your “membership” number for IACRA).
You need to sign the certificate for it to be valid, and the DPE/Inspector will be quite insistent that you do that in their presence.
5) Take a Flight Review with an instructor
Every two years, all US PPL pilots are required to take a Flight Review with an instructor. This was formerly called a Biennial Flight Review or BFR, and these terms continue to be used. It consists of at least one hour’s groundschool and one hour’s dual flight training. Although you can’t “fail” a Flight Review, the instructor can decide not to sign you off – which amounts to pretty much the same thing – except it is not recorded anywhere as such.
The certificate you have just obtained is considered “timed out” until you complete a Flight Review. This can be done in the UK – there are a few qualified and registered instructors around – but is best done in the US where you can become familiar with the procedures and terminology.
On completion, your logbook will be signed off and you will be legal to fly an N-Reg aircraft solo worldwide. You’ll receive a more permanent licence through the post later – typically 3-4 months – but you don’t need to wait for that to arrive before flying solo in the US. Your temporary certificate is valid for 120 days from issue.
It’s also possible to gain a new rating instead of taking a Flight Review, such as a seaplane. This will involve a course of several hours instruction plus a checkride.
Keeping it valid
The validation process issues an FAA certificate at a snapshot in time based on a valid UK PPL with valid SEP rating. Thereafter, it is only your UK licence that has to remain valid – not the ratings. Since Part-FCL Licences are non-expiring, it doesn’t matter if your SEP rating expires.
You must have either an UK Class 2 medical or an FAA Class 3.
If you change address, you must inform the FAA within 30 days.
A Flight Review is required every two years to keep the licence current, but if it lapses there is no additional action other than the Flight Review to reinstate currency. Any FAA CFI (Certified Flying Instructor) can conduct a Flight Review. To save a trip to the US, these can be also done in the UK at the same time as your PPL SEP revalidation by a small number of dual approved FAA and UK instructors, such as Uplift Aviation or Samson Flight
Radio Operator Certificate
If you want to be scrupulously legal, then an FCC Radio Operator Permit is required when flying an FAA aircraft outside the USA. This isn’t needed within the USA, and arguably isn’t required within the UK (which would be covered by your UK licence).
It’s a fairly straightforward one-off process, completed online with payment of a fee.
- Register for an FCC account at https://apps.fcc.gov/coresWeb/publicHome.do
- Login and select a Restricted Radio Licence on the FCC site https://wireless2.fcc.gov/UlsEntry/licManager/login.jsp
- Answer NO to all three questions, pay the fee and receive the Permit by mail.
The fee was $70 at the time of writing and is valid on all N-Reg aircraft worldwide.
In addition, every N-Reg aircraft should also have a valid radio licence, similar to those issued by Ofcom for G-Reg aircraft. The application process and fee are similar.
Additional US ratings can be added
It is possible to add further FAA ratings to a 61.75, including the Instrument Rating (no need for a practical test, just take one Instrument Foreign Pilot theory test as I did here) and Seaplane Rating (which I did in Florida). If you later obtain a full standalone FAA PPL, these additional ratings can be easily transferred across.
The theory exam for the Instrument Pilot Theory can only be taken in the US.
Holding both a 61.75 and a Standalone FAA certificate
The FAA regulations permit the issue of a standalone FAA airman certificate to pilots who already hold a piggyback 61.75. The converse is not true – once holding a standalone FAA certificate, then you can’t have a 61.75 issued.
FAA ratings obtained on the 61.75, such as an FAA instrument rating, can then be transferred to the standalone certificate.
Some pilots comment that the 61.75 licence is a built on a “deck of cards”, in that if anything happens to your UK licence then your US licence becomes invalidated. This includes moving house, having a new UK licence number (for example when upgrading from PPL to CPL or ATPL) etc. However, in the first instance the process to attain a standalone FAA Private Pilot Certificate is much more onerous – requiring TSA and visa clearance, likely further cross-country and/or night logbook time, additional training and a checkride. It is possible to do some but not all of this in the UK (for which you may still require official US approval) at a price, but the theory exams and checkride in particular can only be taken in the US.
If the main purpose of the licence is for occasional rental, then a 61.75 offers a simpler administrative route. For those seeking a full FAA Instrument Rating, then taking the time and effort for the standalone FAA PPL is probably worthwhile since you will need a visa for training in the US anyway.
Self-Declared Medical does not apply
Both the UK CAA and US FAA have introduced schemes that allow private pilots to self-declare their medical fitness rather than visit a medical examiner.
The UK Personal Medical Declaration scheme only applies to flights within the UK and not abroad.
The US Basic Med scheme only applies to pilots resident in the US and does not cover flights abroad.
I would therefore suggest that self-declared medicals in neither country applies to a 61.75 piggyback licence and you will need either a current UK Class 2 or FAA Class 3 (but not both).
Last Updated 13 March 2023